Rocking the Boat: Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975

Rocking the Boat: Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975

Rocking the Boat: Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975

Rocking the Boat: Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975


Rocking the Boat recognizes the strong, committed women who helped to build the American labor movement. Through the stories of eleven women from a wide range of backgrounds, we experience the turmoil, hardships, and accomplishments of thousands of other union women activists through the period spanning the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the McCarthy era, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement. These women tell powerful stories that highlight and detail their many roles as workers, trade unionists, and family members. They all faced difficulties in their personal lives, overcame challenges in their unions, and individually and collectively helped improve women's everyday working lives. Maida Springer-Kemp came from New York City's Harlem, Local 22 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, to represent the AFL-CIO in Africa. In Chicago, Alice Peurala fought for her job in the steel mill and her place in the steel workers' union. Jesse De La Cruz organized farm workers in California, Esther Peterson, organizer, educator, and lobbyist, became an advisor to four U.S. presidents. In chapters based on oral history interviews, these women and others provide new perspectives and practical advice for today's working women. They share an idealistic and practical commitment to the labor movement. As Dorothy Haener of the United Auto Workers and a founding member of the National Organization of Women said, "You have to take a look at how to rock the boat. You don't want to spill yourself out if you can avoid it, but sometimes you have to rock the boat." From these women we, too, learn how to rock the boat. Brigid O'Farrell is a senior associate at the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She has edited or coauthored several books, including Work and Family: Policies for a Changing Workforce. Joyce L. Kornbluh, workers' educator, labor historian, and community activist, recently retired from the Labor Studies Center, University of Michigan. She is the author of A New Deal for Worker's Education: The Workers' Service Program, 1934-1943.


We have been thinking about this book for twenty years. In 1975, Joyce Kornbluh, with a small seed grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations (ILIR) at the University of Michigan, initiated and directed the oral history project "The Twentieth Century Trade Union Woman: Vehicle for Social Change." The project's requests to organizations, newspapers, and journals generated the names of over four hundred women active in the U.S. labor movement between 1900 and 1970. Eventually responding to a detailed interview guide that was designed collectively by an advisory committee for the project, eighty-seven women discussed their work, union, and family lives with volunteer interviewers.

Brigid O'Farrell, then with the Women's Research Center at Wellesley College, was one of the volunteer interviewers in Massachusetts. With tape recorder and interview guide in hand, she met Anna Sullivan, who entered the Chicopee textile mills when she was fourteen, joined the Textile Workers Union of America, and at age seventy-two worked for the Springfield AFL-CIO Labor Council. Florence Luscomb, a graduate of MIT in 1910, marched for women's suffrage, organized clerical workers in the 1930s, and campaigned for peace and civil rights for most of this century. She lived in a commune as she neared her ninetieth birthday. Rose Norwood, in her apartment in Boston, recounted her years as an activist with the Women's Trade Union League and her organizing at the telephone company in the early 1900s.

Over the next three years, union women graciously shared the stories of their lives. In all, fifty-four interviews were legally released after being transcribed and edited by many younger women undergraduate and graduate students who worked with Joyce on the project. Over seven thousand pages of transcripts were deposited in several university archives. An oral history primer, Workingwomen's Roots, was published by the project and used in many high school and college classrooms and in union locals across the country. The Anna Sullivan interview, edited by Lydia Kleiner and Brigid O'Farrell, appeared in the journal Frontier's in 1977. But there was no book celebrating all of these women and we moved on to other activities.

During the 1980s, Brigid worked with a group of interdisciplinary scholars at the Wellesley Center. Her writing focused on women in blue-collar jobs, equal employment laws, and unions, and she taught in the Northeast Summer School for Union Women. Later she moved to the National Research Council in . . .

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