March 8th is International Women’s Day, so we thought we’d mark the occasion by sharing a few of the great historical victories that union women have achieved. Here’s a list of empowered American women who have made a difference by fighting for their rights on the job.
#1 The Lowell Mill Girls (“Turn-out” of 1836)
Did you know that one of the first labor strikes in U.S. history was in an almost all female workplace? In Lowell, MA in 1836, the women workers of the Lowell Textile mills called for a “turnout” at their factory in response to rent hikes (essentially a pay deduction), and successfully forced their employer to rescind the hikes. Historians note that the women who worked in the plant were among the first women to ever speak in public in Lowell, and caused quite a scandal.
#2 Mother Jones (1837-1930)
Mary Harris, aka “Mother Jones”, was once called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her great success organizing mine workers. She was a co-founder of Industrial Workers of the World, and was a zealous advocate for child laborers, educating and mobilizing the public to protect children from dangerous working conditions.
#3 Agnes Nestor (1880-1948)
In 1907, Agnes Nestor became one of the first women to be the president of a national union, when she was elected to lead the International Glove Workers. This was 13 years before American women even got the right to vote! Agnes was a co-founder of the Women’s Trade Union League, and worked to pass minimum wage laws, as well as fought for the rights of pregnant and working mothers.
#4 Lilly Ledbetter (1938-Present)
Lilly Ledbetter was the central plaintiff in lawsuit that she pursued for almost a decade after she discovered that, for 20 years, she had been paid as much as 40% less than her male counterparts in the same position. I’m sure we can all think of more pleasant ways to spend our retirement than pursuing a time-consuming lawsuit, but Lilly fought it out even after she left the workforce, so that others would not endure the same discrimination she faced from her employer. In 2007, nearly ten years after she first filed her lawsuit, the US Supreme Court ruled against Lilly. But shortly thereafter, President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, overturning the Court’s decision and ensuring that female workers receive equal pay for equal work, and can hold their employers accountable when they do not.
It’s not history yet, but you can make a difference by standing up for your rights and the rights of your fellow workers. There are a lot of things that working women from all walks of life can do to get more involved in the Labor Movement. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) has a wealth of resources about how to start a women’s group in your local. You could even consider running for an elected position in your union.
Don’t have a union yet, but want to learn more about how you can begin to organize your workplace? Unions are also always looking for great female organizers like Mother Jones. Contact the California Labor Federation to connect with a union in your field and area.