In the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s, a sharp increase in industrialization and a large wave of immigration reshuffled the working class and made social change a viable movement in urbanized cities. Though still unable to vote, many strong, determined women dared to challenge both government and social norms for the betterment of women’s wage work and labor laws.
Florence Kelley, a college educated hero of social reformation, was one such woman. Utilizing her access to higher education and her role in the emerging social science field, Kelley was able to make enormous strides in the limiting of the maximum hours an individual could be forced to work, as well as the implementation of set minimum wages for female workers. The combination of such injustices before hand affected a large variety of women, including Pauline Newman who once recounted that “after working seventy and eighty hours in a seven day week, we did not earn enough to keep body and soul together.” (Orleck, 364) Both Newman and her friend, Rose Schneiderman, were among the women who worked hard during their lifetimes to broaden the vision of the trade unionism in the United States.
A working girl is a human being, with a heart, with desires, with aspirations, with ideas and ideals.
— Pauline Newman
Through campaigns against sweatshops, the formation of workers unions, and the labor legislation protecting women and children via the National Consumers’ League and their consumers’ label, much progress was made. By the year 1919, half of all female workers in the garment industry (the first industry to hire women) joined trade unions and fought for the suffrage cause. Work days exceeding ten hours were declared hazardous and unconstitutional, not just for women but also for men in non-hazardous jobs. An incredibly important aspect of the social reforms for wage earners in this period was that, though primarily focused on assisting the female status in the workplace, much of the progress benefited all unskilled workers—men, women, and children included.
The recognition that women often needed to support themselves was also emphasized at this time, eventually leading to the implementation of minimum wages. A constant misconception of gender roles was that men were the bread-winners and the wage earners outside of the home, while women were strictly tasked with household duties and child-rearing. This lead to the reduction of standards in women’s employment, and the pattern of exploitation among unmarried, female employees within unskilled occupations. Though this fact was combated, there are still remnants of this idea visible today.
These women, however determined, did face their fair share of challenges. Social categories such as gender, age, class, and ethnicity created hurdles in their pursuit, as well as inspired reasoning that motivated them to continue in their efforts. The ethnicity of the Eastern European Jews, for example, unified small communities while making them targets for social and authoritative ridicule. Even though they may have been brought up in traditional Jewish society where mothers were entrepreneurs and skilled business women, the role of middle-class housewives and the expectations of women within the US contradicted such strong character after immigrating. The issue of right-winged attacks and the “red scare” positioned against the empowerment of women’s movements in the 1920’s also hindered their standings in the political culture.
Regardless of opposition, both men and women have empowered the female worker and offered securities and rights regarding employment that many of us take for granted today. The ever-changing definitions and formations of gender constructs have both assisted and hindered the pursuit of suffragism and feminism in the United States’ history, but thanks to inspiring women such as Kelley, Cohn, Newman, Schneiderman, and many others, the fight for equality and the interests of all Americans goes on.
Brown Brothers. Jewish Women’s Archive. Rose Schneiderman speaking at a union rally, circa 1910s. “Rose Schneiderman.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/biographies/ schneiderman-rose Viewed February, 2018.
Kerber, Linda K., et al. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Orleck, Annelise. “From the Russian Pale to Labor Organizing in New York City.” Women’s America Refocusing the Past, edited by Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, 8th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2016, pg.361-374.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: the Rise of Women’s Political Culture. Yale Univ. Press, 1995.
Sklar, Kathryn K. “Florence Kelley and Women’s Activism in the Progressive Era” Women’s America Refocusing the Past, edited by Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, 8th Edition, Oxford University Press, 2016, pg.350-360.