“Union Fever”: Organizing Among Clerical Workers, 1900–1930*
by Roslyn L. Feldberg
And now the typewriter girls of Montreal, Canada have the fever and are talking about forming a union. Say, girls, don’t; take my advice and each of you find some nice young man and form a union of two, for life; that’s the best form of union.1
We do not know whether or not the “typewriter girls” of Montreal took the editor’s advice, but we do know that by the end of the 1920s, the “fever” was spent, leaving few traces of labor unions among clerical workers. Despite numerous struggles and personal sacrifices in the previous three decades, only one union, the Bookkeeper’s, Stenographer’s and Accountant’s Local No. 12646 of New York, continued into the 1930s as an active, vital union. Even as of 1977, only 8.2 percent of all clerical workers were unionized, and the proportion among women was certainly lower still.2 Although this article deals only with the period 1900–1930, many of the conditions which hindered unionization then continue to exist today.
How can we analyze this low level of unionization? It can be understood largely as a consequence of the response to women clerical workers by their male “comrades” in the labor movement. Men believed that this group of workers was “unorganizable,” and therefore not worth a great deal of effort to organize. This view not only prevented labor from wholeheartedly supporting the organizing efforts which were made during this period, but it also formed the basis of most subsequent relationships between labor unions and women clerical workers.
Why were women clerical workers then seen as unorganizable? The answer is that women clerical workers were different from other workers. They were white-collar, mostly white, mostly native born, mostly young and single and, most important, women; whereas other workers were blue collar, often immigrant, mostly married, and most important, male. Union men saw these differences as a barrier to organizing. First, they assumed that women were less organizable because they were women: Their ‘traditional’ place in family life and their expectations of wifehood and motherhood were thought to reduce their long-term interest in employment and, therefore, to reduce their interest in organizing. Second, at that time clerical work was seen as relatively good work for women, and it was assumed that people (and especially women) with good jobs would not organize, especially when they could be easily replaced.3 Third, clerical work, because it was white-collar and done in offices, was not seen as “real work,” and clerical workers were not seen as “real workers.” Only blue-collar or manual workers were expected to organize, while clerical workers were expected to dissociate themselves from “real” workers and from unions.
There was some truth to these assumptions. The characteristics of women clerical workers were as described. Clerical work was relatively good work for women at that time, and it did represent a degree of upward mobility for women who otherwise would have worked in factories or in domestic service.4 Some clerical workers probably did see themselves as separate from and better than “workers.” However, if we accept this line of reasoning, we would not expect to find any organizing among clerical workers—and we do find some, even in the face of an indifferent and often hostile labor movement. That finding suggests that the usual explanations of the low level of unionization among clerical workers do not tell the whole story. This paper adds new information and new analysis to that story.
The situation of women clerical workers in the early 1900s has a new importance today. Once again there are attempts to organize clerical workers—again, often initiated and supported by women outside the major labor unions—and again we hear prophesies that clerical workers will not organize. These prophesies reflect the same stereotypical notions about women clerical workers prevalent at the turn of the century. Understanding early organizing efforts, their strengths and their defeats, may help us to avoid recreating the conditions that contributed to their failure.
EARLY ATTEMPTS TO ORGANIZE CLERICAL WORKERS
Organization Before 1900
Interestingly, the first attempts to organize clerical workers came at the time when women were entering clerical occupations. The most active organizing appears to have been among stenographers—the group which, combined with “typewriters,” was over 60 percent female before the turn of the century.
By 1890, stenographers in many states and cities had joined together to form “associations.” At least 34 associations made public reports of their meetings, and their statements of purpose were similar. The Reading, Pennsylvania Stenographers’ Association announced as its object: “to bind together all the stenographers and typewriters for mutual improvement, sociability, unity and harmony of feeling with a view to combine their efforts for the maintenance of practical efficiency in the stenographic professions.” Its membership was 75, and of its 14 officers, 5 were women. An association in Chicago certified its members and assisted them in obtaining positions. Several of the associations commented on the need to maintain wage levels.
