Monday, September 7, 2015

Women in the Labor Movement

Here in the US it's Labor Day Weekend. For some that means BBQs and shopping. But it's also a time to reflect on those who've come before us and worked so hard for many of the things we take for granted these days - reasonable working hours, weekends, child labor laws, safer working conditions, etc. It's also a day to stop and evaluate where we stand now in regards to these same issues.

Over the last few years of working on this blog, I've featured more than a few women who have played instrumental roles in the Labor Movement. These are just a handful of the many women who were involved. You can rest assured I will continue to celebrate more as I have the time to research their lives and write about them. I also plan to include more women in the modern Labor Movement.

On this important day of reflection and celebration, here are some of the women I've written about over the last couple of years.

Esther Peterson - worker and consumer advocate

She was one seriously amazing lady who spent her life looking out for those who needed a little extra help. She studied to be a teacher, but then taught at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, where she worked with telephone operators, garment workers, and other working women.

When she moved to Boston, she organized a strike among women seamstresses, which they won. Later, she took a paid position as organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, traveling around New England advocating for teachers' rights.
After World War II, when much of the rest of the country seemed to be turning away from labor issues due to the economic boom, she became the first lobbyist for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. After several years serving with her husband in a diplomatic role in Sweden, she returned to her work in Washington, D.C., this time as the first female lobbyist for the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO.

Josephine Roche - trail blazer and activist

Josephine Roche was one amazing woman. The daughter of a coal mine magnate, she graduated from Vassar with degrees in Economics and Classics, and then earned her Master's Degree in Social Work from Columbia University. From there, she took a position as the first female police officer in Denver, in 1912.

In 1915, though, she began her career as a government appointee, serving in a variety of roles. First, she was appointed as the Special Agent of England and the United States for the Commission for Relief in Belgium for the post-World War I period. And then in 1916, she served as the Director of the Girls Dept. in Denver’s Juvenile Court. And from 1918–1923, she was the Director of the Foreign Language Information Service (FLIS), which provided a range of services -- legal assistance, news and information in many native languages and lobbying -- on immigrant issues.
She most well known for her work during the New Deal, of course, as it has had the most long-lasting impact. After her father died, she inherited his coal mines, and returned to Denver to take over. But with her own sensibilities about how they should be run -- safely and fairly for the miners! Keep in mind that this is during the period of the Labor Movement, and unions were being busted and workers were being beaten and sometimes shot by management forces. In fact, prior to his death, her father had called in the National Guard to break up a strike of his workers.

Dorothy Detzer - feminist, pacifist, activist
After graduating from high school in 1914, Dorothy decided to use her college fund to travel the world, spending time in Hawaii, China, Japan, and the Philippines. Upon her return, World War I was getting started, and following her patriotic and progressive upbringing, she attempted to volunteer with the Red Cross, but was turned away for being too young. So instead, in a move that would alter the course of her entire life, she took a spot at Hull House in Chicago, working with low income children and investigating child labor abuses.

Elaine Black Yoneda - activist and union organizer

While Elaine's parents were Socialists and very active in the movement, it took a few years for her to join the cause. Instead, she dropped out of school and took a non-union job in a hotel to afford the fashionable clothes she enjoyed wearing. But, perhaps to appease her parents, she did attend one union meeting, where she met a man who would become her first husband. This meeting encouraged her to attend more events, and she eventually found her calling.
In 1931 she took a job as secretary of International Labor Defense, an organization that provided legal aid to members of the trade unions. After working in the Los Angeles office for several years, she was called upon to post bail for fellow activist Karl Yoneda. This first meeting of the two was purely union business, though there had been sparks of interest between them. When the opportunity to transfer to San Francisco came up, Elaine took it, hoping for a change of scenery. As though it were fate, within a month she ran into Karl again, who had also moved there. That very day, the two moved in together, in open defiance of anti-miscegenation laws.
The two of them remained active in the labor movement. Elaine served as the only female member of the steering committee of San Francisco's general strike, which had begun as a strike focused mainly on waterfront and maritime issues, but escalated into a citywide general strike after two demonstrators were killed by police. Elaine continued to advocate for workers, and especially for women workers, demanding equal pay for equal work and free childcare.
Barbara Armstrong - first female law professor

Barbara Nachtrieb (Grimes) Armstrong was a lawyer, legal scholar, law professor and social insurance advocate. She was the first woman to serve as a law professor at a law school of a major university, Boalt Hall, at the University of California at Berkeley.

