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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Labor & Progressive Reform

Besides engaging in the temperance and suffrage movements, women responded to the upheaval and opportunities of turn-of-the-century industrial America, by banding together to form numerous national and local organizations dedicated to enhancing social justice and advancing the general welfare. The Manuscript Division holds the records of a number of these national groups as well as the personal papers of some of the key participants.

National Consumers' League. Report of Conference on Minimum Wage Decision of the Supreme Court. April 20,1923. Cover with cartoon by Rollin Kirby, which the NCL reproduced courtesy of the New York World. Box I:25. League of Women Voters Records. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.11

Women played a leading role in the work of the National Consumers' League (NCL), founded in 1899 to coordinate the work of local consumers leagues, which had formed earlier that decade for the purpose of improving the lot of women and child workers through public action. The NCL monitored the conditions under which goods were manufactured and distributed, and it encouraged consumers to use their purchasing power to force employers to provide healthy working conditions and reduce the use of child labor. The league also took an interest in issues of public health, consumer product labeling, and equal pay. Although the organization's records (81,500 items; 1882-1986; bulk 1920-50) primarily concern national office activities, some material is available on state and local leagues. Extensive files relate to the landmark case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), in which the Supreme Court invalidated a District of Columbia minimum wage law; the Equal Rights Amendment, which the league opposed; radiation and radium poisoning among women workers in watch factories; and in the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican American farm laborers and migratory workers. For the period before 1932, the records reflect the major role played by the league's first general secretary, Florence Kelley, but numerous other women reformers and women's organizations are also represented, including Grace Abbott, Molly Dewson, Julia C. Lathrop, and Frances Perkins. Related material may be found in the papers (16 items; 1865-1941) of league investigator Pauline Dorothea Goldmark (1873-1962).

Several of the groups reflected in the NCL files are also represented by their own set of archives. The records (7,400 items; 1903-50) of the National Women's Trade Union League of America (NWTUL) document that group's struggle to improve working conditions for women in industry and to ensure their right to organize and bargain collectively. From its founding in Boston in 1903 to its dissolution in 1950, the league supported labor strikes, especially in the garment industry, and lobbied for legislation relating to the eight-hour day, minimum wages, federal aid to education, civil rights, and social security. Correspondents include Mary E. Dreier, Pauline M. Newman, Margaret Dreier Robins, and Rose Schneiderman.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was organized in 1893 at the conclusion of the World's Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Its two primary goals were social reform and the promotion of Judaism among women. Special concerns emerged with each decade of the council's existence, and these topics are documented in the files of both the national office (48,000 items; 1893-1989; bulk 1940-81) and the Washington, D.C., office, established in 1944 for the purposes of lobbying Congress (169,200 items; 1924-81; bulk 1944-77). Issues include child care, education, foreign economic assistance, food and nutrition, immigration, international relations, Jewish culture, nuclear warfare, and women's rights. In the 1950s, the council coordinated a Freedom Campaign against McCarthyism. Civil rights and sex discrimination took precedence in the 1960s, and abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment gained prominence in the 1970s.

Julia Bracken Wendt. Drawing of the National Women's Trade Union League 1908-9. National Women's Trade Union League Records. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.12

Documentation on the early history of the NCJW may be found in a small collection of papers (2,000 items; 1817-1986; bulk 1892-1942) relating to its first president, Hannah G. Solomon (1858-1942). Most of the papers relate to Solomon's position as chair of the Jewish Women's Congress at the World's Parliament of Religions and her role in founding the NCJW with social worker Sadie American. Of particular note is the correspondence between American and Solomon discussing the women's efforts to establish local sections and reflecting the tension within the council as it struggled to decide whether to focus on social welfare work or religious education. In 1904, Solomon represented the NCJW at the Berlin conference of the International Council of Women (ICW), which had been formed in 1888 as a part of the Peace and Disarmament Committee of the Women's International Organisations. A small body of ICW records (4,200 items; 1931-57) pertain to that committee and to several international conferences.

In 1920, the National Consumers' League, National Women's Trade Union League, and National Council of Jewish Women joined seven other organizations in forming the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (see Women's Rights) to lobby more effectively for their shared interests at the federal level.

In addition to organizational records, the division holds the personal papers of numerous individuals active in social reform.

