An Australian journalist from the 19th century was a key figure in one of the most influential women’s trade union organisations in the USA from 1906 until 1925. An activist for social reform, women’s suffrage and the rights of women workers who maintained her advocacy role from the 1880s until 1940
100 years ago (December 1915) her book The Trade Union Woman was published in Chicago.
Alice Henry was born in Richmond, Victoria. The anniversary of the books publication is a time to remind us of her remarkable life as a journalist and activist.
Alice Henry was one of the early members and secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League in the USA
Alice had a serious education denied to most girls in here time and graduated from Budd’s Educational Institute for Ladies in 1874. Despite her education and the equal treatment she and her brother apparently received from her parents she was denied entry to university. She wanted her independence and tried teaching before illness forced her give it up. Then journalism got hold of her and she became a writer for the Argus and the Australasian in the 1880s Alice was almost certainly the first woman journalist in Australia to be taken on to a newspaper staff and trained on the job.
Dianne Kirkby wrote her story in The Power of Pen and Voice (Melbourne University Press, 1991), and shows that she became one of Australia’s most prominent feminists and social reformers.
Her journalism publicised progressive causes: juvenile courts, women’s hospitals, proportional representation, epileptic colonies, care for handicapped and dependent children, and labour reform. She became a close friend and working associate of leading activist like Catherine Helen Spence, Henry Bourne and Ina Higgins, and Vida Goldstein. She was active in women’s clubs and the women suffrage campaign, and gained a reputation as a courageous public speaker in support of social change.
Clearly she was a wee bit canny as she also ran a business, from a city office, as a town shopper for country women and an employment agency for domestic servants.
1905 saw Australia become too narrow a horizon for her and she headed first for the UK. Australian women’s suffrage was established but certainly wasn’t in the UK and she was quickly involved in the militant suffrage movement there, along with being an activist in the Fabian Society.
The USA beckoned at and the end on 1905 she was in New York. Australia’s reputation in labour legislation (our arbitration system) was established and ensured her an audience Margaret Drier Robins, a founder of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (WTUL) in New York saw her talent and soon Alice was in Chicago lecturing, and doing field-work in organising new branches. Her journalist skills were crucial in spreading the word she became a key figure in the campaign for woman suffrage, union organization, vocational education, and labour legislation. Kirkby says that “American audiences were ‘in awe of her English accent, snowy head and great knowledge’.”
Trade Union Women followed her years working for the WTUL and generously profiles her many comrades in women’s organizing and action.
The WTUL was the target of criticism from other activists. It was largely a middle class organisation that was seen as standing outside the gates providing moral support for working class women who had to endure terrible sweatshop conditions, especially garment workers in US cities and towns. The WTUL did push for a legal 8 hour day and better working conditions. That it was independently mined is clear from the attitude of the American Federation of Labor, who, whilst claiming to be supportive, were very hostile under Samuel Gompers when the women refused to come under their “guidance”.
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America were close to the WTUL. Militant new migrant workers established it. The WTUL trained many in organizing and action in Chicago, with Alice Henry being the education department organizer.
The Triangle Factory Fire was a key event that saw the WTUL step up its activism. It had been a key player on lobbying for better conditions before the tragedy and the disaster was a catalyst for more aggressive action. Rose Schneiderman embodied the radicalism best. Alice wrote of her:
“Russia in America is embodied in Rose Schneiderman. She is the living representative of the gifts that the Slavic races, and especially the Russian Jew, have contributed to American life. Coming here in childhood, her life has been spent in New York. As an example of her achievements, for four years she worked untiringly among the white-goods-workers of New York, until they were strong enough to call a general strike, a strike which was so successful that they won a great part of their demands, and ever since have held their union together, seven thousand strong.
She was close friend of Miles Franklin and together they edited the WTUL official journal. This initially was a women’s page of the Union Labor Advocate (1908-10) and then a stand-alone publication Life and Labor from 1911-15
Women’s Suffrage had been a driving force for Henry since her time in the UK and this issue was a key demand of the WTUL until the US Constitution was amended in 1920.
Schneiderman was again a key player and she coined a famous phrase
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.
Henry herself became overall Director of the WTUL Education department from 1920 to 1922. She published another book Women and the Labor Movement in 1923.
Her active role in the WTUL came to an end after a trip she was sent on by the executive in 1925 that took her to the UK, Europe and then Australia. She stayed in Australia for 12 months before returning to the USA. Her journalism continued on a part time basis. Kirkby says that the last major piece of writing was paper on Henry Handel Richardson, another Australian woman who had felt the need to move away so as to be able to express her great talent.
The Great Depression caused considerable financial hardship ad she returned to Australia to see her brother whom she had been very close to. Her successes were recognized here, and she attempted to immerse herself in her old activities and new movements, but she certainly missed her US companions. Alice died in Melbourne in 1943. Nettie Palmer compiled a memoir in 1944.
Alice Henry saw clearly the working of the industrial order and saw the hostility of male workers to women activists. Her preface published 100 years ago sounds a warning an a way forward:
“So far, women and girls, exploited themselves, have been used as an instrument yet further to cheapen and exploit men. In this direction things could hardly reach a lower level than they have done. Now the national conscience has at length been touched regarding women, and we venture to hope that in proportion as women have been used to debase industrial standards, so in like degree as the nation insists upon better treatment being accorded her, the results may so react upon the whole field of industry that men too may be sharers in the benefits. But there is a mightier force at work, a force more significant and more characteristic of our age than even the awakened civic conscience, showing itself in just and humane legislation. That is the spirit of independence expressed in many different forms, markedly in the new desire and therefore in the new capacity for collective action which women are discovering in themselves to a degree never known before. “