2019 marks the centennial of American women’s achievement of a right that so many take for granted: the right to vote. To commemorate this milestone in human history, the Alice Paul Institute is presenting a series of lectures as part of the “Suffrage Speak: Honoring the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote” program. This Women’s History Month Dr. Lara Vapnek delivered a talk entitled “For the Work of a Day We Want Something to Say: Social Change and Suffrage.” The event occurred at Paulsboro in Mount Laurel, NJ on March 9th.
According to her biography on amazon.com: Dr. Vapnek teaches history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. She earned her PhD at Columbia. She specializes in the history of gender and labor in the nineteenth and twentieth century United States. The professor based the speech on her 2009 book Breadwinnners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865 – 1920.
Dr. Vapnek structured her comments along three themes. The working women during the time period considered themselves “breadwinners.” They worked out of necessity to financially support either their families or themselves. These women didn’t feel that men either represented or protected them. Their inability to vote inhibited them from achieving full political equality with men. Lacking that parity affected their ability to achieve their goals within the labor movement.
Stereotypes inhibited the efforts of early reformers. Society viewed women’s proper role as that of homemaker. The “male breadwinner ideal” mythos permeated the eras’s thinking. So did the “middle class ideal” of women belonging at home. Through a series of statistics Dr. Vapnek showed this chauvinistic belief as just that: a fantasy. In 1870, 15% of women participated in the work force. By 1920 that percentage jumped to 25%. In urban areas the figure reached one third.
The professor included some brief biographies of early leaders within the women’s rights movement. She described the contributions of individuals such as Jennie Collins, Leonora O’Reilly and Leonora Barry among others. As many of these figures gave excellent speeches, Dr. Vapnek added memorable quotations to her talk. Some of the best included an 1866 line from Frances Harper: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” While testifying before the US Congress in 1912, Leonora O’Reilly stated, “We women have dreamed of democracy but we have never enjoyed it.” The most prescient also came from Ms. O’Reilly. In 1899 she observed:
Women, whether you wish it or not, your first step must be to gain equal political rights with men. The next step after that must be equal pay for equal work.
A shorter work day was another goal for which these reformers fought. During the nineteenth century people typically worked 12 to 14 hour days. Jennie Collins pushed for a “reduced” 10–hour day. Years later Leonora Barry advocated an 8-hour one.
These advocates proved adept at organizing. They established groups such as the Women’s Trade Union League (in 1903) and the Wage Earners Suffrage League (in 1911). During the fall of 1909, the “Uprising of the 20,000” occurred. These women’s garment workers initiated a walk out in protest of conditions within the industry. The work stoppage lasted until February of 1910. The media at the time portrayed it as the “girls strike.” In a crass attempt to send a message, the authorities tried many of those arrested in night court along with prostitutes. Some 700 received sentences of hard labor.
Labor conditions from the Reconstruction through the First World War were harsh. People worked extended hours in cramped and dangerous conditions. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 made the modern expression “workplace safety” seem like an oxymoron. The plight of the “breadwinners” became more egregious than taxation without representation.
The efforts of these labor reformers facilitated the movement for women’s suffrage. They proved that a person couldn’t have economic rights without corresponding political ones. The power to elect those who make the laws provides a strong incentive for politicians to govern prudently.