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Working Women in Union History

Throughout our nation’s history, women have played a significant role in transforming workers’ lives. Their courage, spirit and contributions not only changed the labor movement but helped shape our society—and still inspire us today.

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Lowell Mill Women Create First Union of Working Women 
In the 1830s, half a century before the better-known mass movements for  workers' rights in the United States, the Lowell mill women organized,  went on strike and mobilized in politics when women couldn't even  vote—and created the first union of working women in American history.

The Uprising of 20,000 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 
In the early 1900s, young women shirtwaist makers—mostly Jewish immigrants, still in their teens—were a powerful force for change. They brought together women’s rights activism and union power and ignited sweeping changes to worker safety laws.

Atlanta’s Washerwomen Strike 
With slavery less than two decades behind them, thousands of black laundresses went on strike for higher wages, respect for their work and control over how their work was organized. In the summer of 1881, the laundresses took on Atlanta’s business and political establishment and gained so much support that they threatened to call a general strike, which would have shut the city down.

Mother Jones  
At a time when most people believed women should stay at home or considered them surplus labor, and only one in 34 women belonged to a union, Mother Jones was one of the greatest union leaders of her era. 

Esther Peterson 
Esther Peterson’s courage and vision have shaped our daily lives, as workers, women and consumers. She was honored as “one of the nation’s most effective and beloved catalysts for change” by the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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