The Role of Women in Unions
Women played a significant role in the labor movement from the beginning. In the early years of the industrial revolution, young women working in factories organized to hold some of the largest strikes of the nineteenth century.
Although women showed early that they were capable workers and could make a difference in the labor movement through organizing, their involvement in the workforce was often not looked upon favorably by male workers. Many unions did not allow women to join and banned them from entering certain jobs. This opposition became more intense during times of high unemployment. In 1941, with the country still recovering from the depression, the United Auto Workers declared their opposition to training any women until all men had work. The International Typographical Union became one of the first national unions to admit women in 1869, though they continued to deny them the apprenticeships they needed to become printers.
Other practices of unions often limited women’s involvement as well. Because women’s wages were considerably lower than men’s, union dues were often too high for women to afford. Additionally, women, who performed almost all of the housework and childcare, were often unable to attend the evening meetings of unions.


Mollie’s Entrance to the Workforce
Mollie West circa 1940
From a young age, Mollie West demonstrated her leadership skills through various activities supporting workers.

After graduating from high school in 1934, Mollie entered the workforce. With fellow labor supporter Sophie Travis, Mollie helped set up the office for a new local chapter of the Farm Equipment Workers Union. Mollie was hired as the office secretary and supported the union as they organized the workers of the International Harvester’s plants.

Along with running the office, she joined picket lines, recruited and organized workers, and encouraged the wives of workers to support the strike. During this time, she became one of the first members of the Office Workers Union, started by Molly Levitas. Here, Mollie began her career as a supporter and member of labor unions.

In 1938, Mollie helped start a new radical newspaper in Chicago, the Midwest Daily Record. Hired as the editorial secretary, she was the only woman in the office. While working at the Midwest Daily Record, Mollie met a young journalist who transferred from the Daily Worker, another Communist paper. Carl Lieber and Mollie came to know each other at the paper and while working as organizers for the Communist Party in their West Side neighborhood. They soon fell in love and married.

Watch the video below to hear Mollie talk about her experiences at the Midwest Daily Record and how she met her husband.


*This video clip was converted from a VHS video of an interview with Mollie in the 1990s.

Learn more: The organizing of women workers in the nineteenth century
In the 1830s and 1840s, the young women working at the Lowell mills held two unsuccessful strikes before forming the Lowell Female Reform Association. They began a large campaign to convince state legislatures to implement a 10-hour workday and improve working conditions. In 1909, 20,000 shirtwaist workers walked away from their jobs in support of a strike called by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. With the support of upper-class suffragists, they were able to win higher wages and shorter hours. However, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory two years later caused the death of 146 workers, resulting in renewed efforts to improve the treatment of workers.


Header image: Young Mollie speaking in front of group


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