September 9, 2004

Discussing Women's Labor History

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Prof. John Thomas McGuire, American history, State University of New York at Oneonta, gave a lecture on women and labor history yesterday in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The discussion, entitled “For ‘Industrial Justice’: Rose Schneiderman and African-American Women Workers in New York City, 1924-1933” was the first in the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documents & Archives’ fall lecture series, called “Conversations in Working Life and Culture: Interdisciplinary Talks on the History of Work.”

McGuire’s extensive study of American History led to the recent publication of his paper “From Courts to the State Legislatures: Social Justice Feminism, Labor Legislation, and the 1920s” in a labor history journal. This research was referenced in his lecture on women in the labor movement, and his discussion of Rose Schneiderman as a powerful force in transforming the movement.

McGuire spoke at length about a concept he has worked to develop called social justice feminism, which he describes as taking place over stages in history as a way to “preserve the dignity of women workers.” This concept looked at how women workers questioned the harsh realities of a newly industrialized America, and rejected the male-dominated society and workplace. The first stages of this directive began when Florence Kelly rose to become the General Secretary of the National Consumer’s League in 1899. Kelly used a strategy of court litigation to achieve social justice feminist goals. This resulted in a major victory for women workers in Muller v. Oregon (1908), which upheld a new statute limiting working hours of female employees.

Much of the lecture focused on Rose Schneiderman as a forceful individual in a movement affecting women of all ages and races. By 1908, Rose had been elected vice-president of the Women’s Trade Union League, the organization to which she devoted a majority of her efforts. After the tragic deaths of 146 women in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Schneiderman sought to remedy unsafe working conditions, to restrict hours women were permitted to work, and to achieve her ultimate goal– establishing a minimum wage law for female workers. McGuire quoted Schneiderman’s 1913 speech to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union by saying “I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I came here to talk about good fellowship. Every year, thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred.”

McGuire went on to discuss the high and low points of Schneiderman’s efforts to influence labor reform. Despite her initial success at forming such a strong women’s movement, her strong interest in socialist objectives was not received favorably by many politicians. Many middle class Americans were wary of Schneiderman’s ideas, which drew similarities to Marxist theory. Accusations of Bolshevik connections and a nickname of “Red Rose” followed her shortly thereafter. It was at this point she realized she had to change her strategy in order to salvage her goals of reforming the role of women workers in industrial labor.

Schneiderman turned to African-American women laborers, who had increased in number tremendously in northern cities in the 1920s. McGuire discussed how there was a lack of support for African-American women workers at the time, and how Schneiderman fell easily into the leadership role that was needed for this movement. Molly Dewson, a feminist who had worked with Florence Kelly at the National Consumers’ League, as well as president of the New York Consumers’ League, joined forces with Schneiderman to “denounce business parasites.” The pair worked with the Women’s Joint Legislative Conference towards achieving their goal of obtaining a minimum wage rate for women workers. Schneiderman developed a close personal friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and her husband, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt throughout this time. McGuire explained how these strong political connections helped the WJLC and women workers to advance their legislative agenda in New York.

“This is a very important topic regarding the history of women and labor and Dr. McGuire was able to present his own unique interpretation of this movement,” said Patrizia Sione, Archivist at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives.

McGuire’s lecture provided insight to one woman’s ability to act as a “formidable force” in the labor rights movement, and showed how this relates to the benefits we are able to enjoy today in the workplace as a result of this movement.

The next lecture at the Kheel Center be held on September 30.

Archived article by Jennifer Murabito
Sun Contributor