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Anderson, Mary

Mary Anderson (1872-1964): Advocate for Working Women, Labor Organizer and First Director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor


Official Portrait of Mary Anderson
Official Portrait of Mary Anderson
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: Mary Anderson was born in Lidköping, in Skaraborg County, Sweden. She emigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of sixteen. She began her working career as a domestic worker, became a factory employee and later a trade union leader. She was a member of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union and a founder of the Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago, Illinois. Anderson’s keen negotiating skills and labor activism, especially on behalf of working women, won her an appointment in 1920 as the first director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. The first “up from the ranks” labor woman to head an executive department of the Federal Government, Mary Anderson directed the Women’s Bureau for nearly 25 years, leading efforts to win better wages, hours and working condition for women. She served for five presidents and, during her tenure, saw the ranks of women workers more than double. After retiring in 1944, Anderson continued to advocate on behalf of working women.

Anderson’s Association with the Women’s Trade Union League (Excerpt from Mary Anderson’s autobiography, Woman at work: The autobiography of Mary Anderson as told to Mary N. Winslow.)

“…After I joined the union I began to know Jane Addams and Hull House. We had meetings at Hull House, where Miss Addams would speak to us, and sometimes I would meet her at trade union meetings and in other places. It was always interesting to go to Hull House. Sometimes Miss Addams would ask us to come for tea on Sunday afternoons and we would meet prominent people from other parts of the country and from abroad. Among many others I remember especially meeting Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. I can see Miss Addams now, as she turned from person to person at these informal meetings, with her wonderful tact and understanding, her deep-set eyes soft and shining with interest, making everyone feel at home and bringing out the best in all of us. It was a splendid opportunity for us, who knew so little outside of our own work, to find out what other people were doing and thinking. We began to feel that we were part of something that was more important than just our own problems. For me, and I think for many others too, Hull House and Jane Addams opened a door to a larger life.

“When I got back from Lynn and was working again in Chicago, I made my first contact with the Womens Trade Union League. I had been in Boston attending the conferences of the American Federation of Labor at the time the league was organized there in 1903, but I did not have any part in it at the beginning.

“Emma Steghagen first told me about the league and asked me to join it. Emma had been a fellow worker in Schwab’s factory. Her machine had been in front of mine. She was older than I and was already in the trade union movement, acting as secretary of her local. When it came to any trade union activities she was the first person I turned to. In the Women’s Trade Union League she was always called “Sister Emma” and that is what she seemed like to me. At that time Jane Addams was president of the Chicago league. I was glad to join because I knew that an organization of this sort would be a great help to all working women.

“The league was founded as a result of the suggestions of a few trade unionists and people interested in the organization of women. They thought it would help the organization of women and would give an opportunity to people who were sympathetic to unions, but were not actually workers, to join as “allies” and work together with the trade unionists. The first constitution of the league stated that membership was open to “any person—who will declare himself or herself willing to assist those trade unions already existing, which have women members, and to aid in the formation of new unions of women wage workers.” The membership consisted of individual working women, some of whom were trade union members, men and women “allies,” and a number of affiliated unions.