Formed in response to business conditions that expanded opportunities in clerical work and, at the same time, led to a mushrooming of commercial colleges whose graduates threatened to cheapen the field of stenography, these early associations were essentially craft unions. Individual (male) stenographers argued against “public school masters ‘boosting’ hundreds of other fellows [sic] up the same stump . . .” by teaching shorthand in the schools;5 and the associations grew increasingly militant about the need to control entry into their craft. In 1890, the Grand Chief Stenographer of the Order of Railway and Transportation Stenographers wrote to the editor of the clerical trade magazine informing him that the requirement of ‘teaching shorthand to others’ had been eliminated from the constitution of the Order. “Any person with any sense at all would not be guilty of injuring his interests by increasing the supply.”6
In the 1890s, unlike the previous decade, there were no statements blaming women for the difficulties facing stenographers, nor were there calls for their exclusion from the field or from the associations. Instead, an 1891 call for a national association explicitly included phonographers, typewriters and “all worthy members of the professions.” The problem of low wages was blamed on “incompetents who will work for correspondingly low wages.” The source of these “incompetents” was alleged to be the “three month schools.” The failure to blame women specifically suggests that by now the job market was sexually segregated: that women were entering new positions y not competing with men.
Sex Segregation in Clerical Occupations, 1900–1910
As more women entered the clerical occupations, more explicit patterns of sex segregation were established. Most women entered the newer occupations of stenography and typewriting, while the traditional jobs of general clerk and bookkeeper remained male strongholds.7 However, even within stenography, sex-based mechanisms of exclusion barred women from the best-paying jobs, reserving these for men. Overall, this pattern of sex segregation kept women in the lower levels of the occupation, making them more vulnerable to employers, more dependent on marriage, and less likely to establish ties with those male clerical workers who had had organizing experience.
The justifications for barring women varied from their competence to their moral purity. Managers for the railroads argued that women did not understand the business as well as men did. In 1902, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced that no more women would be hired as stenographers in the operating departments because he wanted “all clerks to fit themselves for higher places . . .” and believed that women cannot “grasp the railroad business in the way the men do.”8 A year later, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad announced that it had “nothing against women, but that they stand in the way of regular promotion among the rank and file.”9 Other railroads were expected to adopt the same policy.
Saying that women “stand in the way of regular promotions” indicates that women were not promoted. They were hired as stenographers at a particular level and were expected to remain there until they left the organization. Restricting the levels for which they were hired guaranteed that there would be no opportunities for promotion for women stenographers on the railroads. Although the brotherhoods of male railroad clerks had been organized for at least a decade, they did not protest these limitations.
Women stenographers were also being excluded from jobs in the courts. Here the rationale was based on women’s moral purity and propensity to marry. One writer argued that women stenographers were “innocent” and should not be exposed to the harsh realities of the courtroom, “an atmosphere of such distressing controversies,” while the Nassau County Clerk (New York) announced an end to the hiring of “girl typewriters” because they marry and leave their positions.10
The more women entered the occupation, the more rigid distinctions between men’s and women’s positions became. Separate, non-competing labor markets were institutionalized. In the federal Civil Service, men’s stenographic positions typically paid higher wages ($900 vs. $600 per year) and offered more opportunities for advancement than women’s positions. In industry, too, men got preference. The Remington Typewriter Company employment bureaus announced that over 2,000 requests for male stenographers were refused in 1901 alone due to insufficient supply.11 Women could not apply for those jobs.
Everywhere the rationale was the same: the “girl” would marry, or at least expect to marry, and leave the job; therefore, there was no point in permitting her to occupy a position that could be held by a man, who would see it as the basis of his future career. This logic served to rationalize both paying women less and reserving the best positions for men, a combination of actions which, in turn, increased the economic pressure on young women to marry. In a crowded labor market, this combination insured a changing but ample supply of low-paid women clerical workers and of young women eager to become wives. In addition, it separated women into a distinct group within the occupation. This very separateness served to keep women in their place. It cut them off from craft traditions, as well as from the organizational experience of the previously organized male clerical workers, and thus made it more difficult for women to organize or to gain control of entry into women’s jobs in the occupation.
Women Begin to Organize, 1900–1930
In this context, women clerical workers began to organize. They formed their own associations of stenographers, typewriters, bookkeepers, and other clerical occupations. Interestingly, their first organizations were not labor unions, but mutual benefit societies. In 1902, 600 girl stenographers from Toledo, Ohio, were “seriously considering starting and maintaining a restaurant in that city for their own use.”12 Pittsburgh stenographers “subscribed to the stock of a cooperative lunchroom for female stenographers and typewriters only,” no dish to cost more than five cents. The common problems female stenographers and typewriters faced were beginning to evoke a collective response.
