Living history: Utah’s working women fought for their rights
At the turn of the 20th century, American industrialism brought Utah women out of their homes and into the workplace.
Whether on the farm or in the home, Western women have always shared labor responsibilities. However, when innovations such as ready-made clothes, commercial laundries, factory-processed foods and industry production of domestic items relieved many of household chores, women found themselves with job opportunities.
"Agriculture and mining dominated the economic life of [Utah]," historian Mariam B. Murphy wrote in Gainfully Employed Women, "but manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, banking and services were growing rapidly. The success of many ventures depended on women."
Women served as teachers, bakers, stenographers, telegraphers, waitresses and midwives. They ran boarding houses and worked in department stores. Talented, self-employed women became dressmakers, tailors, seamstresses and milliners.
Textile mills, clothing factories and processing plants hired the majority of women. They sewed on the production line, did "light work" in canneries, rolled tobacco leaves in cigar factories, washed and pressed cloth items in commercial laundries, and, as a product of the state’s thriving sugar beet industry, produced a lot of candy.
Children as young as 12 entered the workforce to help their parents. Single women relied on earning a living wage. Divorced mothers labored to support their children and married women supplemented their husband’s income.
Some female workers were successful, such as Annie Bywater. Educated in Manchester, England, Bywater purchased material for overalls and jumpers at the ZCMI clothing factory. She supervised 100 power-driven sewing machines and led the wholesale order department.
"Whether she received compensation comparable to male manufacturing executives is not known," Murphy wrote, "but most female factory workers did not."
In 1900, 13 percent of Utah women worked outside their home, faced wage disparity and endured workplace inequity.
Having secured employment, most women could not afford to stop working yet were perceived as selfish, uncaring of their families and open to sinful temptation. These myths encouraged employers — even the government — to lower their wages and limit their climb up the economic ladder. Female workers also risked being stereotyped by male counterparts and were discouraged from joining male-dominated unions.
"[Women] had to defy ideas that working outside of the home and on behalf of their rights as workers was unwomanly," contributor Mary Reynolds wrote in "Women, Work and Industrialization."
One way was to form unions that permitted women, such as the Chocolate Dippers’ Union of Utah No. 1.
On Jan. 21, 1910, the Salt Lake Telegram reported, "Declaring they were not paid enough for their work, and considering the high price of living at the present time, a number of girls employed at J.G. McDonald Company requested an advance on wages, as follows: On 1½-cent goods, 2 cents; small box lemon and small box vanilla, 2½ cents."
Later that week, five Chocolate Dipper union delegates led by president Sarah Rindfleish met with the Salt Lake Federation of Labor. Endorsing the newly organized union, the Federation planned a fundraising dance to assist the striking women seeking a "flat" $10-per-week salary for 8-hour workdays.
"While they were organizing," Murphy wrote, "girls ages 12 to 15 who were helpers at the factory replaced the striking women."
In April 1911, 2,000 people in Salt Lake City championed for better working conditions by marching in support of striking laundry workers. Described in the Utah Bureau of Immigration, Labor and Statistics 1911, the laundry workers — many of them women — struck "principally for a recognition of their union and for a signed agreement respecting a wage scale [and an 8-hour workday] to remain in force for a number of years."
The strike seemingly "died a slow death" until further negotiations led to a settlement and the Laundry Workers’ Union was recognized.
As were working women. On this Labor Day weekend, there’s more work to be done. Still, hats off to those many wage earners who laid the groundwork for equity.