Women at Work
Some of the challenges working women, particularly those in the garment industry, have faced in the last two hundred years are shared on Sign 36- United Tailoresses Society, Sign 19- Rose Schneiderman: Union Activist, and Sign 25- Maiden Lane: What's in a Name?. One of the biggest issues addressed by the women featured on these signs is wages.
In 1825, the group of women who went on to form the United Tailoresses’ Society met to discuss their low wages. This meeting led to the first all-women strike in the the United States (Stansell 1987, 133). Six years later, in 1831, when the United Tailoresses’ Society first met, they developed a list of wages they believed as adequate, and tried to get support for these as minimum wages (Lerner 1977, 277). In her book All For One, Rose Schneiderman recalls the thrill of reading the stories of the first strikes by working women (Schneiderman and Goldthwaite 1967, 70-72). These stories, such as the United Tailoresses’ Society’s, inspired Schneiderman and the women with whom she rallied in the early twentieth century, as well as laid the foundations for their work in the labor movement. As a union activist and suffragist, Schneiderman championed for higher wages, which included writing letters to the editor of the New York Times disputing claims made by various groups. One such group, the Committee on Equal Economic Opportunity of the National Woman’s Party, claimed the Women's Trade Union League opposed minimum wage legislation and represented a "Large number of wage-earning members" (Schneiderman 1936).
Under Schneiderman’s leadership, the Women’s Trade Union League’s activities led to increased wages, reduced working hours, and increased paid sick leaves, holidays, and vacations (New York Times 1949). However, the reverse sides of Sign 36- United Tailoresses Society and Sign 25- Maiden Lane: What’s in a Name? attest to the fact work was still being done to improve the conditions of working women at the time of the sign project, 1992. The poor working conditions of garment industry workers, most of whom were women, are described on the reverse side of Sign 36- United Tailoresses Society. The reverse side of Sign 25- Maiden Lane: What’s in a Name? discusses the gender wage gap and the “glass ceiling.”
In addition to working with the Women’s Trade Union League, Schneiderman also worked with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and focused more of her attention on the large number of unskilled women, many of whom were immigrants, who were more at risk to exploitation by their employers and were more difficult to unionize (Martens 209, 151). Similarly, in the 1980s, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union focused on garment workers who were immigrants by establishing community-based centers which offered English classes, skills training, and immigration counseling to the workers, which is discussed on the reverse side of Sign 36- United Tailoresses Society (Milkman 2014, 13).
The members who designed Sign 19- Rose Schneiderman: Union Activist, Nannette Yanuzzi Marcias and Jeff Skoller, and Sign 36- United Tailoresses Society, Stephanie Basch, used red on their signs for the aspects related to the labor movements. The name of union “Women’s Trade Union League” on the former and the figures representing the United Tailoresses’ Society on the latter appear in red. Both aspects are red due to the long history of the color red being associated with the leftists movements, including the labor movements. During the first French Revolution, in the eighteenth century, radical groups, wishing to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic led by the people, wore red Phrygian caps, known as “liberty caps,” modeled after free slaves in ancient Rome. The association of red with radical politics remained for the next French Revolution and was used for the banner of the Paris Commune, the working class socialist government that formed after Napoleon was defeated by Prussia in 1870. Newly forming socialist parties throughout Europe began to use red, often to symbolize the blood spilled in the fight for justice (Weiner 2017). In 1889, Irishman Jim Connell, composed the song “The Red Flag,” which became the anthem for England’s Labour Party. Connell was inspired by the Paris Commune, the Irish Land League, anarchists in Chicago fighting for better workers’ rights and an eight hour work day, and Russian nihilists (Egan 1999). The use of a red flag by the new communist government after the Russian Revolution in 1917 solidified the association between the color red and communism. In the twentieth century, leftist movements, including labor movements, used red to symbolize their cause (Weiner 2017). Because the historical establishment of the color red’s association with labor movements happened concurrently with the labor movements referenced on the signs, the REPOhistory members used red on their signs to hint at this history.
This historical association of red with labor movements was used on March 8, 2017 for A Day Without a Woman. The event was a general women’s strike from paid and unpaid work to bring attention to the power and significance of women’s work and address the economic injustices women and gender nonconforming people continue to face. Event organizers encouraged participants, particularly supporters who could not strike, to wear red, citing the historical association of red to labor movements as the reason for the attire (Women’s March on Washington 2017). Time magazine noted Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 organized by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, in which Schneiderman participated, as one of the precursors to A Day Without a Woman (Reilly 2017; Donahoe 2015, 550). This shows the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League inspired the next generation of women fighting for the rights of working women. A Day Without a Woman aimed to address the gender wage gap and the lack of women in leadership positions, the same issues working women face which were discussed on the reverse side of Sign 25- Maiden Lane: What’s in a Name? in 1992 (Women’s March on Washington 2017; Farber 2017).
As Sign 25- Maiden Lane- What’s in a Name? asks, “Will the glass ceiling disappear? Yes, but only as a result of the struggle of the women’s movement.” While there still are changes to be made for working women, these three signs show some of the history of the progress that has already been made and the work remaining to be done.
Donahoe, Myrna Cherkoss. 2015. “Garment Workers Movement.” In Encyclopedia of American Social Moverments, edited by Immanuel Ness, 548-555. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. https://books.google.com/books?id=6vwvCgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Eagan, James. 1999. “Has the Red Flag Fallen?: James Egan Wonders if Tony Blair Has Betrayed One of Labour’s Lasting Symbols.” Birmingham Post (UK), October 2.
Farber, Madeline. 2017. “Here’s What a Day Without Women Will Actually Look Like.” Fortune, March 6. Accessed April 8, 2017. http://fortune.com/2017/03/06/day-without-a-woman-strike-march-8/.
Lerner, Gerda. 1977. The Female Experience: An American Documentary. New York: Oxford University Press.
Martens, Allison M. 2009. “Working Women or Women Workers? The Women’s Trade Union League and the Transformation of the American Constitutional Order.” Studies in American Political Development 23 (October): 143-170.
Milkman, Ruth. 2014. “Introduction: Toward a New Labor Movement? Organizing New York City’s Precariat.” In New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement, edited by Ruth Milkman and Ed Ott, 1-22. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=HiAAAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
New York Times. 1949. “Fighter for the Common Good.” April 8.
Reilly, Katie. 2017. “‘Don’t Iron While the Strike is How’: These Are the Precursors to ‘A Day Without a Woman.’” Time, March 7. Accessed April 8, 2017. http://time.com/4687509/day-without-a-woman-history-womens-strikes/.
Schneiderman, Rose. 1936. “Minimum Wage Law.” New York Times, Letters to the Editor, January 10.
Schneiderman, Rose with Lucy Goldthwaite. 1967. All For One. New York: Paul Erikson, Inc.
Stansell, Christine. 1987. “Women in the Labor Movement.” In City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860, 130-154. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=jqy716o-GG0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Weiner, Sophie. 2017. “Red and the History of Leftist Politics.” Racked, March 8. Accessed April 4, 2017. http://www.racked.com/2017/3/8/14855664/red-leftist-international-womens-day.
Women’s March on Washington. 2017. “A Day Without A Woman FAQ.” Women’s March on Washington. Accessed April 7, 2017. https://www.womensmarch.com/march-8th-faq.