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Pittsburgh Women in Organized Labor @ Pitt Archives: The Early Years

The Roles of Women in Pittsburgh's Labor History as seen through the University of Pittsburgh's Archives & Special Collections

Overview

Industrialization in the United States began to flourish during the 19th century. With the development of new technology, many people began to move to urban environments and work outside of the home. Although the workforce at this time primarily consisted of men, women also worked outside of the home. The opportunities and wages for women were not equal to those of men, yet as early as the 1830s women constituted roughly 40% of the manufacturing labor force in the Northeast. Women worked in mills as well as within their own homes, creating textiles, shoes, buttons, and numerous other goods. By 1850, cotton mills employed about 1,500 people, most of whom were likely single Irish women.º

During the 19th century in Pittsburgh, women primarily remained within the home. To supplement the income of their husbands, some women took on boarders. Many men did not want their wives and daughters to work outside of the home, and women often had a difficult time finding outside employment opportunities. Regardless, women's labor participation increased from 16 to 22 percent between 1880 and 1900. Many women who worked outside of the home were domestic servants. Of those who worked in factories, majority worked in cigar manufacturing. By 1900, women made up 47 percent of cigar makers.¹ However, even in industry, women's tasks were typically subordinate to men's jobs. They mostly completed tasks such as washing bottles, cleaning, and sorting materials. Even while working outside the home, women were restricted to more "feminine" tasks and lower pay.

Working hours and conditions were often terrible during the early years of unionization. Workers were expected to work 10-12 hour days under dangerous conditions, with incomparable pay. Because of this, workers and their families sometimes participated in strikes, such as the Westinghouse strikes in 1914 and 1916. Women also played a role in these strikes, as can be seen in images below. There were multiple strikes in the Pittsburgh area during the early years of unionization.

The Allegheny City Cotton Mill Riot of 1848

Conditions were not always healthy or safe within the workplace. In some mills, such as those of Allegheny City (known today as Pittsburgh’s North Side), protests broke out in response to poor working conditions. In 1845, about 5,000 women workers went on strike in the cotton mills of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. They protested receiving only $2.50 for working a 72 hour week.² In 1848, the Cotton Mill Riot broke out in Allegheny City when workers attempted to decrease the working day from 12 hours a day to 10 hours a day. The mills were willing to decrease the work day, but mill operators stated that there would be a corresponding decrease in pay. Cotton mill workers went on strike to protest this pay decrease. They felt that their wages were too low for the long hours that they worked, so a decrease in hours should not mean a decrease in pay. The 10 hour workday was eventually resolved in March 1848.

Cartoons by Fred Wright, labor cartoonist for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE)

Women on Strike

Westinghouse Strike, 1914

Westinghouse Picketers, 1914

Homestead

The Homestead Mill, which was owned by Andrew Carnegie and under the management of Henry Clay Frick, was the site of the earliest labor conflict in the Pittsburgh region. In 1892, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers Union and the Carnegie Steel Corporation came to a disagreement when Frick refused to renew the terms of a contract from 1889. This strike became increasingly more violent as Pinkertons were sent in to break up the strike. It resulted in the death of men on both sides of the conflict. There were women who took part in the strike, although there were no women workers employed at Carnegie Steel during this time. 

Prior to the 1892 strike, there were other strikes against the companies of Carnegie Steel Corporation. According to Frick, the first strike of importance that he could remember was in the coke region in 1886. Frick stated that in 1886, a Pennsylvania law went into effect that prohibited the employment of women. The company had never employed a woman, yet the wives of the immigrants who worked in the coke region would accompany and help their husbands. The workers did piecework, for which they were paid per each piece that they completed. With the help of their wives, the workers were able to complete more pieces and make more money. When the state passed this law, which went into effect on January 1, 1886, the company issued an order that the women were not to go to work with the men. This resulted in a strike.³ 

Strike at Ferguson & Levin

In September 1908, there was a strike at Ferguson & Levin. The girls who worked there were protesting a decrease in pay for the same number of hours. The strikers were part of Local 140 of the Shirt Waist and Factory Workers. 

Fannie Sellins

One of the most prominent women in early Pittsburgh labor history was Fannie Sellins. She was an organizer for garment workers, miners, and steelworkers. Born in 1872, Sellins became involved in labor after being forced to work in a St. Louis garment shop to support herself and her children. Her husband had been killed during a labor strike. To find work, Sellins moved to Chicago, where she became secretary of her garment workers’ local and took part in a 1911 strike. This attracted the attention of the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA), who wanted Sellins in the non-union coal fields of West Virginia.

After working in the fields for four years, Sellins took up residence in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. She became an organizer and troubleshooter for UMWA District 5. Sellins helped to organize the US Steel Corporation Mills at Vandergrift, Leechburgh, and New Kensington. She also organized the Independent Allegheny and West Pennsylvania Steel Companies of Brackenridge. 

Sellins was eventually killed during a strike against the Allegheny Steel coal companies. Even though none of the strikers supposedly called for her help, Sellins received a phone call to go to West Natrona. During the strike, a company gunman shot and killed her. There was a jury and trial in 1923 that resulted in the acquittal of those accused of her murder.

Fannie Sellins was an important figure within the early labor movement. Because of her involvement in organized labor, there is a memorial erected at the Union cemetery in Arnold. However, she was only one of other women involved in organized labor and strikes during the early twentieth century. 

Footnotes

º Maurine Greenwauld. "Women and Pennsylvania Working-Class History," Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 64, no. 1 (1996): 7.

¹ S.J. Kleinberg, The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 143-157.

² Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story (New York: United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, 1970), 33.

³ David P. Demarest and Fannia Weingartner, The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 18.