International Worker’s Day and the Female Workforce

International Worker’s Day, also known as May Day, is the traditional day that most countries celebrate laborers and contributions of the working class. May Day can trace its origins to the mid-1880s when workers worldwide were demanding an eight-hour workday. In America, the date was chosen by the American Federation of Labor to continue their campaign for the eight-hour work day and to commemorate the Haymarket affair.

 Labor relations, unionization, and workers rights are all topics that can be found in NARA’s motion picture and sound recordings. One of the most extensive groups of labor records comes from the Department of Labor found in Record Group 174: General Records of the Department of Labor. In NARA’s holdings, films produced by the Department of Labor are filed among several record groups mirroring the agency’s topic specific organization and functions. The films cover a variety of topics such as occupational safety, employment standards, and the history of the department itself. While films created or compiled by the Department of Labor are largely filed in series within the General Records of the Department of Labor, Record Group 174, those created or compiled specifically by the Department’s Women’s Bureau are filed in series within the dedicated record group, Record Group 86: Records of the Women’s Bureau, 1892-1995. The film, Within the Gates, was created by the Women’s Bureau in 1930 with the purpose of asking for “equal opportunity, fair pay, reasonable hours, clean comfortable, safe workplaces” for women wage workers. By showing how integral women are to manufacturing in America, the film hopes to promote equitable working environments for them.  

Clip from 86-General-2, Within the Gates

By the time the film, Within the Gates, was created by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, the labor movement had been active for more than half a century. The labor movement and the push for workers rights continued from the mid-1800’s through the early 1900’s during a time period known as the Progressive Era. Each time a major workplace disaster occurred, the movement gained intensity. One of the most well-known incidents occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911. When a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, workers became trapped by purposely blocked exits. Many jumped from the windows in an attempt to escape. In all, the fire claimed 146 victims, mostly women and girls. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire called attention to dangerous factory conditions and led to the development of several laws and regulations to better protect workers.

In 1913, after more than fifty years of campaigning by the organized labor movement and only 2 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, President Taft established the Department of Labor. The organized labor movement wanted their voice to be heard in the US Government and that was the Department of Labor’s purpose. The department’s mission is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions, advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights. 

The development of labor rights would not have been possible without the labor and activism of women. Women worked alongside their male counterparts to ensure safer, more-humane working conditions for themselves and others. Even in industries where women were not employed, such as coal mining, they often helped organize strikes. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in American history, saw women directly involved in strikes and their entire families evicted from their homes. To intimidate striking miners, their wives were targeted by local law enforcement, threatened and assaulted. 

Still taken from 86-General-2, Within the Gates

Other well-known individuals and groups of women involved in the labor movement were Mary Harris Jones“Mother Jones,”Sue Ko Lee, Rosina Corrothers Tucker, Emma Tenayuca, the Women of the 1910 Chicago Garment Workers’ Strike and the Radium Girls. The below clip from Within the Gates briefly discusses the history of women laborers and their involvement in production. The film provides statistics taken from the 1920 census to remind audiences of the large role women play in the workforce. “Of 572 occupations, women engage in all but 35. Of every 5 workers, 1 is a woman. Of every 5 women, 1 is a worker ‘gainfully employed.’ Altogether, 8.5 million wage earning women.”    

Clip from 86-General-2, Within the Gates

As an example of women’s contributions to labor in America, the film focuses mainly on women in the textile and garment industry. All facets of the industry are examined from obtaining raw materials to make the fabric to selling the finished product. While the film does not point out the disparities present in each stage of the process, they are obvious to the observer. Take working conditions for instance, viewers can see the differences in working conditions between those women and girls made to obtain raw materials and the women selling a finished product. While both work long hours, one is doing so while exposed to the elements while the other is indoors. The clips below depict the steps necessary to provide consumers with collared shirts.

Clip from 86-General-2, Within the Gates
Clip from 86-General-2, Within the Gates

The creation of Within the Gates, more than 10 years after the end of progressive era and the organized labor movement associated with it, shows that labor reform does not end. The Department of Labor created the film to ask for fair wages and safe working conditions for women workers and the agency continues to do so for all workers almost 100 years later. Additional records from the department of labor can be found in our online catalog: Moving Images, Still Pictures, and Cartographic materials. Within the Gates can be viewed in its entirety on NARA’s YouTube channel as well as in the embedded link below.

One thought on “International Worker’s Day and the Female Workforce

  1. I always appreciate your blog posts Caitlin. James Green’s “The Devil Is Here in these Hills” goes into the great detail about Marry Harris “Mother Jones” and the Battle of Blair Mountain.

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