Four Reasons to Thank the Women of the Bread and Roses Strike
Today is the 101st anniversary of a pivotal moment in labor and female workers’ rights. Not a day you have marked on your calendars? It should be. The Lawrence Strike of 1912 is more commonly known as the Bread and Roses Strike and was dominated by the extremely international, diverse, and women-led workers of the city. On March 13, 1912, the owners of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, mills accepted the terms of the more than 25,000 striking workers. It was a monumental victory for the women workers, who made up more than half of Lawrence’s workforce and was a turning point for a more gender-inclusive labor movement. Here’s why we thank them today:
1) Working conditions are much, MUCH safer today. Being a mill worker in Lawrence in the early 1900s, like in many U.S. cities, was both dangerous and precarious. More than half the workers were women and girls between the ages of 14 and 18. The majority of the workers were immigrants who had been in the United States less than 10 years, and more than 30 percent of the workers would not live to age 25. All this, in a growing industrial city that produced 25 percent of the country’s woolen cloth.
2) 60 hour weeks are now considered bad for the right reasons. In 1908 the Supreme Court ruled to limit a woman’s workday to 10 hours in the landmark case Muller v. Oregon. The decision was made not for the sake of fairness and labor rights but to protect the reproductive capacity of the female worker. Too much work meant fewer babies. In January 1912, Massachusetts began implementing the new law that limited a woman’s workweek to 54 hours instead of 56. When the women saw that the law also meant a forced decrease in pay, they decided to strike. Women in Lawrence demanded fewer hours and increased pay for their rights, not their reproduction.
3) Women were empowered to come together to demand fair pay. It was not only workers who demanded fair wages, better conditions, and the right to organize. Women academics and activists also joined the fight. Wellesley College professors Ellen Hayes and Vida Dutton Scudder were prominent supporters of the strike. Students at local women’s colleges such as Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, and Smith raised funds for striking workers. Big names like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of the International Workers of the World and reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger also played roles in the strike.
4) Multiculturalism and diversity were recognized as a strength. The strike brought together not only women of different economic and education statuses but also women of many different ethnicities and religions. The workers of Lawrence were an extremely diverse group, comprising more than 25 different nationalities and together speaking more than 45 different languages. Women from around the country, and world, came together to call for labor rights.
While the mill owners did agree to the demands of the workers in 1912, the history of labor and workers’ rights since then has remained fraught with challenges. Steffi Domike, a former AAUW fellow and coordinator of the Associated Members Program with the United Steelworkers Union, knows this firsthand. “Unions never take their existence for granted. There has been a struggle since workers began to organize. … The challenges unions face today are nothing new,” she says. Today the fight for workers’ rights continues, from the Family and Medical Leave Act to fair pay. Still, the poem for which the strike gets its name rings true.
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.