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).