The Women's Trade Union League, nearly forgotten in much of the mainstream, feminist and labor history written in the mid-20th century, was a key institution in reforming women's working conditions in the early 20th century.
The WTUL not only played a pivotal role in organizing the garment workers and textile workers, but in working for protective labor legislation for women and better factory working conditions for all.
The WTUL also served as a community of support for women working within the labor movement, where they were often unwelcome and barely tolerated by the male national and local officers. The women formed friendships, often across class lines, as working-class immigrant women and wealthier, educated women worked together for both union victories and legislative reforms.
A 1902 boycott in New York, where women, mostly housewives, boycotted kosher butchers over the price of kosher beef, caught the attention of William English Walling. Walling, a wealthy Kentucky native living at the University Settlement in New York, thought of a British organization he knew a bit about: the Women's Trade Union League. He went to England to study this organization to see how it might translate to America.
This British group had been founded in 1873 by Emma Ann Patterson, a suffrage worker who was also interested in issues of labor. She had been, in her turn, inspired by stories of American women's unions, specifically the New York Parasol and Umbrella Makers' Union and the Women's Typographical Union. Walling studied the group as it had evolved by 1902-03 into an effective organization that brought together middle-class and wealthy women with working-class women to work for improved working conditions by supporting union organizing.
Walling returned to America and, with Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, laid the groundwork for a similar American organization. In 1903, O'Sullivan announced the formation of the Women's National Trade Union League, at the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor. In November, the founding meeting in Boston included Boston settlement house workers and AFL representatives. A slightly larger meeting, November 19, 1903, included labor delegates, all but one of whom were men, representatives from the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, who were mostly women, and settlement house workers, mostly women.
Mary Morton Kehew was elected the first president, Jane Addams the first vice-president, and Mary Kenney O'Sullivan the first secretary. Other members of the first executive board included Mary Freitas, a Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mill worker; Ellen Lindstrom, a Chicago union organizer; Mary McDowell, a Chicago settlement house worker and experienced union organizer; Leonora O'Reilly, a New York settlement house worker who was also a garment union organizer; and Lillian Wald, settlement house worker and organizer of several women's unions in New York City.
Local branches were quickly established in Boston, Chicago and New York, with support from settlement houses in those cities.
From the beginning, membership was defined as including women trade unionists, who were to be the majority according to the organization's by-laws, and "earnest sympathizers and workers for the cause of trade unionism," who came to be referred to as allies. The intention was that the balance of power and decision-making would always rest with the trade unionists.
The organization helped women start unions in many industries and many cities, and also provided relief, publicity, and general assistance for women's unions on strike. In 1904 and 1905, the organization supported strikes in Chicago, Troy and Fall River.
From 1906-1922, the presidency was held by Margaret Dreier Robins, a well-educated reform activist, married in 1905 to Raymond Robins, head of the Northwestern University Settlement in Chicago. In 1907, the organization changed its name to the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL).
WTUL Comes of Age
In 1909-1910, the WTUL took a leading role in supporting the Shirtwaist Strike, raising money for relief funds and bail, reviving an ILGWU local, organizing mass meetings and marches and providing pickets and publicity. Helen Marot, executive secretary of the New York WTUL branch, was the chief leader and organizer of this strike for the WTUL.
William English Walling, Mary Dreier, Helen Marot, Mary E. McDowell, Leonora O'Reilly and Lillian D. Wald were among the founders in 1909 of the NAACP, and this new organization helped support the Shirtwaist Strike by thwarting an effort of the managers to bring in black strikebreakers.
The WTUL continued to expand support of organizing campaigns, investigating working conditions, and aiding women strikers, in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.
From 1909 on, the League also worked for the 8-hour day and for minimum wages for women, through legislation. The latter of those battles was won in fourteen states between 1913 and 1923; the victory was seen by the AFL as a threat to collective bargaining.
In 1912, after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, the WTUL was active in the investigation and in promoting legislative changes to prevent future tragedies such as this one.
That same year, in the Lawrence Strike by the IWW, the WTUL provided relief to strikers (soup kitchens, financial help) until the United Textile Workers pushed them out of the relief efforts, denying assistance to any strikers who refused to return to work. The WTUL/AFL relationship, always a bit uncomfortable, was further strained by this event, but the WTUL chose to continue to ally itself with the AFL.
In the Chicago garment strike, the WTUL had helped to support the women strikers, working with the Chicago Federation of Labor. But the United Garment Workers suddenly called off the strike without consulting these allies, leading to the founding of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers by Sidney Hillman, and a continuing close relationship between the ACW and the League.
In 1915, the Chicago Leagues started a school to train women as labor leaders and organizers.
In that decade, too, the league began to work actively for woman suffrage, working with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The League, seeing woman suffrage as a route to gain protective labor legislation benefiting women workers, founded the Wage-Earners League for Woman Suffrage, and WTUL activist, IGLWU organizer and former Triangle Shirtwaist worker Pauline Newman was especially involved in these efforts, as was Rose Schneiderman. It was during these pro-suffrage efforts, in 1912, that the phrase "Bread and Roses" came into use to symbolize the dual goals of reform efforts: basic economic rights and security, but also dignity and hope for a good life.
WTUL World War I - 1950
During World War I, the employment of women in the U.S. increased to nearly ten million. The WTUL worked with the Women in Industry Division of the Department of Labor to improve working conditions for women, in order to promote more female employment. After the war, returning vets displaced women in many of the jobs they'd filled. AFL unions often moved to exclude women from the workplace and from unions, another strain in the AFL/WTUL alliance.
In the 1920s, the League began summer schools to train organizers and women workers at Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College and Vineyard Shore. Fannia Cohn, involved in the WTUL since she took a labor education class with the organization in 1914, became Director of the ILGWU Educational Department, beginning decades of service to working women's needs and decades of struggling within the union for understanding and support of women's needs.
Rose Schneiderman became president of the WTUL in 1926, and served in that role until 1950.
During the Depression, the AFL emphasized employment for men. Twenty-four states enacted legislation to prevent married women from working in public service, and in 1932, the federal government required one spouse to resign if both worked for the government. Private industry was no better: for instance, in 1931, New England Telephone and Telegraph and Northern Pacific laid off all women workers.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, the new First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time WTUL member and fund-raiser, used her friendship and connections with the WTUL leaders to bring many of them into active support of New Deal Programs. Rose Schneiderman became a friend and frequent associate of Eleanor and Franklin, and helped advise on major legislation like Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The WTUL continued its uneasy association mainly with the AFL, ignored the new industrial unions in the CIO, and focused more on legislation and investigation in its later years. The organization dissolved in 1950.
Text © Jone Johnson Lewis
WTUL - Research Resources
Sources consulted for this series include: