In Honor of May Day, Some Amazing Lady Labor Activists

by Intern Kerishma

Today is International Workers’ Day, aka May Day, and over 80 countries are celebrating and honoring the history and progression of the international labor movement. Founded in 1886 in commemoration of the Chicago Haymarket Massacre and the May Day Riots, activists from all over the world will come together to celebrate the spirit of labor unions and make progress for the future.

In the United States, the gender wage gap is better than it’s ever been, but women still get paid less than men in all fields, save for “personal care and service.” Though the Equal Pay Act was in 1963 (and the more recent Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in 2009), there is a huge gender disparity in salaries. We still have miles to go to close the wage gap.

Still, I thought I’d take a little time out of May Day to highlight just how far we’ve come, and honor women who fought for labor rights throughout American history. Enjoy!


Mary “Mother” Jones
Mary Jones’ philosophy on activism was clear: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” And fight like hell she did. In 1902, at age 65, Mother Jones was labeled the “most dangerous woman in America” for her effectiveness in organizing mineworkers and their families. Though her own life was marked by tragedy–she lost her children and husband to the yellow fever epidemic, and her dressmaking business was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire–she used her experiences to make the workplace safer for everyone else. Described as an extremely charismatic and effective orator and raconteur, she worked as a community organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Worker’s union. She was also, interestingly enough, opposed to the suffrage movement, declaring, “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!” She brought the issue of child labor to the forefront by organizing her 1903 “Children’s Crusade,” in which children who worked in mines (many with injuries and disfigurements because of the mines) and their families marched to the home of then-President Theodore Roosevelt with banners declaring, “We want to go to School and not the mines!” Her dedication to the rights of mine workers and the mine workers themselves is evident in her nickname, “Mother,” given as a result of her tendency to call the mine workers “my boys.”
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


Dolores Huerta
Originally a grammar school teacher, Dolores Huerta grew frustrated with the poverty she witnessed every day. “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes,” she said. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” And this is a cause she has dedicated her life to. Along with fellow legendary labor activist César Chavez, Huerta founded the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union that represented the farm laborers (who were mostly Hispanic and Filipino). The UFW had many successes, such as a three-year struggle against California table grape growers that resulted in Huerta’s negotiating of a three-year collective-bargaining contract for over 10,000 workers in 1970. To this day, Huerta travels the country, speaking about grassroots community organizing and activism, and advocating the rights of the working poor, women, and children.
(Image via


Crystal Lee Sutton
Some of you might know of Crystal Lee Sutton already, but as Norma Rae Webster, from the 1979 Sally Field film. Sutton was earning a pittance folding towels and tolerating poor working conditions at J.P. Stevens, and attempted to unionize her fellow employees. Management ignored her and she received numerous threats, and was eventually fired from the company. But she insisted on having the last word: before she left, she wrote the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, stood on her table, and turned it around so all the workers could see – and had to be physically removed by the police. Her legacy was tremendous: The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) won the right to represent the workers at the plant on in 1974, and she continued to organize for the ACTWU for much of her life.
(Image via


Lucy Parsons
Born in 1853 (likely as a slave) in Texas, Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons was described by the Chicago Police Department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” After being forced to move from the South to Chicago (her interracial marriage to a former Confederate soldier was highly taboo), and immediately began her work as a labor activist and organizer. In the 1920s, much of her focus was on anarchist union organizing, and fighting for rights of workers (such as an 8-hour workday). She was known as a fiery and inspiring public speaker, and was a prolific writer, editing and contributing to publications about anarchism, socialism (she belived women’s oppression stemmed from capitalism), feminisms, and the rights of the working lower class. She also devoted herself to the rights of people of color (she herself was of Native American, Black American, and Mexican ancestry), women, and political prisoners.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull’s got quite the list of accomplishments. She, along with her sister, was the first woman to start and operate a brokerage on Wall Street, the first woman to found and serve as editor for a weekly newspaper (Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was the first to publish an English translation of the Communist Manifesto), and also the first woman candidate for the President of the United States in 1872. Her campaign for president was on the platform of equal rights as a part of the Equal Rights Party, also known as the “People’s Party” and the “National Radical Reformers.” (Former slave and noted writer and thinker Frederick Douglass was nominated to be the vice presidential candidate, but Douglass never acknowledged this nomination.) She condemned the lack of women in government, and proposed an entirely new constitution for the United States. She advocated women’s suffrage (it’s kind of insane that she ran for POTUS before women got the vote), labor rights, free love, sex education, vegetarianism, licensed prostitution, and short skirts. A lady after my own heart.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


Rosie the Riveter
OK, I know this is sixth in a list of five, but just think of this more as Super Honorary Mention.
I doubt I have to introduce this famous lady to y’all, but I’ll do it anyway: American cultural and feminist icon Rosie the Riveter is an obvious shoo-in. She represented the American women of the 1940s who worked in the factories while men were away at war. The name “Rosie the Riveter” comes from a (fantastically catchy) 1942 song, which became a national hit. Contrary to popular belief, the iconic “We can do it!” image was not originally meant to be a representation of Rosie – in fact, it wasn’t meant to inspire female empowerment at all; rather, it was used to exert control and discourage labor unrest in the workers. The character of Rosie the Riveter was instead represented by photos of real American women working in the factories, contributing to the war effort (like the above right). The image resurfaced in the 1980s, and was then connected to the title of “Rosie the Riveter.” Today, Rosie and the phrase “We can do it!” are ubiquitous, and synonymous with feminism and women’s economic and labor empowerment.
(Images via Wikimedia Commons)

this post was first published May 1, 2012

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