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Family/Members Labor History

Take a look back in time at the struggles women faced, their perseverance in the face of inequality and their victories.

1824    Pawtucket Rhode Island—102 women strike in solidarity of their brother weavers protesting reduction in wages and extension of the work day.

1825    The United Tailoresses of New York is founded. This is the first union strictly for women.

1831    In February of this year, 1600 members of the United Tailoresses of New York strike for better wages.

1844    Sarah Bagley, with a group of women, forms the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Sarah Bagley leads the women working in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts to lobby for better working conditions.

1865    Kate Mullaney organizes 200 women laundry workers in the Troy (NY) Collar Laundry Union. Wages rose from $8.00 to $14.00 per week.

1866    Jackson, Mississippi— African-American laundry workers unsuccessfully approach the Mayor with the “Petition of the Colored Washerwomen.” The petition sought support for a higher, uniform laundry rate.

1869    The Daughters of St. Crispin, the first national union of women workers, is formed by women shoemakers from six states. This was the “sister” or adjunct organization to the “Knights of St. Crispin,” an already organized male shoe workers union.

1872    A law, passed by Congress, grants women federal employees, equal pay for equal work.

1881    Atlanta, Georgia— - 3000 African American women laundry workers unsuccessfully strike for higher wages.

The Knights of Labor allow women to join their union. Leonora O’Reilly organized the United Garment Workers of America, a female chapter within the Knights of Labor. (This was not the first female chapter within the Knights of Labor. The first female chapter was Garfield Assembly 1864, consisting of female shoe workers in Philadelphia, led by Mary Sterling, who was sent as a delegate to the Knights general assembly the following year.)

1883    Lucy Parsons with her husband Albert Parsons helps found the International Working People’s Association.

1888    Minneapolis, MN—Approximately 260 women members of the Knights of Labor walk out at the clothing factory Shotwell, Clerihew & Lothman.

1892    Mary Kenney O’Sullivan is appointed by American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers to be the AFL’s first female national organizer.

1899    The National Consumer League is formed to organize women to use their power of consumerism to rally for improved working conditions for women.

1903    Mary Harris Jones, more affectionately known as Mother Jones, leads a march from Philadelphia to New York of children mill workers to highlight the atrocities of child labor.

The Women’s Trade Union League becomes the first national association dedicated to organizing women workers.

1909    The “Uprising of the 20,000.” In New York State, female shirtwaist factory workers go on strike against sweatshop conditions.

1910    Greensburg, PA—Wives of striking miners are arrested for harassing strike breakers and the mine company’s security personnel. Mother Jones encouraged the women to bring their children to the sentencing. With no one to care for the children, the judge was forced to jail the women and their children. Mother Jones then instructed the women to sing all night long saying they were singing to the babies. After residents living near the jail complained, the women and children were released.

1912    Lawrence, MA—The “Bread and Roses” Strike. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leads a multi-ethnic strike of 23,000 men, women, and children to organize Lawrence Textile Mills.

1914    Ludlow, Colorado—Men, women and children are killed when men hired by the Baldwin-Felts agency and backed up by the National Guard opened fire on a strikers’ tent village. This event became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

1919    Brakenridge, PA—While leading a strike against the Allegheny Coal and Coke company, Fannie Sellins (an organizer for the United Mine Workers) was shot and killed by guards for the coal company.

1920    The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is adopted, allowing women the right to vote.

The Department of Labor establishes the Women’s Bureau to track information regarding women in the workplace and to ensure good working conditions for women.

1931    Greenville, NC—National Textile Workers’ Union organizer Clara Holden is abducted and beaten by vigilantes.

1933    President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor, making her the first female member of the Presidential Cabinet.

1934    400,000 textile workers from New England to the Deep South strike; the strike is broken, setting back textile organizing in the South for decades.

1935    Mary McLeod Bethune helps form the National Council of Negro Women to lobby against job discrimination, racism, and sexism.

1936    The Women’s Emergency Brigade supports the General Motors auto workers of the United Auto Workers in their “sit-down strike” at GM plants in Flint, MI.

Mary Mcleod Bethune becomes the first African American woman to be a presidential advisor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to be Director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.

1941    WWII causes a shortage of workers leading to 7 million women joining the work force. The iconic “Rosie the Riveter” becomes a symbol of the working woman.

1945    The Woman’s Pay Act of 1945, the first ever legislation to require equal pay, is introduced to Congress. It would take another 18 years before an equal pay bill would make it to the President’s desk.

1951    Zinc miners in New Mexico strike. When their picket lines are banned under court injunction, the community’s women replace them on the picket lines. This was later immortalized in the film, “Salt of the Earth.”

1961    The Commission on the Status of Women is established by John F. Kennedy. Eleanor Roosevelt is appointed chairwoman of the commission.

1963    The Commission on the Status of Women issues its first report which leads to the passage of the Equal Pay Act. This Act made it illegal to pay different wages to men and women who performed the same work.

1965    Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez co-found the United Farm Workers of America (AFL-CIO). Huerta later became Vice-President of this union.

1966    Betty Friedan founds the National Organization for Women (NOW).

1973    Roanoke, VA— - Crystal Lee Jordan, the inspiration for the movie “Norma Rae,” is fired for attempting to organize a union at the J.P. Stevens plant.

9 to 5, National Association of Working Women is founded to spur organization of women clerical and professional workers.

1974    The Coalition of Labor Union Women holds its founding convention and elects Olga Madar (UAW) as its first president.

1983    AFSCME establishes it Women’s Rights Department.

1986    The Supreme Court declares sexual harassment a form of illegal employment discrimination.

1993    President Bill Clinton signs the Family and Medical Leave Act. This Act provides job-protected leave to employees who need to take time off to care for themselves or their families.

1995    Barbara Easterling (Communications Workers of America) is appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, becoming the first woman to hold a national leadership post.

At the October AFL-CIO convention, new officers are elected. Easterling is defeated but Linda Chavez-Thompson (AFSCME, former LiUNA organizer) is elected to the new position of AFL-CIO Executive Vice-President, becoming the highest ranking Hispanic leader in the labor movement.

2007    Arlene Holt Baker is named Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, replacing Linda Chavez-Thompson. She became the highest ranking African American woman in the union movement.

2008    In the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, Antonia Cortese and Lorretta Johnson are elected to top leadership positions. This is the first time in AFT that three women hold the top posts, despite the fact that 70% of their membership is female.

2009    Elizabeth Shuler (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) becomes the first woman elected as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer. Arlene Holt Baker is elected as Executive Vice-President.