Throughout March, the Illinois Federation of Teachers is celebrating Women’s History Month under the theme, “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Help”. The celebration is designed to recognize women’s unique achievements within the labor movement and as a tribute to the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history. A signature component of the month will be celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 and amplifying the #breakthebias message.
Labor history is rich with the contributions of women. From the Industrial Revolution to today, working women have been leading voices advocating for critical issues including, the abolition of slavery, the right to vote, the right to unionize, welfare of children, and the extension of human rights to all. As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we are recognizing the incredible contributions that women have made to the labor movement and American history by highlighting 11 important women and landmark moments for women in American labor history.
Margaret Haley was a teacher and labor leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was an early member of the Chicago Teachers Federation and became its first district vice president in 1898. In 1916, Haley helped found the American Federation of Teachers, of which the current-day Chicago Teachers Union is Local 1.
Sarah Bagley was the first president of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA). Founded in 1845, LFLRA was one of the first American labor organizations organized by and for women. The union petitioned for a 10-hour workday, which prompted the state of Massachusetts to investigate working conditions in Lowell factories — the first investigations into working conditions by a governmental body in the United States.
Born in 1878 to a Union Army veteran and abolitionist father and a high-ranking suffragette mother. Abbott’s work focused on fighting for the rights of children, recent immigrants, and new mothers and their babies. …. Abbott is most often associated with her work on drafting the Social Security Act, which passed in 1935.
Born in 1881 to two formerly enslaved people. Her husband was a porter with the Pullman Palace Company, the largest employer of Black men during the 1920’s, an infamous company well-known for being especially hard on unions. Tucker became a secret agent of sorts for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black-led union chartered with the AFL. She used the guise of social calls to organize, pass out union literature, and collect union dues. The first Black-led unions wouldn’t have existed without her.
Lucy Parsons was a radical labor organizer. In the early 1870s, she and her husband had to flee Texas, where she was from, because of intolerant reactions to their interracial marriage. Throughout her subsequent career in Chicago, she wrote for various leftist and labor publications, and in 1905, she participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 2004, the city of Chicago named a park after her.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
Mother Jones was an Irish-American schoolteacher and labor organizer. She organized and supported mining country strikes in the eastern United States. In 1903, she organized the March of the Mill Children, in which children who worked in mines and factories marched from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., with banners stating, “We want to go to school and not to the mines!”
The Lawrence textile strike, commonly referred to as the “Bread and Roses” strike, took place in Lawrence, Mass., from January to March 1912. The strike defied expectations, uniting workers (who were mostly immigrant women) from 51 different nationalities. The phrase “bread and roses” came from a line in a speech by organizer Rose Schneiderman: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” It became a cry not just for fair wages, but also for decent working and living conditions. The strike inspired the famous song “Bread and Roses.”
Born in San Antonio in 1916, her family’s history stretched back further than Mexican independence. She grew up during the Great Depression watching how her town of Mexican workers were hit hard by the Depression and treated unfairly in their workplaces. Tenayuca famously led the 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers strike, which involved more than 12,000 workers at over 130 facilities.
Dolores Huerta is a labor leader and civil rights activist who has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1962, she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez, and in 1965, she directed its national boycott during the Delano grape strike.
May Chen was working with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1982 when she led the New York Chinatown workers strike. The strike was one of the largest Asian-American strikes in history, with around 20,000 workers walking out and marching through New York City. Chen was a founding member of the AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Our own Karen Lewis was a warrior, an undeniably powerful presence, and she spoke truth to power like no one else. Karen dedicated her life to the fight for equality, fairness, and respect for all people. She led the revival of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and sparked the reinvigoration of teacher unionism across the nation. Under Karen's leadership during the historic strike of 2012, CTU won a fair and equitable contract for members, and reframed the education debate in Chicago around the schools all children deserve.
Despite significant progress, the struggle for equality continues for the over six million women who make up almost half of all union membership. The IFT is proud to recognize and honor the many current women leaders who are helping #breakthebias by continuing the fight for equality, equity, inclusion, and the betterment of all.
IFT Executive Vice President | Stacy Davis Gates, Local 1
IFT Executive Sectreary-Treasurer | Jane A. Russell, Local 571
IFT First Executive Vice President | Cyndi Oberle-Dahm, Local 434
IFT Executive Vice Presidents
Veronica Aguirre, Local 4408
Beth Anderson, Local 604
Elaine Barlos, Local 943
Jennifer Conant, Local 1
Rachel Esposito, Local 571
Zeidre Foster, Local 1
Lee Ann Gemmingen, Local 6600
Suellen Goebel, Local 4818
Leslie Harder, Local 1272
Jennifer Johnson, Local 1
Lynn Kearney, Local 540
Jhoanna Maldonado, Local 1
Brandi Many, Local 809
Maria Moreno, Local 1
Kelly Regnier, Local 504
Kristen Ryan, Local 604
LaShawn Wallace, Local 1
Christel Williams-Hayes, Local 1