Soon women clerical workers turned their attention to labor unions. In 1903, “stenographers and typewriters of a feminine persuasion” formed a labor union in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1904, delegates from office locals in Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis were seated at the AFL national convention.13 In that same year, typewriters in New York held a “secret meeting” to discuss unionization. Fifty men and women attended and agreed that typewriters and stenographers of both sexes should be admitted as members.14
That 1904 attempt did not succeed. In 1908, however, a new organization was formed which included “the women stenographers, typewriters and bookkeepers in Greater New York.”15 This union, open only to women, (under a local charter from the AFL) was called the Bookkeepers and Accountants Union No. 1 of New York. The organizing campaign was headed by Helen Marot, executive secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, and three assistants—all members of the League. Principal purposes of the union were regulating the hours of employment and improving the conditions of women workers in offices. They chose as their slogan “equal pay for equal work,” comparing themselves to hod carriers, whose work required less skill but received more pay, and indicating that they would struggle to defend this slogan. Miss Marot explained: “We have incorporated the equal pay for equal work plan in the constitution of the union and we shall have no controversy with the men on that account.”16
It is not surprising that the first major campaign to organize clerical workers took place under the auspices of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), rather than an established union. The unions were simply not organizing women clerical workers. Male industrial workers were their priority. If any organization were to support organizing among clerical workers, it would be the WTUL, which held a unique place in the labor movement. It was an organization of women, feminists and unionists, which “attempted to serve as a link between women workers and the labor movement and as a focal point for unorganized women interested in unionism.”17 Its members, drawn from both upper-class and working-class women, sought to create an egalitarian organization. They aimed to introduce unionism to unskilled and semiskilled women workers, and to help these women build unions—while at the same time maintaining connections to the male-dominated labor movement which so often ignored these women. With these aims, it is not surprising that the WTUL supplied the first known organizers to work with women clerical workers.
Soon after, women in other cities joined the organizing effort. A Chicago local of the Stenographers Union began in 1911 with 300 “girls.” They aimed to have 10,000 members within a year, to enforce a minimum wage of $12/week with one year’s experience, and to offer their members a free employment agency, night school in “subjects bearing on their work,” physical culture classes, free medical service by women physicians, and an “out-of-work” (unemployment) fund.18 The emphasis on girls in the announcement, and on medical care by women physicians, suggests a “women only” organization. The list of demands hints at their working conditions: an overcrowded labor market, low wages, and problems with unemployment. Inclusion of physical culture classes may reflect an association with the settlement house movement, as well as the Chicago chapter of the WTUL.
By 1912, “union fever” among clerical workers had run up against some obstacles to organizing. The founding of a new union for stenographers and typists in Kansas City gave organizer Helen Marot an opportunity to argue that this latest example was evidence that clerical workers can and should organize.19 Marot described the union’s founder, and its members, as “exceptional women. . . . They are, in fact, so superior, that they can afford to belong to a labor union, or anything else for that matter which seems good in itself. . . . And that is the lesson that our pretentious office workers have to learn. We are just people, but people with common interests so vital they will, if we let them, break through all the petty social distinctions and place us alongside of real men and women in touch with life.” Marot saw in women clerical workers a sense of social distinction that separated them from “real” working-class men and women and prevented them from recognizing their interests in unionization. To her, this was a blindness clerical workers could ill afford.
Despite the problems Marot saw, the “fever” was not spent. Another new Stenographers and Typists Union formed in St. Louis in 1912, and the Chicago union, now working closely with the WTUL, began a campaign to encourage men as well as women to join. Even during World War I, union activity continued. A new Boston local, Accountants and Office Employees No. 14965, formed in 1916 with the assistance of the WTUL, announced a program of “street meetings” for the spring. Meanwhile, the Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York unions remained active. The New York union, known as the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union, was said to be “one of the most flourishing unions” that met at WTUL headquarters.20
The 1920s saw a decline in organizing activities among clerical workers.21 No new unions were formed and only a few major campaigns are reported. The Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union of New York continued to be the most active union, but its biggest and most successful campaign, the 1923 organization of bank clerks employed in the “labor banks,” concentrated on male clerical workers. In contrast, the unsuccessful 1927 drive to organize Metropolitan Life Insurance Company resulted in the firing of at least one woman organizer, who was later pictured with three other organizers holding placards in a demonstration which urged office workers to join the union.22 The only other city in which union activity definitely continued was Boston. Here, the Stenographers Union was said to be conducting “an aggressive campaign” and to have hired a special organizer for the work, following up on earlier success in the nearby town of Quincy.