Social worker and lawyer Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (1866-1948), author of Women in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Their Political, Social, and Economic Activities (1933), became the first dean of the University of Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (later the School of Social Service Administration) in 1907. An adviser to both Grace Abbott and Jane Addams, Breckinridge was affiliated with the Immigrants Protective League and was an expert on issues of public welfare, delinquent children, and juvenile court legislation. Her papers and those of her sister-in-law, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920), a women's rights activist and reformer, are part of the Breckinridge Family Papers (205,000 items; 1752-1965).

Another large collection of family papers, relating to the Grosvenor Family (67,300 items; 1827-1981; bulk 1872-1964) of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., documents the community work of Elsie May Grosvenor (1878-1964), including her support for the Clarke School for the Deaf, her advocacy of women's suffrage, and her campaign for pure milk.

The Hale Family Papers (7,500 items; 1698-1916; bulk 1810-1909) contain more than three thousand love letters exchanged between Edward Everett Hale, a married Unitarian clergyman, and his much younger assistant, Harriet E. Freeman, a financially independent single woman who was active in efforts to preserve forest lands and to protect the rights of Native Americans.

Social reformer Charlotte Everett Wise Hopkins (1851-1935) served as chairman of the District of Columbia section of the woman's department of the National Civic Federation. Her collection (700 items; 1900-1926) concerns a host of municipal reform efforts in the areas of housing, pure milk, garbage collection, playgrounds, juvenile delinquency, and war relief.

Reformer and nurse Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873-1961) collected reports and other materials relating to international drug trafficking and her interest in curbing drug abuse, particularly opium addiction (360 items; 1919-33).

Other women reformers whose papers are described elsewhere include Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette (Congressional Collections); Alice Stone Blackwell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Kelton Wiley, and Mary Church Terrell (Women's Suffrage); Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charl Ormond Williams, and members of the Moton Family (Education); and Margaret Sanger and other public health activists (Health and Medicine).

The work of women reformers may also be researched through the papers of male colleagues. One such example is social reformer John Adams Kingsbury (57,400 items; 1841-1966; bulk 1906-39), director of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and commissioner of Public Charities of New York City. Kingsbury corresponded with Jane Addams, Mary E. Dreier, Alice Hamilton, Helen Keller, Frances Perkins, Margaret Sanger, Lillian Wald, and others about various public health issues, unemployment, welfare, and world peace. His papers also include letters his maternal grandparents exchanged during the 1840s and 1850s and school papers and correspondence of his mother from the 1860s to 1880s.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. At the same time that women were campaigning for the vote, they were also lobbying for social welfare legislation, including protective laws establishing minimum wages and restricting the number of hours women could be forced to work. On April 9, 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children's Hospital that such minimum wage laws for women were unconstitutional because they interfered with the liberty of contract guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Two weeks after that decision, which according to cartoonist Rollin Kirby guaranteed women the constitutional right to starve, the National Consumers' League (NCL) convened a meeting of groups supporting minimum wage legislation to consider next steps. The report of that meeting may be found not in the NCL records held by the Manuscript Division but in the records of an allied organization, the League of Women Voters, which had joined the NCL and other groups three years earlier to form a lobbying organization known as the Women's Joint Congressional Committee. Locating manuscript materials for a research project often involves expanding your search beyond the most obvious sources to include the papers of individuals and organizations that may have had an association with events and activities that are the focus of your research. Back to text
  2. The National Women's Trade Union League, founded in 1903 to improve women's working conditions through protective legislation and to secure their right to organize and bargain collectively, differed from other social reform organizations in that its members included both working women and their middle-class allies. Within a few short years of its modest beginnings, the league began to exert considerable political influence and acquired the visual representations of officialdom, including a newly patented seal. At an executive board meeting in March 1909 and again six months later at the league's national convention, the organization's secretary reported that the new seal, drawn by Chicago sculptor Julia Bracken Wendt (1871-1942), had “brought about most happy results.” The seal was added to the national office's letterhead, became “increasingly popular with all the Local leagues on all their publications,” was fashioned into a pin, and—most satisfying of all—was reproduced and framed at Samuel Gompers's request to hang in his presidential office at the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor in Washington, D.C. Back to text