Women as Union Leaders
Even as women were increasingly admitted into labor unions, they continued the struggle to gain respect and equal opportunities within their unions. Due to tradition and pressures from fellow members, women in many unions never spoke or participated at union meetings. The International Typographical Union (ITU) was the first to elect a woman to an international office when Augusta Lewis was elected Corresponding Secretary in 1870. Even 100 years after Lewis accomplished this, women still struggled to gain leadership positions at the national and local levels.
Having women in leadership positions opened up opportunities to improve conditions for working women. The unique issues that affected women workers inside and outside the workplace, such as sexual harassment and childcare, were often ignored or not understood by male union members and officers. Women union officers were able to give women a stronger voice and promote much needed programs for women and all workers.
Mollie as a Union Leader
In 1972, Mollie was elected by the Chicago Typographical Union (CTU) as a delegate to the 1973 International Typographical Union Convention, the first woman in the union to be elected to any office. Once she arrived, Mollie found that only six of the 350 delegates attending the convention were women. The five other women had been appointed by small locals where other members could not attend. Mollie was the only woman to be elected, and she represented the second largest local in the country.
Mollie also learned that, as was common in many union meetings, the women in attendance never stood up to address the Convention. Mollie, of course, intended to change this tradition. In her first words spoken to the International Convention Union Council, she not only made a statement about women’s ability to be union leaders, she also called attention to the practices that excluded women.
In 1975, she was the first woman to run for and be elected to the Executive Council. She would later be elected to the Executive Council three more times. In 1984, Mollie became the first woman Vice President of the CTU. She was also appointed to represent her union to the Chicago Federation of Labor-Industrial Union Council and to the Illinois State AFL-CIO, and served as a delegate in both for twenty years.
Listen to Mollie describe her first experience as a delegate at an ITU convention and women’s efforts to broaden the influence of women in labor unions in the video below.
Delegate medals Mollie wore at Illinois state AFL-CIO conventions in the 1960s.
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Header image: Mollie West at the 1976 ITU Convention