Despite these drives, the vast majority of clerical workers remained unorganized. This failure caused Rose Schneiderman, in her presidential address to the 1929 WTUL National Convention, to single out clerical work as one of three special fields requiring “intensive cultivation.”23
ORGANIZING: CONTEXTS AND PROBLEMS, 1900–1930
It is clear from the number of organizations that were formed and re-formed during the teens and twenties, and from the current organizing drives among clerical workers, that the early efforts did not succeed in establishing lasting unions.
If current efforts are to be more successful, the problems of the earlier attempts must be understood. On the one hand, it is always difficult to organize previously unorganized workers. The possibility of success is never clear, while the possibilities of failure or loss of a job are very evident. In the period prior to the National Labor Relations Act, these latter possibilities seemed all the more likely, whatever the group of workers being organized.
On the other hand, organizing clerical workers also seemed to present particular problems. The most obvious of these problems—the attitude among clerical workers that unions were for factory workers—was recognized by the clerical organizers and outsiders alike. As Alice Bean, a clerical organizer affiliated with the WTUL said, “. . . average American office workers . . . do not feel that they are ‘wage earners’ but have a notion that they are professionals and, therefore, it would be degrading to join a union. They leave unions to the factory workers.”24 Unfortunately, the distance between clerical workers and the unions was assumed to be the product solely of the ideas and life situations of the clerical workers.
But attitudes are not born in isolation. They develop in particular social and historical circumstances. In this case, those circumstances included the structure of offices and the economics of clerical work, the attitudes of “the public” toward employed women, and the response of male trade unionists to women clerical workers.
The Immediate Context
The set-up of offices in this period created some special problems for clerical organizing. A small number of workers were scattered among a great many offices. In the small offices, the clerical workers were likely to have closer personal ties to their bosses than to clerical workers from other offices. Even in large offices, the clerical workers were often separated into different areas which afforded little opportunity to get to know each other, while in the early clerical pools, favoritism and competition for the best jobs undermined solidarity. It is true that many industrial workers were also located in small shops, but the situation for clerical workers was extreme. Industrial workers, even in small shops, were likely to have at least one or two workmates with whom they could freely associate, while a typist in a small office could easily be the only woman, cut off from the company of a male bookkeeper or general clerk.
If the structure of office work separated office workers from each other, it insulated them almost completely from factory workers. They worked in a different setting (usually cleaner), had different hours, did different tasks (although the degree of division of labor and the productivity measures might be similar), and had closer contact with management. Furthermore, they rarely spoke with factory workers in the course of their work, even when they worked in the offices of the factory. Thus, the presence of unions among the factory workers did not necessarily bring the unions closer to the office workers, and may have added to the view of unions as alien.
The economics of clerical work in this period also created barriers to unionization. Clerical work was expanding rapidly, but so was the clerical labor force. Wages were low and declining and fears of unemployment were very great.25 The pattern was an extension of that noted by male stenographers in the 1890s. As one office worker wrote to the editor of Life and Labor in 1912:
. . . a younger element is more and more crowding in, who because of inexperience and inefficiency, and mostly because of financial pressure, accept the most paltry wages. What follows—is that really experienced and qualified stenographers and clerks have a hard fight, getting even twelve dollars.26
The workers had no control over entry to the occupation. Certification was by high school diploma, a credential widely available to native-born young women, or by the diploma of a “business college” run by private entrepreneurs. There were no formal apprenticeships in clerical work in general, and few informal ones in the jobs open to women. The supply of young women prepared for office jobs was more likely to reflect the effectiveness of the schools’ (public and private) publicity than the availability of jobs.
Finally, the life situations of clerical workers probably did dampen their enthusiasm for organizing. While they have been accused of viewing their work as “professional,” it is more likely that many saw it more as an interval between childhood and marriage.27 While this attitude did not make organizing easy, it did not necessarily prevent it. The same absence of “responsibilities” (especially financial ones) and of expectations for long-term employment that may lead young, single workers to accept poor working conditions may also leave them freer to be militant.
The Social Context
One factor that affects workers’ responses is their perception of how appropriate and effective unions are for workers in their position. On this point, clerical workers received little encouragement. Unions were viewed as organizations for factory workers and as organizations for men. Joining a union meant proclaiming one’s status as a worker. Women were not “supposed” to be “real workers.” They were supposed to be working at a job only until they got married and had children. If their family circumstances were such that they “had to work” beyond that time, that was judged an unfortunate situation, but it still did not make them “real workers.” Thus there were no grounds for the women to be militant, fighting for rights as workers. Nor did they have access to an alternative view. Everywhere they looked—the church, the newspapers, the social reformers, other women, even the male unionists in their own families—the message was the same: organizing unions was not appropriate for respectable women.
