While men dominated union organizing for much of the 20th century, women have long been the backbone of the workers’ rights movement. In fact, the largest labor demonstration in the United States before the Civil War took place in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1860, and it would not have happened without working women. This first step of the labor movement should have been a first step towards steady progress towards equality in the workplace. Instead, he scored the first in a series of setbacks and missed chances.
By 1850, Lynn was on its way to becoming the shoe capital of the world, and its workforce was two-thirds female. Eighty percent of employed women in Lynn and surrounding Essex County worked in the shoe industry, with many working part-time from home in a system known as “working from home”. This system allowed women to support their husband’s or father’s trade through piecework rather than earning a separate income outside the home. Male craftsmen approved of this system because it allowed women to contribute to household income and continue to perform expected domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and raising children.
Shoemaking became more mechanized and modernized over the next decade, and the gender ratio evened out. Shoe workers, men and women, met regularly to discuss labor issues. But these organizations were segregated by gender – men, as well as some women, saw women’s participation in the industry as a temporary situation that would end when they married and became mothers. When a men’s strike committee was formed, members rejected a proposal to include an alliance of homeworkers and factory workers in their efforts.
Three thousand Lynn shoe workers walked off the job in February 1860 to protect their wages and improve their working conditions. Strikers from across New England soon joined them, insisting that manufacturers agree on a universal “price schedule” that would prevent competition between workers in different cities and ensure that shoemakers in other areas could not have an undue influence on the market.
The great shoemakers’ strike made national news. Even then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln chimed in, saying, “I’m glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England, where workers can strike whenever they want, where they don’t have to work, whether you pay them or not. Lincoln spoke in Hartford, where he denounced the conditions under which nearly 4 million enslaved black people worked on Southern plantations. But he was also wary of spiraling conditions for factory workers in the North.
The extraordinary support Lynn shoe workers enjoyed when they began their strike quickly evaporated as the orderly march erupted into chaos. Strikers and supporters shouted “Scabs!” and “Chase them!” to the managers who continued to work in their shoe stores. Many spectators along the route were drinking heavily and became violent. A strikebreaker who was spotted returning home with exterior work from a manufacturer was attacked by an angry mob. The strike committee had initially sworn not to interfere with the transportation of goods and materials during the strike, but mobs of people ignored that promise and attacked the wagons and their drivers, destroying packages and blocking shipments. Police from nearby areas were called in to help keep transportation safe, and the mayor of Lynn swore in dozens of special police officers to restore order. The once friendly relationship between city officials and shoemakers had soured within days.
This anarchy was devastating for a movement rooted in a moral code of craftsmanship, where success depended on the unequivocal approval of other shoe towns in the region. Previously, smaller protests that were more akin to family holiday parades and focused on ideas of class equity and opportunity for all in the early Republic had built community support. The goal had been a respectful and mutually beneficial arrangement between manufacturers and workers – not antagonistic competition. A local newspaper summed up the public sentiment by noting: “The anarchy of part of the strikers has deprived the whole movement of much of its moral force and has turned the sympathies of the public against it”.
An emergency meeting of the strike committee is called and its leader, Alonzo Draper, proposes to include the local workers in their movement. It would bring the movement back to a high moral level, lessen harmful images of violence and lawlessness, and promote the strike as a defense of “traditional New England families” and their values.
Soon, Draper was addressing a gathering of hundreds of female shoe workers. He explained why they should strike in the name of men. His argument was adamantly focused on the needs of male workers, even reminding young women in the audience that if men did not earn a living wage, they would not be able to marry and support their wives and children.
Women stepped in with their own grievances and wage demands, thwarting the assumption that women’s sole interest in defending labor rights was to bolster family income. Although female homeworkers, who outnumbered shop workers, were fully aligned with the idea of a family wage and thus accepted their work as subordinate to that of men, self-employed female factory workers did not were not. After a heated debate, they finally agreed to join the strike in an effort to raise wages for men and women.
In early March, 1,000 female shoe workers joined 5,000 men in a procession through the streets of Lynn amid a Nor’easter that created blizzard-like conditions. Women marched in traditional long dresses with stiff crinoline skirts and ruffled bonnets, holding umbrellas in one hand and pro-labor signs in the other.
Draper’s plan was a success. Major newspapers nationwide covered the event, and a lengthy Chicago Tribune article noted, “The most interesting part of the whole affair has been the movement among women. … Are these girls the independent, free and lucid women we hear so much about? An article in the New York Daily Herald asserted that “what was needed most now was a canvassing or rallying committee to go among the cobblers of Boston, of both branches of labor, men and women, and use their influence to have a large audience. meeting to help their friends in Lynn.
Ten days later, 10,000 strikers – men and women – marched through Lynn in what was the largest labor demonstration of its time. The work stoppage and reduced inventory it created raised the wholesale price of shoes, and Massachusetts shoe bosses agreed to raise men’s wages.
However, the manufacturers refused to sign a universal price agreement that would protect against hiring lower-paid migrant workers or hiring scabs, and there was no formal union recognition. When the men began to return to work at the end of the month, the women who went on strike in solidarity were dismayed and angry that they had been asked to return to work without signed wage agreements or agreed price lists for themselves.
When religious leaders and residents questioned the morals of single women working in Lynn and congregating in local amphitheaters, restaurants and recreation areas, female workers fought back. They made their case in public meetings and in the editorial pages of popular newspapers and magazines. But it was too little, too late.
Draper and his strike committee had succeeded in manipulating female workers to raise men’s wages, but they had done so by exploiting cultural issues around women’s place as breadwinners. This reinforced a gender hierarchy that diminished women’s power in defending workers’ rights. Women would continue to fight back throughout the 19th century, even creating the first all-female union, but they would never again dominate the American shoe industry in numbers.
The chance to secure a future for women workers on an equal footing with men has been lost. And the impact of this profound loss is still felt today far beyond the shoe industry.