Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Revolutionary Union

Red Papers 3: Women Fight for Liberation

Battles of working-class women in U.S. history

Women have been responsible for some of the finest hours in American labor history. Whether organizing and striking as workers or playing leading roles in their husbands’ strikes, working class women have a long tradition of militancy and hatred of injustice.

The Black and white women in Rock Hill, South Carolina, who recently won a 6-month strike to unionize a textile plant, the Hosiery Corporation of America, are direct descendants of the 102 women cotton workers who walked off the job with their male co-workers in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 146 years ago. This is the earliest known strike (1824) of women factory workers, and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of American women. The years following, up to and including the present, are filled with bloody strikes and courageous organizing efforts. In addition, female factory workers provided an example for the middle-class women’s suffrage movement: women workers were living proof that women were not innately weak, passive, delicate creatures–they had to be pretty strong to work at least 12 hours a day in miserable factory conditions to make about $1.25 a week–and their militancy provided inspiration for their wealthier sisters’ efforts to win women’s right to vote.


The first white women workers in this country were the pioneer women who helped settle the Atlantic coastline. Of course, native Indian women had been helping plant crops and make handicrafts long before the Europeans arrived. The English businessmen who were backing the new settlements realized the need for more women if the largely-male settlements were to become stable communities., So, they advertised for and shipped off hundreds of women who sold themselves as settler’s wives for the price of transportation to the New World.

Some did not come so freely. The new colonies needed more working hands if business was to be successful. So they began to acquire indentured servants and Black slaves. Indentured servants were bound to work for a “master” for a specific period of time, and for that time they were little better off than slaves. Some volunteered to come to escape jail terms, for instance–but others were kidnapped from their African homes. If the servants made it through their indenture period, they were “free” to take up a trade or to marry. But many became “poor whites,” wandering from one miserable job to another.

The Black slaves, however, never had the opportunity to be free. Bought for life off the auction block if they survived the hellish trip from Africa to America, they were at the total mercy of the slave-masters. Black women were used for breeding more slaves and for doing the hard day-to-day work along with the men and children. Their families could be, and often were, broken up by the master when he could make more money by selling them to different slaveowners.


With the beginnings of industrialization in the North, women were needed to run the power looms and other machines in the factories. Many had already been working at home, making garments, hats, cloth, and shoes, but the factories made it impossible for home-made goods to compete on the market. Many women were forced to compete for the low-paying (25 cents a day) jobs in unsafe factories.

In Paterson, New Jersey, in 1828, bosses called out the militia for the first time in U.S. labor history against a strike begun by “children” (including a large number of girls) who protested the compulsory 12-hour day and a change in their lunch break. The next day, the carpenters, mechanics and masons of the plant walked off the job in sympathy. The first all-women strike of factory workers took place during December of that year in a Dover, New Hampshire, cotton mill. Three to four hundred working women took to the streets, and the Philadelphia National Gazette was only half joking when it complained that, “The Governor may have to call out the militia to prevent a gynecocracy,” (rule by women).

In 1834 the women of Dover walked put again. They must have made progress towards forming a union because the bosses make them take an “iron-clad” oath against a union as a condition of settlement.


The right to form a trade union became a major demand of the operatives who struck the textile mills of Lowell, Mass. against a 25% wage cut in 1834 The walk-out occurred when a woman who had been fired waved her bonnet in the air as she left the line and one of the leaders made what the Boston Transcript called:

A flaming Mary Wollstonecraft speech on the rights of women and the iniquities of the ’monied aristocracy’ which produced a powerful effect on her listeners, and they determined to have their own way, if they died for it.

Over a thousand women marched out of the mills and into the streets, singing:

Oh, isn’t it a pity that such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh, I cannot be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty.

The strike was broken, but the company dormitories of Lowell became a center for organizing. Two years later the Factory Girls’ Association was formed by 2500 workers at the striking Lowell plant. It was smashed, along with the strike, but the organizational base it laid helped the women successfully resist a speed-up later In the year.

