OFTEN by necessity, sometimes by choice, sewing has long been women’s work. As with other work done by women, little attention has been given to its significance in the lives of those who have performed it and in the social and economic systems of their times. Yet the story of women needleworkers in North America raises issues that not only are central to the lives of women, but apply to labor history generally. The selections in this volume encompass themes that include changes in the conditions and rewards of work, the effects of new technologies, tensions among and within social classes, the impact of political ideas, the interactions of urbanization, immigration, and international trade. Most enduringly for women workers, the selections reflect the unsolved conflicts between responsibilities in the home and the need to earn a livelihood.
In colonial America, when all but a very few articles of use were produced by household members, women performed sewing tasks along with other domestic and farm labor. Industrialization and the rise of a market economy reduced the kinds and quantity of household manufactures, including cloth and men’s clothing, but it was not until the mass production of the sewing machine in the latter half of the nineteenth century that most garment making shifted from the home to the factory. Young, unmarried women followed, moving into the apparel industry as, earlier, their counterparts had moved into the textile mills. By this time, the household labor of both farm and urban daughters was less needed than the contribution they could make to family income.
In the large cities of the Northeast, in Baltimore, and in Chicago, women had been concentrated in the men’s clothing industry since its inception. Unmarried women and widows mainly, they sewed by hand, taking the work home and delivering shirts or piecework to the factories. Later, they also worked at machines within factory walls and in small shops run by contractors. The better-paying occupations—such as cutting and custom tailoring—were dominated by men. With thousands of poor women competing for sewing work, employers could pay wages so minimal as to keep the masses of them on the edges of starvation, as they toiled long hours under unspeakable conditions. The development of the sewing machine and the increasingly detailed division of labor in garment making led to the gradual deskilling and downgrading of the needlework done by most women. The young women who poured into the factories to become “operatives” at the close of the nineteenth century were carrying on a female tradition of hard work, but not one of an exacting personal craft.
Although single women were leaving the home to become wage workers, married women, except in the most impoverished families, attempted to remain at home. Once the workplace of all family members, the home had now become “woman’s place,” where she organized living space, processed food, and cared for the personal needs of husband and children. The hard work performed by women at home was only vaguely reflected in the ideology of domesticity, an ideal that developed after 1830 to rationalize the changing situation of women who belonged to the rapidly growing urban middle and working classes. Although thousands of urban married women took in boarders, sewed, and engaged in other market activities to enable their families to survive periodic hard times, the idea that women were primarily consumers and nurturers grew after mid-century. Employers, especially, viewed women as transitory workers who could be depended upon not to clamor in large numbers for job advancement, improved working conditions, and better pay. Their stay in employment was supposed to be a temporary one, until they became wives and mothers who did not need to “work.”
The domestic arts became a means to achieve a better standard of living at home. Domesticity was not just an ideal for the white American middle class and the average “working girl.” The ideal touched the lives of nonwhite ethnic groups, as well. Ex-slave and abolitionist Ellen Craft, for example, set out in 1874 to teach freed black women who had been field hands not only how to read and write, but also how to be proper housewives. Sewing was an art that even poor women could practice for the enhancement of domestic life, and Craft—herself an accomplished dressmaker—taught the freed women to sew clothing for themselves and their children, as well as how to cook and clean.1 Earlier in the century, in Hawaii, white women of missionary families brought “civilized” domestic culture to native women through needlework, persuading them to cover their nakedness from neck to foot with a loose-flowing garment called a “muumuu,” and to engage in making American-style patchwork quilts of imported cloth, which gradually displaced the native tapa (bark cloth) bedcovers.2
In the crowded cities, middle-class reformers turned their attention to urban immigrants—domestic and foreign—as potential carriers of the ideal of domesticity. Native white working-class mothers who had migrated from farms could inculcate in their children habits of thrift, punctuality, industriousness, and obedience to authority. Poor immigrant women in highly industrialized areas were a special concern of female reformers, who organized innumerable domestically oriented projects aimed at teaching American values and at improving the living standard of the new arrivals.
