Laboring Women, Real and Imagined
IN 1903, Atlanta’s Journal of Labor, a weekly newspaper and the premier voice of organized white labor across the state, began a celebration of women connected to the city’s federated white trade unions. Two images of white women appeared in these photographs and stories: the union wife and the working girl. The former were a part of “a body of noble women, who have thrown their consecrated efforts with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, in the great labor movement.”1 Not paid laborers themselves but instead the backbone of the working-class family, these married women directed their efforts toward maintaining a home, organizing union auxiliaries, and directing “buy union” campaigns. The union wife carried “an abiding faith in the equity and justice of unionism” and, with almost “religious zeal,” taught “her children accordingly.”2
The second image, that of the working girl, generally received praise in the pages of the Journal of Labor first for her popularity or beauty and second for her skill as a worker.3 Descriptions of the working girl characterized her as loyal, energetic, “lovely and lovable,” with the underlying message that she was available for marriage: “we can hear the wedding bells already.”4 The local labor press encouraged union men to “abolish female competition in the work room” by marrying “the competition” and celebrated a 1907 shortage of hat trimmers resulting from a spate of marriages during the preceding year.5 Union leaders urged women who worked for wages to become union members and celebrated these women as wage earners in their own right, at least as long as they were single. Yet it was hoped and expected that the working girl’s greatest aspiration in the early twentieth century would be to become a union wife.
Following the turn of the century, the union wife would increasingly find herself surrounded by growing numbers of working girls. She might even find herself becoming one of them as the employment of women shifted to include many more older and married women. Organized labor’s focus on women’s relationship to work would be continued by businessmen, middle-class reformers, and local newspapers over the next fifteen years. Arguments over the fate of young, white,