Protest and Popular Culture: Women in the U.S. Labor Movement, 1894-1917

Protest and Popular Culture: Women in the U.S. Labor Movement, 1894-1917

Protest and Popular Culture: Women in the U.S. Labor Movement, 1894-1917

Protest and Popular Culture: Women in the U.S. Labor Movement, 1894-1917

Excerpt

In the winter of 1909-1910, women and girls led the "Uprising of 30,000," a walkout of thousands of women and men in shirtwaist factories in New York City. It was the inspiration of numerous labor uprisings for years to come. On November 22, 1909, at a crowded meeting of shirtwaist makers headed by the well-known American Federation of Labor (AFL) leader Samuel Gompers, and a wealthy reformer, Mary Dreier, a young working girl stood up before the gathering and made a simple but impassioned statement for an immediate general strike: "I have listened to all the speeches. I am one who thinks and feels from the things they describe. I, too, have worked and suffered. I am tired of the talking. I move that we go on a general strike!" (Clark and Wyatt, 1910b, 81).

The popular magazine McClure's covered the remarkable event, noting its dramatic beginning with the words of one working girl. The article then concluded reassuringly how "[w]onderful to know that, after her [a shirtwaist worker's] very bones had been broken by the violence of a thug of an employer, one of these girls could still speak for perfect fairness for him [the employer] with an instinct for justice truly large and thrilling" (Ibid., 86). The description of a generous and compassionate striker provides an interesting example of how these militant actions were tempered and interpreted in a manner palatable for a middle-class audience. Actions motivated by anger and inspired by a belief in economic and political justice were transformed into an experience in character cultivation and an opportunity for mutual understanding between the classes. Material differences were elided; thus, rhetorical consensus was achieved.

Into the 1890s and early 1900s, magazines such as McClure's (as well as newspapers and dime novels) grew in popularity as various technological advances and cheaper prices made these entertainment forms available to readers of all classes. These cultural texts thus played an increasingly important role in constructing meanings and framing events—such . . .

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