Journalists, reformers, and other voices of popular culture sympathized with the plight of employed women and argued for improvements. Special investigations documented both the terrible working conditions women faced and the low wages, primarily in factories, but in shops and offices as well. Appropriate methods of redress, however, were considered important. Improvements were to be won in ladylike fashion, through the exercise of quiet influence and moral suasion among men who would champion their cause. Women were not to act militantly or to wield power directly. They were to be protected, not to become their own guardians.
The paradox was clear. Lillian Wald wrote in 1906: “Protective legislation is evidence of a public sentiment as to the necessity of guarding the interests of women . . . yet, [there is] a seemingly deep-rooted prejudice against regulation by [women] themselves when expressed in trade unionism, a curious confusion of democratic principles.” Such a prejudice seriously restricted organizing among “respectable” single women, especially when so many of them lived at home under the authority of parents or relatives.28
Labor Movement Context
If the prevailing social opinion of the day was that women were not “real workers” and “shouldn’t” organize, the view of organized labor seemed to add the element that women, and women clerical workers in particular, “wouldn’t” organize, and that whether or not they tried made little difference to the labor movement.
As early as 1904, the clerical organizer Elsie Diehl had invited a representative from the AFL and several other labor men to address the first public meeting of clerical workers organizing for a labor union. Two other office workers’ unions sent delegates to the 1904 AFL convention. The AFL did not reciprocate this interest. When the Chicago office workers local formally requested the AFL to send a woman organizer to assist them, the AFL executive council let the matter die.29
It was rare for women from clerical backgrounds to be trained as organizers within the labor movement. In two instances women had to fight to prove themselves real workers in order to receive training. The stories of these women illustrate how completely the male leadership of the labor movement continued to reject the idea of supporting organizing drives among women clerical workers as late as 1925.
Two women interested in clerical organizing were admitted to the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, one of several schools run by the labor movement to train organizers. The first was Rose Goldberg (pseudonym), a 21-year-old Jewish woman from New York who applied as a member of the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union. She had to lobby hard for admission because her two years of evening classes at Hunter College, which she attended while working full-time since the age of 13, made her a “college girl” for some members of the admissions board. They were also troubled by her lack of “industrial experience,” the hallmark of the real worker. At graduation from the program she faced similar problems. She proposed employment in a large insurance office so she could begin organizing clerical workers, but her teachers directed her to work as a secretary or journalist in the office of a union. There was no sense of hostility in their response—rather a sense that the organization of office workers was not a priority issue, and that she could better contribute to the labor movement in another capacity.
Sophie Caldron, a 19-year-old woman from a similar background, who had been very active politically, had even greater difficulty securing admittance to Brookwood. Her first application was rejected on the grounds that she did not have “sufficiently thorough experience in the trade union movement to benefit fully from the course—and you are still young. . . .” A year later she was admitted. However, after her first year, the faculty recommended that she withdraw from the school and “go into industry” before completing her course. The basics of their decision can be inferred from the statement of the Student Body in answer to Sophie’s appeal. “While the students do not consider the clerical forces of being equally important with workers in basic industries, yet they maintain that it is of sufficient important character to demand immediate consideration by the trade union movement and that people should be trained to cope with the white collar workers’ problems.” It is not certain whether she was allowed to complete the second year.
Even when women clerical workers were organized, they were not treated as equals by “fellow” trade unionists. During World War I, women and men were organized together in the railroad offices, but the supervisors were still able to treat the women “as jokes or pets”30 and male co-workers were friendly only as long as rigid differentiation of jobs by sex was carefully maintained. In part, this behavior may have reflected the unionists’ inability to view the women as real workers, but it may also have been an attempt to reserve preferred jobs within the occupation for the men. The distance between office workers and the industrial unions insured that neither the leaders nor members of these other unions would see unionization of women clerical workers as a goal vital to their own political strength.
Alice Henry wrote in 1914 that none of the established labor unions or associations (such as the National Union Label League or women’s auxiliaries) had taken the organization of women wage-earners as their task.31 Reviewing employed women’s relation to the labor movement a decade later, she found few changes, and offered further evidence of the unwillingness of union men to organize women into their occupations.32 The behavior of organized male clerical workers was part of the pattern. Until employed women generally were supported in their organizing efforts, there was little hope of union support for organizing women clerical workers.
