1919 International Congress of Working Women

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The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW), formed in 1919, was an organization formed by female laborers around the world. The ICWW planned to share their concerns around female labor issues at the first Annual International Labor Organization Conference of 1919. The ICWW was successful in creating a document of provisions which was presented to the ILO, and affected decision making in the ILO's Commission on the Employment of Women.


The world was facing the turn of a new age during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the industrial age. Labor transformed from hand methods to a new manufacturing process. This new technology and machinery increased opportunities for employment in newly formed factories and mills. Individuals around the world experienced the increasing availability of jobs for all ages: men, women, and children.

With an increased number of people simultaneously employed by large manufacturers, they all realized together that working conditions were poor. All laborers joined together to confront these issues of low wages and unlivable working conditions. Organized labor aimed to recognize similar interests in the working class of the population, especially for women. Women faced the challenge of attending to their work as homemakers, while also facing inequalities and horrible conditions in the workplace.[1] Women everywhere were viewed as the "weaker sex", and incapable of performing the work a man could. Women were most often the first to be fired while their domestic work limited them from learning new techniques in the workplace. The industrial revolution disputed traditional ways of life and caused women to find their own means of economic survival and to maintain the life of the family.[2] Women from the United States, England, France, and other European countries began to form organizations and fight for women's rights. Women attempted to create links across national frontiers. An International Council of Women was formed in 1888 to address temperance, higher education for women internationally, career opportunities, and a major emphasis on women's right to vote. Bonds were made and women's labor organizations were established across the world.

On the eve of World War I labor leagues had grown in France, Germany, Belgium, the United States, and many other nations.[3] At the end of the war, these unions sent representatives to international conferences to make their concerns heard and progress toward equality in the world of working women.

Formation of the Congress[edit]

The year 1919 marked the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference and the establishment of the Treaty of Versailles. Treaty deliberations included discussion around the creation of the United Nations, as well as the UN agency the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO had the responsibility of addressing labor issues, setting international labour standards, and promoting peace through social justice.[4]

International labor turned their attention to the ILO and the Paris Peace Conference. Margaret Dreier Robins, president of U.S. labor organization the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), saw this international gathering as an opportunity to address the new era for women whose labor internationally proved essential to producing food, munitions, and manufactured goods throughout the first World War.[5] The WTUL encouraged women from around the world to gather at the conference to make their voices and concerns surrounding labor conditions heard. Rose Schneiderman and Mary Anderson, both leading members of the WTUL, quickly ascended to France to address the newly established ILO. With them, they brought a document listing labour standards which was drafted by the WTUL's Committee on Social and Industrial Reconstruction. The document included standards such as, "equal pay for equal work," a maximum of an eight-hour day and a forty-four-hour work week, prohibiting night work for women, and social wages for maternity, old age, and unemployment.[6] Schneiderman and Anderson, were not able to present the WTUL's document to the Conference, but met with Britain's Margaret Bondfield and many other women labor leaders from around the world.[7] The female labor leaders agreed to establish an international labor women's conference to prepare for the upcoming ILO convention which would take place in October in Washington D.C. A Call for Delegates was rapidly established and urged women of internationally recognized labor unions to attend the ICWW. The International Congress of Working Women was established and was scheduled to meet in mid October to discuss and establish their own labor guidelines which would protect women laborers internationally.

1st International Congress of Working Women called by the National Women's Trade Union League of America, Washington, D.C., October 28, 1919

Goals and Accomplishments of the 1919 ICWW[edit]

Twenty eight delegates from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, India, Italy, Norway, Poland, and Sweden attended the international women's congress. However, women from Cuba, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, and Switzerland also attended and participated in decision making.[8] Overall, over two hundred women attended the congress. Margaret Dreier Robins of the WTUL sat as chair of the 1919 International Congress of Working Women and planned to create a draft of resolutions to be sent to the first annual conference of the International Labor Organization.

After ten days, the delegates of the ICWW finalized many decisions revolved around labour standards. The ICWW completed a document which held ten provisions which would be presented to the ILO during their first annual conference in Washington D.C. The congress included a requirement in their document which demanded to raise the number of ILO delegates from each nation from four to six and also require two of the six to be women. In addition, the ICWW was responsible for creating an everlasting organization, the International Federation of Working Women. However, all of these decisions and the establishment of these provisions did not come without debate. The women laborers present at the conference were divided while discussing the eight hour day, night work, and maternity insurance.[9] All of these debates stemmed from how to define the "woman worker". Whether to define women laborers through a gender neutral manner, or through "protective" labor legislation. Delegates from Norway and Sweden both proposed women should not be allowed to work during the night time because it would put them in danger. Schneiderman believed this was untrue, and proposed that if women wanted to work at night and take the risk they should be able to.[10] The congress compromised opinions by adhering to the limiting of night work of women, but also extended this proposal to all men as well.

