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This Day in Labor History: September 17, 1868


On September 17, 1868, the Working Women’s Association formed as the working class representation within the women’s suffrage and labor movements. This short-lived moment in our labor history demonstrates at least the potential for cross-class solidarity among labor issues at this time, but also the disconnect between 19th century middle class reformers and the working class.

Most of the reformer class that rose up during the pre-Civil War period were not working class at all. They mostly came from the middle and upper classes, often out of the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution, where the new world created by capitalism and transportation technologies made people question all sorts of norms in society. This led to the panoply of reform movements of the period–abolitionism, prison reform, temperance, religious and sexual movements, and of course women’s suffrage. By the end of the Civil War, some of these movements had peaked and declined and others proven pretty successful. Most of the proponents of them were still around and active. That very much included early suffrage activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

But this hardly meant that these often very radical activists were pro-labor. In fact, many were quite anti-labor. They might be ambivalent about unions, but organized labor actions were anathema, as great a threat to their beautiful ideal of free labor ideology and free flow of capital that were their fundamental criticisms of the slave system and why so many didn’t actually much care about the economic rights of the freed slaves after 1865. When workers started talking about “wage slavery,” they responded with disgust and when workers started protest movements, they thought it was the Paris Commune reaching American shores and demanded the government crush them with maximum violence.

That was pretty true of the women’s suffrage movement too. These weren’t working women. They were the middle class. But Stanton, Anthony, and others saw the need to engage working women on a broad number of issues. They also recognized that working women had their own issues that needed to be organized on a class basis. And so, in 1868, the Working Women’s Association formed at the offices The Revolution, the paper published in New York by Stanton and Anthony. With the organized labor almost entirely dominated by men, they hoped that women could organize around their own economic interests. National Labor Union head William Sylvis not only headed the first nascent attempt to organize workers on a national scale, but was also unusually inclusive in promoting women’s labor unionism. For instance, he brought Collar Laundry Union head Kate Mullaney into the NLU leadership. So in 1868, he welcomed Anthony as an official delegate of the WWA at the NLU convention.

Of course Anthony was no working class woman. But she was able to build the WWA a bit, particularly among women working in the printing industry, some of which who ran their own shops and others who worked for someone. Anna Tobbitt became president, Susie Johns, Augusta Lewis, and Emily Peers were the vice-presidents. These are not names people know, but they are among the many forgotten people who fought for a better future. Stanton was less comfortable with this than Anthony. She wanted the women to only work on suffrage. The printers completely rejected this. Instead they demanded equal pay for equal work, which meant that of course the New York Times ran an editorial making fun of the WWA. Meanwhile, the printers made a strong case that while they supported suffrage, it was not the answer to all the problems, something that middle-class suffragists always struggled to understand. Emily Peers did not think suffrage was “the great panacea for the correction of all existing evils.” And let’s face it, a lot of working women who believed in equal pay for equal work were not necessarily radicals who wanted the reshaping of the entire gender norms of society. Some of the unionists simply were not comfortable with the women’s suffrage movement, which was a quite radical stance to take in 1868.

The WWA spun off into the Women’s Typographical Union, which it helped form and which was an actual labor union made up of women. This dual unionism alarmed the National Typographical Union, an all-male organization that had never allowed women to join the union. It was also one of the most powerful unions in the country, though that’s relative to the zero power that most workers had at the time. And so the NTU allowed the WTU to join as an affiliate member, making it only the second union in the nation to allow women in, behind only the Cigar Makers. The NTU had been worried about the use of women as strikebreakers going back to the 1850s, but had not allowed them in the union or organized them, ultimately thinking, like most unionists, that women should not be working outside the home.

However, relations between Anthony and the WTU soon crumbled over fairly predictable grounds. When printers went on strike in 1869, the WTU walked out in support of the men. On the other hand, Anthony urged the women to work as strikebreakers. Being really unable to understand class solidarity, for Anthony this was an opportunity for women to advance themselves. For the female unionists, they knew that scabbing was no way to advance women. Anthony was unseated as a National Labor Union delegate at the 1869 convention for this and for having The Revolution published by non-union printers. She said that since the WWA was not actually a union, she wasn’t bound by union rules. That…did not fly.

But it was hard for the WTU to really keep things going and the limited influence they had in the NTU didn’t last long. The WWA still existed, but it was closer to Anthony and the female printers did not have the power to force much change with the male printers, despite their actions of solidarity. That started to fall apart. The WWA tried to unionize sewing machine workers, but completely failed at that, in an industry where men did not have unions either. The WWA played a big role in the actions to free Hester Vaughn, a maid who was convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death. Vaughn was later pardoned. This was good, but it was also very much around middle class issues of women’s treatment in the legal system. By the end of 1869, the WWA was almost entirely made up of middle and upper class women, with philanthropy replacing organizing and working women isolated and leaving the organization. It soon dissolved as Anthony and Stanton moved on to form the National Woman Suffrage Association at the end of 1869.

Mainstream feminism has rarely if ever centered the concerns of working women, a critique from labor feminists that goes back more than a century at this point.

This post borrows primarily from Ellen Carol DuBois’ book from 1978, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869.

This is the 371st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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