CLERICAL ORGANIZING AND THE WOMEN’S TRADE UNION LEAGUE
If the major themes in previous discussions of the failure of clerical organizing are “unorganizability” and life situations of clerical workers, then the minor theme is the influence of “middle-class” women or groups outside the labor movement. Once again, the accepted story seems incomplete.
From what we know of the various union locals, the women who organized them came from two groups. One group was clerical workers who were employed in the offices of trade unions, had long-standing commitments to unionism, and wanted to apply its principles to their situation.33 These women initiated unions out of the belief that all workers should be organized, including those who work for labor organizers. The second group was women from middle-class backgrounds, or women from working-class backgrounds who had been upwardly mobile. These women, many of whom were associated with the WTUL, wanted both to alleviate the common problems of working women and to help women escape from the lowest-level jobs into better ones. They were oriented to legislation as well as to organizing. Their legislative efforts aimed at extending labor laws to cover office workers in the areas of unhealthful, unsafe or inhuman working conditions and regular hours of work,34 while their attempts to boost women clerical workers into better jobs emphasized upgrading individual qualifications.
Despite direct and indirect labor affiliations, the methods these two groups of women used did not closely parallel traditional union practices. Organized labor was male labor, and attempts to use its tactics ran into problems that reflected the social prescriptions for women’s “respectability”—the prejudice against women’s forming any trade unions, for example, the structure of clerical work, and the special problems of employed women. If women could overcome these problems, they faced further difficulties making sufficient contacts with workers who were distributed among many offices, and of finding suitable meeting rooms, since women without male escorts had little access to “public” gathering places.
In addition, the set of issues developed for male workers did not encompass the special problems relevant to women employees. While women workers were subject to the economic power of their employers in the same ways that men were, they faced the added problems of patriarchal power: the power of men to command (and judge) the behavior of women.35 In clerical work, this meant that employers had the power to reward or punish women economically according to whether the women met the men’s standards of feminine attractiveness in appearance and demeanor. Elsie Diehl called one version of the problem “companionship,” explaining that companionship was the employing of typewriter girls by men who did not need them. They sought companionship instead of workers.
We want to remedy this through a big organization like the American Federation of Labor. Now when good salaries are paid to typewriter girls it is because they have winning faces and charming manners. We want quiet girls who are not charmers to get as good pay for the same work. There are many other things that we could remedy by concerted action.36
Female office workers also faced employers’ demands for personal services (sewing “buttons on vest, coat and trousers, and selecting Christmas presents for the employer’s family”37) or even sexual advances—problems which were also outside the experience of union leaders.
Trade union strategy relied primarily on paid organizers employed for that purpose by the American Federation of Labor or one of the established unions, to conduct organizing campaigns. Since the AFL had never worked in clerical organizing, such resources were not available for these campaigns. Thus, clerical organizers were “on their own”—without the guiding experience, the interest, or the resources of organized labor.
That clerical organizing was carried out instead in close alliance to the WTUL, is not surprising. This was the one organization which readily accepted organizing women clerical workers as possible and worthwhile. Here workers were not suspect as workers because they were women or because they were white-collar. Furthermore, the main purpose of the WTUL was to organize unorganized women workers. While the distance between clerical workers and trade unions was troublesome to WTUL organizers, they were nonetheless accustomed to the difficulty unorganized workers often had in seeing the value of unionizing. Finally, the intertwined problems of clerical workers as workers and as women made sense in an organization whose members were unionists and feminists. The problem of absolutely low and relatively declining wages in clerical work was well known. Less fully articulated, but also familiar, was the relationship between low wages and patriarchal power. These problems did not place clerical workers beyond the scope of unions. Within the WTUL, they were evidence that clerical workers needed to organize.
The WTUL’s acceptance of organizing women clerical workers was concretely expressed. From its early days (1904) the League provided organizers to assist in arranging campaigns and space for organizing meetings. Meeting space was a particular problem for women. While men could congregate in barber shops, saloons, bowling alleys, or even on street corners, there were few public places available to women. The League offered the kind of space that women could enter without fear of damage to their reputations. In addition, the WTUL developed experience in organizing employed women. In a short time, its collective experience far surpassed any that the male-dominated labor movement could offer—even if it were willing, which it was not. Finally, the organization itself, as a combination of upper-class and working-class women, lent an aura of respectability to organizing that may have made it more possible for women to join its efforts.