The women shoeworkers of Lynn, Mass. formed a loose union in 1833 that successfully fought a wage cut. Other organizations followed in New York and Philadelphia in 1835. The next year, one month after the second Lowell strike, the all-male National Trades Union held its third convention and advocated organizing women into their own unions.

The Lowell group was later rebuilt. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was formed as an auxiliary of the New England Workingmen’s Association. Begun and led by a long-time Lowell factory worker, Sarah Bagley, the Association successfully fought speed-ups throughout the early I840’s. Under Bagley’s leadership, Female Labor Reform Associations began to appear in other towns. Many of them actively worked for the 10-hour day. When worker outrage finally forced the Massachusetts legislature to investigate the demand for shorter hours, the politicians on the committee noted that, “as the greater part of the petitioners are females, it will be necessary for them to make the defence, or we shall be under the necessity of laying it aside.”


Male workers, however, had a higher regard for female factory workers, and in 1846, the year after the parliamentary campaign in Massachusetts failed, three of Bagley’s female associates joined five men on the board of directors of the New England Labor Reform League (a better proportion than currently in the leadership bodies of most labor unions today). As anti-female attitudes among male workers decreased, class consciousness–often due to the leadership of women–developed. A union paper reporting a mass meeting of New York seamstresses complained that pimps circulated in the crowd, attempting to procure women who were making shirts at four cents apiece. ”This is what makes us so radical,” it said. “This is what makes us want to see rich men hoeing corn and rich ladies at the wash tub.”

The militant struggle for a shorter day continued during the I840’s. A few laws were passed, but they were either ignored by the bosses or met by speed-ups–the same tricks that are pulled on workers today. In Allegheny, Pennsylvania, 2000 textile workers walked off the job after 10 hours to enforce the state law which supposedly had gone into effect that day, July 4, 1848. The next day they were locked out. By the end of the month, the bosses had found about 100 scabs who a-greed to work 12 hours and the mills reopened. The response of the women who remained locked out was fast and effective. A newspaper of that time reported:

A dense mass of men, women, and children were collected around the front gate of the factory.. .with the avowed intention of taking summary vengeance on the delinquents who had gone to work, so soon as they should get out for dinner. Tired of waiting.. .demonstrations toward breaking open the gate were at last made. An ax was procured, and women seizing hold of it began hewing away with true Amazonian vehemence and vigor.... As if by common consent, a rush was made to storm the factory. A platoon of women were in front... followed by a storming party of men. The girls in front acted for the time as pioneers and commenced tearing away the boards from the fence so as to make a breach, through which their storming columns could enter.

Once inside the factory gates, the workers routed the waiting Allegheny police and the company brass and beat several scabs. By the end of August, all the Allegheny factories but one were operating on a ten-hour day, though with a partial wage reduction.


While white women workers were beginning to organize to free themselves from being factory slaves, Black women and men were fighting back against their own slavery. The slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831 and rumors of an “underground railroad” inspired many slaves on southern plantations to run away to the North.

Born a slave, Harriett Tubman was eleven years old when the Nat Turner rebellion took place, and a few years later she herself helped a slave escape–the first of over 300 slaves she helped free. She was a small woman, but years of hard work in the fields had made her stronger than many men by the time she escaped at the age of 29. Her people came to call her “Moses” because she led them to freedom on the underground railroad–going from one friendly farm to another, through swamps and forests, to the North. Armed with a revolver, she defended her passengers and never lost one of them. To the slavemasters, “Moses” was a crafty, dangerous man who making off with thousands of dollars worth of human “property.” They offered $40,000 for “his” capture.

Sojourner Truth was another ex-slave who spent most of her life working for an end to slavery. She traveled across the country speaking at Abolitionist meetings. She also supported the movement to get voting rights for women. At one women’s rights meeting after a male minister had preached about the superiority of men, she’ got up and gave an unforgettable response; That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and aren’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me–and aren’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it) and bear the lash as well–and aren’t I a woman? I have borne five children and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard–and aren’t I a woman?”

