Next Monday, September 7, will be celebrated as Labor Day in the United States (Labour Day in Canada) and thousands of people will hold picnics or parades and watch fireworks to celebrate the day. This day marks the end of summer and more people will worry about beating the traffic on their way to an event than about the state of labor in the country. That’s too bad because there has been a lot of news recently that affects labor—the minimum wage has been raised in several California cities and in Seattle to $15 per hour; on the downside are the revelations recently published in the New York Times about how difficult it is to work at Amazon.com. Several commentators have used this article as the basis for condemning the tech industry in general for expecting longer hours and worse treatment than employees should accept. It seems clear that the situation for working people is a confused and contentious one. That’s nothing new.
The Labor Day holiday began during the 1880s, sponsored by labor unions as a way of forwarding their campaign to established the eight-hour day. There is still argument about whether it was Matthew Maguire or Peter McGuire who first proposed a day to honor labor. Both men were active union men and they were probably thinking of labor as representing primarily working men, but actually women have often been the people who benefitted most from the labor laws sponsored by unions. The eight-hour day was a step forward for women who worked in factories and mills. Over the years the 58-hour week has become the 40-hour week making it possible for women to work and yet have enough time to take care of their families.
During the early part of the 20th century, unions grew stronger helped by the strikes sponsored by women who worked in the garment trades. The establishment of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) helped to make
women workers an integral part of the labor movement. Most of the workers in the garment industry in New York at that time were immigrant girls and women who were willing to strike to support their demands. Although the struggle to win recognition of the ILGWU was long and difficult, it convinced many women of the importance of the union movement. Woody Guthrie celebrated the women union supporters in his song “There Once Was a Union Maid”
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.
There aren’t many women working in garment factories in New York any more, or even in the United States. Instead, most of the women’s clothing used in America come from countries like China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where the union movement has never been powerful. We were reminded of that two years ago
in April of 2013 when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1,000 people, most of them young women workers. Just like the women killed in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York a hundred years earlier, these women were struggling to make a living while getting low wages and often being ordered to work in unsafe conditions.
The world stood by in horror as the month-long search for survivors continued. The newly-elected Pope Francis expressed the feelings of many when he pointed out that no one should have been working under the conditions at Rana Plaza. As reported by the Huffington Post, the Pope said:
A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God![
Now, within the last few days there has been more information about Rana Plaza. A documentary film was made about the disaster focusing on the life of one young woman who survived. Unfortunately, a judge in Bangladesh has ruled that the film cannot be shown for at least six months because it shows the garment industry in Bangladesh in a bad light. The women who work in the garment industry in Bangladesh and other developing countries need the support of the labor movement in America and Europe to ensure that their safety is recognized as being more important than the profits to be gained by corporations exploiting them.
Let’s make this Labor Day one to remember the workers throughout the world who still need the solidary and strength of the labor movement to give them the respect they need to make a decent living for themselves and their families.
When Charlotte Edgerton moves to New York City from staid Boston in 1843, she finds the crowds on Broadway and the attractions of P.T. Barnum’s new American Museum thrilling. She is young, idealistic, and in love. The future looks bright for herself and her devoted Daniel. But when first one and then another of the glamorous “sporting girls” who work in the city’s famous brothels is murdered, Charlotte becomes aware of the darkness that lurks behind the bright glow of the city.
In a city where abolitionists are not popular and suspicion of free blacks runs high, the arrest of a black man for the crimes stirs high emotions. Charlotte and Daniel discover even police can be prejudiced, politicians are not always honest, and kindness can lead to danger. When a ruthless murderer tricks her into becoming a prisoner, Charlotte must rely on her wits to save herself and a helpless child.
I am happy to announce that my second Charlotte Edgerton Mystery book has been published and is now available in print and Kindle format at Amazon.com. Death Visits a Bawdy House paints a picture of New York City as it was in the years before the Civil War. Young men and women from the country were flooding into the city looking for jobs and trying to build new lives, but often what they found was poverty and corruption.