“There was a great field of work for the league in Chicago (and everywhere else too). Working conditions for women workers were very poor, as I knew from my own experience and very few women were organized. In fact, the men did not seem anxious to get women organized because they had all they could do to attend to their own grievances. Trade union organization at that time was in the pioneer stage. Except for the building trades, organization was very spotty, there were locals only here and there, and the men said, “Let us organize the men first and then the women.” When it was organized, therefore, the league had a unique position. It could take into its membership both men and women workers and others who were not actually factory workers but were sympathetic to the purpose of the league. The members of the league united because they understood that the union was at that time the only agency through which the workers could defend their rights and that women workers had to take their places along with the men. The trade union men accepted that idea reluctantly, but they used the league whenever they found they could be helped by it. From its earliest days the league always tried to help the unions and thus established a relationship that it was to carry on in the future. When there were strikes and the strikers could not get a place to meet they were always allowed to use Hull House and were encouraged in every way. When there was picketing and picketers were arrested, Miss Addams would go to the employers and plead for them. Miss Addams was the first president of the Chicago league. She was followed by Mary McDowell who was president until 1907. Miss McDowell was head of the University Settlement and had been a leader in the organization of the women in the stockyards in 1902 and 1903 before the Women’s Trade Union League was founded. She lived in the stockyards district and was close to the workers as a friend and support. She was a heroic figure, tall and beautiful to look at, with a vigorous, amusing, and friendly personality. The stockyards workers had such admiration for her that they called her the “Angel of the Stockyards.” She was very fond of parties and whenever we girls who were her friends wanted a party we used to celebrate Mary McDowell’s birthday—sometimes three or four times a year. It was around Miss McDowell and Miss Addams, in the early days, that the whole movement for the organization of women and the improvement of their working conditions centered.

“As soon as I joined the league I began to spend more and more of my free time at its meetings and parties. I will never forget my first speech shortly after I joined the league. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs had a meeting at Hull House and Agnes Nestor, a glove worker, Josephine Casey, ticket seller on the elevated railways, and I were scheduled to make speeches. I had never made one before and while waiting to be called on I must have looked ghastly. My knees shook so I was afraid I could not stand up. Josephine took a look at me and said, “Are you nervous?” I replied that I was just about dying but she said not to worry because the audience would not understand what I was saying anyway.

“I spoke for about five minutes on hazards in industry and the lack of guards on machinery. I made the headlines in the papers because it was a very touchy subject and one that was to the fore at the time.

“I knew of the hazards from experience in my own wor1 as well as from what I was told by others. In our shop, the belting came up from the floor without much guarding and some belts came from overhead with no guards at all. The button machine and the eyelet machine were both dangerous too. Fingers were often caught in them. Besides, I had heard about dangers in other industries at the meetings of the Trade Union League.

“It was at these meetings that I began to make the friendships that have lasted throughout the years. I will never forget them and the work and fun we had together. Among my earliest friends were Emma Steghagen and Agnes Johnson. They were both shoe workers. Then there was Agnes Nestor. She was a short, frail girl with great organizing and administrative ability; she was also a fine speaker. I got to know her soon after I joined the league. She was a glove worker and the glove workers and shoe workers were among the staunchest friends of the league throughout the years. Agnes was eventually elected president of the Chicago league after ME Robins (who had succeeded Miss McDowell in 1907) resigned in 1913, and she was a lifelong leader in working for legislation for women workers in Illinois….

“…In the autumn of 1910 I was still working at Smith’s and spending my free time mostly on Women’s Trade Union League activities, the great strike of the Chicago garment workers began. The strike started with a handful of girls walking out from one of the shops in the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx factory, the biggest clothing factory in town. Very soon the workers in the clothing industry all over town were out, until within a few weeks more than forty thousand were on strike. They were not organized, they just walked out because of accumulated grievances through the years.

“Conditions in the industry were really bad. Piece rates were so low that the workers earned at best only a starvation wage and even this wage was often reduced by a system of unjust fines, as in one plant where any worker who damaged a pair of pants was made to buy them at the regular wholesale price. The story of one group of workers that was reported to the league illustrates the plight of most of them: “We started to work at seven thirty and worked until six with three quarters of an hour for lunch. Our wages were seven cents for a pair of pants, or one dollar for fourteen pairs. For that we made four pockets and one watch pocket, but they were always changing the style of the stitching and until we got the swing of the new style, we would lose time and money and we felt sore about it. One day the foreman told us the wages were cut to six cents a pair of pants and the new style had two watch pockets. We would not stand for that, so we got up and left.”

“After they had been out for a very short time the workers turned to the United Garment Workers Union for help. This union found that the strike was so large that they could not cope with it alone, and they turned to the Chicago Federation of Labor and to the Women’s Trade Union League to come in and help. A joint strike conference was organized and everyone pitched an.