She was born San Francisco in 1890, at the beginning of a new era in which women could express themselves. After high school, she was attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a BA in economics. She excelled in her studies and would have likely been awarded the University Medal, but wasn't because of her gender.
In 1915, she received a JD from Boalt Hall, the University of California's School of Jurisprudence, where she had been one of only two women in her law school class. In 1915, she received a JD from Boalt Hall, the University of California's School of Jurisprudence, where she had been one of only two women in her law school class. That same year, she passed the exam and was admitted to the California Bar. She began practicing law with her classmate, Louise Cleveland, while she also worked as executive secretary for the California Social Insurance Commission. It was here where she first became interested in the legal standing of issues around workmen's compensation and other governmental programs addressing poverty.
She made history in 1919 when she accepted a joint appointment to the school of law and the department of economics, becoming the first woman in the country to serve on the faculty at a law school approved by the American Bar Association. From here, she continued to move up, with promotion after promotion.
In 1928, she was promoted again, to associate professor, and moved to Boalt Hall full time to teach in the law school. It was during this time where she began to explore the legal issues around poverty and social institutions. She was committed to the ideas of social insurance, and put her attention into studying and teaching family law and labor law. Outside of her university work, she devoted her time to promoting policy to create a minimum insurance against catastrophic economic and personal disaster, seeing it as the most effective way to reduce poverty.
Charlotta Bass - editor, activist, and feminist

Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass came to work for labor issues by way of working within the African American community as a newspaper editor and publisher. In 1910 she, like many African Amercians, moved into the Los Angeles area to escape poverty and racial violence in the South. It was here where she took a position at a local newspaper aimed at offering job and housing assistance to these new arrivals.

Eventually she took over the running of the newspaper, and changed the scope to cover more social issues. At this same time she became increasingly active within her community, working to improve housing issues, address racism and injustice, and encouraging African Americans to go into business for themselves.

During the Great Depression, she worked hard to make sure the African American community wasn't ignored when it came to relief programs. She also became more active in a political way, joining the Wendell Wilkie's 1940 presidential campaign as the western regional director.
She fought for black women workers who were excluded from jobs in the war industry solely because of their race and their gender. She gave strong support to black women's organizations like the Sojourner Truth Club, a Los Angeles group dedicated to improving working conditions for black women workers. And on the national level, she joined with prominent African American women, to form the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an organization which demanded that the government protect the civil rights and civil liberties of its black citizens and live up to the ideals it espoused abroad.

Myrtle Lawrence - union activist and sharecropper

Myrtle Lawrence was sharecropper and labor organizer who worked within biracial Southern Tenant Farmers' Union from 1936 to 1943. She and her husband worked as sharecroppers, moving several times during the first few years, as they looked for tenancies that would enable them to save a little money and buy their own farm. At one point, almost remarkably considering the struggle cotton farmers faced, they had saved enough money, but lost it when Benjamin became ill and they couldn't make the payments.

Things for farmers were even worse during the Great Depression. While there were relief programs specifically designed to help farmers beset by low crop prices set up by the New Deal, there were still many other issues facing them that made it difficult for them to make a decent living. To help address these issues the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) was formed in 1934.
Shortly after joining, she and her husband were informed by their landlord that they would be forced to leave their home, claiming he was changing his rental agreement. Convinced that they were being evicted because they joined the union, she responded in the best possible way saying, "Mr. Block, you've done yourself the worst day's business you ever did when you didn't give me a crop. Because if I'd have had it, I'd have had something to keep me busy part of the time, but now I'll have nothing to do all year but sign up all your tenants in the Union, and I'll do it, too. (4)"
She went on to become the most effective organizer the STFU had ever seen.

SRPS Movie Night - Made in Dagenham

OK, I know it's not a movie about the US Labor Movement, but this movie about auto workers in the UK is still one of my favorites. It clearly shows the power of organizing, as well as the importance of community support. Plus, it's a touching and funny story.
I don't want to spoil the story for you, though its history and can be learned by doing a little reading on the subject. Not because I don't think you can't guess how it turns out, but because the story itself is so compelling. The writers not only show the struggle within the union and the women's struggles with coming to terms with their own power, but the struggle between the sexes as each has to find a new path into the future of equality, and the ever-present class issues that must be included in British stories.
I hope these women's lives give you something to think about on this Labor Day. I know just putting together this list has given me some incentive to continue researching women's contributions, both in the past and the present. I'm also painfully aware that the bulk of the women I've included here are white and middle class. It has long been my goal to include the stories of women from all walks of life. This brings it home to me that while I may feel as though I'm getting close to that goal in some regards, there is still quite a bit of work to do.

I have already begun making a list of women to research and write about, starting with a commissioned piece by my Patreon supporter Cat, who wants to know more about Emily Jones, who was the first female mayor of Eureka, during the time of labor unrest at the port. What little I've already learned makes it clear to me she's someone whose story needs to be told.

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