Working Women: The Women's Trade Union League


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Women making teddy bears in a factory, 1915,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-108038

Women working in factories often faced terrible working conditions and low wages. During the Progressive Era, working-class women, alone and in concert with middle-class women, fought to raise wages and improve working conditions.

The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) represented a partnership between middle-class reformers and working-class women to raise wages and improve working conditions. Founded in Boston in 1903, it was staffed and run by working-class women, and middle-class women served as organizational “allies.”  In the early 20th century, it focused on unionizing women workers and supporting women’s strikes.

Women's Trade Union League Seal,
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02954

Women initiated many strikes at the beginning of the 20th century, including the “Rising of 20,000” shirtwaist workers in 1909-1910 and the famous “Bread and Roses” strike of textile workers in Lawrence, MA in 1912. Beginning in 1909, shirtwaist workers struck in New York and Philadelphia after unionist Clara Lemlich called for a general strike. Over the course of the strike, more than 20,000 workers walked out, many of them women. The WTUL provided important assistance to the strikers. Middle- and upper class women donated money, arranged for legal representation, spoke to the press, and even participated in picket lines. Although the strike was largely unsuccessful in achieving its stated goals, it served to boost union membership among women. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), in particular, became a force to be reckoned with.

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Women tailor strikers, New York, 1910
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-04504

After about 1910, the WTUL focused on enacting protective legislation for women, and, increasingly, supported woman suffrage as a means to achieve gains for working-class women. Rose Schneiderman, the renowned feminist and labor activist, became an important member of the WTUL.






Rose Schneiderman, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-112772
Women's Trade Union League Labor Day Parade Float, New York,
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-02144


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Women's Trade Union League 6th Biennial Convention, 1917,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-59750






Copyright © 2007 National Women's History Museum.