“Whatever the fight, don’t be ladylike.”
So said labor organizer and self-professed “hell-raiser” Mary “Mother Jones” Harris more than a century ago as she called to action the wives of striking coal miners across Appalachia. Their combined efforts helped drum up public support and turn the tide in the miners’ favor. At the time, women were shut out of union activity and shunted to the sidelines during labor battles; they were relegated to domestic duties or caught in the crossfire as collateral damage.
As Harris and other trailblazers demonstrated, the working class can succeed only by harnessing the power of all workers, regardless of gender. Today, public support for unions is at a record high, the feared fallout of the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME failed to materialize, and fast-growing sectors like digital media and fast-food service have added thousands of members to union rolls.
This renewed energy is coming disproportionately from women. In fact, women — and particularly women of color — remain on the front lines of worker-organizing in a variety of industries, including those our patriarchal society has long coded as “women’s work.” Workers in a slew of traditionally feminized labor sectors — from education and domestic work to food service and sex work — have driven some of the movement’s most important victories. That is critically important both because they now make up the majority of the working class and because their involvement is helping to reshape the priorities of organized labor.
Women always have been on the front lines of labor, but during the 1970s, U.S. working-class demographics started their decisive shift toward the current reality, one in which the stereotypical “white guy in a hard hat” who once signified the working class has been supplanted by women, specifically women of color. The Coalition of Labor Union Women was founded by union women in 1974, and the 1979 film “Norma Rae” resonated for a reason. Women radicalized by the feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s were bringing that energy into the workplace and started demanding more. During the Reagan era, when the 1981 PATCO strike was defeated and organized labor was brought to its knees, women’s voices were present, but not amplified.
Our moment, in which women are embracing labor to pursue broader goals, provides a striking contrast to the political realities of that time. Building collective power gives women an opportunity to challenge the Trump administration, for instance, which has launched an all-out assault on bodily autonomy, health care, reproductive freedom, abortion rights, civil rights and LGBTQ rights, in addition to its ongoing war on labor.
All of these issues intersect in meaningful, personal ways for the women on the picket lines, especially those who are of color, who are undocumented, who are queer, who are trans, who are living outside the gender binary, who are disabled, who are poor, who are raising children or caring for other family members.
Sexual violence also is an issue that has become a rallying point for many in the movement, especially as #MeToo highlighted how pervasive it is across industries. Domestic workers (80 percent of whom are women) and agricultural workers (women make up 32 percent of the total farmworker population) experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual violence on the job. A 2010 survey in the California Central Valley reported that 80 percent of women who do farm work had experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job. Organizers such as Mónica Ramírez at Justice for Migrant Women are working to combat sexual assault in the farm industry.
In 2018, more than 7,700 Unite Here hotel workers across the country, from Boston to Chicago to Honolulu, went on strike for improved health care, higher wages and protection from sexual harassment on the job. As Unite Here notes, women, people of color and immigrants make up the majority of its membership. The voices leading those chants on the picket line also were overwhelmingly those of women.
Last year saw #NYCStripperStrike, in which strip club workers united under the leadership of organizer Gizelle Marie to combat racial discrimination, job security, pay disparities and worker mistreatment in the city’s strip club industry. Despite international efforts to organize sex workers and U.S. activists’ ongoing campaigns to decriminalize sex work in the country, sex workers are still extremely vulnerable — especially black trans sex workers, who are at a heightened risk of violence.
The decades-old effort to decriminalize sex work has finally reached national prominence thanks in part to Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) reversing her earlier positions and coming out in favor of the idea. The U.S. labor movement, however, has not yet made a concerted effort to support them.
Bread-and-butter economic issues have further kindled the fire for thousands of women across the country. Seventy-seven percent of teachers in the United States are women, and in 2018, thousands of them revolted, building on a movement that has been gaining steam since the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. Underpaid, overworked teachers nationwide went on strike, and many won major concessions and public sympathy as they fought for their livelihoods and their students’ futures.
The movement — known as #RedforEd — kicked off in West Virginia in February 2018 and spread through a number of Republican-controlled states, including Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky. It even made its way into the more liberal bastions of Colorado and California.
Other education workers — from graduate students and adjunct professors to cafeteria workers — also joined the fight, organizing around demands for higher wages, safer workplaces and better working conditions.
That trend has continued into 2019. Teachers in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland, Calif., have grabbed headlines, and the movement shows no signs of slowing. But those in education are far from the only workers who have had enough. Although major corporations have resisted organizing efforts, fast-food workers at multiple Burgerville locations and at the Little Big Burger in Portland, Ore., recently announced organizing campaigns to unionize with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
This follows a 2018 fast-food workers strike, aided by Fight for $15, a worker-led advocacy group for fast-food workers (which is, in turn, supported by Service Employees International Union and Fast Food Justice), and demonstrations by McDonald’s workers in 10 cities over widespread sexual harassment.
The picket line isn’t the only place where women’s leadership is transforming the labor movement. The president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), Sara Nelson, has channeled Harris’s fighting spirit at the bargaining table — where she’s been tussling with management on behalf of her fellow workers since 1996 — and from the podium, where her stirring call for a general strike cemented her own place in the history books.
A poster with Mary Harris’s familiar exhortation to not be ladylike hangs in her office, and Nelson has proved to be one of the most militant and effective labor leaders in decades. As she said in a Twitter thread of other inspirational women in labor, “Let them underestimate you, but never let them dictate how you can fight!”
Historically, a woman had to behave in a “suitable manner” to be considered “ladylike,” in accordance with restrictive social norms demanding obeisance, decorum and docility. Ladies didn’t lead wildcat strikes or walk picket lines or march on their bosses — but the mothers of the labor movement did, and their spiritual descendants still do.
To be ladylike is to fall in line, something that this latest generation of rebel girls resists at every turn. Rejecting repressive ideas of what a woman could or should be or do is what has led to their success as leaders and revolutionaries. The refusal to make themselves smaller or extinguish their anger is what makes their work so vital, especially at a time when women’s rights and the rights of non-binary people are under threat from those in power who would much prefer them to be quieter and easier to control — more ladylike, if you will.
Mother Jones once said, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.” As this latest crop of working-class advocates makes clear, she has most assuredly gotten her wish.
Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and labor organizer based in Brooklyn whose writing on labor, radical politics, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Teen Vogue, Pacific Standard and other publications.