Throughout our nation’s history, women have frequently been influential leaders in the fight for workers’ rights. Women have been pioneers of workplace safety, fair wage advocates, and labor organizers have helped to uplift and improve conditions for all workers. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are eleven inspiring quotes from women labor leaders.
“I am sick at heart when I look into the social world and see woman so willingly made a dupe to the beastly selfishness of man.” –Sarah Bagley
Sarah Bagley was an influential leader for working women’s rights in the industrial city of Lowell, Massachusetts. In the 1840s and 50s, Lowell was filled with cotton factories and mills, most of which were staffed by women. In 1844, women of such mills who were working under oppressive conditions for low wages came together to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Sarah Bagley was president of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Bagley advocated for a 10-hour workday in front of the Massachusetts legislature. She continued to break barriers when she became the nation’s first female telegraph operator in 1846.
“You show me the women and I’ll turn them into organizers.” –Kate Mullany
An early, ardent advocate for the rights of working women, Kate Mullany helped organize her fellow laundry workers. Mullany helped start the Collar Laundry Union, the country’s first all-female union to advocate for shorter hours, higher wages and safer working conditions. Following a five-and-a-half-day strike, the union secured safer working conditions and fairer wages. In 1868, Mullany became the first woman appointed to a labor union’s national office.
“There is no possible conflict between the good of society and the good of its members, of which the industrial workers are the vast majority.” –Margaret Haley
Born in 1861, Margaret Haley was an educator and a prominent leader in the national push to unionize teachers. Chicago was the first city to have a major teachers’ union, and Haley was a leader for the Chicago Teachers Federation. Her 1904 speech “Why Teachers Should Organize” was immensely influential in the growing movement of teachers’ unions.
“Let woman choose her own vocation just as man does his. Let her go into business, let her make money, let her become independent, if possible, of man.” –Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker was a businesswoman who made a name for herself as the first Black woman to charter a bank and serve as bank president. She used her success to finance a newspaper, open a department store, and run the fraternal benefit society, the Independent Order of Saint Luke. Walker used her accomplishments to create opportunities for others, particularly Black Americans and women.
“Nothing will ever be won by waiting around. You’ve got to put your shoulder to the wheel to get ahead.” –Rose Pesotta
A Ukrainian immigrant to the United States, Rose Pesotta moved to New York City at the age of 17 where she began working at a shirt waist factory. While working, Pesotta joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) which was primarily made up of Jewish and Latina garment workers. She was elected to the all-male board of ILGWU Local 25 in 1920 and went on to organize workers for the union around the country. In 1933, she helped organize garment workers in Los Angeles and as a result of their success in the Los Angeles Garment Workers Strike that year, Rose Pesotta was elected vice president of ILGWU. She eventually resigned from the board of the union due to that 85% of the union was female workers, she was the sole woman on the executive board.
“The interests of labor and the people are one.” –Luisa Moreno
Born in 1907 in Guatemala, Luisa Moreno began her career as a reporter in Mexico City. When she moved to New York City in 1928, she found work at an industrial garment factory. Faced with horrific working conditions and low wages, Moreno participated in many strikes at the factory before becoming an organizer with the American Federation of Labor in 1935. Travelling the country, Moreno worked to organized workers across industries, though one of her biggest contributions was starting the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress in Southern California which combined labor and civil rights activism.
“[T]he strike was the best thing that ever happened. It changed our lives. We overcame bigotry, didn’t we? … I know it was a turning point in my life.” –Sue Ko Lee
Sue Ko Lee was a Hawaiian-born Chinese American labor organizer and garment worker. As a founding member of the Chinese Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Association, she participated in the 15-week strike against the National Dollar Stores garment factory. The strike was immensely successful and at the time was the longest strike in the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Sue Ko Lee went on to become a leader in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Association, working to improve the working conditions of female garment workers around the world.
“Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.” –Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height was a lifelong activist and public servant. She was one of the chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, served as president of the National Council of Negro women for four decades, and served on numerous federal councils to improve U.S. worker’s quality of life. Dr. Height was awarded the Citizen’s Medal for distinguished service in 1989 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
“I didn’t know what the union was. But I know that I needed help and here was the place that I could get that help. I knew that I wanted to help other workers, and I found out that I could help them by joining with them and making the union strong and powerful enough to bring about change.” –Addie L. Wyatt
Addie L. Wyatt began working in the meatpacking industry in 1941, canning soups for the army. During the war, Wyatt moved to different packinghouses but soon became involved in her local chapter of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. She climbed the ranks of the union, becoming the first Black woman to hold a senior office in an American labor union, at both the local and international level. An ordained minister, Wyatt was a vocal activist for worker rights, civil rights and women’s rights. She was inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor in 2012.
“Workers have a right to expect they won’t be killed on their jobs.” –Dr. Eula Bingham
Dr. Eula Bingham was an occupational health scientist who served as the fourth ever head of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under President Jimmy Carter. As head of OSHA, Bingham focused on enforcement and ensuring that companies complied with regulations to protect workers from occupational illnesses and diseases. Her work to ensure the safety of workers has saved numerous lives and remains a gold standard of the work of OSHA.
“The union taught me how to fight for what I needed and what I had, and if it was something I wanted, how to go after it” –Hattie Canty
Hattie Canty was the first Black woman elected president of the Culinary Workers Union which she first joined as a hotel room attendant in Las Vegas, Nevada. Canty went on to lead the longest strike in U.S. history, lasting over six years.
These are just some of the many incredible women that have helped advance the dignity of working women and the rights of all workers throughout our nation’s history. Follow the Department of Labor on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, where we’ll be highlighting inspiring leaders throughout Women’s History Month.
Jordan Steinberg is an intern in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs.