Sunday, May 28, 2023
Labor, Social Justice, Women

In the Voting Booth and on the Shop Floor, Women Fought for Parity

by Steve Thornton

Their names are not well known today: Ruth Scott, Elsie Vervane, Mrs. C. Weaver and her daughter Eva, But these Bridgeport workers played an important role in the historic campaign for the right to vote.They were four of thirteen Connecticut women who had been arrested and sentenced to jail for participating in the Washington D.C. “Watchfire” protests in January, 1919.  All four worked in the city’s munitions industry; Vervane was president of the Bridgeport Women’s Machinist Union local.

The voting booth and the shop floor were two important arenas in the fight for the women’s franchise. In the early 20th century, suffragists sought to change the U.S. Constitution, while women trade unionists demanded parity with men in the state’s factories and garment shops. When these two movements intersected– in Bridgeport and around the country– both groups came closer to their common goal of equality.

Suffragists also challenged the shameful practice of child labor. Three million U.S. children between the ages of 10 and 16 were wage earners in 1915. Disease and high injury rates were widespread in Connecticut mills; effective workplace safety laws and factory inspections were almost non-existent. Women’s groups educated their members on the harsh reality of young factory and mill workers. The groups agitated for a federal ban on child labor, pensions for mothers, and education reform. 

Local suffragists, who were largely middle and upper class, knew they had to win over working class women who would also benefit from the vote. They consciously included working women in their activities. “Only by having all women enfranchised on equal terms with men can the protection of women and girls be accomplished,” suffragists declared.

Connecticut women took part in the civil disobedience actions in Washington D.C. organized by the National Women’s Party (NWP), a militant national group that was ramping up the pressure on state and federal authorities.  At their “Watch Fire of Freedom” protests they burned speeches by Woodrow Wilson in front of the White House, and once burned the president himself in effigy.

As NWP organizer Doris Stevens explained in her book Jailed for Freedom, while 500 women took part in the agitation, “scores of women were arrested but never brought to trial; many others were convicted and their sentences suspended or appealed.”

Conservative trade unions clung to the notion that they could maintain their relatively privileged status by ignoring all workers except those who were white, skilled, and male. But progressive unionists like those found in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) understood the need not only to organize women but to make sure they took their rightful place as leaders and organizers. For the first two decades of the 20th century, famed agitators Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bridgeport’s Matilda Rabinowitz organized both male and female factory workers for the Wobblies in Bridgeport and throughout the state. 

In this state, some male trade unionists took up the cause of women’s political rights. Machinists’ union organizer Sam Lavit of Bridgeport had “done more for the National Women’s Party in Connecticut than any other man” declared a leading suffragist.

But maybe the most telling moment in the effort to build a coalition between the women’s and union movements came at the 1916 state convention of the Connecticut State Federation of Labor.  Although its national body was on record in support of women’s suffrage, local labor leaders balked when a suffrage resolution reached their meeting.

The resolution was opposed by union cigar makers and saloon keepers, who considered the effort a job-killer because they equated suffrage with prohibition (another movement also largely led by women). Ironically, the few union women who were voting delegates also opposed the resolution, arguing that suffrage was a political question, not an economic one. “When we were asking the legislature for better working hours for women did we get help from the suffragists?” asked one hostile delegate. “Yes, I spoke for the measure,” a suffragist retorted.

 Despite parliamentary maneuvers to keep the resolution from being voted on, a heated discussion ensued. The motion passed, as did another to reduce hours of work for women.

By 1920, the federal Women’s Suffrage Amendment was finally ratified by the requisite number of thirty-six states.  The Connecticut General Assembly came in thirty-seventh.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.

The Shoeleather History Project, Stories from Hartford’s grassroots

Steve Thornton
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer and community activist who has led strikes and organizing campaigns in Connecticut for the past 35 years. He has trained hundreds of people in nonviolent direct action and thousands of workers to become rank and file leaders. Steve has worked to build coalitions between various groups working on economic, racial, and environmental justice. His international work includes making solidarity connections with working peoples' struggles in Havana, Belfast, Managua and Oslo. His work as an organizer is featured in Social Movements and Activists in the USA by Stephen Valocchi.