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Organization Among Women
As an Instrument in Promoting
the Interests of Industry

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


Organization is a great force of nature. What is one star in the sky, one leaf of the forest, one drop of the ocean, or one grain of sand on the ocean’s shore? Our own bodies are results of organization. We might be irresponsible, vagrant, shifting atoms flying apparently helter-skelter through the universe; instead we are organisms, and organization continues until we become an organization of organisms and a social force.

Organization begins early. The children, who do not know the meaning of the word, organize for their sports. So do the lambs skipping about the green meadow or on the hillside. Later we find flocks of sheep; and men who have put away childish things, still continue to organize for every purpose under the sun, from the luxurious club with its enervating influence to the trust whose suicidal policy carried out to its logical conclusion must destroy the private luxury it was created to promote.

Although organization is a law of nature and of society, organization for industrial reform has in the past pursued its way along thorny paths. By way of contrast, survey in England that haggard offender in the time of George III. breaking stones for the offense of striving to organize for industrial interests, and then look at Joseph Havelock Wilson, M. P., speeding to sympathize with the Hull dockers.

It is impossible to trace out the most important cause leading to any great change of public opinion, because such cause is always spiritual and unseen; nor have we time to notice the stages of change from 1810, when the Friendly Society of Iron Founders met on dark nights on the wastes and moors in the highlands of the midland counties of England and buried their archives in the peat, to the great Trades Union Acts of 1871 and 1876.

The conservatives of this age have the views of the radicals in those times; but John Burns, M. P., a radical of this age, is not yet satisfied, and in his late Hyde Park address described Parliament as an organized conspiracy of land and capital.

It is generally believed that the first strike in this country was that of the sailors in 1803, who paraded the streets of New York with a brass band, forcing seamen to leave their work and join in a demand for higher wages. The doughty leader was arrested. Contrast this wretched prisoner with the leaders of present powerful trades unions. Contrast the administration of the laws at that time with the recent decision of Judge Barrett of New York, which refuses the injunction asked by the Clothing Manufacturers’ Association to restrain the garment-cutters from issuing boycotting circulars. The refusal was based on the fact that the manufacturers were themselves guilty of what they wished to restrain the employés from doing, and the judge uttered these remarkable words, “You must come into a court of equity with clean hands.”

In favor of organization as a means of promoting industrial interests I could, were there time, quote to you many utterances from the wisest and best. I will only say that Mr. Childs of the Public Ledger, who is said at the first to have believed labor organization detrimental to the interests of the employer, had so changed that opinion in 1886 that he presented the International Typographical Union with 10,000.

As organization among men has been an instrument in promoting industrial interests, it becomes us to consider the status of women with respect to organization. It is not easy to discover how many women are in existing labor organizations because the number belonging to sch organizations is not given to the public. It has been estimated that one-tenth of the members belonging to unions in this country are women. The mass of women are not organized. There have been and are some striking examples of organization.

In 1888 the Hannah Powderly Assembly, Knights of Labor, numbered eleven hundred women, and is said practically to have controlled the shoe trade in Cincinnati. Since then its influence has declined. There were in Philadelphia at one time women in the cigar and tobacco industry who, as a result of organization, received equal wages with men doing the same work. All tobacco organizations have declined. There is in Brooklyn a powerful local union of women hat-finishers belonging to the International Hatters’ Union. There is a very successful local union of shirt-makers in the New York Knights of Labor called the Lady Gothams.

The hotel girls of this country need organization. Efforts to induce these girls to organize, so far, have been made without success, excepting in cases where the waiters have succeeded in persuading the girls whose employments bear upon their own to organize with them.

The saleswomen in the large cities of the United States are in great need of organization. The Working-Women’s Club, of which I have the honor to be a delegate, has striven for three years to introduce a bill into the New York Legislature for the betterment of the condition of the saleswomen. They are not discouraged. It took as many years before they succeeded in passing a bill for the appointment of inspectors; and the society intends to continue its fight. If these saleswomen were organized, they would begin their own legislative fighting, and would be sure of help from societies of women interested in industrial reform. Seventy thousand women in New York City alone are struggling with the problem of subsistence by the needle. Many of these are underpaid, and with no adequate protection from exaction or fraud. If even half that number would combine, what a power they would be!

