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Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Filtering by Tag: women in labor history

When Women Were Knights

Webtrax Admin

In the 19th century, the Knights of Labor adopt equal rights in the union for women.

When the Knights of Labor was formed in 1878, the delegates took what was then a very advanced step. The preamble to their constitution pledged, "To secure for both sexes equal pay for equal work." (A goal as yet to be achieved.) The Knights decided that all its activities would be the same for men and women, and that they might be in the same or separate union locals, as might seem best.

To appreciate the forward thinking of the Knights under the leadership of Terence Vincent Powderly, bear in mind that of the 30, or so, trade unions at the time, only the printers and cigar makers permitted female membership. Women workers responded all over the land. By 1886, when the Knights were at their peak, about 50,000 were women, around ten percent of the total. The first female assembly to be chartered was among Philadelphia shoemakers. The second was in Chicago and Elizabeth Roger was the Master Workman.

There were big strikes, too. On February 20, 1885, some 700 female Knights walked out of a Yonkers, N.Y. carpet mill after some had been fired for joining the organization. Soon all 2,500 women employees were out on strike. The Trade Unions of New York City came to their support. When the police jailed three women for "walking on the street," over 2,000 New Yorkers attended a great rally to honor the arrested women.

Women also rose in the leadership of the Knights. In Chicago, Elizabeth Rogers served for a period as Master Workman of the District Assembly, presiding over its 600 delegates representing 40,000 Knights. Among the Assemblies in Chicago identifiable as female or mixed, were the Clerks; Sewing Girls; Mattress Makers; Cloak Makers; Tailors; Coat Makers; Shoe Machine Hands; Waiters; and Dressmakers. Elizabeth Morgan was another woman leader. As the Knights began to fade in the wake of the tragic fiasco of Haymarket in 1886, Elizabeth Morgan reorganized her following as Federal Local 2703 of the AFL. Among its members were clerks, typists, candy makers, book binders, and dressmakers. Then, Morgan launched a vigorous membership campaign. Soon, she had organized twenty-two different AFL trade unions of women. Among them were the women watch makers of Elgin.

Mary E. McDowell, Angel of the Stockyards

Webtrax Admin

McDowell headed the settlement house in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. A contemporary of Jane Addams.

Sometimes called the "Angel of the Stockyards," Mary McDowell preferred to think of herself as Concerned Citizen. The Head of the University of Chicago Settlement from its inception in 1894, she reached out from that base to promote trade unionism and safer working conditions, woman suffrage, inter-racial understanding, and reforms in municipal waste disposal.

Her abolitionist father brought the family from Cincinnati to Chicago after the Civil War. In the 1880s Mary McDowell worked with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which advocated the right of women to vote. Her experiences at Hull-House and strong sympathies for the striking railroad workers in 1894 prompted her to devote the rest of her life to the settlement house in Back of the Yards, and to labor reform. McDowell assisted Michael Donnelly, organizer of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, and took the initiative in starting Local 183 for female employees. During the bitter 1904 packinghouse strike, she was a staunch supporter and interpreter of the union cause.

While representing the union at the 1903 American Federation of Labor convention, she joined with others to establish a national Women's Trade Union League. As the first president of the Illinois branch of the WTUL, she recruited glovemaker Agnes Nestor, and boot and shoe worker, Mary Anderson into the battle for shorter hours for factory women in Illinois. McDowell was also instrumental in persuading President Theodore Roosevelt to authorize the first federal investigation of working conditions and w ages for women and children in industry.

She was a watchdog for safe working conditions and decent wages for women during World War I, and spoke on these issues to women's organizations, and as Chicago's Mayor William Dever's Commissioner of the Department of Public Welfare in the 1920s. Agnes Nestor was correct when she said that Mary McDowell's "influence was not to be found in the offices she held, but in the human relationships she strengthened and the social vision she imparted."

Prof. Louise C. Wade
University of Oregon


Some follow-up questions to check out:

What was a Settlement House?
What went on at the one McDowell ran?
What was the Women's Trade Union League about?
The life story of Agnes Nestor would be a good research project. Same for Mary Anderson.

The "striking railroad workers" of 1894, mentioned above, was the Great Pullman Strike and Boycott. What was so "great" about that?
There is a reference above to a packinghouse worker strike by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1904. What brought that about, and what can you find out about McDowell's activities in that connection?

An interesting angle here: McDowell's settlement house was connected to the University of Chicago. One of the main donors to the University was the owner of Swift and Company, one of the biggest meat packing companies in the country. Swift's Chicago pl ant was involved in the strike.

Mary McDowell's papers can studied in the manuscript archives of the Chicago Historical Society. A good book on the packinghouse workers of the period is: Work and Community in the Jungle, by James Barrett, (1987).

Jacqueline B. Vaughn

Webtrax Admin

A tribute to the life of the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, now deceased.

We have gathered to celebrate the induction into the Union Hall of Honor of the Illinois Labor History Society, of one who was for almost ten years the Chicago area's most visible union leader in this age of the nightly news on TV.

As the leader and spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union, the late Jacqueline B. Vaughn was a frequent vision on the screen, addressing the issues and interests of both teachers and students in her calm yet firm voice. Clearly and succinctly, with dignity and style, she presented the union's position through the years while school crisis after crisis seized the public's attention.

What those of us who were not among her colleagues at union headquarters could not have known, however, are things about her gift for consensus building among members of the leadership team; and, indeed, among the men and women in the trenches, the teachers and support staff within the schools.

Nor could we be aware of her interests, at both the structural and content level, in educational reform that would bring about a better learning environment in the classroom, and better instruction to the students.

It was her vision that captured $1,000,000 worth of attention from the MacArthur Foundation in support of the Chicago Teachers Union's Quest Center. The Center gives teams of personnel at individual schools a place to design their own more effective methods to structure the teaching process, on the one hand, and student learning on the other.

More than 2,000 CTU members have attended Quest Center classes and conferences. There are now over forty-five schools with individually structured educational environments in place, tailored to fit their particular educational goals.

Jacque, as she liked to be called, came to the union leadership from the classroom. She began her collective bargaining apprenticeship in 1968 under the presidency of John Desmond. She went through no less than nine strikes as a member of the bargaining team. She was elected vice-president of the CTU in 1972, and became its president on July 9, 1984.

This extraordinary woman was able to be wife, mother, and labor union executive in a host of leadership capacities. She became a vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers as far back as 1974. She was elected president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers in 1989, and undertook leadership responsibilities for its 70,000 members state-wide.

Still, she found time to serve on policy boards of public and private agencies and organizations; and, of course, the Pilgrim Baptist Church where she was among the most devoted and active of members.

Jacque Vaughn was unstoppable. Even her illness, debilitating though it was, could not keep her sidelined from the tense contract negotiations of 1993. The essential elements of the contract were saved, despite the intense "take-away" pressures that besieged the union from many sides.

As President Tom Reece, whom she called her "right arm" has observed, "she left us footprints, not only behind her, but leading ahead. We intend to follow them."

So can we all.

November 19, 1994