By Berenice Carroll
Women’s nonviolent direct action has a more extensive history and has been more influential in the history of political action for social change than is generally recognized. One of the most important contributions of women to the development of direct action as a method of social change was that of the women factory operatives who pioneered the industrial labor strike in the textile industry of New England nearly two hundred years ago.
Small-scale strikes of workers in trades and crafts have been recorded since at least medieval times, and women were participants. But the organized industrial strike as we know it developed in the first half of the 19th century, when the women textile workers were its main protagonists. From the beginning women were active in demanding better wages and improved conditions. Women and men together were on strike in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, as early as 1824. The “first strike in which women participated alone was in Dover, New Hampshire” in 1828, when 400 women walked out to protest fines charged for lateness (Eleanor Flexner). The numbers and scope of strikes by women rose rapidly. In 1834, 600-700 women “turned out” (the term used then) at Lowell. In 1836 some 1200-1500 women turned out. In 1845, the women operatives in the Pittsburgh textile factories became known as “the Amazons” for conducting a month-long strike for the ten-hour day. Processions with banners came to characterize the “turn outs” of the women factory operatives.
In subsequent decades, women’s labor militancy through strikes expanded throughout the world. In the 1880’s, women were active in labor organizing and strikes in Mexico, and Carmen Huerta presided at the Second Congress of Workers in 1880. In 1888 the women match workers of London conducted a strike often cited as an early successful strike. In numerous strikes in the French tobacco industry between 1870 and 1900, “women workers played a dominant part” (Louise Tilly). In 1893 the first strike of women workers in Vienna won the textile workers the ten-hour day, a minimum wage, and other demands. In 1904, women textile workers of Crimmitschau, Germany, were on strike for over twenty-two weeks. In 1909-1910, 20,000 to 30,000 women in the shirt-waist industry went on strike in New York and Philadelphia, the largest strike of women workers and an event of major importance in the development of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in the U.S.
While women’s strike actions were generally nonviolent, they were not, as sometimes alleged, “timid.” !n 1878, for example, 300 women tobacco workers in St. Petersburg went on strike and won their demands after they returned to the factories to throw everything – tools and furniture – out the windows. And Kumari Jayawardena writes: “The most militant activists of the Ceylon Labour Union which led the strikes in Sri Lanka in the 1920s were women factory workers in Colombo; they used to dress in red, were the most vociferous of the strikers and picketers, and formed a bodyguard for male trade union leaders during demonstrations.”
Black and white women workers participated in the crucial labor struggles of the 1930s in the U.S. Black women often experienced discrimination from White women workers as well as from employers and male workers. But sometimes Black and White women joined forces. In 1933, for example, 900 Black women in the pecan industry in St. Louis went on strike, and gained the cooperation of the White women workers. Paula Giddings writes: “The owner of the factories tried to divide the women, offering Whites an increase in wages if they returned to work. The answer was returned by 1,500 women of both races marching on City Hall, and the proprietor gave in.”
Women workers have continued to use the strike in many parts of the world in struggles to change the conditions of their lives, as for example: women metalworkers in Brazil in 1980, women textile workers in Poland in 1981, women bakery workers in India in 1984, and Asian women textile workers in Birmingham, England, in 1982. In October 1984, tens of thousands of women in Iceland went on a 24-hour strike to protest discrimination against women.
The larger significance of women’s direct action in labor struggles, as in other movements for social change, has also been greater than usually acknowledged. Even when recognized that women were participants in early strikes, it has seldom been acknowledged that as the primary workforce in the textile industry, which was the model for the development of the factory system in general, women were the main pioneers of the early history of labor struggles in factory industry. When women factory workers began to “turn out” in numbers in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, they were taking the lead in shaping the language, tactics, and symbolism of the strike as one of the major forms of action for social change.
Preoccupation by scholars with the numerical underrepresentation of women in most unions, union-led strikes, and political parties in the twentieth century has obscured the true dimensions of women’s collective action, which often arises out of female community networks that are outside of these organizations but may constitute the essential foundations of support for them. Often they go beyond the narrower demands of labor unions to include a wide range of economic, social, and political issues.
In fact, women’s labor militancy has been felt in many parts of the world, sometimes with powerful political consequences. Early in the twentieth century, strikes by women workers in countries as widely separated by geography and culture as Spain and Japan expanded into mass strikes and political crises. Temma Kaplan has analyzed the events in 1913 in Barcelona, when women led the demand to strike and were the majority of the 20,000 workers who went out on strike at the end of July. Their continued initiative, leadership and demonstrations led to a general strike, beginning on August 10 and lasting into September, extending the labor struggle into the entire life of the community. In Japan a few years later, “the 1918 Rice Riots were triggered off when women port workers refused to load rice and were joined by other workers; this led to a long struggle and a political crisis” (Jayawardena).
In the same period, it was a strike by women textile workers that initiated the revolutionary events which brought down the Czarist government in Russia in 1917. While the Bolsheviks and other political organizations were opposing strikes or other militant actions as premature, women workers in several textile factories decided to go on strike on February 23, 1917, International Women’s Day. When the women workers, “in spite of all directives,” went on strike and called for support, the Bolsheviks agreed “with reluctance,” according to Leon Trotsky. Other workers and revolutionary organizations also agreed to support a mass strike. In St. Petersburg, “a mass of women . . . flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread.” The next day, the strike spread; about half the industrial workers of the city were on strike. Demonstrations and encounters with police multiplied; soldiers fraternized with the demonstrators. The revolution of 1917 had begun. As Trotsky concluded: “Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers.”
To understand the historical processes of change towards social justice, we must always search for the women.
*This article is drawn (with revisions) from: Berenice A. Carroll, “’Women Take Action!’: Women’s Direct Action and Social Change,” Women’s Studies International Forum, v. 12, no. 1, 1989, which includes citations and references for data and quotations above.
Berenice A. Carroll is Professor Emerita of Political Science and Women’s Studies at Purdue University, West Lafayette, and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was Director of the Women’s Studies Program at UIUC in 1983-1987 and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Purdue University in 1990-2000. She served as President of the National Women’s Studies Association in 1999-2000.