“Those were busy days for the members of the league. We organized a strike committee and set up all kinds of subcommittees to take care of the different problems. There was a committee on grievances; a picket committee of which Emma Steghagen was chairman; an organization committee under Agnes Nestor, who later took on the job of representing the league on the committee that paid out the commissary relief; a committee on publicity headed by Stella Franklin; and so on. We had strike headquarters at 275 La Salle Street, where we were close to the headquarters of many of the other labor organizations. Our biggest job was trying to relieve the distress of the strikers and their families. All the workers were so poor and had been able to save so little that they were continually in difficulties when they were out of work. Food, clothing, and coal had to be given to them. The gas company threatened to turn off the gas because the bills were not paid. Medical attention had to be secured for those who were ill. Then there was the problem of trying to keep up the morale of the strikers, many of whom were suffering terribly despite our efforts to help them.

“There were dozens of meeting halls all over the city. Many different languages were used because the strikers were of different nationalities and often did not speak English. The biggest meetings were in Hodcarriers’ Hall on the West Side. These meetings were always in an uproar. It was never possible to get order until one day a young man walked on the platform, rapped the gavel for order, and got it. He was Sidney Hillman, a cutter at Hart, Schaffner, and Marx. From that day on Hillman was chairman of the meetings at Hodcarriers’ Hall and there was order. His talent for leadership asserted itself then and continued in the future. I saw much of him during the years immediately following the strike. We had many differences of opinion and at one time he was so angry with me he would not speak to me for three months, but our differences were always settled, and we remained good friends until his death.

“We got very helpful publicity in most of the newspapers. I remember that Carl Sandburg, who was working for the Daily News, was one of the most helpful of the labor reporters. I knew him well in those days. He wrote splendid stories about the strike and the strikers. Sometimes we used to see him at small gatherings when he would play his banjo and sing and occasionally read his poetry. I always remember him as a friendly, understanding man and an accurate reporter who did not depend on sensational methods to get attention.

“Finally, after the United Garment Workers had signed one agreement which was repudiated by the workers because it was just an agreement to go back to work, with no concessions and no hope for the future, an agreement for two years with the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx people was reached on January 14, 1910, by the United Garment Workers, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League. The most important feature of this agreement was that it recognized the right of the workers to strike and set up an arbitration committee with representatives of the employers and the workers to consider grievances.

“After the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx agreement was reached the strike dragged on for another few weeks, during which time a number of other plants signed agreements and it looked as though victory was in sight. But suddenly on February 3 the strike was called off by the officials of the United Garment Workers without notifying John Fitzpatrick or Mrs. Robins. This action resulted in much hard feeling between. Mrs. Robins and the officials of the union. We were all disappointed and shocked. It was a “hunger bargain” for hundreds of workers who had suffered deeply during the strike and gained little when it was over.

But for many thousands it was a great victory. The right of collective bargaining had been recognized by the largest employer in the clothing industry and the machinery for arbitration was set up. For the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx Company an arbitration committee was appointed to adjust all grievances, with Carl Meyer representing the firm and W. O. Thompson representing the workers. The work of this committee was a practical and successful experiment in collective bargaining. It continued throughout the years ahead and became a model for the whole industry.

“Another thing the workers gained from this strike was a feeling of solidarity. They realized after their experience that they must stand together if they were to get the things they needed.

“I remember Mrs. Robins telling the story of the wife of a striker whom she visited. The woman was sick in bed, with several little children to take care of. Her husband had been asked three times by the firm to come back to work, but he had refused to desert the union. When Mrs. Robins asked how she could bear the hardships for her children, she replied: “We do not live only on bread. If I cannot give my children bread, I can give them liberty.”

“This is the spirit that is back of all the great struggles of the workers to improve their working conditions. Liberty and freedom for collective bargaining is what they want and what they must have….”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Anderson, M. (1951). Chapter Four. In Woman at work: The autobiography of Mary Anderson as told to Mary N. Winslow. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.  Retrieved [date accessed] from