Women in Industry Heading

 

   


Progressive Era (1880-1930)

Domestic service was the second largest employer of women, accounting for a quarter of the female workforce. It included work in private homes and in the growing market of urban office buildings, hotels, and restaurants. Domestic servants were also women who took in laundry to do at home and women who let rooms in their homes to boarders. Up to 25% of working-class women took in boarders.(29) Domestic service was most crucial to African-American women and immigrants. Fifty-two percent of black women nationwide, and up to 90% in northern cities, were domestic servants.(30) This was slightly lower than the previous century, as some African-American women found work in garment manufacturing.(31) In the case of female immigrants, 50% of Scandinavians, 80% of Puerto Ricans, 40% of Asians, and 30% of Eastern Europeans were domestic servants.(32) Domestic service was especially crucial for women living in cities dominated by heavy industry rather than manufacturing, such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, where it was one of their only wage-earning opportunities.(33)

12. Immigrant family in Detroit with drying laundry, c 1910_
Immigrant family in Detroit
with drying laundry, c 1910

Domestics in the Bronx, NY, waiting to be hired
Domestics in the Bronx, NY, waiting to be hired

There were major instances of labor organization among African-American domestic servants in the early 20th century, as there had been in the late 19th century. During World War I, secret societies of domestic workers emerged in towns in Georgia and South Carolina and organized local strikes for wage and hour regulations.  A society in Gainesville, Georgia, adopted the motto W.W.T.K, or “White Women to the Kitchen,” in their protests. 

Between 1916 and 1918, unions of domestic servants emerged in Norfolk, Houston and New Orleans.  These unions faced heavy, organized opposition from whites: homeowners and housewives in Georgia and Washington, DC, formed associations to suppress and crush their strikes and prevent wage legislation.  Some domestic workers achieved higher wages because of strikes, but white employers successfully overcame their efforts in most cases. (34)  

Also, The Women’s Convention of the Black Baptist Church, a coalition of southern working class and middle class African-American women working for racial justice, helped organize local groups of domestic workers and pushed for national unionization and protective legislation.(35)

Women working in hospitality fields also began to organize during the Progressive era. Women waitresses were generally white and native born, unlike the majority of domestic servants. They began to organize all-female locals in Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, and Seattle and worked to get a charter from United Here , the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees union. With help of the national union, female locals all over the country initiated successful collective bargaining efforts for bathroom, food, and rest breaks.(36) 

Nannie Helen Burroughs at the Woman's National Baptist
Nannie Helen Burroughs at the Woman's National Baptist
Convention in Louisville, KY, c. early 1900's

Delia Kane, age 14, waitress at the Exchange Luncheon in Boston
Delia Kane, age 14, waitress at the Exchange Luncheon in Boston

 

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Image 1 from the Library of Congress, Images 2 from the New York Public Library, Image3 from the New York Public Library, Image 4 from the Library of Congress

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007