We won’t sugar coat it: women in the workforce have a long way to go before we achieve true equality and respect. But that doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the major accomplishments of women who improved working conditions, fought for living wages, and organized to give working women a voice they often hadn’t had before.
Sue Cowan Williams: A Voice for Justice
An advocate for equality during the Jim Crow era, Little Rock school teacher Sue Cowan Williams first fought for equal pay for white and black teachers with a class suit on behalf of herself and other African american educators against the county. Though the local judge ruled against her, the Court of Appeals turned the case over in her favor. Though she lost her job, she was able to find work in nearby Pulaski County and returned to Little Rock when a principal asked for her reinstatement. Even then, Cowan Williams faced disdain from white authority, such as when then-superintendent Harry Little called to ask if she had “learned her lesson” before she was allowed to return to her job.
Jessica Lopez De La Cruz: Influential Part of the UFA
A field worker from the age of 5 years old, Jessie De La Cruz became involved in the United Farmworkers of America around age 40, when she heard Caesar Chavez speak near her home. Chavez personally asked her to become the first female UFA organizer. She became an integral part of the movement, organizing workers, participating in boycotts and testifying against the use of the back-crippling short handed hoe. She later became a Democratic National Convention delegate, met Pres. Obama, and attended political rallies into her 90s.
May Chen: A Voice for the Garment District
May Chen not only questioned the system that we use to create garments, but wasn’t afraid to call out members in her own community for injustice. She led the New York Chinatown Strike of 1982, which had 20,000 garment factory workers marching in the streets and is considered one of the largest Asian American strikes in history. Chen is quoted as saying, “the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.” The strike was largely successful, stopping employers for implementing wage cuts and paving the way for better working conditions, like bi-lingual management staff, classes in English for workers and other services.
Emma Goldman: Firebrand Activist
Only a year after arriving in the United States from Lithuania, Emma Goldman became outraged by the 1886 trial and execution of Chicago laborers wrongly accused of bombing the city’s Haymarket Square. Goldman began a passionate career as a propagandist and organizer, pushing the limits of free speech and advocating for free birth control and free universal education for all classes. Most of us were figuring things out in our mid-20s. Emma Goldman? At 24, she led a protest of 1,000 people through Union Square to demand class equality, inspired by the Panic of 1893. Bad. Ass.