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Women's Trade Union League: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The Women's Trade Union League was the first trade union organized for women workers in the United States. In this lesson, you will learn about the origins of the WTUL, its mission, and its accomplishments.

20th Century Working Conditions

Imagine a large room filled with machines wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The air is thick with dust and heat. The whirring of the machines is deafening. You've been standing on your feet for over 10 hours and you can barely think straight from sheer exhaustion. This was the reality for countless factory workers at the turn of the 20th century. Sounds fun, doesn't it? In the early 1900's, underpaid, overworked laborers had had enough. It was time for them to take a stand. Men in cities around the country joined together to improve working conditions for the common man. But what about the common woman? What about the women who toiled all day in the same horrible conditions, but for a much lower wage than their male counterparts?

Origins and Goals of the Women's Trade Union League

In 1903, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), one of the country's leading labor unions, met in Boston to talk shop. In the early 1900's, women were viewed and treated as second-class citizens. They weren't allowed to vote, so their opinions and safety didn't count, right? ...WRONG. Women were banned from joining the AFL meeting in Boston, so the only reasonable response was to create a separate trade union that fought for women's rights. And so the Women's Trade Union League was born.

The WTUL was founded by a handful of prominent women activists, including Mary Anderson, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, and Leonora O'Reilly. They were also joined by two women from the Settlement House Movement: Jane Addams and Lillian Wald. While these women weren't necessarily working class, nor had they ever stepped foot inside a factory, they did understand the need for dramatic change. Like their male counterparts, the WTUL had a few simple requests: shorter workdays and work weeks (8-hour work days, to be exact), safer working conditions, an end to child labor, and a minimum wage that was fair and similar to the pay of the men who did the same jobs as they did.

Jane Addams
Jane Addams

WTUL Achievements

So how exactly did they get what they wanted? The WTUL was instrumental in planning and executing various strikes, marches, and boycotts. They rallied against factory owners who refused to improve safety standards. Some WTUL members who could afford to purchase the clothing made by the factories boycotted them. One of their biggest breakthroughs occurred in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A large garment factory went up in flames, but because the building was so unsafe, most of the women in the factory were trapped inside and couldn't escape the fire. The WTUL capitalized on this tragedy and spent the next several years investigating the cause of the fire and pushing for stronger safety codes.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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