The values of domesticity coincided with employers’ interests in a dependable and docile work force, but factory women proved to be anything but docile in the early twentieth century. In a pattern that was to repeat itself up to the present day, immigrant women flocked to the garment industry. Jewish and Italian women were the most numerous of the new recruits, and the most militant. They were moving spirits in the great period of unionization which began almost simultaneously with the century. Other industries were organized in this period, but union strength in the garment industry, with its large concentrations of urban working poor, was particularly significant in labor-capitalist struggles. Industrialists’ fears of labor agitation and of radical ideas among immigrant workers turned out to be well justified. Industrialists seem not to have anticipated that women workers would be central to the unrest, however.
Male workers had not expected the women in their ranks to be crucial to their own collective power. Most male workers did not regard women workers as important or trustworthy allies; attitudes toward them were at best ambivalent, at worst hostile. On the one hand, women were competitors for the lowest paying jobs, in which their ready availability further reduced wages; on the other hand, poor families could not survive without the earnings of female members. Early union organizers in the needle trades focused on skilled workers, ignoring women as a matter of course. But as mechanization increased the proportion of unskilled jobs in the apparel industry, so too did the proportion of women workers increase. They could not be overlooked by the new unions that sought to attract the rank and file, organizing by industry rather than exclusively by craft. From the beginning, women’s participation was an important element in the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Women were indispensable to organizing and to the use of strikes, which established the unions as bargaining agents able to negotiate demands for improved wages, hours, and working conditions, and even to bring the sweatshop system under control for a long period of time.
In the clothing strikes, women emerged as expert practitioners of techniques that have been perceived in a labor context almost solely as “confrontational,” but in which the shape of many conscious campaigns of nonviolent resistance can be discerned. Although journalists and historians have stressed the violent aspects of these strikes, what is more apparent today is the disciplined willingness of workers to risk the violence of superior force with relatively little recourse to mass retaliation.3 It was not the workers’ muscle power or fire power that brought employers to the bargaining table, but the determination of workers to withhold their labor and their ability to bring favorable opinion to their side. In strike after strike, workers endured far more punishment than they delivered or were capable of delivering, neither police forces nor jails being at their disposal. The official violence visited upon unarmed women strikers was particularly effective in eliciting public sympathy and in rallying the support of progressive leaders.
As clothing workers organized, women who were predominantly middle class were also taking to the streets and to the jails. Militants in all sectors of the feminist movement, from the cause of suffrage to that of birth control, were engaging in public protest and acts of resistance. The organization of women into trade unions was a matter of prime importance to some feminists. A group of these women, including settlement house leader Helena Stuart Dudley and Wellesley economics professor Emily Greene Balch, joined with labor representatives in 1903 to found the National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Middle-class WTUL members, along with other middle-class women who were socialists or urban reformers, forged multiple alliances with working-class women and provided support to union struggles in ways that ranged from walking picket lines to pressuring employers and public policy makers.
The interaction of the feminist movement and the labor movement was limited by factions among feminists and by class divisions. The great number of feminists who centered all their hopes on suffrage were, on the whole, much less responsive to labor issues than feminists who were concerned with the broad questions of woman’s sexual and economic exploitation. On their part, working-class women could more readily perceive their common lot with workers of both sexes than with middle-class women; they looked to union successes for the amelioration of their condition, rather than to feminist victories. With few exceptions, a worker solidarity that excluded feminist issues endured until the 1970s, in spite of continuing bias against women in union activities. It was in large part the unionization of women and their militant action that established the new needle trades unions on the American scene by the 1920s. Yet the ILGWU and the ACWA remained firmly male dominated, little affected by efforts of union women to gain a voice in decision making.
Runaway shops tested the new union strength. With its legions of small entrepreneurs, the clothing industry has always been fiercely competitive, and the risk of business failure high. Confronted with unionized shops, many firms packed up and moved westward in search of cheaper labor and better profits. The unions followed, attempting to organize the new labor force as one means of protecting the interests of workers in the Northeast. These efforts met with mixed success. Meanwhile, in spite of the Red scares of the post–World War I period, which weakened support for organized labor among some progressives, and in spite of business devastation during the Great Depression, the clothing unions made gains. Consolidating their position over the years, they managed to raise wages and to secure such benefits as pension plans, disability pay, unemployment insurance, health and housing programs.
