Women in the Workforce & The Equal Rights Amendment: Collections

The fight for equal rights and gender equality in the workplace has over a century of history, and the battle still continues today. In the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment is a key consideration when it comes to achieving this goal. First proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, the Equal Rights Amendment seeks to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex, ending the distinction between men and women in matters of divorce, property, and employment, amongst others. Yet the amendment was not destined to be ratified in Alice Paul or Crystal Eastman’s lifetime. By the 1960s, the amendment had gathered increasing support, following the rise of the women’s movement in the United States. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the House and the Senate and submitted for ratification. Opponents of the amendment have focused on traditional gender roles, and it was at this time that Phyllis Schlafly organized a successful campaign to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment, mobilizing conservative women to stand against it. She argued that the amendment would disadvantage housewives and reduce protections for women, such as alimony and custody rights; would cause women to be drafted into the army; and that the amendment supported single-sex marriage. It took until the 2010s for support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to once again gain momentum, and in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, although the political and legal challenges to the ratification must be resolved before the Equal Rights Amendment can be certified as part of the constitution.

The Equal Rights Amendment would play a key role in securing the rights of women within the workforce. Although, through the 1970s and 1980s, many labor feminists also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, believing it would eliminate protections for women in labor law, over time these concerns have been allayed, and more unions and labor feminist leaders have turned toward supporting the amendment. To fully understand the impact the Equal Rights Amendment would have on women in the workforce, it’s essential to understand the history of the female labor force. Labor history, and the ways in which it has been affected by gender and equal rights, can be explored in detail through Gale’s Women’s Studies Archive, which features a number of collections that address the intersection of feminism and labor in history, from the early 20th century to modern day. Scholars can use these collections to examine multiple facets regarding women in the workforce, from women’s trade unions and labor unions to feminist leaders central to labor politics, including Mary E. Gawthorpe and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The primary sources in the archive also enable in-depth exploration of the intersection of law, politics, gender, and employment, including materials that focus on issues specific to Black women and minority women, with papers from the National Network of Hispanic Archives, which explore the problems faced by Latinx women in the workplace. The archive also looks outside of the United States, providing a global perspective on women’s issues. For example, the records of the Equal Opportunities Commission, from the National Archives at Kew, allow direct comparison between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Women’s Studies Archive is an essential resource for researchers exploring the intersection of gender and labor history. Discrimination and the equality of men and women within policy and legislation has long been an issue for advocacy, and the primary sources in these collections enable scholars to examine the long history of this advocacy, alongside other considerations regarding women in the workplace from before Alice Paul proposed the Equal Rights Amendment or Phyllis Schlafly opposed it, until well into the 21st century.

  • National Network of Hispanic Women Archives

    The National Network of Hispanic Women was a nonprofit corporation founded in 1980 that was dedicated to the identification and advancement of Hispanic women for positions of leadership in the public and private sectors. In the past, primary sources documenting Hispanic women have been confined to unpublished dissertations and government documentation. This collection includes organizational records, correspondence, photographs, publications, reports, and ephemera that allow the personal voices of these women to be heard. By putting the sociopolitical experiences of Hispanic women in American society at the center of the narrative, these materials promote the continuation of ethnic and gender studies, gender research, and debate.

    This collection moves the focus away from Western activism, showcasing the voices of women from diverse ethnic backgrounds and expanding the traditional perspectives.

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  • Papers of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

    Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was an agitator and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, an official for the Communist Party, and one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. Dubbed “The Rebel Girl,” she was notorious and, for more than half a century, was a professional revolutionary against capitalism. The eldest daughter of a family of reformers and activists, she spoke; organized workers; led immigrant worker’s strikes; and wrote pamphlets, articles, and books with the aim of convincing the public that private ownership and the profit system were inhumane. An excellent orator, she left a permanent record of her protest campaigns through her writings, which call attention to the critical issues of the twentieth century: war, poverty, sexism, and civil liberties.

    Many of the papers in this collection are concerned with Flynn’s political activities and her time in the Communist Party (1937‒1964), although some cover her earlier years, including the papers of her son, Fred Flynn. Made up of correspondence, biographical sketches, autobiographical notes, telegrams, published and unpublished articles, speeches and poems, diaries, itineraries, clippings, programs, invitations, course materials, documents pertaining to legal proceedings, and files produced by various government agencies, alongside printed materials, including election campaign literature, annotated books, galley proofs, articles, and pamphlets, the materials tell the story of a lesser known, but nonetheless significant, figure of the feminist movement.

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  • Papers of Mary E. Gawthorpe

    Born in Leeds in 1881, Mary E. Gawthorpe was a British suffragist and campaigner who worked full time for several feminist and social organizations in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both in the UK and the United States. She initially became involved in socialist and labor politics, working as an organizer for the Women’s Social and Political Union from 1906 to 1912, but became increasingly interested in women’s suffrage, stimulating interest in the cause throughout Yorkshire by writing letters to the press and speaking at local labor events. Alongside Dora Marsden, she started a new radical feminist journal, The Freewoman, in 1911. In 1916, she sailed to the United States and supported the struggle in America, joining the Women’s Suffrage Party. The collection includes her diaries; notes; postcards; extensive personal correspondence; and printed materials, such as handbills, flyers, and annual reports of local societies, which cover the period of her involvement with the militant British suffragettes as well as some of her activities in the United States. The papers form an extensive collection of personal and political material from a woman whose political involvement spanned many decades and went beyond supportive activism. They’re an excellent resource for researchers exploring the British militant suffrage movement, with papers relating to this forming a large part of the collection, while her position as a working-class socialist from northern Britain expands our knowledge of the social, cultural, and geographical basis of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s work. Much of the later material in this collection helps to situate her involvement with women’s rights as part of a broader political life, including communications with fellow suffragettes, outlines of demonstrations and more complex plans, and material on Gawthorpe’s association with The Freewoman publication.

