Women's Trade Union League

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Women's Trade Union League
Women's Trade Union League
Womens Trade Union League emblem.jpg
Key people
Margaret Dreier Robins, President
Parent organization
American Federation of Labor

The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) (1903–1950) was a U.S. organization of both working class and more well-off women to support the efforts of women to organize labor unions and to eliminate sweatshop conditions. The WTUL played an important role in supporting the massive strikes in the first two decades of the twentieth century that established the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and in campaigning for women's suffrage among men and women workers.


The roots of the WTUL come from a British organization of the same name founded thirty years earlier. The British League had originally supported the creation of a separate women's labor movement but, by the 1890s, merged its own aims with the mainstream British labor movement and functioned as an umbrella organization of women's trade unions. Its first American supporter was the socialist William English Walling who met with British WTUL leaders in 1902. He returned to the United States and began to generate support for a similar American organization.[citation needed]

Organized in 1903 at the American Federation of Labor convention, the WTUL spent much of its early years trying to cultivate ties with the AFL leadership. Its first president was Mary Morton Kehew, a labor and social reformer from Boston.[1] By 1907, the WTUL saw its purpose as supporting the AFL and encouraging women's membership in the organization. In its constitution that year, the WTUL defined its purpose in assisting "in organizing women into trade unions...such unions to be affiliated, where practicable, with the American Federation of Labor." In response, the AFL leadership generally ignored the League. When the WTUL decided to hold its annual conference at a different location than the AFL in 1905, Samuel Gompers was furious and refused to attend. Still, the League did push the AFL towards a pro-suffrage position and did manage to organize more women into the Federation than at any previous time.

It also drew on the earlier work of activists in the settlement house movement, such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, and budding unions in industries with a large number of women workers, such as garments and textiles. The WTUL leadership comprised both upper-class philanthropists and working-class women with experience organizing unions, including a significant portion of the most important female labor leaders of the day, including Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Rose Schneiderman.

The heyday of the League came between 1907 and 1922 under the presidency of Margaret Dreier Robins.[2] During that period, the WTUL led the drive to organize women workers into unions, secured protective legislation, and educated the public on the problems and needs of working women.[3]

Support for union organizing[edit]

WTUL float, Labor Day parade, New York, 1908

The League supported a number of strikes in the first few years of its existence, including the 1907 telegrapher's strike organized by the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America. The WTUL played a critical role in supporting the Uprising of the 20,000, the New York City and Philadelphia shirtwaist workers' strike, by providing a headquarters for the strike, raising money for relief funds, soup kitchens and bail for picketers, providing witnesses and legal defense for arrested picketers, joining the strikers on the picket line, and organizing mass meetings and marches to publicize the shirtwaist workers' demands and the sweatshop conditions they were fighting. Some observers made light of the upper-class women members of the WTUL who picketed alongside garment workers, calling them the "mink brigade". These distinctions split strikers from their upper-class benefactors as well: a contingent of strikers challenged Alva Belmont concerning her reasons for supporting the strike.[citation needed]

The strike was, however, less than wholly successful: Italian workers crossed the picket lines in large numbers and the strikers lacked the resources to hold out longer than the employers. In addition, although activists within the WTUL, including William E. Walling and Lillian D. Wald, were also among the founders of the NAACP that year and fought the employers' plan to use African-American strikebreakers to defeat the strike, others in the black community actively encouraged black workers to cross the picket lines. Even so, the strike produced some limited gains for workers, while giving both the WTUL and women garment workers a practical education in organizing.[citation needed]

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

The WTUL played a similar role in the strike of mostly male cloakmakers in New York City and men clothing workers in Chicago in 1910, in the 1911 garment workers strike in Cleveland and in many other actions in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri and Wisconsin. By 1912, however, the WTUL began to distance itself from the labor movement, supporting strike action selectively when it approved of the leadership's strategy and criticizing the male-dominated leadership of the ILGWU that it saw as unrepresentative of women workers. The WTUL's semi-official relationship with the American Federation of Labor was also strained when the United Textile Workers, an AFL affiliate, insisted that it stop providing relief for Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers who refused to return to work during the strike led by the Industrial Workers of the World; some WTUL leaders complied, while others refused, denouncing both the AFL and the WTUL for its acquiescence in strikebreaking activities.

The League had a closer relationship with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the union formed by the most militant locals of mostly immigrant workers in the men's clothing industry in Chicago, New York and other eastern urban centers, which was outside the AFL. The WTUL trained women as labor leaders and organizers at its school founded in Chicago in 1914 and played a key role in bringing Italian garment workers into the union in New York.[4]

Support for legislative reforms[edit]

At this time the WTUL also began to work for legislative reforms, in particular the eight-hour day, the minimum wage and protective legislation. Because of the hostility of the United States Supreme Court toward economic legislation at the time, only legislation that singled out women and children for special protections survived challenges to its constitutionality. Ironically, Samuel Gompers and the conservative leadership of the AFL also viewed such legislation with hostility, but for a different reason: they believed by that point that legislation of this sort interfered with collective bargaining, both by usurping the role of unions in obtaining better wages and working conditions and in setting a precedent for governmental intrusion into the area.

The WTUL was also active in demanding safe working conditions, both before and after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in which 146 workers were killed. That fire, which had been preceded by a similar fire in Newark, New Jersey in which twenty-five garment workers were killed, not only galvanized public opinion on the subject, but also exposed the fissures between the League's well-heeled supporters and its working class militants, such as Rose Schneiderman. As Schneiderman said in her speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

The WTUL also began to work actively for women's suffrage, in close coalition with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in the years before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. The WTUL saw suffrage as a way to gain protective legislation for women and to provide them with the dignity and other less tangible benefits that followed from political equality. Schneiderman coined an evocative phrase in campaigning for suffrage in 1912:

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.

Her phrase "bread and roses", recast as "We want bread and roses too", became the slogan of the largely immigrant, largely women workers of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

The WTUL was, on the other hand, mistrustful of the National Woman's Party, with its more individualistic, rights-oriented approach to woman's equality. The WTUL was strongly opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment drafted by the NWP after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on the ground that it would undo the protective legislation that the WTUL had fought so hard to obtain.

The WTUL focused increasingly on legislation in the 1920s and thereafter. Its leadership, in particular Schneiderman, were supporters of the New Deal and had a particularly close connection to the Roosevelt administration through Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the WTUL since 1923. The WTUL dissolved in 1950.

A related organization was the Women's Education and Industrial Union (WEIU), which employed female researchers such as Louise Marion Bosworth to research the working conditions of women.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Commire, Anne, ed. (1999). "Kehew, Mary Morton (1859–1918)". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. HighBeam Research. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, Gale Group. ISBN 0787640808.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ "Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) | American organization". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  3. ^ Payne, Elizabeth Anne (1988). Reform, Labor, and Feminism: Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0-252-01445-6. See also: Jacoby, Robin Miller (1994). The British and American Women's Trade Union Leagues, 1890–1925. New York: Carlson. ISBN 0-926019-68-6.
  4. ^ "About the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL): Pro-Labor Feminists". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2022-03-25.
  5. ^ Hoy, Suellen (2015). "Casey, Josephine". Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1501376. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

Further reading[edit]