Many wealthy, white women spoke out against slavery, too, and got involved in the movement for women’s rights through their work in the Abolitionist movement. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were among those who spoke and wrote on the horrors of slavery. Women weren’t supposed to speak out in public about anything then, and these sisters were criticized especially by ministers as “unnatural” women. But they continued to agitate against slavery, and to demonstrate the similarity between the misery of the slaves and the suffering of women wage slaves who labored in filthy factories for less than half the wages of the men.


Women workers struggled against the increased hardships of the financial crises of the 50’s and of the Civil War, but sometimes lost ground. When they won the shorter day, the workers often got a wage decrease and speed-up. One of the few really successful groups of women organized during this time was the Collar Laundry Union of Troy, N.Y. It got wages upped from $2 to $8 a week by 1866, and was able to contribute $1000 to the striking iron moulders of Troy. Kate Mullaney, president of the union, was appointed assistant secretary of the National Labor Union. But three years later the union and the cooperative laundry factory it had set up as an alternative to working for the bosses were smashed. This was partly due to the death of the president of the Troy Iron Moulders, whose leadership the women had come to depend on.

The women in the Weaver’s Union of Fall River, Mass., however, trusted themselves more than the male members of the union. In 1873 the men, for whatever reasons, voted to accept a 10% wage reduction. The women held their own meeting, forbidding men to be present, and voted to strike. The men then followed their lead, and victory came after three months of bitter struggle against the factory owners.

Despite the fighting spirit displayed by women over and over in labor disputes, the national unions were often reluctant to admit women during these years. In 1873, after women had been on the front lines of labor battle for nearly 50 years, only the cigar makers’ and the printers’ unions, out of 32 national trade unions, had women members. (The printers had at one time debated a resolution to expel any of their members found working in the same shop as women.) The unions admitted that they were fearful that women would take over men’s jobs and reduce their pay. Then, as now, union leadership didn’t seem to recognize the fact that if the bosses are free to underpay one group of workers, the wages and job security of all workers are in jeopardy.

The idea “Organize the women and insist on equal pay for equal work.” was brought up more and more often within the nationals. Still, almost all the organizing among women was by women themselves. The militant shoe-workers of Lynn, Mass., formed the first national organization of working women in 1869. Called the Daughters of St. Crispin, it was made an auxiliary to the trade unions of men shoe-workers. Three years later the Lynn local beat a wage cut and adopted the stirring resolution: “We, the free women of Lynn, will submit to no rules or set of rules that tend to degrade and enslave us.”

In 1886 the rising Knights of Labor– the first really powerful national labor organization to encourage the admission of women–appointed a full time woman organizer, though it took the hard push of the few female delegates who attended the early assemblies of the Knights to create the post. Leonora M. Barry, a stocking machine operator, was chosen. She traveled almost continuously for the next three and a half years. Largely through her own efforts between 11,000 and 12,000 women had joined the Knights by 1888.

Still, Barry found organizing among working women difficult, due to, in her own words, “the habit of submission and acceptance without question of any terms offered them, with the pessimistic view of life in which they see no ray of hope.” Women who had better jobs would not join with those who were more exploited. Many women were “deterred from joining labor organizations by foolish pride, prudish modesty and religious scruples; and a prevailing cause, which applies to all who ”are in the flush of womanhood, is the hope and expectancy that in the near future marriage will lift them out of the industrial life to the quiet and comfort of a home, foolishly imagining that with marriage their connection with and ’ interest in labor matters end; often finding, however, that their struggle has only begun when they have to go back to the shop for two instead of one. All this is the results or effects of the environments and conditions surrounding women in the past and present, and can be removed only by constant agitation and education.”

Other women organizers rose up to take on this job of “constant agitation and education,” a job that is as necessary today as it was at the turn of the Century.


One of the most effective “agitators” and “educators” associated with the early A. F. of L. was Mary “Mother” Jones. Born in Ireland in 1830, her four children and husband all died in an epidemic. She then became an organizer for the Knights of Labor and for the mineworkers and for 50 years was in the middle of the violent mine strikes of that era. She moved from strike to strike, speaking tirelessly to both working women and men. Her exploits with the miners’ union were fearless and memorable–she once told the striking men to stay home and mind the children while she led a brigade of their mop-carrying wives to chase the scabs out of the mines--helped build real solidarity throughout the labor movement. She believed that winning the vote for women was secondary to winning economic justice for all working people.

