The Lost Museum Archive

The Female Industry Association and Women's Work in New York.

Even though women performed skilled labor in many of the craft industries, men had excluded them from the earliest craft associations. But in 1825, New York City seamstresses organized the first all-women's strike in the United States and women remained active in labor organizing throughout the 1830s. In 1845 women from across the needle trades--shirt sewers, tailoresses, dressmakers, lace makers, cap makers, and shoe crimpers--formed the Female Industry Association (also known as the Ladies Industrial Association) to fight wage cuts. It was a short-lived organization, disappearing after the unsuccessful strike in spring 1845, but provided a model of working women organizing as women as well as workers. The following account of one of the first meetings of the Association lays out the conditions of women's work as well as the organization's position on the rights of women workers.

Seldom or never did the Superior Court of the City hall contain such an array of beauty under suffering, together with common sense and good order, as it did yesterday, on the occasion of the meeting of the female industrial classes, in their endeavor to remedy the wrongs and oppressions under which they labor, and, for some time past, have labored. At the hour appointed for the adjourned meeting, four o'clock, about 700 females, generally of the most interesting age and appearance, were assembled; and, after a trifling delay, a young lady stepped forward, and in rather a low, diffident tone, moved that Miss Gray take the Chair, which, having been put and carried in the usual business-like way --

Miss Gray, (a young woman, neatly dressed, of some 22 or 24 years of age, fair complexion, interesting, thoughtful and intelligent cast of countenance) came forward from the back part of the room. She proceeded to make a few observations on the nature and objects of their movements and intentions, and stated that, finding the class she belonged to were unable to support themselves, honestly and respectably, by their industry, under the present prices they received for their work, had, therefore, come to the determination of endeavoring to obtain something better, by appealing to the public at large, and showing the amount of suffering under which they at present labored. She then went on to give instances of what wages they were in the habit of receiving in different branches of the business in which she was engaged, and mentioned several employers by name who only paid them from $.10 to $.18 per day; others who were proficient in the business, after 12 or 14 hours hard labor, could only get about $.25 per day; one employer offered them $.20 per day, and said that if they did not take it, he would obtain girls from Connecticut who would work for less even than what he offered. The only employer who had done them justice was Mr. Beck, of Fourteenth Street, who only allowed his girls to be out about two hours, when he complied with their reasonable demands. He was a man who was worthy of the thanks of every girl present, and they wished him health, wealth, and happiness. How was it possible that on such an income they could support themselves decently and honestly, let alone supporting widowed mothers, and some two, three, of four helpless brothers and sisters, which many of them had. Pieces of work for which they last year got seven shillings, this year they could only get three shillings.

A female stepped forward . . . and enquired if the association was confined to any one branch of business, or was it open to all who were suffering under like privations and injustice?

The Chairwoman observed that it was opened to all who were alike oppressed, and it was only by a firm cooperation they could accomplish what they were laboring for.

Another female of equally interesting appearance (Mrs. Storms) then came forward and said that, it was necessary the nature and objects of the party should be distinctly understood, particularly by those who were immediately interested; their own position should be fully known. If the supply of labor in the market was greater than the demand, it followed as a matter of course that they could not control the prices; and, therefore, it would be well for those present to look around them and see into what other channels they could turn their industry with advantage. There were many branches of business in which men were employed that they could as well fill. Let them memorialize the merchants in the dry goods department, for instance, and show them this also. That there were hundreds of females in this city who were able to keep the books as well as any man in it. There were various other branches of business in which men were employed for which females alone were suitable and intended. Let these men go to the fields and seek their livelihood as men ought to do, and leave the females their legitimate employment. There were the drapers also, and a number of other branches of trade in which females could be as well if not better and more properly employed. By these means, some thousands would be afforded employment in branches much more valuable to themselves and the community generally. She then proceeded to recommend those present to be moderate in their demands, and not to ask for more than the circumstances of trade would warrant, for if they acted otherwise, it would tend to their ultimate ruin. Under present circumstances, a very few years broke down their constitutions, and they had no other resource but the alms-house, and what could bring this about sooner than the bread and water diet and rough shelter, which many of them at present were obliged to put up with.

The proceedings of the previous meeting were then read and approved of.

A number of delegates from the following trades entered their names to act as a Committee to regulate future proceedings: tailoresses, plain and coarse sewing, shirt makers, book-folders and stitchers, cap makers, straw workers, dress makers, crimpers, fringe and lace makers, &c.

The following preamble and resolutions were agreed to:

Whereas, the young women attached to the different trades in the city of New York, having toiled a long time for a remuneration totally inadequate for the maintenance of life, and feeling the truth of the Gospel assertion, that "the laborer is worthy of his hire," have determined to take upon themselves the task of asserting their rights against unjust and mercenary employers. It must be remembered by those to whom we address ourselves, that our object is not extortion; our desire, not to reap advantages which will be denied to our employers. The boon we ask is founded upon right alone! The high prices demanded by tradesmen for their foods renders them amply able to advance wages to a standard, which, while it obviates the present cause of complaint, will render laborers only the more cheerful at their work, and still more earnest and willing to serve their employers. The scarcity of employment, and the low rates of pay which have so long prevailed, have, undoubtedly driven many virtuous females to courses which might, otherwise, have been avoided. Many of the female operatives of this city have families dependent upon their exertions; aged fathers and mothers-young brothers-helpless sisters, who, but for their exertions, must inevitably starve, or betake themselves to that scarcely less horrible alternative--the poor house! Such a picture is enough to bestir the most inert to active exertion; the love of life is a passion inherent in us all, and we feel persuaded that we need no better excuse for the movement to which the flaring injustice of our employers has driven us! Therefore,
RESOLVED, that in order to carry out the views expressed in the preamble, and to raise the requisite funds for the assistance of those whose situations render such assistance necessary, that we thankfully accept the kind offer Signor Palmo, of his Opera House for a benefit, to take place on (this) Friday, march 7th, and it is hoped that all those who may feel an interest in our proceedings will show their approval of our measure by attending the same.
RESOLVED, that an address be prepared by a committee, presenting our wrongs to the public in their true and proper light, and advising such measures as may be best calculated to remedy them.
RESOLVED, that we now adjourn, to meet again on Friday, the 14th inst. At 4 p.m., at this place, to hear the above mentioned address, and to listen to other matters which may in any way interest the Association.

MARY GRAHAM, Secretary.

Source: Working Man's Advocate, March 8, 1845.