Working for a Better World for the Working Woman: The National Women's Trade Union League as Industrial Feminists
In 1903, unionism and feminism came together in the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). Its goal was to improve women's position in the workplace and the labor market in general by achieving organization of all women workers into trade unions, equal pay for equal work, an eight-hour work day, a living wage, and full citizenship for women. To achieve its goals, the WTUL engaged in union organizing, public education, and advocating protective legislation.
Industrialization vastly increased the number of women working for wages, but even when women entered the work force, they were defined as mothers first and workers second. Their job opportunities were limited to jobs that required no special skills and paid the least. While the WTUL believed that unionizing could overcome harmful working conditions, few women were unionized and established labor unions ignored women workers. Labor unions didn't think unionizing unskilled women was worthwhile and claimed that women were too apathetic and disinterested to organize.
Nevertheless, the WTUL believed that once labor leaders and the public saw how working women were exploited, the unions would include them and the legislatures would enact labor laws to protect them. To overcome the difficulties of organizing women, they adopted strategies to attract women that conformed to the realities of women's lives. Two branches of feminism influenced reformers; equality based feminism held that women should have the same rights as men while social feminism held that women's unique reproductive and maternal roles distinguished them from men. The WTUL's approach employed tactics that empowered women, while using traditional arguments to further its goals. Instead of challenging traditional stereotypes about women's domestic roles, the WTUL argued that women needed special protection because they were mothers and nurturers. However, the claim that women deserved equal rights in the workplace and should participate in unions was radical in and of itself.
The WUTL officially endorsed legislating an eight hour day, a fifty hour week, and restricted night work for women. One of its major successes was the Illinois Girls' Bill, which mandated a ten hour work day for women in factories, mechanical establishments, and laundries.
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