In relying on the WTUL, clerical organizers were not so different from organizers working with other groups of employed women. As one observer reported in 1911, “Women’s unions, more than men’s, have been developed and influenced by leadership from outside the ranks of wage-earners.” This pattern was seen as having particular consequences: the “greatest result of the trade union movement among women has been in the direction of a united stand for protective legislation,” a strategy that has been compatible with the “willingness of women to make the greatest sacrifices in conjunction with others for a common cause. . . .”38 This implies that the association with “outside” groups has been a major factor directing women toward a legislative rather than an organizational strategy, and thus would account in part for the low level of organization among clerical workers. At first hearing, this is a convincing interpretation. Circumstantially, the backgrounds, skills, and orientations of the upper-class members of the WTUL would contribute to a shift from organizing to more inclusive legislation and worker education. I now question that interpretation. It is not “wrong,” but its emphasis is misleading.
In the period 1900 to 1930, women clerical workers were employed in a sex-segregated, never-before-organized occupation. Isolated from the mainstream of labor, they were of little threat and little interest to male unionists. Organized labor wrote them off as “unorganizable,” reflecting the popular view that because women, especially women clerical workers, were not “real workers” it was neither possible nor important to organize them. The women themselves learned that organizing was not appropriate for “ladies,” and that unions were for male factory workers. This combination of circumstances encouraged clerical workers to see themselves as separate from organized labor, a view which was continually reinforced by organized labor’s lack of support for their organizing efforts. In this context, clerical organizers came to rely on sources sympathetic to, but outside of, organized labor—primarily the WTUL. While the resources of the WTUL and backgrounds of its members made possible a transition from an organizing to a legislative emphasis, they cannot be assumed to have caused the transition. On the contrary, I would argue that the WTUL made it possible for women clerical workers interested in organizing to receive much-needed support.
The limited successes in organizing union locals from 1900 to 1920 and the decline in attempts during the 1920s reflect the possibilities for effective action. Neither the attitudes of the clerical workers, their personal characteristics, nor the backgrounds of the organizers and their supporters can adequately account for the difficulties in clerical organizing during that particular period. These “facts” are indicative of the position of women clerical workers, but they still do not preclude organization. Other “facts,” such as the limited resources available to the organizers, economic and employer pressures (especially after 1920) against unionization, and the denigrating response of the labor movement contributed significantly to the failure of the early attempts to organize clerical workers. Indeed, as one reads of the persistent efforts made with so little encouragement or recognition, one wonders how those involved maintained their determination.
To me, this analysis suggests that the issue of “organizability” cannot be prejudged. It is not only a product of circumstances, but also of our responses to them. Rather than attempting such judgments, our analysis should aim at discovering the actions we can take to help create conditions which foster organization.
*Reprinted from Vol. 15, No. 3 (May–June 1981).
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Mary Bularzik, JoAnne Preston and Ross Feldberg for reading early drafts of this paper, and the editors of Radical America for suggesting revisions. Janice Weiss first introduced me to the Journal of Commercial Education.
Data for this paper have been gathered primarily from journals and newspapers of the period. The most important sources have been Life and Labor, the magazine of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), the bulletins of that organization, and The Typewriter and Phonographic World (TPW), a monthly magazine devoted to the interests of the stenographic professions and their practitioners, later called The Journal of Commercial Education. Occasional reports in newspapers and other journals supplement these materials, as do primary documents from the Brookwood Labor School Collection of the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, and secondary sources.
1. Editorial comment, The Typewriter and Phonographic World24 (1904): 90. This journal is referred to in subsequent footnotes as TPW.
2. U.S. Department of Labor, Directory of National Unions and Employee Associations (Washington, D.C., 1977).
3. “Replaceability” rested on the need for little prior training. In the case of clerical workers, the high school supplied that training. Therefore, even when the clerical function was recognized as strategic, the people who did it could be easily replaced. JoAnne Preston first suggested this point to me.
4. Elyce Rotella, “Occupational Segregation and the Supply of Women to the American Clerical Work Force, 1870–1930,” paper presented at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass. Clerical work continues to be relatively good work for women. In 1976, the median weekly earnings of full-time women clerical workers were $147, compared to $111 for women in sales, $149 for women in crafts, $121 for women operatives except transport, and $218 for women in the professions. As usual, these earnings were considerably less than those for men in the same occupation. Women clerical workers earn on average 64 percent of the earnings of men clerical workers (U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Working Women: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 1977).
