Working-Class Women: On the Front Lines of Feminism


When we think of 20th century U.S. women’s movements, the events that come to mind are the feminist battles of the 1960s and before that, the suffragettes of the early 20th century.

But in between those two eras, working women were not silent. And many of the women in the 1940s and 1950s who agitated for fair pay, equal access to jobs and other fundamental workplace rights not only laid the groundwork for the gains of the recent years, they did so from a strong foundation: Their unions.

These women, largely forgotten in popular memory, were instrumental in maintaining the drumbeat for a workplace environment that benefited women and men, and set the stage for the successes that followed.

Although active on the picket lines and on the forefront of organizing workers in industries with some of the most vicious employers in areas hostile to unions such as the South and West, their efforts have not captured popular imagination as have events such as the “Bread and Roses” strike. In that 1912 walkout, 30,000 primarily female textile workers protested a cut in wages in Lawrence, Mass., were attacked by state militia that sought to prevent them sending their children out of state to safety.

But as steadfast champions of low-wage women, they were the critical link between women in the Progressive era and the modern day women’s movement. Betty Friedan, the ultimate modern-day champion of women who died earlier this year, was among those inspired by their struggles on the picket lines and in the political process.

In the late 1940s, after working for The Federated Press, a news association for labor and progressives, Friedan became a reporter for the United Electrical Workers (UE, a union that exists today). It was while covering a strike at a New Jersey plant, where nearly all the workers were women, that Friedan suddenly realized what it meant to be a low-paid working woman.

In her autobiography, Life So Far, Friedan wrote: I discovered, with a strange sense of recognition…that the women were getting paid much less than the men for that job….There was nothing I had studied, at economics class at Smith or in the classes on radical economics I now took…that explained or even described the special exploitation of women. This “Other Women’s Movement,” according to labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble, whose 2004 book of the same name brings to light these women’s struggles, carried forth an agenda for social reform. While many scholars have portrayed this era as time when unions were “engines of reaction,” Cobble takes issue with this notion, arguing that in part because of the role of women, the union movement was anything but “tamed” and conservative.

By midcentury, increasing numbers of women were in unions. Fewer than 1 million women belonged to unions at end of 1930s. But in the early 1950s, 3 million were union members and in addition, another 2 million made up union “auxiliaries,” organizations that supported male-dominated unions by organizing boycotts of nonunion goods, helping out during strikes and serving as social, fraternal and charitable organizations. Among these unionists were women whose “labor feminism rested on American workers’ heightened sense of economic rights and their success in building permanent and influential labor institutions in the postwar era,” writes Cobble.

Esther Eggersten Peterson is one of the most influential of this generation. The Mormon daughter of Danish immigrants, Peterson traveled far from her home in Utah to become the first female lobbyist for the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department in the 1950s and as assistant Secretary of Labor, the highest ranking woman official in the Kennedy administration.

Peterson started out with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, worked as an organizer for AFT, the national teacher’s union, and organized textile workers in the South with Bessie Hillman for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, headed by the legendary Sidney Hillman.

The mother of four children, Peterson well understood the needs of wage workers who did not have the luxury of staying home with their children: At one point, she was earning $15 a week, while paying someone $20 a week to look after her children.

In fact, working-class women were the first to feel the effects of paid work and all its inequities—only later in the 1960s, after large numbers of middle-class women became full-time workers, did the women’s movement become largely the cause of the middle class.

And because union feminists were wage-earners, they championed a feminism that often sought equality at the workplace through laws that recognized women have a special burden to care for their families. As Cobble writes, “theirs was a vision of equality that claimed justice on the basis of their humanity, not on the basis of their sameness with men.”

Most labor feminists in this book never resolved the tension between equality and difference strategies, not did they see the necessity of doing so. They wanted equality and special treatment, and did not think of the two as incompatible. They argued that gender differences must be accommodated and that equality cannot always be achieved through identity in treatment.

As we look back now, some of the earliest legislation mandating shorter work weeks (think 48 hours) or making night work illegal, applied only to women and perhaps to children. (By 1899, 20 states had passed laws limiting the hours women worked in factories, according to historian David Brian Robertson).

From a contemporary vantage point, such legislation, which began to be introduced at the turn of the 20th century (and always enacted at the state level), seems perversely discriminatory. But in assessing the evolution of U.S. labor law, these measures very often were the starting point for the passage of more sweeping laws encompassing women and male workers.

When the nation’s midcentury labor feminists argued for special treatment of women, they faced a reality their middle-class feminist daughters and granddaughters often did not: Even though they engaged in wage work to help support their families, their burdens at home were not reduced. American society had not transitioned to a point where “parenting” had become a verb. And so when it came to demanding equality at the workplace, these women proposed their own version of the Equal Rights Amendment, one that did not wipe out all sex-based laws because some were helpful, such as those that addressed anatomical or social gender differences.

As a result, from the 1920s to the 1960s, the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment had “distinctly class, interest group and ideological overtones, pitting affluent, business-oriented and politically conservative women against poor, union-oriented and political liberal women,” writes Cobble, quoting historian Carl Baruer. Further, says Cobble: Like their equal rights opponents, labor feminists indicted American society in the postwar years for its discriminatory treatment of women, and they called for an end to such policies. But they differed from equal rights feminists was over how to define discrimination and how to overturn statutes deemed discriminatory. Labor feminists supported some sex-based laws, although they realized laws prohibiting women from certain jobs or from night work should be amended or eliminated. Women in the 1940s first worked through the Women’s Trade Union League and like Peterson, through the federal Women’s Bureau, where they instigated and sustained the national alliance that emerged among labor feminists. Later, some were active in the National Committee for Equal Pay operating out of the IUE union’s building, where they coordinated federal and state equal pay campaigns from 1953 to 1963. They were involved with the NAACP and other civil rights coalitions, as well as a full range of Democratic politics.

And at a time when Betty Friedan was just shedding her privileged notions of womanhood and her self-described potential for wanting “to be asked to join the country club and thus be truly free to disdain it,” these midcentury union feminists had long been on the frontlines, fighting to improve the workplace conditions of their sisters in the factories, plants and mills and educating a new generation of women. From AFL-CIO Now