Women and Labor History
Often barred from public leadership roles and activities, generations of women have found alternative ways to be involved in their communities and have created spaces for themselves where they can influence change. In the workplace, the labor movement, and elsewhere in history, women have contributed in different ways that often go under the radar. Through the struggles of individuals and the collective voice of the women’s movement and groups like the Coalition of Labor Union Women, women have taken small steps toward equality. Today, women are leaders in businesses, politics, and more, although they continue to face challenges in attaining these goals.
Because their work has often occurred behind the scenes, history has not always acknowledged the influence of women in important periods of the past. Along with efforts of historians, the involvement of women in preserving the record and memory of women’s contributions has helped create a more complete record of the past.
Mollie West and Labor History Education
Although she had to retire from her job at the Daily Racing Form in 1987, Mollie had no intention of slowing down. During her printing career, Mollie began spending her free time volunteering at the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS), an organization that’s mission is “to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present.”
After retiring, she volunteered full time as the secretary for ILHS and used her labor education degree to support the efforts to share the history in which she had participated. Just as Mollie became a leader in her union in order to represent the needs of women, at ILHS she participated in preserving and sharing labor history so that women’s contributions would not be forgotten.
As a retiree, Mollie was still able to remain a member of the International Typographical Union and continue her activities with the Chicago Federation of Labor- Industrial Union Council. In 1980, Mollie organized the Annual Tribute to Trade Union Women in the Chicago Federation of Labor- Industrial Union Council as a way to recognize and honor influential women in labor. Mollie also stayed active in the Coalition of Labor Union Women and continued to support women’s issues.
In 1990, she moved into the Breakers, a new community for men and women over 50. There, she was a leader and advocate for women’s rights in the residents’ association. She immediately became active in politics in the 48th Ward, supporting and befriending women politicians, including Alderman Mary Ann Smith and Illinois State Senator Carol Ronen.
Mollie’s contributions to the labor movement in Chicago were not overlooked. In the 1980s and 1990s, she received awards and recognition from a variety of groups and individuals. Among other honors, she received the Annual Tribute to Trade Union Women from the Chicago Federation of Labor-Industrial Union Council in 1987 and in 1998 was named Person of the Year by the Lake County American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Mollie’s service to her community and the nation was also recognized and praised by government officials at the local and national level.
Mollie West was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2005 at the age of 89. She continued to serve as secretary at ILHS, retiring from her position there in 2007. In 2015, Mollie West passed away at the age of 99. A celebration of her life was held by ILHS and the Women and Leadership Archives, where Mollie donated her papers. At the event, family, friends, and fellow activists gathered and spoke about the influence Mollie West had on their lives and the community.
Header image: Mollie inducted to Chicago Women’s Hall of Fame