The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women have always been key to the labor movement

Solidarity between male and female workers is crucial to advancing the cause in America

Fired Starbucks employees in Memphis celebrate the result of a vote to unionize one of the company’s stores.

Workers have been forming unions in a historic wave of labor organizing over the past year. Much of this activity has been in retail stores, cafes and museums, where most front-line employees are women. Indeed, women and nonbinary people have been playing a key role in these efforts.

While men dominated labor organizing through much of the 20th century, women have long been foundational to the labor rights movement. In fact, the largest labor demonstration in the United States before the Civil War took place in Lynn, Mass., during the winter of 1860, and it wouldn’t have happened without female workers. This early milestone of the labor movement should have been a first step in steady progress toward workplace equality. Instead, it marked the first in a series of setbacks and missed opportunities.

By 1850, Lynn was on its way to becoming the shoe capital of the world, and its labor force consisted of two-thirds female workers. Eighty percent of wage-earning women in Lynn and the surrounding Essex County were working in the shoe industry, with many working part time from their homes in a system known as “outwork.” This system allowed women to support their husbands’ or fathers’ trade through piecework rather than earning separate income outside the home. Male artisans endorsed this system because it allowed women to contribute to the household income and continue to perform expected domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.

Shoemaking became more mechanized and modernized over the next decade, and the gender ratio equalized. Both male and female shoe workers met regularly to discuss labor issues. But these organizations were separated by gender — men, as well as some women, viewed women’s participation in the industry as a temporary situation that would end when they married and became mothers. When a men’s strike committee was formed, the members rejected a proposal to include an alliance of women outworkers and female factory workers in their effort.

Three thousand Lynn shoe workers walked off the job in February 1860 to protect their wages and improve working conditions. Strikers from across New England soon joined them, insisting that manufacturers agree on a universal “bill of prices” that would prevent competition between workers in different towns and ensure shoe manufacturers from other areas could not have undue influence in the market.

The Great Shoemakers Strike made national news. Even then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln chimed in, saying, “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to labor whether you pay them or not.” Lincoln spoke in Hartford, where he decried the conditions under which nearly 4 million enslaved Black people worked on Southern plantations. But he was also wary of spiraling conditions for factory laborers in the North.

The extraordinary support that Lynn shoe workers experienced as they began their strike quickly evaporated as orderly marching erupted into chaos. The strikers and sympathizers hollered “Scabs!” and “Kick them out!” at the managers who continued working in their shoe shops. Many spectators along the route were drinking heavily and became violent. A strikebreaker who was spotted walking home with outwork from one manufacturer was attacked by an angry mob. The strike committee had initially vowed not to interfere with the transport of goods and materials during the strike, but crowds of people ignored this promise and attacked wagons and their drivers, destroying packages and blocking shipments. Police from neighboring areas were called in to help secure the safety of transports, and the mayor of Lynn swore in dozens of special police officers to restore order. The once-amicable relationship between city officials and shoe workers had deteriorated in a matter of days.

This anarchy was devastating to a movement rooted in a moral code of artisanal craftsmanship, where success depended on the unequivocal approval of other area shoe towns. Earlier, smaller demonstrations that were more akin to family-friendly holiday parades and focused on early-Republic ideas of class equity and opportunity for all had bolstered community support. The goal had been a respectful and mutually beneficial arrangement between manufacturers and laborers — not antagonistic competition. One local newspaper summed up public sentiment by noting: “the lawlessness of a portion of the strikers has deprived the whole movement of a great part of its moral force and turned public sympathies against it.”

An emergency meeting of the strike committee was called and its leader, Alonzo Draper, proposed including local working women in their movement. Doing so would bring the movement back to a moral high ground, mitigate harmful images of violence and anarchy, and promote the strike as a defense of “traditional New England families” and their values.

Soon Draper addressed a meeting of hundreds of female shoe workers. He made his case for why they should strike on behalf of the men. His argument was categorically focused on the needs of male laborers, even reminding the younger women in the audience that if men didn’t make a decent wage, they wouldn’t be able to marry and support wives and children.

The women interjected with their own grievances and wage demands, countering the assumption that women’s only interest in labor advocacy was bolstering family income. Though outworkers, who outnumbered female shop workers, were very much aligned with the idea of a family wage and thereby accepted their work as subordinate to men’s, self-supporting female factory workers were not. After much spirited debate, they ultimately agreed to join the strike with the goal of raising wages for both men and women.

In early March, 1,000 female shoe workers joined 5,000 men in a procession down the streets of Lynn amid a Nor’easter that created blizzard-like conditions. Women marched wearing traditional long dresses with stiff crinoline skirts and ruffled bonnets, holding parasols in one hand and pro-labor signs in the other.

Draper’s scheme was a success. Major newspapers around the country covered the event, and a long piece in the Chicago Tribune noted, “The most interesting part of the whole affair has been the movement among the women. … Are these girls the independent, free and clear-minded women of whom we hear so much?” An article in the New York Daily Herald asserted “what was most needed now was a canvassing or rallying committee to go among the boot and shoemakers of Boston, of both branches of the work, men’s and women’s, and use their influence toward having a large meeting to aide their friends at Lynn.”

Ten days later, 10,000 striking workers — men and women — marched through Lynn in what was the greatest labor demonstration of its time. The labor stoppage and reduced inventory it created raised the wholesale price of shoes, and Massachusetts shoe bosses agreed to increase men’s wages.

However, manufacturers refused to sign a universal price agreement that would protect against recruitment of lower-paid migrant workers or the hiring of strikebreakers, and there was no formal recognition of the union. When men began returning to their jobs at the end of the month, the women who went on strike in solidarity were appalled and angry at being directed to return to work without signed wage agreements or agreed-upon price lists for themselves.

When religious leaders and residents questioned the morality of single women working in Lynn and congregating at local lecture halls, restaurants and recreation areas, female workers defended themselves. They made their arguments in public meetings and in the editorial pages of popular newspapers and magazines. But it was too little, too late.

Draper and his strike committee had successfully manipulated female workers to raise men’s wages, but they had done so by exploiting cultural questions around women’s place as breadwinners. This reinforced a gender hierarchy that diminished women’s power in labor advocacy. Women would continue to advocate for themselves through the 19th century, even creating the first all-women labor union, but they would never again dominate the U.S. shoe industry in numbers.

The chance to secure a future for working women on equal footing with men had been lost. And the impact of that profound loss is still felt today well beyond the shoe industry.

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