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Organization of Working Women

May, 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


To say that it is difficult to organize women is not saying the half. There are several reasons which prevent women from wishing to organize. In the first place, they are reared from childhood with one sole object in view — an object I do not wish to discourage but to elevate from its present conditions — that is, marriage. If our mothers would teach us self-reliance and independence, that it is our duty to depend wholly upon ourselves, we should then feel the necessity of organization, and especially of the new form of organization, which is voluntary coöperation. The one reason I have given leads to others. Because they do not feel that they have a permanent place in the industrial world they go into it for the time being only, and do not study its interests. They accept the system they are compelled to slave under as they find it, and give no thought to whether it could be changed or their conditions bettered.

Again, they feel that an institution, which has for its platform protection, is for men only, and the only protection they expect is the protection given them by men, not realizing that it is their duty to protect themselves. So that the only hope in the organization of women is in getting them to feel that they are, or should learn to be, independent.

Another reason, and especially the reason in New York City, is that the women are intimidated by their employers, and in many cases by the forewoman. I met a very bright young woman in New York who was discharged for being a member of an organization. She feels the necessity of united effort among the workers, but is compelled to earn her livelihood, and consequently is deprived of the right to better her condition, or assist or meet her sister workers, through the fear of being deprived of her present means of subsistence. Such is the existing condition of the working women in our free America, where slavery is supposed to be a thing of the past, but where it really exists to-day in the most tyrannical form.

In addition to the above reasons, there is a difficulty in reaching the women in factories, especially in large cities, where it is difficult to gain access, in order to distribute invitations to a meeting under the guise of “an entertainment with addresses.” I have entered many a factory with the expectation of being thrown out when detected, and in many instances have been told to get out as quickly as possible, without a thought that I was at least human.

Statistics of women employed in cities show that the time lost by women in Chicago earning less than one hundred dollars a year is 115.5 days, while the time lost by women earning five hundred dollars a year and over is 14.5 days. In other words, the women and girls who are poorly clad, poorly fed, and poorly housed, lose more than eight times the number of days lost by those in comfortable circumstances. In New York the women earning less than one hundred dollars a year lose an average of 128 days, while the women earning five hundred dollars or more lose only 17.3 days. The same is true of Boston, where women earning under one hundred dollars a year lose 108.5 days, while the women earning five hundred dollars and over lose 11.4 days. It is only reasonable to suppose that the unfortunate women receiving starvation wages are deprived of even these through ill-health caused by poor food, poor clothing, and poor shelter.

There is but one city, in my judgment, where justice is done working-women, and that is in Troy, N. Y. Here the principal industry is shirtmaking, and the women are thoroughly organized. The employees work by the piece, six and eight hours a day, and receive ten to twelve dollars a week, which is fair wages. In Troy, if one individual has a grievance, and a just one, all demand justice at once.

In Albany, just across the river, the conditions in this same industry, and above all in the shops owned by the Troy firm of shirtmakers, are just reversed. The town is wholly unorganized. The women in the shirt industry, with the exception of those in one factory, are intimidated and kept from organizing. The factories are nothing better than slave prisons.

I applied for work at one factory with the object of becoming acquainted with some of the girls. I found that I should have to purchase a machine if I went to work. This would cost forty-five dollars, of which five dollars must be paid down, and one dollar a week afterward till paid for. When I became an expert shirtmaker I could earn from five to six dollars a week. I had to be at my machine at half-past seven in the morning or be fined. Not a word must be spoken during working hours. This is a rule in every factory in which I have worked.

Here are conditions existing in twin cities, one working under the factory lash, and the other under the condition of organized labor. Many of the Troy girls told me it was a pleasure to work in their shops. In Albany it is a dread. What a shame it is for a majority of the people to allow their freedom to be jeopardized by a few, especially when they hold the remedy in their own hands!

In my own trade, bookbinding, the wages paid in Albany are seven cents an hour for a ten-hour day, or four dollars and twenty cents a week, and still we are expected to be respectable. I know a forewoman in Albany who receives only five dollars a week, and she has an aged mother to support out of that. In this same office I know a young woman feeding presses who receives five dollars a week, and she also has a mother to support. This woman is doing the same work a man does, and ought to receive from ten dollars and one-half to twelve dollars a week. Both of these young friends of mine give their whole time, labor, and skill from seven o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night for a bare existence.

I have given only a few facts from personal experience. Just such conditions exist in our very midst. We don’t have to go to Boston or New York.

Is it any wonder, then, with these fearful facts confronting them, that the masses are beginning to feel the injustice and oppression that is forced upon them? There are a few awake to their sense of duty, both to themselves and their fellow workers. All the masses need is to be educated to that sense of duty which will demand justice and abolish that system which compels my sex to accept wholesale prostitution, crime, and degradation.



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, vol. 2, Ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 1-90.