Women’s Trade Union League and the Progressive Era (1900-1920)

By Deborah O’Rell From 1880 to 1900 the number of employed women went from 2.6 to 8.6 million.

In 1880, 4% of clerical workers were women; by 1920, the figure was 50%, but, of course, women were not to get management positions.

Poor women and children often worked long hours. Industrial safety was a large issue: factory work was very dangerous, and it was difficult if not impossible to hold factory owners responsible for deaths and injuries. Around 1900, 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs. Insurance and pensions were rare, and courts were not sympathetic to worker claims.

The Women’s Trade Union League was formed in 1903. It was dedicated to improving the lives of working women. The organization’s dual focus was on aiding trade unions and striking women workers and lobbying for “protective labor legislation.”

It was at its height from 1907 to 1922 under the direction of Margaret Dreier Robins. And this is a time in American History when the forces lined up and massive change came about.

The Progressive Era and progressivism held the belief that the problems society faced (poverty, poor health, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing a good education, a safer environment, an efficient workplace and honest government. At this time, Labor was coming to a boiling point of discontent.

The WTUL was a huge support system for the garment workers during their strike from 1909 to 1913. WTUL members walked picket lines, organized support rallies, provided much needed public relations, raised strike funds and bail, and helped shape public opinion in the strikers’ favor. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the WTUL was in the forefront pushing for more government oversight and legislative protections.

Just before World War I (1911-1914) began, the WTUL put its might toward pushing for Women’s suffrage believing if they had the vote, they would have more power and control. During WWI, more and more women came into the workforce, and were paid lower wages than the men were paid. Once the men returned from military duty to those jobs, companies returned to “family wages”. Men, of course, needed to support their families. (Sniffs of the ‘family values’ argument we hear today).

During the New Deal years, with WTUL member Eleanor Roosevelt, the league focused its attention on retaining the gains they had made and aiding women during the depression.

WTUL ceased to be in 1950.