Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

The Hardships of Women Workers in the 1800S and the Gilded Age in the Book Organizing Women Workers by Leonora M. Barry

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Leonora M. Barry’s Organizing Women Workers tackles the difficulties women and young girls in the working industry faced during the late 1800s in New Jersey. Barry reveals the dangers and hidden criminal acts women suffered while working beneath garment factories. The amount of suffrage women endured was overwhelming from inequitable pay to physical and mental abuse. She writes for awareness and hopes that one day the rights of a working-women will be restored. Leonora M. Barry was a widely influential woman during the American Civil War, as she fought for social reform and equal rights among women. The core of her own struggles in the working industry was the prompt for her desire to strengthen the voice of women in America. She immigrated from Ireland to the United States with her family when she was only three.

When Leonora M. Barry turned fifteen, she decided to become a schoolteacher. However, she married and could no longer be a teacher due to the rule that only unmarried women could teach. Shortly after, Barry and her family had to move in an attempt to find work during the economic depression. In 1881, Barry was left widowed with her three kids. After the death of her eldest child, Barry worked relentlessly so her other children would stay alive: “[S]he got a job at a hosiery mill, where she made 11 cents a day. It was while working at the mill that she joined the Knights of Labor” (Cook).

Barry, desperate to work to supply for her family, began working where she first-handedly experienced the gruesome conditions women faced in the 1800s. While also working at the hosiery mill, she joined the women’s division on the Knights of Labor which was a significant American labor organization of that time. The organization was meant to protect its members from harsh labor relations that welcomed women, minorities, employers and industrial workers. Barry’s own experiences are what led her into joining the organization and soon moved her into positioning as not only the master workman in charge of over 1,000 other women in the branch but also the President of District Assembly 65 that encompassed another 9,000 members (Women in World History). Leonora M. Barry did not just stop there.

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She continued to fight to prevent harsh working condition for women and social reforms as she was sent to observe these circumstances. Her writing, Organizing Women Workers, was a testimony to address the events occurring on account of greedy businesses. Organizing and investigating with the Knights of Labor, Barry’s outstanding efforts created a movement that led many women to join labor unions and become apart of the change.

During the time of when Barry released her report, the Gilded Age was occurring. Labeled the “Gilded Age” from the late 1860s to 1896, it was a period of greed and selfishness in the economy. This really affected employees around America because businesses were no longer one to trust. They had become corrupt and greedy which only led to complications when figuring out how they were going to pay their workers. While this affected everyone, it especially put a toll on women because they were already oppressed as it was. The companies were growing and were beginning to lose contact with the people who were working for them. They grew very little concern for their workers because their only concern was the money.

Therefore, if production costs were too high, companies would pay their workers very little. “Because there were often many more people who wanted jobs then there were available jobs, big business owners could reduce the pay of their workers” (Workers’ Problems and Solutions). This was the result of many labor unions and protests. Workers didn’t want to work under these conditions any longer. This eventually ignited the idea of Knights of Labor, the first union to accept all races and gender. Leonora M. Barry’s main purpose in this deliverance was to confront the problems for women working and why these conditions were affecting them.

She makes an argument to the General Assembly regarding the harsh working conditions and pleading to them consideration for the obstacles women face. Barry implies the different struggles such as low wages, long working hours, and physical mistreatment. This made her case even more compelling because it gave the readers, at that time, the understanding of what was happening in their own cities and to their own citizens. The tone of Barry’s address indicates how she took this case very solemnly; she shows a resonance of hopefulness.

Because she had dealt with these same conditions, it was important that she was a voice to the women and young girls who felt discouraged working in these so-called “manly” jobs. Throughout Leonora M. Barry’s report, she documents the absurd circumstances women faced and sheds light upon the reality that was hidden from society. “Thus far in the history of our Order that part of our platform has been but a mockery of the principles intended” (Leonora M. Barry). The quote mentioned in Barry’s Organizing Women Workers, deflects the fact that the morals of this “order” have been severely broken from which they used to be.

The terms it had come to only made the original directive as a joke because the working conditions were no longer forbearing. The idea that because of her sex, she was imposed of little to no respect and treated as though she was unable to justify for herself. As stated in Barry’s report, one of the things that women were oppressed of was their pay. Like other women workers, Barry also experienced unjust pay while working at factories. While observing Auburn, New York, she noticed the workers would have long hours and poor wages. Women working in clothing factories would have to supply their own sewing-machine weekly which would lower the already ungenerous amount of money they receive. On top of that, the money women would receive weekly would not be enough for them to clothe themselves or their children.

In another case, Barry observed the linen-threads works of Patterson, New Jersey, where children would earn $2.70 per week. At one point, the children begged for an increase of five cents per day and were refused. Although, that was not the end of it. At another factory, women would be fined 10 cents if they were seen eating, laughing, singing or just talking. In case any women dare to stand up for herself against authority, she would immediately be replaced by the supply of recruits always ready on hand (Leonora M. Barry). Leonora M. Barry was angry and wanted to make a permanent change to abolish these stipulations. “Her reports helped lead to a factory inspection law passed in Pennsylvania in 1989” (“Leonora Marie (Kearney) Barry”).

The factory inspection law allowed factories to be observed and inspected in terms of working conditions and wages. Fortunately, after years of women being oppressed in the working industry, justice was beginning to restore in its rightful place. Leonora M. Barry contributed her whole life to the refinement of women’s working conditions and social reforms. The amount of deed she did for women all around America is remarkable. Her work will always be remembered and will continue to go down in history for her influential career as a speaker and writer.

From being a woman oppressed in a factory to becoming the National Women’s Organizer to one of the most influential labor unions in the history of the United States, she portrayed strength for women and was their figure of women rights. Her acknowledgment, Organizing Women Workers, was a realization that put light onto the issues happening right under the feet of society. By pleading to the workers, the number of labor unions continued to grow attacking toxic tendencies that weighed on workers around the United States due to traditional standards.

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