A century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, women have become nearly half of the unionized labor force. They work in the growing service and public employment sectors as nurses, home attendants, teachers, and clerks. Previously labeled women's issues—maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, and work-family balance—have become union issues. Women hold leadership positions in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. With the disappearance of manufacturing and the growth of service labor, women of color—both immigrant- and U.S.-born—have become the driving force in the labor movement for safe jobs, living wages, and dignity at work, leading women-dominated unions and worker associations. It is not an overstatement to say that the future of the labor movement appears up to the women.1
It hasn't always been this way. For at least a century, labor feminists have fought for the interests of wage-earning women and working-class housewives, both within the feminist and the labor movements. Still, the priorities of the women's movement for sex-based rights and those of the labor movement for class solidarity often diverged during the twentieth century. Working-class feminists struggled against middle-class feminists who focused primarily on achieving equality with male professionals and executives. They also battled men who sought to exclude women from unionized jobs and who denied organized women workers a full share of power in the labor movement.
Highlighting key moments when feminists and unionists came together over the last century, this essay offers a usable past drawn from the fraught—but often productive—relationship [End Page 33] between feminism and labor. An examination of the contact between organized women's groups and organized labor, women's organizations within the labor movement, and feminist labor organizing shows that when feminists and unions worked together, both benefited. Labor gained when it understood women's issues as crucial for the advancement of the working class. The women's movement was at its strongest when its membership and agenda crossed class lines. Recognition of this history may help to revitalize feminism as much as organized labor.
Labor Feminism Before the 1960s: The Women's Trade Union League
The years surrounding 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire saw significant and broad-based collaboration between labor activists and middle- to upper-class feminists in the United States. That period began with the creation of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. The League, as it was known by its members, drew together educated women reformers (mostly white, Protestant, and native-born) and young women workers (many of them immigrant Jews, Italians, and Irish) to improve factory wages, working conditions, and hours. The WTUL embodied both an unusual degree of collaboration between feminists and the labor movement, and the many tensions that arose from longstanding attempts to build lasting and productive relationships.2
This cross-class women's network deepened with the uprisings of young women garment workers that began in New York in 1909 and then spread over the next few years into other Eastern and Midwestern cities. Middle-class and affluent supporters of woman suffrage—including League activists, college students, and even wealthy socialites—saw these strikes as an opportunity to win working women to the cause. Forming what the press dubbed "mink brigades," affluent supporters marched alongside young immigrant women on picket lines in a largely successful attempt to reduce high rates of police brutality. After they bailed arrested strikers out of jail, they spoke (alongside the released strikers) for woman suffrage on the steps of jails and courthouses. Affluent feminists brought working women into existing suffrage organizations, as well as offering financial support for the establishment of working-class suffrage groups. Working women understood, as Polish Jewish cap maker Rose Schneiderman explained in 1907, that they "must … secure political power to shape their own labor conditions."3
Women factory and manufacturing workers knew they needed the political and financial support of these more affluent "allies." Nonetheless, imbalances in social power and financial resources generated much conflict in the first two decades of the...