After her death in 1930 (she lived to be 100), this song appeared among the coal miners, which testifies to her work as much as anything:

The world today is mourning the death of Mother Jones;
Grief and sorrow hover around the miners’ homes
This grand old champion of labor has gone to a better land,
But the hardworking miners, they miss her guiding hand.


Through the hills and over the valleys in
every mining town, Mother Jones was ready to help them;
she never let them down. In front with the striking miners she
always could be found; She fought for right and justice; she took,
a noble stand.

Between 1895 and 1905 working women took part in over 1200 strikes. The real turning-point in their organizing did not come until 1909, however, with the “Uprising of Twenty Thousand.” The shirtwaist makers of two New York shops had been on strike for a month when a mass meeting of women from all the garment shops of the city was called. As the meeting began to degenerate into speech-making, a teen-aged striker named Clara Lemlich, who had already had several ribs broken by police attacks on the picket line, stood up and demanded the floor.

I am a working girl, and one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now!

Between 20 and 30 thousand women went out the next day, the first real general strike and “a potent answer to the threadbare arguments that women could not be organized.” Sometimes up to 1500 women a day enrolled in the garment workers’ union during the strike. The women held out through three winter months and many arrests.


Shortly after that, tens of thousands of women were mobilized in the textile strikes at Lawrence, Mass., where Anna LoPizzo was murdered by police, and Paterson, New Jersey. The slogan “Bread and Roses” was raised, and a poem inspired by the strike’ told why the women marched:

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days;
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, Ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

In the tradition of Mother Jones, Ella Reeve Bloor was a labor organizer who saw the necessity to change the basic economic structure of society. She campaigned for the suffragists in 1912, but, in her own words “always tried to make clear that the object of our campaign was not alone to get the vote but to prepare women to use the power of the ballot to get decent pay and decent conditions for women and so to strengthen the position of the whole working class.” Ella Bloor had seen 73 children suffocated to death in one episode during a strike.

Such episodes were always in her mind when she worked for the labor movement. Scolded by feminists for working for the “man’s’ party” of the Socialists, Ella Bloor remained true to her beliefs and at the age of 57 joined the new Communist Party. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was another labor leader who turned from socialism to Communism at a time when the Communist Party U.S.A. was a strong fighter in the interests of the working class.

One of the biggest strikes in the 30’s was the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, against General Motors in 1936-37. Thousands of wives of the striking auto-workers played a key role in the long and violent battle against the GM bosses and the police. Not only did the wives get food to the 1200 strikers inside the plant, they organized the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Hundreds of women in bright red berets responded to emergency situations with two-by-fours, stove pokers, crowbars and lead pipes and prevented the police and troops from breaking into the plant more than once.

Workers’ wives and mothers–many of them Mexican-American–played a key role in the long strike of miners at the Empire Zinc Company at Bayard, New Mexico in 1950-1952. Women took over picketing when the company got the courts to issue an injunction against any strike activity by the men. Women and children braved tear gas and violence to walk the picket line, were arrested and jailed, but the women would not give up and in the end the miners won a decisive victory.

More recently, miners’ wives shut down three mines in West Virginia last year to protest the firing of union officials. During the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel strike in Santa Clara, California, last year, strikers’ wives, female students, and housewives walked the line on numerous occasions and picketed the houses of scabs and company officials.

Brown women have been active from the beginning in the fight to unionize farm laborers in California and have taken leading roles in the nationwide boycott of California grapes.

Despite their strong and militant tradition working women are still largely unorganized. Although women make up over one-third of the U.S. labor force, only 1 in 5 union members in 1964 was a woman. With increasing lay-offs, rising prices, and welfare cut-backs, the need to organize working women is as great today as ever before. And today working class women are rising to do battle in the tradition of their sisters in the past. Fighting the garment industry sweatshops in San Francisco, Levi-Strauss and other textile manufacturers in the Southern states and northern big cities, organizing in hospitals and the telephone industry, working class women will continue to fight for economic justice and will be in the forefront of the fight to end the system which enslaves us all.