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A History of Women in the Labor Movement

The history of America’s working women is a history of advocating for the abolition of slavery, the right to vote, the right to unionize, the welfare of children, and the extension of human rights to all. Despite the obstacles and stereotypes imposed by society, America’s working women have continued to persevere.

As far back as the late 1700s, women have been an integral part of the workplace. Many working women were confined to jobs where they were routinely exploited, especially those who worked in factories and mills up to 70 hours a week for $3 or less. In the early 1800s, women helped their male counterparts strengthen union memberships, even while they and their issues were often ignored. Women participated in work stoppages when employers sought to cut workers’ paychecks.

In 1844, the first all-female labor union – the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) – was formed to combat unfair wages and treatment in the textile mills of New England. In 1866, newly freed Black women in the South also formed unions and struck for higher wages and equal rights.

The Knights of Labor was established in 1869. It was the first large-scale national labor federation in the U.S. In 1881, its members voted to admit women. The organization grew significantly in the mid-1880s after a series of successful strikes. Stressing equal pay regardless of sex or color, the Knights relied heavily on the organizing efforts of women such as Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones.”

By the 1890s, another newly-created union was making its mark on society, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). However, its first president, Samuel Gompers, did not believe in women working outside the home. In 1903, working-class women joined forces with upper class women in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in order to persuade male-dominated unions to take women workers more seriously.

NATCA honors all of its female members, past and present. Our Union is brighter and stronger because you are in it, and we will continue to advocate for the rights of all our members.

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