In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

102 Chapter 7 MAKINGUSEOFTHEMUNDANE THEWOMEN’STRADEUNIONLEAGUE’SFIGHT TOGIVEWORKINGWOMENAVOICE Marybeth Poder During the Progressive Era, voluntary associations proliferated to remedy perceived ills in society. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), formed in 1903 at the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was one such group. William English Walling, a wealthy young socialist, factory inspector, and settlement house resident, sought out the help of Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, a bookbinder and labor activist, to create an association that would organize women wage earners into trade unions. From its inception , the WTUL was committed to being an egalitarian, cross-class alliance of women industrial workers and middle-class reformers. In fact, it constituted its executive board so that trade unionists were in the majority as a way to ensure that reformers would not dominate. The founders did not wish to be a benevolent society, dictating from above what their poor working sisters needed, but rather intended for members to be co-laborers,1 working together to alleviate the low wages, long hours, hazardous conditions, and lack of opportunity faced by women in industry (Jacoby 13–15). While their initial goal was to unionize as many workers as possible, WTUL members soon discovered that the prevailing attitudes about the roles of women in the workforce and society , as well as the terrible conditions in which so many women worked, made this task nearly impossible. As a result, they also pursued educational efforts and legislation to achieve their goals. Some of the most interesting work they undertook, however, lay in the seemingly simple, everyday habits they encouraged their members and other women they encountered to adopt—habits of mind that asked them to look to themselves and other women for leadership, input, and expertise before turning to men. Scholars examining the WTUL have generally focused on how well they negotiated the competing claims inherent in their makeup as a cross-class, multiethnic group of women workers and reformers. These evaluations are 103 Making Use of the Mundane often expressed as dichotomies of those claims on members’ loyalties: class versus feminism, organization versus legislation, immigrants versus native born, unskilled versus skilled workers, socialism versus individualism (Cobble 56; Dye, “Creating” 33, 36; Foner, Women 27; Jacoby 119–20). While I agree that an exploration of these competing claims is essential to understanding the actions undertaken by the league, such an approach has the potential to downplay the league’s identity-building role. As Elizabeth Anne Payne argues in her biography of longtime national WTUL president Margaret Dreier Robins , the league acted as a forum where women could help shape the discussion of industrialism’s influence on women workers (49). Essentially, the league created a place outside of mainstream public discourse where working women could discuss and suggest solutions for the labor struggles they faced because of both their class and their gender, and it also encouraged them in those spaces and beyond to look at themselves and other women as a reasonable source for such solutions. Most WTUL scholars agree that because of the unique situation of the specific women whom the league targeted, these concerns were not perfectly aligned with either the male-dominated, conservative craft-unionism of the wider labor movement or the professionally minded feminism of the middleclass women’s movement. As a result, much to the frustration of league members , both movements either ignored working women or misread their needs. While the league could not erase all the obstacles that these women faced because of their class and their gender, by giving them a voice in both the labor and the women’s movement as well as in state and local government and by encouraging them to see women as change agents, the WTUL encouraged working women to act in ways that alleviated some of the worst abuses of industry and made strides toward future equity and safety in the workplace. While the league was known in the early twentieth century for its gifted public speakers, such as Rose Schneiderman and Leonora O’Reilly, much of the rhetorical work that reinforced the WTUL’s commitment to giving ordinary women a voice and a sense of empowerment can be found within the more mundane writing of their meeting minutes, officers’ reports, and annual bulletins, and it is these documents I explore in this chapter. I focus on the fifteen-year period leading up to the granting of women’s suffrage at the federal level in 1920 because it is well...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.