Women Have Always Been at the Center of the Labor MovementRoundup
tags: unions, labor history, womens history, service industry
Amy Mackin is a writer and public historian who currently serves as manager of communications and outreach in the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University.
Workers have been forming unions in a historic wave of labor organizing over the past year. Much of this activity has been in retail stores, cafes and museums, where most front-line employees are women. Indeed, women and nonbinary people have been playing a key role in these efforts.
While men dominated labor organizing through much of the 20th century, women have long been foundational to the labor rights movement. In fact, the largest labor demonstration in the United States before the Civil War took place in Lynn, Mass., during the winter of 1860, and it wouldn’t have happened without female workers. This early milestone of the labor movement should have been a first step in steady progress toward workplace equality. Instead, it marked the first in a series of setbacks and missed opportunities.
By 1850, Lynn was on its way to becoming the shoe capital of the world, and its labor force consisted of two-thirds female workers. Eighty percent of wage-earning women in Lynn and the surrounding Essex County were working in the shoe industry, with many working part time from their homes in a system known as “outwork.” This system allowed women to support their husbands’ or fathers’ trade through piecework rather than earning separate income outside the home. Male artisans endorsed this system because it allowed women to contribute to the household income and continue to perform expected domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.
Shoemaking became more mechanized and modernized over the next decade, and the gender ratio equalized. Both male and female shoe workers met regularly to discuss labor issues. But these organizations were separated by gender — men, as well as some women, viewed women’s participation in the industry as a temporary situation that would end when they married and became mothers. When a men’s strike committee was formed, the members rejected a proposal to include an alliance of women outworkers and female factory workers in their effort.
Three thousand Lynn shoe workers walked off the job in February 1860 to protect their wages and improve working conditions. Strikers from across New England soon joined them, insisting that manufacturers agree on a universal “bill of prices” that would prevent competition between workers in different towns and ensure shoe manufacturers from other areas could not have undue influence in the market.
The Great Shoemakers Strike made national news. Even then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln chimed in, saying, “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not.” Lincoln spoke in Hartford, where he decried the conditions under which nearly 4 million enslaved Black people worked on Southern plantations. But he was also wary of spiraling conditions for factory laborers in the North.