The goals and ideals of the labor movement and the women’s movement have a lot in common – fairness, work-life balance, equality and safety for workers, and of course a living wage. So it should come as no surprise then, that women have long played a substantial role in the labor movement.
Before they even had the right to vote, women were organizing for better working conditions. In the 1830s, the women of the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mill went on strike and organized for a 10-hour workday (lofty goal, eh?). While they were initially defeated, they learned valuable lessons, including the importance of political action. They started a petition campaign, gathering over 2000 signatures to call for their 10-hour cap. They also campaigned against one of their staunchest opponents – a state representative – and defeated him.
The women of Lowell faced formidable opposition and quite possibly their job security. They were called names. But they persevered. Perhaps they knew that pioneers never have it easy, and that substantial, lasting change takes a long time. Perhaps, like many women, they were looking ahead, beyond their own working lives to those of their daughters and sons, and found the strength they needed in the dream that their children would have it easier than they did. Their first win wasn’t much (In 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a 10-hour workday law—but it wasn’t enforceable.), but it started the trend that was picked up by others, that we are all indebted to today.
Indeed, just as the Lowell women were starting to organize, Mother (a.k.a. Mary Harris) Jones, the just barely 5-foot tall woman once called “the most dangerous woman in America” was born. Her family left Ireland to avoid the famine, settled in Canada first, then made their way to the U.S. Jones was active in a variety of workers fights, including miners, railway workers and dressmakers. While working as a dressmaker in Chicago, she noted, “I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front,” she said. “The tropical contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care.”
Mother Jones lost her husband and her children during the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, and faced tragedy again during the Great Chicago Fire. Like the women of Lowell though, she never quit. She kept going, and kept inspiring others along the way. She worked with everyone – women, children and people of color – and if anyone ever questioned her about her place as a woman, she surely had an answer for them, quite possibly this, “I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight.”
The paper that bears her name refers to Jones as an orator, union organizer and hellraiser. That seems about right. To the woman who fought before me, during conditions and accepted norms that I can only imagine, thank you. You have made my life easier and left me an inspiring legacy. I hope to live up to it.
**Thanks to the AFL-CIO for the information and pictures used here.