In the process of this forward march, however, the stance of the clothing unions became increasingly conservative. The price that was paid for recognition of the unions as legitimate institutions was their growing spirit of compromise, as they adopted an ideology of “partnership” between capital and labor for the good of both. In order to maintain their influence and also to stem the tide of runaways, the unions undertook cooperation with management to hold down wages, relax environmental standards, and head off strikes. It was true enough that jobs depended upon persuading footloose companies to stay fixed; yet to the rank and file, now effectively excluded from participation in union strategy, the concessions made by the union leadership often smacked of “sellout.” In its opposition to strikes and in its discouragement of union democracy, the entrenched male leadership of both the ILGWU and the ACWA grew more and more distant from the mass of low-paid women workers.
Furthermore, the unions’ strategy of pacifying employers failed in its objectives; for with every passing decade, the geographic dispersal of the clothing industry widened. The most dramatic shifts took place in the post–World War II period, with the flight of more and more companies not only westward and into the American South, but to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Hong Kong, and other Third World areas. The needle trades have remained sex segregated, employing more women than any other United States industry; but the ethnic composition of the work force has changed. Whether at home or abroad, the women laboring at sewing are now overwhelmingly Latinas, Asians, and blacks.4 And the conditions and rewards of their work represent a return to those against which women needleworkers rose less than a hundred years ago.
In common with many other business enterprises, the clothing industry has sought out locations in which low-skilled workers have few alternative employment opportunities, and in which the official climate—whether in the Philippines or Alabama—is hostile to union organizing. But even in locations in which labor has long been organized, such as New York and Chicago, conditions for thousands of needleworkers have deteriorated. Sweatshops have reappeared and multiplied in the jungle of an industry characterized by small establishments. The various tasks required for producing a single garment are not usually performed under one roof. More typically, manufacturers supply precut material to small contract shops, in which women do the sewing. Because very little capital is needed to set up a few sewing machines in small, substandard quarters, contractors are numerous, and manufacturers may choose from among those offering the lowest bid. The contractors, in an effort to underbid their competitors and still turn a profit, must find workers who will accept the lowest possible wages—wages that compare unfavorably with welfare, and even with the pay that a working-class white high-school age male would consider worth his labor. Ultimately, in fact, the apparel industry in the United States must compete against manufactures abroad, based on pay scales to women needleworkers that are as low as 25 cents an hour. Where can these willing United States workers be found—including those who, taking work home, provide the highest profits, as they supply their own sewing machines and pay all overhead costs? By and large, they are relatively recent immigrants, some of them “illegals,” living in their own ethnic communities. They are women who are the sole or partial supporters of their families, often mothers of young children. They are also elderly women unable to survive on tiny pensions. They are unfamiliar with the ways of the city and the country in which they reside, and many have only the most rudimentary command of its language.
The case of Chinese apparel workers offers one illustration.5 The most recent heavy immigration of Chinese began in the mid-1960s with the liberalization of United States immigration laws. The major portion of immigrants settled in the existing Chinese ghettos of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Non-English speaking and with few transferable skills, the new immigrants found their way into the most available jobs in their communities—restaurant work and labor in the apparel industry. Those able to get together a little capital have become contractors, often working alongside their employees in the pattern of earlier immigrants in the garment trades.