In addition, Czechoslovakian delegate Marie Majerová urged her fellow delegates to view domestic responsibilities of women as part of the eight hour day. She recognized domestic work lied heavily on the woman's shoulders and understood this takes a large toll on women all around the world.[11] Unfortunately, the delegates did not find this opinion appealing and a broader discussion of housework did not take place. Rather, Robins focused the discussion of the eight hour day around agricultural and industrial home work. Finally, the women of the congress agreed on an eight-hour day and a forty-four-hour week for all workers.

While discussing the topic of maternity protection, American and British delegates agreed on their opinions surrounding motherhood free form wage labor.[12] However, many other nations believed that women could mix wage labor and family responsibilities if they had certain provisions. Women from Belgium believed women needed Saturday afternoons off to do housework and shop, and women from France and Italy believed that women needed daycares which were near their workplaces and also needed breaks for breastfeeding, in addition to two breaks which will allow them to eat with their families. American and British delegates did not agree women should be nursing their young at work. Jean Bouvier of the French delegation did defend the necessity of breastfeeding at work. Both opinions were brought to the ILO conference.

After debates and discussions, the ICWW did create a document which was presented at the International Labor Conference. The document addressed: an eight-hour day and a forty-four-hour week for all workers, limits on child labor, maternity benefits, prohibition of work at night for both men and women and in hazardous situations, new policies for the unemployed and emigration, an "equal distribution of raw materials existing in the world," an end to the Russian Blockade, and the establishment of a permanent bureau of the International Congress of Working Women with its office in the United States.

Commission on the Employment of Women[edit]

A commission of the ILO, The Commission on the Employment of Women, was responsible for two conventions: The Maternity Protection Convention and a convention revolved around night work for women.[13] Both conventions were largely affected by the ICWW's proposals and by leading ICWW women. The Maternity Protection Convention covered a variety of provisions governing maternity benefits in industrial and commercial undertakings. Jeanne Bouvier, Margaret Bonfield, Mary Macarthur, and Constance Smith all participated in the ICWW and were appointed as delegates to the Commission on the Employment of Women during the ILO conference. The Maternity Protection Convention documented their agreements and decisions concerning the protection of female workers, and formed a document consisting of twelve articles. The document stated: women would receive a six-week maternity leave after their child's birth, women would be paid benefits sufficient for the full health maintenance for her and her child, women will be granted job protection, entitled to free attendance by a doctor or certified midwife, and once returned to work she will be given two half an hour breaks to breastfeed her newborn child. Nations which ratified the convention would agree to its provisions and imbed them in their nations legislation.[14] The women of the ICWW were influential in the decisions made during the International Labor Organization's Maternity Protection Convention.

During the second conference which addressed the night work of women, women from the ICWW also voiced their opinions. Betsy Kjelsberg, of Norway, believed that special laws which are established for the protection of women are demeaning for women.[15] She explained that she would work for the gradual elimination of night work for women as well as men. The final provisions for the night work convention did prohibit the employment of women after 10 pm or before 5 am, but did not extend this provision to male laborers.

The IFWW After 1919[edit]

The second International Congress of Working Woman, which took place in 1921 in Geneva addressed membership into the everlasting organization of the ICWW, the International Federation of Working Woman. The Federation compromised and allowed trade unions with female members to join the federation and also allowed women's labor organizations who shared their same values to join them as well.

In Vienna in 1923 the third International Conference of Working Women took place. This conference discussed the challenges of relating to an international labor movement which was largely male oriented and dominated. The delegates of the third ICWW decided to join with the International Federation of Trade Unions, which would cause the federation to dissolve.


  1. ^ Eileen Boris, Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 10.
  2. ^ Carol Riegelman Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice For Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990)15.
  3. ^ Eileen Boris, Home To Work, 87.
  4. ^ Laura Vapnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women: Transnational Debates on the Woman Worker". Journal of Women's History. (2014): 164.
  5. ^ Vanpnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women," 164.
  6. ^ Dorothy Sue Cobble, "U.S. Labor Women's Internationalism," 46.
  7. ^ Vapnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women," 166.
  8. ^ Vapnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women," 164.
  9. ^ Dorothy Sue Cobble, "U.S. Labor Women's Internationalism," 48.
  10. ^ Dorothy Sue Cobble, "U.S. Labor Women's Internationalism," 49.
  11. ^ Vapnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women," 167.
  12. ^ Vapnek, "The 1919 International Congress of Working Women," 171.
  13. ^ Carol Riegelman Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice For Women, 28.
  14. ^ "Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No. 3)," International Labor Organization (1919) Retrieved from: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:312148
  15. ^ Carol Riegelman Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice For Women, 30.