In the late report of the congressional committee appointed to investigate the sweating system, are many facts given by Dr. Anna S. Daniel, out-of-door physician to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She tells of the necktie industry, which is for the most part confined to tenement houses. A worker can earn the sum of forty-five cents per day, and have the privilege of finding her own thread. Frauds are quite common. All advertisements state that women are needed to learn the business, which will take two or three weeks, after which wages will be received. As a matter of fact it can be learned in a few days, and at the end of two or three weeks the unpaid workers depart and their places are filled with more victims.

Employers can thus at any time organize women for their own industrial destruction. Happily, there is a remedy in counter-organization. In San Francisco, several years ago, there was a standing advertisement in the papers for women to learn tailor-sewing, which would take several weeks. They were encouraged to bring their own sewing machines. At the end of two or three weeks they were discharged. A mass-meeting was called and an organization formed, one of its paramount motives being to correct such frauds. There is no need to multiply illustrations. The great search-light, industrial reform, has already flashed into the depths of the dark flood of poverty and despair and revealed the truth.

What shall we do when we turn from the cold pharisaism of ancient political economy, with its bleak and pitiless cry of supply and demand? Organize as fully as possible, and thus provoke strikes; but some of our best thinkers upon economic questions consider organization the ultimate destruction of strikes.

Organization of working-women for industrial interests is difficult. Some say it is impossible to organize the poorest working-women needing it the most. Many reasons are given. One, that women marry and leave the ranks, or that they are ignorant, and a larger esprit de corps comes only from education.

Women marry, but they organize for other reforms: temperance, suffrage, education, literature, art. However, many women who marry remain breadwinners to their graves, and these permanent paupers are not able to rest alone in the few feet of earth we should all possess at the last. It is true that esprit du corps is increased by education, and there is no better way of promoting organization than to pass laws in all the States making education to the age of fourteen compulsory. However, the most ignorant working-women of the present day are not entirely without esprit du corps. They help each other. Such reasons as these I have named are commonly given. Not so commonly mentioned is the one that, as women have no voice in the laws controlling their industrial circumstances, they find organization more difficult than men do. Working-women, through their misfortune or fault, do not always recognize this. Some girls withdrew from the Knights of Labor because their meetings kept them up until twelve o’clock; very sensible objection. Besides, there was so much talk about politics. They were out of political matters, and did not have sufficient foresight to prepare themselves for the day when they will be in.

Organize; do not wait for great numbers. Remember that Uriah S. Stevens, a tailor of Philadelphia, with eight friends, organized the Knights of Labor. It is the consuming fire of earnestness that must burn the stubble of the present industrial system, and this divine gift is not confined to great numbers or to great minds. Is it not true of any reform that not many rich, not many mighty, not many noble are called?

And is there nothing for you to do who are not working-women? Organize for their protection. Enforce the laws in their favor. Memorialize legislatures until new laws are enacted. Is it not discreditable to be a conservative through tradition or prejudice alone? Mr. Mallock says: “First of all, conservatives need increased knowledge and clearness with regard to economic science.” Said Christ, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Ye can discern the face of the sky, but ye can not discern the signs of the times.” If there is one successful woman here who rejoices merely in the triumphs of her own individualism, let her glory in the service she may do for others, to promote the solidarity of humanity, for I declare to you this only is woman’s chief glory. Oh, remember that the industrial interests of woman mean not the interests of the working people alone, but a higher life for the masses, using that word not to mean, as it once did, all outside of a privileged class, but all sorts and conditions of men, the crowned and the uncrowned, the rich and the poor, the enlightened and the ignorant. If one member of this great humanity is oppressed, the whole must suffer.



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