Staff Columnist

This Labor Day, remember the ladies

Female textile workers in Lowell, Mass. formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1843. Led by Sarah Bagley, they testified before lawmakers about workplace health and safety issues, and petitioned for a 10-hour work day. The women were similar to those pictured below from the Dover Cotton Factory who earned 42 cents per day, lived in company boarding houses and worked 11-hour shifts, six days each week. Newspaper accounts frequently reported accidents such as a hand being mangled in machinery, or a worker losing her scalp when her hair tangled in the looms. (Photo courtesy of the Dover Public Library, www.dover.nh.gov/government/city-operations/library/history/the-strike-of-the-mill-girls.html)
Female textile workers in Lowell, Mass. formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1843. Led by Sarah Bagley, they testified before lawmakers about workplace health and safety issues, and petitioned for a 10-hour work day. The women were similar to those pictured below from the Dover Cotton Factory who earned 42 cents per day, lived in company boarding houses and worked 11-hour shifts, six days each week. Newspaper accounts frequently reported accidents such as a hand being mangled in machinery, or a worker losing her scalp when her hair tangled in the looms. (Photo courtesy of the Dover Public Library, www.dover.nh.gov/government/city-operations/library/history/the-strike-of-the-mill-girls.html)

Please don’t reduce Monday, Labor Day, to the symbolic end of summer or, worse yet, an opportunity to shop clearance racks. Instead, let’s remember its origins as a celebration of the American working class — men and women who keep the economy churning, and deserve our respect.

And, no, it isn’t only about construction workers, coal miners and emergency responders. Labor Day is supposed to be a celebration of all who work for a living — even retail workers, who typically aren’t given time off — and a reminder of the hard-won workplace rights we all hold.

The first holiday was celebrated in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882, organized by the Central Labor Union. Approximately 10,000 workers marched from City Hall and around Union Square, then gathered with families for a picnic.

The observance was repeated the following year and, in the third year, 1884, the Central Labor Union selected the first Monday in September for the holiday. It also encouraged labor organizations around the country to celebrate “workingmen’s holiday.”

Although New York saw the first state bill to make Labor Day an official holiday, lawmakers in Oregon moved more quickly to make their bill a law. So, on Feb. 21, 1887, Oregon became the first state to officially recognize workers with a Labor Day.

The idea caught fire and, by 1894, 23 more states had done the same.

It also was that year that President Grover Cleveland — some say in order to help quell an uprising sparked by Chicago’s Pullman Place Car Co. that spanned 27 states — signed a bill establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday.

Clever readers may have noticed a theme in all this history: No women. Most historians will tell you that’s because, way back when, women simply weren’t involved. But that’s not completely true. Women were a part of the workforce, although in much smaller numbers than our present day, and they fought for workers’ rights.

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In Massachusetts in 1843 — nearly 50 years before Labor Day became a federal holiday — Sarah Bagley of the Female Labor Reform Association organized textile workers to appear before state lawmakers. The women offered testimony about workplace health and safety risks, and petitioned for a 10-hour work day.

Freed black women who worked as laundresses in Mississippi formed a union in 1866. They subsequently went on strike to demand higher wages.

And, in 1869 — still before the first informal Labor Day celebration in New York City — women shoe stitchers from six states formed the first national women’s labor organization, the Daughters of St. Crispin.

It would be 1881 before the Knights of Labor became the first large-scale national labor federation to admit women. The first female chapter, the United Garment Workers of America, was organized by a woman named Lenora O’Reilly. (Nearly 30 years later she was influential during the “Uprising of the 20,000,” which followed the dismissal of female seamstresses in garment factories for union organizing.) Unfortunately, this did not signal broad acceptance of women in labor organizations. When the American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886, its first president, Samuel Gompers, denied women membership.

Although most labor history credits Albert Parsons with founding the International Working People’s Association in 1883, he did so with a key partner: his wife, Lucy Parsons. She would later help found the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was a coalition of seven smaller organizations, and the Industrial Workers of the World. She also was instrumental in linking the plight of workers to larger issues of poverty through her 1915 Chicago Hunger Demonstrations.

Just before the turn of the century, Josephine Lowell and Jane Addams launched the National Consumers’ League to improve working conditions for women.

It was women, led by Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who brought the plight of child workers to the attention of the nation. As part of the Women’s Trade Union League, formed at an American Federation of Labor convention and the first national association dedicated to organizing women, “Mother Jones” led a 125-mile march of child workers so that national leaders and members of the press would be exposed to their poor working conditions.

But it wasn’t only child laborers who were expected to toil in unsafe conditions. A fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911 claimed the lives of 146 female garment workers, and set the stage for the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 and the creation of the federal Department of Labor. About 15 years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as the nation’s first female Cabinet member, as secretary of labor. Perkins was key to the creation of Social Security and the New Deal.

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After this point, the many instances of women’s contributions to the labor movement begin to be better documented, especially following the 1960s and the intersection of feminism and organized labor.

So sure, Labor Day is a celebration of all workers’ rights, but it’s also a reminder of women’s labor and employment rights. It’s a moment to consider the inclusion of women in the workplace; recognition that discrimination against women on the basis of sex not only is illegal but wrong; and understanding the fight for women’s workplace equality is not just a women’s issue.

Take some time on Labor Day to consider how far women have come, and how there still is more work to do.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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