Women and Unions

Late 19th Century Labor Organizing by and for Women

Consumer Committee at White House
Consumer Committee at White House. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Some highlights of American women's labor organizing in the late 19th century:

• In 1863, a committee in New York City, organized by the editor of the New York Sun, began to help women collect wages due them that had not been paid. This organization continued for fifty years.

• Also in 1863, women in Troy, New York, organized the Collar Laundry Union. These women worked in laundries making and laundering the detachable collars stylish on men's shirts. They went on strike, and as a result won an increase in wages. In 1866, their strike fund was used to aid the Iron Molders Union, building a lasting relationship with that men's union. The leader of the laundryworkers' union, Kate Mullaney, went on to become assistant secretary of the National Labor Union. The Collar Laundry Union dissolved July 31, 1869, in the the middle of another strike, faced with the threat of paper collars and the likely loss of their jobs.

• The National Labor Union was organized in 1866; while not exclusively focusing on women's issues, it did take a stand for the rights of working women.

• The first two national unions to admit women were the Cigarmakers (1867) and the Printers (1869).

Susan B. Anthony used her paper, The Revolution, to help working women organize in their own interests. One such organization formed in 1868, and became known as the Working Women's Association. Active in this organization was Augusta Lewis, a typographer who kept the organization focused on representing the women on pay and working conditions, and kept the organization out of political issues such as woman suffrage.

• Miss Lewis became the president of the Women's Typographical Union No. 1 which grew out of the Working Women's Association. In 1869, this local union applied for membership in the national Typographer's Union, and Miss Lewis was made corresponding secretary of the union. She married Alexander Troup, the union's secretary-treasurer, in 1874, and retired from the union, though not from other reform work. Women's Local 1 did not long survive the loss of its organizing leader, and dissolved in 1878. After that time, the Typographers admitted women on an equal basis to men, instead of organizing separate women's locals.

• In 1869, a group of women shoestitchers in Lynn, Massachusetts, organized the Daughters of St. Crispin, a national women's labor organization modeled on and supported by the Knights of St. Crispin, the national shoe workers union, which also went on record supporting equal pay for equal work. The Daughters of St. Crispin is recognized as the first national union of women.

The first president of the Daughters of St. Crispin was Carrie Wilson. When the Daughters of St. Crispin went on strike in Baltimore in 1871, the Knights of St. Crispin successfully demanded that the women strikers be rehired. The depression in the 1870s led to the demise of the Daughters of St. Crispin in 1876.

• The Knights of Labor, organized in 1869, began admitting women in 1881. In 1885, the Knights of Labor established the Women's Work Department. Leonora Barry was hired as a full time organizer and investigator. The Women's Work Department was dissolved in 1890.

• Alzina Parsons Stevens, a typographer and, at one time, Hull House resident, organized the Working Woman's Union No. 1 in 1877. In 1890, she was elected district master workman, District Assembly 72, Knights of Labor, in Toledo, Ohio.

• Mary Kimball Kehew joined the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in 1886, becoming a director in 1890 and president in 1892. With Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, she organized the Union for Industrial Progress, whose purpose was to help women organize craft unions. This was a forerunner of the Women's Trade Union League, founded in the early 20th century. Mary Kenney O'Sullivan was the first woman hired by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as an organizer. She had earlier organized women bookbinders in Chicago into the AFL and had been elected a delegate to the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly.

• In 1890, Josephine Shaw Lowell organized the Consumers' League of New York. In 1899, the New York organization helped found the National Consumers' League to protect both workers and consumers. Florence Kelley led this organization, which worked mainly through educational effort.

Text copyright © Jone Johnson Lewis .

Image: left to right, (front row): Miss Felice Louria, executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League; and Miss Helen Hall, director of the Henry Street Settlement in New York and chairman of the Consumers National Federation. (Back row) Robert S. Lynd, head of Department of Sociology, Columbia University; F.B. McLaurin, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Michael Quill, N.Y. City Councilman and president of Transportation Workers' Union.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and Unions." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/women-and-unions-3530835. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). Women and Unions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-unions-3530835 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and Unions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-and-unions-3530835 (accessed March 31, 2023).