Women’s Trade Union League

Editor’s Note:  This entry consists of two parts that compliment each other considerably.  The first is copied from the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project of George Washington University; and the second is from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

29. WTUL_Founded in 1903 by Jane Addams, Mary Anderson and other trade unionists, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) devoted itself to securing better occupational conditions for women and encouraging women to join the labor movement. The WTUL had a strong reformist agenda, “sponsored a combination of vocational training and protective legislation,” and quickly emerged as one of the most liberal organizations of its kind.

From 1907 through 1922, the WTUL achieved a number of its legislative goals, including an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor. After the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, the WTUL took part in a four-year investigation that ultimately helped establish new industrial safety regulations. In addition, the league helped women gain access to labor unions, trained women for leadership positions within unions, and even provided temporary assistance for unemployed trade union women.

Perhaps most importantly, the WTUL emerged as the central meeting place for reform-minded women interested in labor issues, and it was through the WTUL

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt

that many of these women cultivated important political relationships. Eleanor Roosevelt became an active league member in 1922, cementing her ties to figures like Rose Schneiderman and Margaret Dreier Robins. These women eventually became staunch Roosevelt allies, providing the WTUL important access to powerful politicians and insuring that their voices would be factored into the formulation of labor policy in Washington. Despite the league’s closeness to the White House during the Roosevelt years, the WTUL’s role grew increasingly irrelevant once labor unions allowed women to join on a widespread basis. Mounting financial problems and declining membership numbers also hampered WTUL’s effectiveness. Even though ER remained supportive of the League until the end, the WTUL closed its doors for good in 1950.Source: Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/womens-trade-union-league.cfm

Sources for Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Beasley, Maureen H., Holly C. Shulman, and Henry R. Beasley, eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001, 579-581.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933-1938. New York: Viking Press, 1999, 62, 65, 77, 86, 89.
Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, 207-210, 243.

Part Two: The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was an organization of both working class and more well-off women formed in 1903 to support the efforts of women to organize labor unions and to eliminate sweatshop conditions. The WTUL played an important role in supporting the massive strikes in the first two decades of the twentieth century that established the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and in campaigning for woman’s suffrage among men and women workers. The Women’s Trade Union League, nearly forgotten in much of the mainstream, feminist and labor history written in the mid-20th century, was a key institution in reforming women’s working conditions in the early 20th century.

But the heyday of the League came between 1907 and 1922 under the presidency of Margaret Dreier Robins. During that period, the WTUL led the drive to organize women workers into unions, secured protective legislation, and educated the public on the problems and needs of working women.

ILGWU Picketing Strikers

ILGWU Picketing Strikers

The League supported a number of strikes in the first few years of its existence, including the 1907 telegrapher’s strike organized by the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America. The WTUL played a critical role in supporting the Uprising of the 20,000 in New York City and Philadelphia shirtwaist workers’ strike, by providing a headquarters for the strike, raising money for relief funds, soup kitchens and bail for picketers, providing witnesses and legal defense for arrested picketers, joining the strikers on the picket line, and organizing mass meetings and marches to publicize the shirtwaist workers’ demands and the sweatshop conditions they were fighting. Some observers made light of the upper-class women members of the WTUL who picketed alongside garment workers, calling them the “mink brigade.” These distinctions split strikers from their upper-class benefactors as well: a contingent of strikers challenged Alva Belmont concerning her reasons for supporting the strike.

The WTUL played a similar role in the strike of mostly male cloak makers in New York City and men

Margaret Dreier Robbins, Leader of the WTUL

Margaret Dreier Robbins, Leader of the WTUL

clothing workers in Chicago in 1910, in the 1911 garment workers strike in Cleveland and in many other actions in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri and Wisconsin. By 1912, however, the WTUL began to distance itself from the labor movement, supporting strike action selectively when it approved of the leadership’s strategy and criticizing the male-dominated leadership of the ILGWU that it saw as unrepresentative of women workers. The WTUL’s semi-official relationship with the American Federation of Labor was also strained when the United Textile Workers, an AFL affiliate, insisted that it stop providing relief for Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers who refused to return to work during the strike led by the Industrial Workers of the World; some WTUL leaders complied, while others refused, denouncing both the AFL and the WTUL for its acquiescence in strikebreaking activities.

The League had a closer relationship with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the union formed by the most militant locals of mostly immigrant workers in the men’s clothing industry in Chicago, New York and other eastern urban centers, which was outside the AFL. The WTUL trained women as labor leaders and organizers at its school founded in Chicago in 1914 and played a key role in bringing Italian garment workers into the union in New York.

At this time the WTUL also began to work for legislative reforms, in particular the eight-hour day, the minimum wage and protective legislation. Because of the hostility of the United States Supreme Court toward economic legislation at the time, only legislation that singled out women and children for special protections survived challenges to its constitutionality. Ironically, Samuel Gompers and the conservative leadership of the AFL also viewed such legislation with hostility, but for a different reason: they believed by that point that legislation of this sort interfered with collective bargaining, both by usurping the role of unions in obtaining better wages and working conditions and in setting a precedent for governmental intrusion into the area.

Rose Schneiderman, Labor Militant

Rose Schneiderman, Labor Militant

The WTUL was also active in demanding safe working conditions, both before and after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 in which 146 workers were killed. That fire, which had been preceded by a similar fire in Newark, New Jersey in which twenty-five garment workers were killed, not only galvanized public opinion on the subject, but also exposed the fissures between the League’s well-heeled supporters and its working class militants, such as Rose Schneiderman. As Schneiderman said in her speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911:

“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

“We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

“Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

The WTUL also began to work actively for women’s suffrage, in close coalition with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in the years before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The WTUL saw suffrage as a way to gain protective legislation for women and to provide them with the dignity and other less tangible benefits that followed from political equality. Schneiderman coined an evocative phrase in campaigning for suffrage in 1912:

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

 Her phrase “bread and roses”, recast as “We want bread and roses too”, became the slogan of the largely immigrant, largely women workers of the Lawrence textile strike.

The WTUL was, on the other hand, mistrustful of the National Woman’s Party, with its more individualistic, rights-oriented approach to woman’s equality. The WTUL was strongly opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment drafted by the NWP after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on the ground that it would undo the protective legislation that the WTUL had fought so hard to obtain.

The WTUL focused increasingly on legislation in the 1920s and thereafter. Its leadership, in particular Schneiderman, were supporters of the New Deal and had a particularly close connection to the Roosevelt administration through Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the WTUL since 1923. The WTUL dissolved in 1950.
A related organization was the Women’s Education and Industrial Union (WEIU), which employed female researchers such as Louise Marion Bosworth to research the working conditions of women.

Source: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Trade_Union_League

Further Reading

  • Susan Amsterdam, “The National Women’s Trade Union League,” Social Service Review, vol. 56, no. 2 (June 1982), pp. 259-272. In JSTOR
  • Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
  • Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Milton M. Plumb, “Records of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America,” Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, vol. 8, no. 4 (August 1951), pp. 9-16. In JSTOR


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