Women of the labor movement: the hard-fought origins of today’s commonplace rights

Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women have been at the forefront of labor advocacy in the United States. A defining period for female worker’s rights began in the 1920s during the labor feminism movement, as women fought (and earned) workplace and union rights we consider standard practice today.

A foundational component of the early labor feminism movement was not blanket equality for male and female workers. Instead, the movement acknowledged that women require distinct benefits, such as those related to motherhood, and fought to extended maternity leave, impose continued health coverage during pregnancy, and impose financial protections like unemployment coverage.

The movement continued as a powerful political and labor influence during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the final bill varied from its original 1945 form, labor feminists spent 18 years reintroducing the Equal Pay Act to congress until the bill passed in 1963. The Equal Pay Act is a landmark piece of legislation, becoming the fountainhead of gender wage equality efforts in the U.S.

Labor hero spotlight:

One fearless female, Sue Ko Lee, was the leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in California and a remarkable figure in labor rights. Before her role in the ILGWU, Lee led a 15-week strike in 1939 strike against National Dollar Stores in San Francisco. The strike made headlines across the country as the workers fought for fair pay, safe working conditions, and laws to protect equal representation.

The National Dollar Store Strike was a resounding success for the immediate and enduring conditions for women – especially Chinese American women – in labor. The strikers won improved working conditions and a 5% raise and, following the publicity and success of the strike, more companies were willing to hire Chinese American workers.

Nationwide, likeminded women from diverse backgrounds have championed shared, practical goals that are now considered baseline rights such as pay equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Health coverage for labor and trust groups

Every organized labor group has its own rich history, diverse workforce, and unique health needs. Blue Shield’s Labor & Trust Team has the expertise to work with your groups and, with plans like Shared Advantage and Shared Advantage Plus, groups can find the optimal balance of value and choice for your membership.

For more about women in the labor movement click here. Interested in how Blue Shield can meet the unique needs of your organized labor group? Click here to get in touch.

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