Labor history is rich with the contributions of women, and unions have historically stood up for women’s rights. As we celebrate Labor History Month, we should recognize the incredible contributions that women have made to the labor movement and American history. Here’s a list of important women and landmark moments for women in American labor history.
Frances Perkins was the secretary of labor during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Perkins, who had studied economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, championed both labor and workplace safety. As a cabinet member, she helped develop and implement key pieces of the New Deal, including enacting minimum wage laws. She oversaw key pieces of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. While chairing the President’s Committee on Economic Security, she pushed through the Social Security Act of 1935. In 1980, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor was named in her honor.
Bread and Roses Strike
The Lawrence textile strike, commonly referred to as the “Bread and Roses” strike, took place in Lawrence, Mass., from January to March 1912. The strike defied expectations, uniting workers (who were mostly immigrant women) from 51 different nationalities. The workers lived in terrible conditions, with high mortality rates for the children who worked in the factories. The phrase “bread and roses” came from a line in a speech by organizer Rose Schneiderman: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It became a cry not just for fair wages, but also for decent working and living conditions. The strike inspired the famous song “Bread and Roses.”
Lucy Parsons was a radical labor organizer. In the early 1870s, she and her husband had to flee Texas, where she was from, because of intolerant reactions to their interracial marriage. Throughout her subsequent career in Chicago, she wrote for various leftist and labor publications, and in 1905, she participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 2004, the city of Chicago named a park after her.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
The 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, killing 146 garment workers who couldn’t escape the burning building because the owners of the factory had locked the doors to the stairs and exits, a common practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. In the aftermath of the fire, the New York State Legislature created a commission to investigate working conditions in factories and passed new laws protecting workers’ safety.
Dolores Huerta is a labor leader and civil rights activist who has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1962, she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez, and in 1965, she directed its national boycott during the Delano grape strike.
Margaret Haley was a teacher and labor leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was an early member of the Chicago Teachers Federation and became its first district vice president in 1898. In 1916, Haley helped found the American Federation of Teachers, of which the current-day Chicago Teachers Union is Local 1.
Lowell Female Labor Reform Association
The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, founded in 1845, was one of the first American labor organizations organized by and for women. The union petitioned for a 10-hour workday, which prompted the state of Massachusetts to investigate working conditions in Lowell factories — the first investigations into working conditions by a governmental body in the United States.
Ai-Jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has organized domestic workers for nearly 20 years and was instrumental in the 2010 passage of New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was one of the largest labor unions in the United States. The union was founded in 1900 in New York City and grew to 450,000 members by the late 1960s. Its first strike, in 1909, was known as the “Uprising of 20,000.” In 1910, ILGWU led an even larger strike of 60,000 cloakmakers, commonly called “The Great Revolt.” In the 1970s, the union was responsible for the popular song “Look for the Union Label.” In 1995, the union merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE, and in 2004, UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to form UNITE HERE.
Hallie Flanagan was a writer and theatrical director and producer. She spent much of her early career studying theater at Grinnell College, Harvard University and Vassar College. As part of the Works Progress Administration, Flanagan led the Federal Theatre Project, which funded and produced live theater across the United States during the Great Depression. By producing theater, the Federal Theatre Project created jobs across the country for actors, dancers, writers, directors, stage crew and set construction workers. Under Flanagan’s leadership, the program employed tens of thousands of workers, including 15,000 in the first year alone. During the four years of the program, the project produced around 1,200 shows to more than 30 million people.
Rosina Tucker was an important figure in the foundation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Tucker was married to a railroad porter and became involved in the union. She visited the homes of more than 300 workers to secretly collect their union dues, and in 1938, she was elected secretary-treasurer of the union’s auxiliary. She continued her union involvement, helping organize teachers, laundry workers and railway clerks in Washington, D.C.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963
The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy, was aimed at eliminating wage disparities between men and women. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The EPA provides that employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.”
