WOMEN, LADIES, FIGHTERS—HERE’S TO YOU!
On this, our national day off, won for us in 1894, we toast the heroines—strikers, marchers, strategists—who took to the ramparts to help end the era of starvation wages and 60-hour workweeks.
We toast Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the fiery young “rebel girl”; we toast “Mother” Jones, the widow so unstoppable that she was called “the most dangerous woman in America”; and we commend the many other heroic women who risked their lives and livelihoods on behalf of millions of exploited workers.
Our foremothers’ bravery is too often unsung. Still, two females have been honored on postage stamps for their contributions to the labor movement—the indomitable Frances Perkins and the legendary “Rosie the Riveter.” Below, we’re adding a few more nominees to the “deserves a stamp” list.
Frances Perkins. What a life! What a woman! The activist who was to become the first female cabinet officer in U.S. history began her social-welfare career in the early twentieth century as a researcher, activist, teacher, and administrator. In New York State she successfully lobbied for legislation cutting the workweek to 54 hours for “women and boys.”
As Secretary of Labor in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt (1933 to 1945), she helped to craft, and zealously promoted, such New Deal legislation as unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and the Social Security Act. Like Roosevelt, she supported workers, but gave only limited backing to labor unions—although both she and FDR supported the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the right to organize and prohibited unfair labor practices such as the refusal of employers to bargain with workers.
“It is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown,” writes her biographer, Kirsten Downey, in The Woman Behind the New Deal. “Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people receive Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment compensation and the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.”
The other stamp honors the iconic “Rosie the Riveter,” a fictional stand-in for the estimated 8 to 16 million women employed in factories, shipyards, and other workplaces during World War II. Not only did women’s labor-force participation rates climb during the war years, new jobs opened to women. African-American and Hispanic-American women found work in areas previously closed to them, although discrimination remained a powerful force shaping career opportunities. In wartime, popular culture celebrated “The Janes Who Made Planes,” but when peace came, women were pushed out of many jobs and others chose to leave as marriage and childbearing rates soared. (Click here to learn about “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project,” an oral-history achive at NYU’s Tamiment Library.)
It’s notable that so many women active in labor struggles have yet to find their place on postage stamps. My nominees include “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, who lost her husband and children to a yellow fever epidemic, and later lost her livelihood in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After being assisted by the Knights of Labor, an early union, she became a full-time labor activist; a United States Attorney reportedly called her “the most dangerous woman in America.” She earned the epithet for her years traversing the nation to aid striking miners, machinists, streetcar workers, and garment workers.
In 1903 Mother Jones led a Children’s March of child laborers from Philadelphia’s mills to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island. Her years of active struggle for workers, and her own persistence in the face of many personal tragedies, are summed up in the quote she is best known for “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” You can read Mother Jones’s plainspoken autobiography—stoic reports on the strikes and riots she witnessed, the dangers she faced (like an employers’ plot to burn her in the coke ovens) here.
Also on my list is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an activist with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who helped lead the famous “Bread and Roses” textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and strikes in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913. Her courage is celebrated in Bruce Watson’s Bread & Roses, a vivid account of the massive revolt of the millworkers in Lawrence. Joe Hill wrote a song about Flynn: “That’s the rebel girl, that’s the rebel girl/For the working class she’s a precious pearl.”
However, “Flynn was not the lone female spirit of the strike,” Watson points out. “From the strike’s opening uproar, women had been as enraged and united as men. . . . [Labor leader Bill] Haywood recalled seeing women strip a policeman to his underwear and dangle him, headfirst, over a canal before another officer intervened. . . . Men were clearly in charge of the strike, yet beneath the masculine veneer women were their equals in influence.”Rose Schneiderman is another labor heroine who deserves the honor of a stamp. She was an immigrant labor leader active in organizing with the International Ladies Garment Workers in New York City, where she led the strike of shirtwaist makers known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand” in 1913.
Two still-living labor leaders should also be honored, when the time comes, with postage-stamp fame: Lillian Roberts and Dolores Huerta.
Lillian Roberts, one of the few African-American labor leaders, is director of New York City’s largest public-employee union, District Council 37, a position she holds at 84 after having served as a New York State Labor Commissioner and a union leader, as well as having worked in the private sector.
Lillian Roberts: “I’ve got my hands full wrestling with the mayor right here.”
Dolores Huerta, still active at 82, co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez and maintained an active career as a labor leader. She now leads the Dolores Huerta Foundation in its work in community social justice organizing. In May, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, President Obama acknowledged that he had stolen her slogan: “Yes, We Can!”
Dolores Huerta: “Yes, We Can!”
As we celebrate Labor Day, let’s also celebrate and reflect upon the changes in women’s lives since the holiday first began in 1894. At the turn of the twentieth century, the typical female laborer was a single “working girl” employed in domestic service. Women comprised only 18 percent of the labor force, and were confined by law and custom to a limited range of jobs. At the turn of the twenty-first century, 47 percent of the labor force is composed of women—the majority of them mothers—and they can be found in all job categories.
And here’s another change: Where once women fought against discrimination in access to different careers, today they fight against the gender gap in wages that’s due in part to discrimination in the workplace. The women who lead and win the fight against unequal pay will surely be honored one day with stamps of their own.
Meanwhile, as we gather around for the last cookouts of the summer, we have plenty of unsung leaders to toast on this Labor Day.