For Chinese women with family responsibilities, the proximity of sewing work to home is important, as are informal arrangements with Chinese employers. Poor women with no access to day care may bring small children to the sweatshop, or sew at home. Flexible hours permit women to shop for groceries and do other family errands, pick up children at school, tend to the ill. Such “advantages” are illusory, however, masking gross labor abuses. Paid by the piece rate rather than at an hourly wage, most women must work ten to twelve hours daily, six or seven days a week, during the peak season, in order to earn even the minimum wage. Earnings of Chinatown sewing women in San Francisco average $3000 to $6000 annually.6 Violations of minimum wage and overtime regulations go unchallenged even when investigated by state agents, since women are fearful that complaints will cause them to lose their jobs. Many are bullied by employers with threats of deportation, and frequent shop raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) add credence to the threat. Employment during the slack season is scarce and erratic. In California, seasonal employees are entitled to “partial unemployment” insurance, but a recent case brought against garment companies and employees for unemployment fraud may help to discourage sewing workers from applying for this relief.7
The clothing unions have been slow in responding to the plight of immigrant Chinese and Latin American workers, whose cheap labor keeps the garment industry going in New York City and on the West Coast. Often, the unions have been part of the problem, as in the ILGWU’s opposition to minimum wage laws in the 1960s, and its cooperation with INS raids on garment shops. Similarly, neither the ILGWU nor the ACWA has risen adequately to the challenge of labor conditions in the American South. With declining memberships, however, both unions have begun to give more attention to “organizing the unorganized” in recent years. The women needleworkers of the present day have shown themselves no less willing to engage in collective action than those of the past. The ACWA-supported strike during 1972–1974 of hundreds of Chicana workers at the Farah plant in El Paso, Texas, provides one example; the 1975–1976 strike of 125 Chinese women at the Jung Sai garment shop in San Francisco, ending with an ILGWU contract, provides another.8 Yet while sewing women of today are capable of militant action, there is no assurance that the established clothing unions can make a successful adaptation to the contemporary female work force.
Unions determined to “organize the unorganized” must learn to speak the language of contemporary needleworkers. This may be taken quite literally to mean Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and other new immigrants’ languages. Language differences have made it difficult for workers not only to know their rights under law, but also to understand the terms of contracts negotiated by the unions. Women workers are kept out of participation in decisions on contracts and other union affairs both by language barriers and by the clothing unions’ continuing adherence to centralized, top-down control exercised by white males who have not risen from the ranks. Although the ILGWU and the ACWA employ some female organizers, as they have done from time to time in the past, their executive boards remain male clubs penetrated by less than a dozen females added together. Grotesquely unrepresentative of union membership, the male union leadership has shown little concern for specifically female issues: sex-biased practices in hiring, promotion, and wages; sexual harassment, particularly of immigrant women; the lack of child-care programs; and the urgent need for internal training and education that can equip women needleworkers to assume union responsibilities and thereby exercise some control over their working lives.
Outside the unions, women needleworkers have found new allies who are sensitive to their unique needs. These allies come from both within the ethnic/racial communities of needleworkers and mainstream society. In the San Francisco Bay area, the Asian Law Caucus is a watchdog of Asian women needleworkers’ interests, through legal action on behalf of women often not organized into unions, and through educating women to understand and demand their rights as union members. A much older organization, the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), in cooperation with the Mexican Friends Service Committee, has established projects for women needleworkers on both sides of the Mexico-United States border—one among women employed in the maquiladores (U. S.-owned partial assembly plants in Mexican border cities), the other among El Paso women needleworkers. Staffed by Mexicanas, these projects have begun in the setting of small, all-female groups, in which women may feel comfortable in speaking up about problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to violence in families hard pressed by poverty. Once they have begun to express themselves among their peers, the women move on to analyzing their working conditions and finding strategies for bringing about change. For example, women in groups on the Mexican side, who began with no understanding of their rights vis-à-vis management or union, decided to study labor law. They then began to take their own cases to court, challenging unfair firings and suspensions, and sometimes winning. The groups have now formed themselves into a council of workers to pursue the employment problems they view as most immediately relevant to their welfare.9
The project just described required more than three years of patient building before its effects were evident in action. It is not an isolated effort, but part of a coherent AFSC drive to expose and challenge the exploitation of women working for United States companies in many other countries.10 With considerably richer coffers than such human rights organizations as the AFSC, and a good deal more political clout, neither the ACWA nor the ILGWU has made a forthright attack on the multinationals now linking the fate of U. S. needleworkers and their sisters abroad. The “buy American” campaign of the ILGWU is a particularly sterile and unrealistic response, even apart from its offensive jingoism. As for the patient work of cultivating self-confidence and independent organizing skills through all-female groups, male clothing union leaders apparently do not wish to commit generous resources to such feminist techniques.
