In light of America’s Industrial Revolution beginning in the 1800’s, the country was exhibiting features of social reform in schools, the workplace, and traditional society. The allowance of white, middle- class women to attend college along with the development of social science prompted a dynamic shift orchestrated by women who wanted revised laws in favor of fair treatment for women and children. And yet, despite the rise of opportunities for women, the issue of unfair wage work persisted. In addition, it was considered the norm for men to act as the wage earners and not the homemakers which contributed to the gender constructs that still exist to this day.
One of the most prominent figures during this time was a woman named Florence Kelley who consistently created goals throughout her life to utilize her college education and social status for the advancement of women, particularly those in the work force. After forming and being a member of many feminist groups, coalitions and campaigns, Kelley was appointed by the Governor of Illinois to the position of Chief Factory Inspector to work directly with the new statute she had created for anti-sweatshop legislation.
At this time, it was still assumed that women relied solely on men for financial and familial support, even if the women were employed, due to their low wages. In the late 1880’s more than 85 percent of female wage earners were between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five and only about 5 percent were married (Sklar, 354.)
Because of this, Kelley argued that women should receive minimum wage in order to support themselves, which she proclaimed through the statement, “So long as women’s wages rest upon the assumption that every woman has a husband, father, brother, or lover contributing to her support, so long these sinister incidents of women’s industrial employment are inevitable” (Sklar, 358.)
This “industrial feminism” (Orleck, 373,) a term coined by scholar Mildred Moore in 1915 used to describe the spirit of working women’s cause for economic freedom and equality, also presented difficulties within relationships between men and women; particularly within marriage.
A magazine article written by Crystal Eastman described the issue of gender constructs during the 1920’s. Eastman recounted:
It must be womanly as well as manly to earn your own living, to stand on your own feet. And it must be manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life.
She continued to explain that while women were allowed to work they are also expected to retain the role of the homemaker while their husbands live under the delusion that they are supporting their families despite their lack of participation with the workload on the home-front.
Eastman challenges the idea that the present nature of man deprived women of economic independence and instead burdened them with “motherhood endowment” (Eastman, 382.) This refers to the expectation of women to have and raise children while taking care of the home and simultaneously to balance her work life; and yet they are not granted adequate economic reward. Because of this, she insists that birth control and family planning are just as essential to the movement as equal pay.
This idea still exists in our present decade as women often experience the decision to attempt to balance home life with work life or chose between them. Women also face discrimination by employers who consider their potential for pregnancy to become an issue for the company in the future. Though many may try to refute this, the realities of corporate blockades against career women persist in subtle ways disguised as concern for mothers and their families. While in reality, companies who judge applicants on the ground of their potential for maternity leave violate civil rights that are in place to protect women and minorities.
In conclusion, the labor movements and industrial revolution had significant impact on feminism and the movements to come by setting the foundation for women to recognize their worth as human beings and equals in a patriarchal world. As well as this, the urge for traditional masculine and feminine roles to be renounced is becoming more prominent due to the revolutionary impacts that industrial feminists provided. During these times of social reform many brave women came together with support of their male allies who allowed their voices to reach those in power and presented conceptions that we continue to benefit from to this day.
Sklar, Kathryn K. Florence Kelley and Women’s Activism in the Progressive Era. Women’s America, 2016.
Ellis, William S. Mrs. Florence Kelley. Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911; Scrapbook 8; page 25. http://www.vmps.us/florence-kelley-secretary-national-consumers-league. Accessed February 2018.
Orleck, Annelise. From the Russian Pale to Labor Organizing in New York City. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working- Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965, 1995.
Eastman, Crystal. Now We Can Begin. The Liberator, 1920.