“Well behaved women seldom make history.”
This well-worn adage is no doubt true, but so too is its opposite. History is written for a purpose and, all too often, that purpose is to justify the status quo as a historical inevitability. Those women and men who defy the expectations of their time, who fight too often and too well against the injustices of the day, are mysteriously forgotten by those who write our history. In this way, women’s contributions to and leadership of the organized labor movement, though lionized within the movement itself, have largely escaped public consciousness.
Indeed, women led the battle for industrial democracy — even before they won the right to vote.
Perhaps the best known labor leader is Mother Jones. Born Mary Harris, Jones was an Irish immigrant who lost her husband and all four of her children to yellow fever and didn’t begin her advocacy until her 50s.
But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, as wages fell to subsistence levels, and men, women, and children worked long hours in dangerous conditions she began organizing — and continued to do so well into her 90s. She traveled up and down the country, persuading miners and millworkers to join unions. She was repeatedly jailed, including in 1912 by a military tribunal in West Virginia. During a 1903 strike that prompted a violent crackdown, she was woken in the middle of the night, driven out of Colorado, and ordered never to return. She was back in Denver the next day.
Jones also leveraged her status as a public figure to raise awareness about harm to working people. In 1903, she led a children’s march from Pennsylvania to New York, educating people along the way about children’s horrible working conditions and shaming those who benefited from child labor with images of maimed and sickly children. She raised national alarm about Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when the National Guard opened fire on striking workers and their families, killing 22 people, including 11 children. She also cofounded the International Workers of the World (IWW), a powerful union in the early 1900s that won many of the labor movement's earliest victories.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn also played a leading role in the IWW in the early part of the century. Like Mother Jones, she traveled the country, organizing workers and advocating for free speech, and was also repeatedly jailed for her efforts. At a 1909 rally in Missoula, Montana, the authorities threatened to arrest those making “radical” speeches. Flynn helped organize so many IWW speakers that town jails quickly filled up, and officials were forced to release the advocates and end the speech ban.
A few years later, Flynn helped organize textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who, like many other industrial workers of the day, lived and worked in brutal conditions. Most were immigrants, half were women and children, and the average life expectancy was just 39. In 1912, Massachusetts passed a law shortening the workweek from 56 hours to 54 hours; in response, Lawrence mill owners reduced wages.
With Flynn’s help, workers struck for better pay. Women played a large part in the strike, marching in daily picket lines and parades, holding the line in the face of hunger and violence. Flynn helped educate the workers and raise money for the strike fund, and organized a successful effort to send the striking workers’ children to sympathetic families across the East Coast. Hundreds of children made the journey to safe and welcoming homes away from the conflict. Local police tried to stop this practice — and even beat and jailed women and children in an attempt to keep them off the trains. But the campaign worked. In the end, tens of thousands of workers won substantial pay increases and better working conditions.
In 1920, Flynn helped found the American Civil Liberties Union along with Helen Keller, another celebrated labor advocate. Though later kicked out of the ACLU because of her affiliations with the Communist Party, Flynn continued fighting for civil liberties until her death.
These are but a few stories about women’s leadership of the labor movement; though rarely told, we’re lucky to know them. Throughout our history, hundreds of thousands of women have marched in picket lines and brought towns and industries to their knees — stories worth remembering and sharing this month and every month.
Banner image: Women march in support of coal miners on strike and in support of Mother Jones in Las Animas County, Colorado, carrying a United States flag and signs: "God Bless Mother Jones" and "Ladies Assembly of Southern Colorado." 1913. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.