Labor Day and the History of Women's Workforce Activism

Labor Day and the History of Women's Workforce Activism

September 4, 2023 marks the 141st anniversary of the first Labor Day, celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City as planned by the Central Labor Union. Since then, it has been celebrated the first Monday of September to recognize the contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. The labor movement has accomplished so much throughout history – overtime pay and weekends off are just a few practices that would not have happened without the advocacy of labor unions.

The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) is a voluntary federation of 57 national and international labor unions that represent 12.5 working women and men. But many do not know that some of its early efforts to organize in the United States were planned by young women working in the textile mills. Here is a brief history:

1834      first organizing of “mill girls” in Lowell, Massachusetts to protest wage cuts

1843      the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association began petitioning publicly for 10-hour workdays

1871      Mary Harris “Mother” Jones began her work as a labor organizer after her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire

1903      at the AFL convention, the Women’s Trade Union League was formed

1909      in a New York strike against sweatshop conditions, there was an uprising of 20,000 female shirtwaist makers

1911      nearly 150 workers were killed in a fire in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory

1912      the Bread and Roses Strike began, led by women; 23,000 women, men, and children went on strike and another 20,000 walked the picket line


1933      Frances Perkins became the United States Secretary of Labor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet

1963      the Equal Pay Act was passed by Congress, banning wage discrimination based on gender (yet today, women still earn 17% less than men on average)

1974      the Coalition of Labor Union Women was founded*

2009      the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed by President Barack Obama, restoring the rights of women to sue over wage discrimination

More than ever, the workforce is changing – and this Labor Day, we salute the role women have played in supporting the improvements needed to keep workers safe, healthy, and paid fairly. Although the work continues, we can remind policymakers and corporate leaders about ways to attract – and keep – women in the workforce.