    The collection also offers evidence of Gawthorpe’s extensive involvement in a number of political campaigns in the United States, providing valuable material for anyone seeking to understand the complex ways in which class and political activity were connected at the end of the nineteenth century. For women’s rights historians and researchers with an interest in the political cultures of feminism, the extent to which the collection allows the key friendship networks of activists to be traced and recreated is a particularly useful dimension.

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  • Records of the Equal Opportunities Commission

    The UK has always strived to promote equality in the workplace, and the Equal Opportunities Commission was set up as an independent statutory body that worked toward the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of sex or marriage, promoted equal opportunities for women and men, kept the Sex and Discrimination Act under review, and provided legal advice and assistance to individuals who had been discriminated against. In 2007, it merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The primary aim of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is to promote and protect worker’s rights to equal opportunities, in accordance with the Equality Act. This gives all members of the workforce the right to fair practices and behavior in the workplace, including fair allocation of workloads, a sexual harassment‒free environment, and wage equity.

    Particularly useful to researchers exploring labor history, the collection includes minutes and papers of Equal Opportunities Commission meetings, minutes and papers of its legal committee, surviving papers of other committees and working parties, and major case papers.

    With material covering 1962 to 2001, this collection is especially important in bringing the conversation on women’s voices and visibility into the twenty-first century.

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  • Records of the Women’s National Commission

    Following the adoption of a resolution by the United Nations recommending that member states establish national commissions on the status of women, the Women’s National Commission was set up in 1916 as an advisory, nondepartmental public body that ensured female opinions were given due weight in the deliberation of the government and in matters of public interest and to act as an umbrella body for UK women’s groups in their interactions with the government. The commission was wound up on December 31, 2010, and continuing functions were transferred to the Government Equalities Office. The Records of the Women’s National Commission collection consists of internal organizational and administrative files of the Women’s National Commission, including constitutional papers, arrangements for elections, meeting agendas and minutes, and general papers of the organization, including some photographs.

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  • Women and Law Collection

    Compiled from 1969 to 1975 by the Women’s History Research Center Inc., the collection covers six broad topics within the framework of women and law, including general information on women’s legal issues; politics; employment and the workforce; special films on rape, prison, and prostitution; and issues specific to Black women and minority women. Much of the content is contemporary to the collection, but historical documents can be found as well. The collection includes texts on a wide range of legal issues relating to women, and also includes sources related to early equal-rights efforts and protests and the women’s liberation movement. Also of interest to legal scholars are files related to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project, which was established in 1971 by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Rutgers law professor at the time. Other source materials consider laws that apply to women’s access to employment, along with their role within the workforce and education, as well as legal cases that tested common practice, such as challenges to employee and workplace benefits and maternity leave.

     Unique to this collection is its presentation of multiple perspectives on a wide range of legal issues that affect the lives of women. While most of the materials focus on women in the United States, there are categories that consider international issues and women in different countries. These texts include newspaper, magazine, and journal clippings; speech transcripts; academic and position papers; newsletters; legal test cases; films; images; surveys; and other media. This wide-ranging collection offers researchers the opportunity to study the changing roles of women in the United States and abroad, and to examine the legal underpinnings of the American feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

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  • Women’s Trade Union League and Its Leaders

    The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was founded in 1903 and disbanded in 1950. Its goals were to organize working women into unions, advocate for legislation protecting working women in employment as part of the labor force, and educate both workers and middle-class people about the benefits of the labor movement and unions. This collection includes materials from the national Women’s Trade Union League, records of local branches, and papers of five women active in the organization. The largest section consists of the papers of Margaret Dreier Robins, who led WTUL from 1907 to 1922, during which time it became larger, better funded, and more influential. Records include articles, speeches, meeting minutes, and extensive correspondence detailing the day-to-day life of a women’s rights activist in the first decades of the twentieth century. Other collections of individual women’s journals, correspondence, and assorted papers include those of Leonora O’Reilly, who was also active in the suffrage and vocational education movements; Mary Anderson, longtime head of a government bureau for working women; Rose Schneiderman, leader of the New York WTUL from 1918 to 1944; and Agnes Nestor, president of the International Glove Workers Union of America and head of the Chicago WTUL. The collection also includes papers from the national and New York branches of the organization. The New York collection is the largest, revealing the day-to-day work of the Women’s Trade Union League’s most active branch. Included are minutes of general and executive board meetings and monthly reports of the group’s actions.

    The papers of the five female activists central to the organization are particularly useful to researchers exploring labor history. Several of these women worked in the federal government doing labor-related work as well as in the WTUL. This collection illuminates the wide range of female activism in the first half of the twentieth century, offering first-person perspectives into the leadership of the WTUL and women’s activism in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in relation to labor and workplace rights. It’s an essential resource to researchers studying organized labor, gender, and women’s rights, or Progressive Era politics.

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