While I was researching background for this novel, I learned a great deal about life in New York during the tumultuous 1840s. New York was becoming the commercial center of America, but the commerce depended on a supply of cheap labor. Women especially were expected to work long hours as milliners or dressmakers at wages so low they often could not pay for a room in a respectable boarding house. If they took a job as a servant in one of the wealthy houses, they often had to fend off the advances of their employers or other men in the family. No wonder that many young girls envied the prostitutes who strolled up Broadway flaunting their beautiful clothes. Were those women better or worse off than the married women who struggled to take care of their husbands and children in the over-crowded slums of the city? That’s not always an easy question to answer.
I have been surprised to see in the past week or so that the question of whether prostitutes should be treated as criminals, victims, or independent sex workers has come up again in the news. At its world conference this month, Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, passed a resolution proclaiming that Sex Workers Rights Are Human Rights. After two years of studying the issue, Amnesty International has decided to call on governments to decriminalize consensual sex between adults. That’s a radical position and there has been lively discussion and much opposition to this decision. Nothing about the issue is clear cut. I certainly find it difficult to decide what we should do about sex workers. How can we protect women against sex trafficking, but still allow them to choose to be sex workers if they wish? It is fascinating to me that the question that was a lively discussion back in the 1840s is still being debated now.
But we don’t have to spend all of our time debating great issues. Take some time off and read the story about Charlotte and Daniel and their life in New York City—Death Visits a Bawdy House.
Although it will be more than a year before we face another presidential election, the media is already filled with stories of men and women who have declared themselves candidates. You may think we have quite a few colorful and unusual candidates in this cycle, but have you ever heard about the candidate from the past who spent Election Day in jail and who wasn’t allowed to vote?Victoria Woodhull
The year was 1872, and the candidate was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of
the United States. Her presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote. The argument persuaded some people, especially women who had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.
And who was Victoria Woodhull? Born in Ohio in 1838, she had grown up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spirituality and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sexual appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage. During the late 19th century when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, while married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Who knew that these women in their long skirts and corsets were asking the same questions we are asking today? Certainly I had never known how much Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs influenced the women’s rights movement. She was not the only member of the group who believed that spirits speaking to them from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign. Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year of the first Women’s Rights Convention, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed firmly that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York. Victoria and Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers. Their unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money for themselves. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, strong supporters of women’s right to vote, supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue, because it was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
While the three different suffrage groups were arguing among themselves, the traditional political parties also struggled over their candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. After the turmoil of nominations the campaign itself was one of the most bitterly-fought campaigns in American history.
Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sisters had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had many secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives as well as their mistresses. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as many of the suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This is what led to her arrest and was the reason she spent Election Day in jail rather than at the polls. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted and she was given a $100 fine for the attempt. The election which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights proved to be a miserable failure for them.
Today, as we look back from the enormous new freedoms in sex and marriage that have been gained over the last hundred years and more, it’s hard to know what to think of Victoria Woodhull. She pioneered many of the ideas we now accept as desirable. Who would go back to the bad old days when women weren’t allowed to vote or manage their own money or divorce their husbands and keep custody of the children? At the same time, we have to admit that Victoria would have been a terrible president. Going into trances and listening to the voices of spirits got her a long way, but they probably wouldn’t have provided a clue about how to reconcile the North and South after the long destruction of the Civil War. We can admire her spirit in making public some of the sins of hypocrites who were running the country, but we have to admit that her unsavory activities (and her disreputable family) set back the suffrage by decades. Women didn’t finally get the vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment 1920.
My next book, the second in the Charlotte Edgerton Mystery series, Death Visits a Bawdy House, which will be published later this month, dips into some of the same issues that plagued Victoria Woodhull. Charlotte discovers that New York City in 1843 was called Sin City because of the visibility of sexually free women on city streets. Victoria Woodhull would have felt right at home.