The Labor Movement and Women’s Organizing

A little while ago I stumbled across a great page on the history of Women and the Labor Movement [TheHistoryNet], including the formative role that women played in labor radicalism (organized industrial work stoppages were going on in Lowell, Massachussetts as early as the 1820s) and the way that the mainstream, AFL-line labor movement conspired with the Progressive regulation movement to cut women out of the labor force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through protective labor restrictions which discriminated against women and by excluding women from the mainstream wing of the labor movement, which negotiated itself into a powerful alliance with the bosses and the government (this move, conveniently, induced greater labor shortages and drove up profits for their own all-male membership).

We think of unions as primarily male institutions these days, responding to the problems faced by men in industrial labor, but that neglects the fact that women have always been the first victims of industrialization (through textile mills and garment sweatshops, for example; this is still happening today in Mexico, Indonesia, immigrant communities in Los Angeles, etc.) and therefore had some of the first and strongest incentive to organize. The male-dominated condition of the labor movement and the industrial workforce today is precisely because of to the discriminatory laws that a powerful coalition of male mainstream union bosses, male corporate bosses, and male government officials managed to concoct during the labor struggles of the Gilded Age.

Of course, the ciritical role that women such as Sarah G. Bagley (a leading organizer in Lowell), Rose Schneiderman, Lucy Parsons, the female membership of the Knights of Labor, and innumerable others played in forming the labor movement, are often ignored in mainstream labor history. So are questions of women’s labor, the horrendous conditions imposed specifically on women under industrialization, and the struggles around the question of women’s labor and the anti-woman line that the mainstream male Left took in order to expand working men’s profits at the expense of working women’s (much like they used the racism and nativism of the post-Reconstruction era to exclude Blacks, Chinese-Americans, and poor immigrants from entering into unionized segments of the industrial workforce, thus protecting the profits of American-born white workers at the expense of all other workers). All of this isn’t too surprising, when we consider that the collective consciousness of the labor movement and labor history continues to be defined primarily by male organizers who aligned with the sexist AFL line and supported the discriminatory protective labor regulations that cut women out of the work force.

It’s also worth noting a couple of points about the relationship of all of this to feminism.

  1. This unholy male supremacist alliance between mainstream male unions, male corporate bosses and Progressive regulation activists, emerged–like many other anti-woman alliances–during the post-Reconstruction period up to the 1920s, which happens to be more or less the same time as the peak of the struggle for women’s citizenship (with women’s suffrage finally being constitutionally protected in 1920). We may thus add it to the list of anti-woman institutions forming the backlash against First Wave feminism, including such illustrious company as Freudian psychoanalysis, the criminalization of abortion across the Western world, the flourishing of violent rape-based pornography in Victorian cities, and the AMA‘s efforts to seize control of women’s reproductive medicine away from midwives and other women into the hands of male surgeons.

  2. The most effective forces in fighting the abuses inflicted on women laborers were organizations such as the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization allying women of across social classes around the abuse specifically faced by women in the industrial workplace. The WTUL’s organizing efforts galvanized general strikes and other massive actions which eventually helped massively reform the horrendous sweatshop conditions faced by many garment workers (virtually all female) in New York. Not to be monomaniacal or anything, but once again organizing uniting all women on behalf of women (i.e., feminist organizing) was the most effective force in fighting patriarchal power.

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