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Linna Eleanor Bresette: Teacher, Advocate for Women Laborers, Catholic Social Reformer (1882-1960)
By Michael Barga
Introduction: Linna Eleanor Bresette was a teacher, principal, social justice advocate in Kansas, and organizer with the National Catholic Welfare Conference (presently known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Bresette did grassroots work and advocacy for the welfare of a variety of people including women working in factories, Mexican Americans, and people of color.1 A passionate and forceful speaker, Bresette was unafraid of opposition, yet understood the need to gain respect and cooperation from employers and others. The majority of her contribution was in the NCWC’s Social Action Department (SAD), working there for 30 years after initially being hired by Catholic labor priests John A. Ryan, Raymond McGowan, and George G. Higgins.
Education and Career:
Linna E. Bresette was born in 1882 to James Bresette and Mary Johnston in St. Mary’s, Kansas, located about 25 miles Northwest of Topeka. She would later be given the nickname of the “Topeka Girl” in news items. She was one of seven children, including four sisters and two brothers. Little is written of her family life, and the extent to which experiences in her early days developed Ms. Bresette’s connection to social justice and her faith is unknown.
The nature of Ms. Bresette’s early education is unknown, although school attendance was compulsory in the state of Kansas at that time. After Bresette’s primary education, her personal qualities and academic proficiency led her to Kansas State Normal School where she graduated and was certified to teach.
Ms. Bresette was a teacher in Topeka Public schools, eventually becoming the principal of Lafayette Elementary School in Topeka. After an 11 year career in education, Bresette would spend the next 38 years as an activist. In 1913, she became the first woman factory inspector under Kansas Governor George Hodges. For two years, Bresette traveled the state making observations about wages, hours, and working conditions.
Based on her report, Bresette proposed the creation of an Industrial Welfare Commission, and the proposal was passed after she gave an impassioned speech to the legislature in the face of significant resistance by many employers. Linna Bresette took the position of Commission Secretary and continued her role as factory inspector despite receiving only one check from the state of Kansas. As she inspected, Bresette would make demands from factory owners, as demonstrated in Linna Eleanor Bresette: A Biographical Sketch:
‘When a factory owner with about seven feet of altitude and a couple of hundred pounds of weight wants to know why in the name of sunflowers he should put in a fire escape, Miss Bresette smiles at him and by and by he shows her a blue-print and asks her if he hadn’t better put in two.’2
While her focus was on minimum wages and maximum hour laws for the protection of women in factories, Bresette also won victories in enforcing Child Labor Laws starting in 1917. Children under 14 years were illegal to hire, and Bresette promoted a penalty for violators of the law of $100 or three months in jail, a serious deterrent for employers. Bresette also promoted a law that limited the employment of children younger than 16 to eight hours a day and 48 hours a week. Even when administrations changed, the excellence of Bresette’s work and personal qualities secured her position.
Unfortunately by 1921, employers banded together in an organization known as the Associated Industries. They decided that Linna E. Bresette and the power of the Industrial Welfare Commission were too big of a threat. Using their economic and political might, they influenced the Court which demanded the resignation of Bresette. While there was a wave of protest from supporters in the public and press, Ms. Bresette resigned.
After declining a number of job offers from the U.S. Government, Bresette took a position as Field Secretary at the NCWC Social Action Department in Washington, D.C. It was a natural fit for Bresette, who was very active in her faith in Kansas. She had been the president of an organization for Catholic women in Kansas and also helped organize parish classes and evening schools for Mexican workers.
After moving to Washington, D.C., Bresette was asked to conduct the first Catholic social study of Mexicans who came to the United States. It was the first of many projects, and over the course of these first six years, Bresette never shied away from grassroots work with any community. She was capable of presenting her in-depth understanding and motivating audiences of all levels of education. Some of her notable progressive accomplishments included organizing diocesan councils of Catholic women, conducting conferences on “The Negro in Industry,” and creating the first Catholic summer schools for women in the United States.
In 1927, Linna E. Bresette worked with Fr. John A. Ryan and Fr. Raymond McGowan at the Social Action Department to form the Regional Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems, as well as the Priests’ Institutes on the Encyclicals. The goal of both efforts was to bring awareness to laypeople and priests of social justice-oriented Papal Encyclicals, teaching documents of the Catholic Church.
In the 1930’s alone, Bresette traveled the country holding 50 or more conferences on the social teachings of the Catholic Church, pushing forward a progressive social-mindfulness in Catholic communities that would have otherwise been forgotten or unknown. While Bresette was unmarried and remained fairly independent for a woman in her day, she was not known for challenging gender roles of her time. On at least one occasion, Bresette made the argument before Congress that wages for workers needed to be high enough to ensure women could stay at home and focus on the moral and spiritual development of their children.
By the end of her career, Bresette carried the message of Christian social concern to 100 cities and 33 states, giving over 100 conferences. In addition to her grassroots work, Bresette had been involved with the National Conference of Catholic Charities, American Association of Social Work, and Catholic Association for International Peace. At times in her career, she was an active participant in the National Conference of Social Work and the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
Conclusion: In 1941, Conception College granted her the Immaculata Medal, and Rosary College gave her an honorary doctorate of law degree six years later. In 1947, Linna E. Bresette’s work in raising social justice awareness within the Catholic Church led to her being awarded one of the highest honors a layperson can receive. Pope Pius XII awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, or “Decoration of Honor,” for distinguished service to the church. Linna E. Bresette retired at the age of 69, leaving the continuing fieldwork of the Social Action Department to newer faces like George G. Higgins. Her later years were spent in Kansas City, where Bresette passed away at age 78 in her home on February 25, 1960.
1. “Social Action Vignette Linna Bresette: Social Action Trailblazer” in Go to the Worker: America’s Labor Apostles by Kimball Baker. Wisconsin: Marquette University Publishing, 2010: 100.
2. “Local paper” and William Allen White quoted in Linna Eleanor Bresette: A Biographical Sketch. Archives of the Catholic University of America, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Social Action Department, 2, 14: 1, 2.
George G. Higgins and the Quest for Worker Justice by John J. O’Brien. New York: Sheed and Ward, 2004: 340 (Footnote 142).
Mexican immigration to Kansas – http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/mexican-americans-in-kansas/17874
“Catholics in Action” – Treasure Chest. Courtesy of the American Catholic Research Center and University Archives at The Catholic University of America
For More Information: Contact the Archives of the Catholic University of America at 202-319-5065 or firstname.lastname@example.org
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2013). Linna Eleanor Bresette: Teacher, advocate for women laborers, Catholic social reformer (1882-1960). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/bresette-linna-eleanor/