Luisa Moreno was a Guatemalan-born American labor organizer. She started organizing while working in a cafeteria in New York in the 1930s, protesting against long hours and consistent sexual harassment. In one incident, she walked past police guarding the cafeteria against picketers by wearing a fur coat and acting as if she were a customer. When she arrived at the door, she pulled out a strike sign from under her coat and was carried off by officers. She later organized African-American and Latina cigar makers in Florida. She became a representative of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, where she organized workers in Texas and California during the 1930s. Moreno was a staunch advocate for the rights of immigrants, especially from Latin American countries. She organized the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to help clear those indicted in what the media dubbed the “Sleepy Lagoon murder.” In the 1950s, she was targeted by immigration officials because of her activism. She was offered citizenship in exchange for testifying against a labor leader, but she refused, stating that she would not be “a free woman with a mortgaged soul.”
1981 San Jose Strike
In 1981, AFSCME Local 101 members in San Jose went on strike for equal pay. This was the first strike for equal pay in the United States. AFSCME had pressured the city government on pay equity, and the strike was successful in getting the government to agree to close the pay gap.
May Chen was working with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1982 when she led the New York Chinatown workers strike. The strike was one of the largest Asian-American strikes in history, with around 20,000 workers walking out and marching through New York City. Chen was a founding member of the AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and, until her retirement in 2009, was an international vice president of UNITE HERE.
Velma Veloria immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1950s and became a labor activist. She was an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union, ILWU Local 37 and the Service Employees International Union. In 1992, she became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Washington State Legislature, serving until 2004.
Christa McAuliffe was a high school social studies teacher in Concord, N.H., when she was selected to be the first civilian and educator to fly into space. Before her flight on the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger, McAuliffe was a member of the National Education Association and an official in her local union. She had also been a member of the American Federation of Teachers while teaching in Maryland.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act
In 1978, Congress amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Prior to the passage of the act, there was no federal law protecting women from workplace discrimination while pregnant.
Donna Cartwright is a LGBT and labor activist. She was a co-president of Pride at Work, worked for 30 years as a New York Times copy editor and was an active member of the Newspaper Guild before retiring in 2006. She also was an executive board member of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Sue Cowan Williams
Sue Cowan Williams, a former high school teacher, represented African-American educators in the Little Rock School District in Arkansas as the plaintiff in the case Morris v. Williams, which challenged salary discrepancies based on race. She lost the case in 1942 but won on appeal in 1943.
Coalition of Labor Union Women
The Coalition of Labor Union Women was founded in 1974 to build a bridge between the feminist movement and the labor movement. Since its founding, it has held conferences on pay equity, pushed for equality and supported organizing projects around the country.
Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor
Mother Bloor was an active socialist and labor organizer at the turn of the 20th century. She worked with Upton Sinclair on his best-selling book The Jungle, documenting the poor working conditions in Chicago stockyards. She took jobs in Chicago factories under an assumed name to help gather firsthand information, and she worked with miners in Calumet, Mich., and Ludlow, Colo. She unsuccessfully ran for office several times in the early 1900s, and her autobiography, We Are Many, was published in 1940.
Anna “Big Annie” Klobuchar Clemenc
Big Annie was the president of the Women’s Auxiliary No. 15 of the Western Federation of Miners. She was known for leading marches in support of striking miners while wearing a plain gingham dress and carrying a 10-foot flagpole with a large American flag waiving. She was one of the organizers of the Christmas party for striking miners and their families at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Mich., in 1913, where more than 70 people were killed in a stampede caused by anti-union thugs. She has been described as an “American Joan of Arc,” and her portrait hangs in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Family and Medical Leave Act
In 1993, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring employers to provide job-protected leave for medical and family reasons.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
Mother Jones was an Irish-American schoolteacher and labor organizer. She organized and supported mining country strikes in the eastern United States. In 1903, she organized the Children’s Crusade, in which children who worked in mines and factories marched from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., with banners stating, “We want to go to school and not to the mines!”
The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o