Remembering the Strong Women of the Labor Movement

Women’s history month is a time to remember the important women that have fought for solutions to a number of social and political problems that women have faced. Today, we will be recognizing several women who may not be well-known, but have dedicated their lives to help women gain their rights.

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A poster commemorating Lucy Parsons in the Images of Labor campaign. AFL-CIO Posters, Broadsides, and Art collection.

Lucy Parsons was an activist, anarchist, and writer. She was of Mexican American, African American, and Native American descent, and was born into slavery. After emancipation, Parsons became one of the first minority activists and was a key founder and organizer of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in 1905. In 1886 during the world’s first May Day parade, Lucy and her husband Albert Parsons (who was a white man who fought for social and political equality for African Americans) led over 80,000 working people to demand an eight-hour workday. A few days later, Albert and Lucy called a protest rally, which became known as the Haymarket Square Rally (or the Haymarket Square Riot) where seven Chicago policemen and several dozen civilians were killed by a bomb and police gunfire. Though there is no evidence of who created these bombs, Albert and three other labor leaders were executed and four others were sentenced to prison. Until her passing in 1942, Lucy was active in the fight against oppression of the working class based on race and gender.

“The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories and the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.” – May Chen

May Chen led the New York Chinatown strike of 1982, which was one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with 20,000 marchers. The strike was organized to demand higher wages, improved working conditions, and for management to observe Confucian principles of fairness and respect. This demonstration won the garment factory workers time off on holidays, some benefits, protection from wage cuts, and the hiring of bilingual interpreters for workers and management.

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A poster of Leonora O’Reilly showcasing many of her amazing accomplishments. AFL-CIO Posters, Broadsides, and Art collection.

Leonora O’Reilly was a feminist, suffragist, and labor activist, who started working in the garment trades with her mother at 11 years old. When she was 16, Leonora became a member of the Knights of Labor and in 1881, organized a female chapter named the United Garment Workers of America. Throughout her career, Leonora organized many strikes, such as the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike in 1910 and the infamous 1911 protest after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. During the first International Women’s Day on February 23, 1909, O’Reilly made a powerful speech to over two-thousand marchers about the principles of equal rights and demanded the women’s right to vote.

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A photo of Rosina Tucker for the AFL-CIO News. Still Images, Photographic Prints, Portrait Files.

Rosina Tucker was instrumental in helping organize Pullman porters in the 1930s for the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union. Since the employees feared losing their jobs for being a part of union activity, their wives led the organizing efforts. Tucker organized the local Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which raised funds for the union. In 1938, Tucker was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary. She also helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, which advocated jobs and civil rights for African Americans. Tucker continued working for union and civil rights activism until she passed at the age of 105 in 1987.

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A photo of Lucy Randolph Mason used in the AFL-CIO News. Still Images, Photographic Prints, Portrait Files.

Lucy Randolph Mason was a labor leader, civil rights activist, and feminist. Throughout her life, Lucy worked towards helping southern minority groups gain a living wage, and reasonable working hours. She fought to end white supremacy in the South through founding the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and being a frequent speaker at rallies that fought to end segregation. In 1931, she wrote the pamphlet Standards for Workers in Southern Industry, which promoted the idea of consumer pressure to raise working standards. During her illustrious career, Lucy was the general secretary for the National Consumers League in 1932, was the Virginia chairwoman of the Women in Industry Committee for the AFL during WWI, and became the Public Relations Representative for the CIO in the South in 1937.

“Coming from Alabama, this seemed like the civil rights struggle… The labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.” – Hattie Canty

In 1990, Hattie Canty became the president of the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226. From 1991 to 1997, the union mounted the longest strike in American history against the anti-union New Frontier Hotel and Gambling Hall on the Strip. 550 culinary workers walked off the job demanding higher wages and training opportunities for minority workers to achieve higher-level jobs. This strike lasted for six years and gained Hattie the title of “one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history.” In 1993, Hattie established the Culinary Training Academy which continues to teach job skills for the hospitality industry.

If you would like more information about women in the labor movement, you can check out our exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in the Hornbake Library gallery or online! If you would like more information about the Labor History Collections, you can visit our Labor History Research Guide or email askhornbake@umd.edu.

This post is one of a series for Women’s History Month, so be on the lookout for other posts about the powerful women of the labor movement!


Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation and expects to graduate in 2018.

One thought on “Remembering the Strong Women of the Labor Movement

  1. Pingback: The First Black-Led Union Wouldn’t Have Existed Without This Woman - Ryan Guillory

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