5. TPW 1 (1885): 218.
6. TPW 6 (1890–1891): 101.
7. In the period 1870–1900, women stenographers and typewriters increased dramatically. From less than 1 percent of the small female clerical work force in 1870, stenographers and typists came to account for 46.5 percent of all women clerical workers by 1900. In the following decades, their rate of expansion slowed so that by 1930 they were down to 40 percent of all female clericals (calculated from Alba Edwards, Comparative Occupation Statistics for the United States, 1870 to 1940 (Washington, D. C., 1943).
8. TPW 20 (1902): 242.
9. TPW 22 (1904): 201.
10. TPW 24 (1904): 113; TPW 26 (1905): 342.
11. TPW 20 (1902): 260.
12. TPW 20 (1902): 367.
13. Benjamin Solomon, “Project on White Collar Unionization,” unpublished, held in the University of Chicago Library. This is a useful source on many areas of white-collar unionization.
14. New York Tribune, April 22, 1904.
15. New York Evening Journal, June 26, 1908.
17. Nancy Schrom Dye, “Creating a Feminist Alliance,” Feminist Studies 3 (1975): 24.
18. Survey 27 (1911): 1380.
19. Life and Labor 2 (1912): 292–294.
20. Life and Labor 6 (1916): 28.
21. The period in which clerical organizing was most widespread was 1904–1916. This was a period of growing feminist activity, with renewed efforts to accomplish labor organizing and with the organizing emphasis in the WTUL. It is also a period in which college-educated women were being encouraged to take up “secretarial” work.
22. New York Daily News, Oct. 22, 1927.
23. Gladys Boone, The Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Great Britain and the United States of America (New York, 1942), p. 187.
24. Life and Labor 5 (Jan. 1915): 6.
25. The entanglements of the wage issue are considerable. Average wages of all clerical workers did decline relative to those of all workers in manufacturing and railroads between 1900 and 1971. See Grace Coyle, Present Trends in the Clerical Occupations (New York, 1928), pp. 31–32; and Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York, 1974), pp. 286–287. But it is not clear whether the average wage of women clerical workers declined relative to the average wages of women in factory work. See Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Roslyn L. Feldberg, “Clerical Work: The Female Occupation,” in Jo Freeman, ed., Women: A Feminist Perspective (2nd ed.; Palo Alto, 1979).
26. Coyle, Present Trends, pp. 31–32.
27. This was certainly the message implicit in the type of positions they could secure and explicit in the discussions of “girl stenographers and typewriters” appearing in the TPW. Articles on the marriageability of women stenographers and typewriters were standard fare in the first decade of the century, along with “amusing” newspaper stories of employers’ problems in retaining their female employees. See Margery Davies, “Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter: The Feminization of the Clerical Labor Force,” Radical America 8 (July–Aug. 1974): 1–28, for the images of women as office workers. Almost all clerical workers were single prior to 1920. See Roslyn L. Feldberg and Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Who Sits Behind the Desk: An Exploration of Class Origins of Women Clerical Workers,” paper presented at American Studies Association, Boston, 1978. Almost 60 percent of them were under 25 compared to 40 percent for employed women as a whole. See Coyle, Present Trends, p. 15.
28. Lillian Wald, “Organization Amongst Working Women,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 27 (1906): 640–641; Feldberg and Glenn, “Who Sits Behind the Desk.”
29. Barbara M. Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (New York, 1977), p. 235.
30. Maurine Weiner Greenwald, “Women Workers and World War I: The American Railroad Industry, a Case Study,” Journal of Social History 9 (Winter 1975): 154–177, 162.
31. Alice Henry, Trade Union Woman (New York and London, 1915), p. 60.
32. Her assessment is consistent with contemporary analyses offered by other women in the labor movement. See, e.g., Helen Marot, American Labor Unions (New York, 1914), and Theresa Wolfson, The Woman Worker and the Trade Unions (New York, 1926).
33. Life and Labor 5 (1915): 348.
34. Ibid., p. 7, and 6 (1916): 106.
35. For extended discussions of patriarchy as a structure of men’s power over women, particularly in relation to capitalism, see Heidi Hartmann, “Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex,” in Martha Blaxall and Barbara Reagan, eds., Women and the Workplace (Chicago, 1976), pp. 137–169; and Zillah Eisenstein, ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York, 1979). For a more focused analysis of patriarchal power in relation to employed women, see Mary Bularzik, “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace,” Radical America 12 (July–Aug. 1978): 25–43 (see Chapter 5 of this volume).
36. New York Tribune, April 22, 1904.
37. TPW 30(1907): 345.
38. John B. Andrews and W. D. P. Bliss, The History of Women in Trade Unions (1911; rpt., New York, 1974), pp. 17, 18, 223.