The one exception to union neglect of women needleworkers is the work of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). Founded in 1974, CLUW has used a variety of feminist-inspired approaches to strengthening women’s position within unions, not excluding reliance on small group meetings as a starting point for many women workers. With 15,000 members from many sectors of the labor force, and programs demonstrating much political sophistication, CLUW has begun to enjoy recognition among established unions. In the summer of 1982, CLUW and the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO joined together in a pilot project aimed at unionizing women in the Washington/Baltimore area. The “Women’s Organizing Campaign” sought cooperation from regional women’s groups and stressed distinctively female workplace issues. It was not long before the campaign ran into difficulties with AFL-CIO officials, evidently much distressed by its strong feminist flavor. Ideological conflicts have continued. The venture, now expected to fold before 1984, does not encourage hopes of a speedy turnabout in old-style union dealings with the needs and aspirations of female members.11
No turnabout is taking place in the clothing unions, and although there are occasional progressive stirrings, these have not had an impact on the ugliest issue of them all: the continued flourishing of the sweatshops abroad, and in our own midst. Although the ILGWU has somewhat repaired its reactionary stance toward immigrants by accepting undocumented workers as union members, the mass of sewing women—"illegals,” lawful permanent residents, and U. S. citizens alike—remain trapped and unprotected at the bottom of the clothing industry heap. Feminist organizations, although interested in the “feminization of poverty,” have not demonstrated special awareness of this group of poor women. Today the story of women needleworkers sometimes appears to be a film running backward, with a fresh cast of characters and some new, foreign settings. Any record of that story, however, would include innumerable scenes of women struggling against the injustices of their condition. That part of the story, also, repeats itself today.
1. Dorothy Sterling, Black Foremothers: Three Lives (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1979), 54. That married black women needed, almost universally, to be gainfully employed did not impede the steady growth of the domestic ideal among black families in the nineteenth century and beyond. For one discussion, see David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 83–85.
2. The permanent collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, and the Lihue Museum, Kauai, include artifacts and pictorial records that reflect the uneven transition from native household furnishings and dress to Western linens and clothing. On Christian missionary vs. Hawaiian mores, including differing attitudes toward clothing, see Gavin Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1968), 61–105.
3. The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States, ed. Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski (Culver City, Calif.: The Power of the People/Peace Press, 1977), 33–36, 62–73. Many socialists and anarchists in the early labor movement opposed violence on practical as well as philosophic grounds, and were interested in the application of nonviolence to class struggle, particularly through the use of the general strike.
4. North American Congress on Latin America, “Capital’s Flight: The Apparel Industry Moves South,” NACLA’s Latin American Empire Report, 11 (March 1977), 7.
5. Unless otherwise noted, material in this discussion is drawn from the following sources: Dean Lan, “The Chinatown Sweatshops: Oppression and an Alternative,” Amerasia Journal, 1 (Nov. 1971), 40–57; Peggy Li, Buck Wong, Fong Kwan, “Garment Industry in Los Angeles Chinatown, 1973–1974” (unpublished paper, n.d.); Abeles, Schwartz, Haekel & Silverblatt, Inc., “The Chinatown Garment Industry Study: An Overview” (paper submitted to Local 23–25 ILGWU and the New York Skirt and Sportswear Association, June 1983).
6. Deborah Morris Farson, “Chinese Garment Workers Resist Fraud Charges,” Union Wage (Nov.–Dec. 1981), 1.
7. Asian Law Caucus Reporter (issues from Apr.–June 1981 through Jan.-June 1982); San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 5, 1981; Oakland Tribune Eastbay, Mar. 22, 1982.
8. Barbara Ehrenreich and Annette Fuentes, “Life on the Global Assembly Line,” Ms. (Jan. 1981), 56.
9. AFSC Quaker Service Bulletin (Winter 1983), 3.
10. Women and Global Corporations Project report, AFSC Women’s Newsletter (Fall 1980), 7–14.
11. Richard Moore and Elizabeth Marsis, “Will Unions Work for Women?” The Progressive (Aug. 1983), 30.