the WJLC Agenda to the National Stage:
The New Deal, 1933-1938
By John T. McGuire, Ph.D.
"I think that there was a direct line from the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt through [New York City] Mayor [John Puroy] Mitchel, to Governor Smith, to Governor Roosevelt, to President Roosevelt, to the national scene . . . . It's all in one episode.-Frances Perkins.
By April 1933, when Governor Herbert H. Lehman signed the new minimum wage bill for working women, the agenda pursued by the Women's Joint Legislative Conference began to assume national proportions for three reasons. First, the election of New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in November of 1932 presented an opportunity for progressive-minded reformers. Second, Conference leaders such as Molly Dewson, Frances Perkins, and Rose Schneiderman left the New York scene to pursue a reform agenda in Washington, D.C. Dewson became the head of the Women's Division of the national Democratic Party, while Perkins assumed the position of U.S. Secretary of Labor, the first female cabinet officer in American history. Schneiderman found herself appointed to the National Recovery Administration (NRA) after Congress created the agency in June 1933. Finally, and most importantly, a powerful ally helped facilitate the continuation of the Conference agenda. Eleanor Roosevelt, the new First Lady, effectively promoted women in the New Deal. As her biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook shows, Roosevelt worked with Molly Dewson to compile a list of qualified women for federal appointments. "By 1935," Cook notes, "over fifty women had been appointed to ranking national positions and hundreds to leadership positions in various government agencies on the state and local level."
From 1933 through
1938, Frances Perkins, Rose Schneiderman, and Molly Dewson fought to promote
a maximum hour/minimum wage agenda on the federal level. Perkins utilized
her new cabinet position to gather together old Conference allies into
a new coalition that pressured both the White House and the Congress to
pass federal legislation. Schneiderman saw the NRA as a means of advancing
the gains made in New York State. Using her connection to Eleanor Roosevelt,
the NYWTUL president witnessed mixed results in the fight to extend protection
to all women workers, regardless of race. Dewson functioned more as a
behind-the-scenes facilitator, an activity consistent with her direct
connection with the national Democratic Party. Working with the First
Lady, Dewson placed such protégés as Elinor Morehouse Herrick
in important New Deal-related positions. This subtle but effective use
of patronage helped the New York State minimum wage bill at a time when
the Supreme Court had seemingly nullified the measure in a 1936 case,
Morehead v. Tipaldo.
Despite frustrations, the efforts of ex-Conference leaders to promote a maximum hour/minimum wage agenda were rewarded. In 1938 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration successfully promoted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, the first federal measure to set maximum hours and minimum wages for all workers throughout the United States, with certain exceptions such as domestic servants and agricultural workers.
Since Susan Ware so extensively examined the New Deal women's network in her 1981 book, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal, this chapter focuses on former WJLC leaders in the New Deal from 1933 through 1938 and concludes with an analysis of the importance of the WJLC to the continuation of reform from the Progressive Era through the New Deal.
1932-1933: The Push for a Federal Minimum Wage and the Creation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA)
Even as the minimum wage bill wound its way through the New York State legislature in late 1932 and early 1933, WJLC leaders and their allies wasted little time in proposing similar minimum wage legislation on the national level. Although Adkins v. General Hospital still remained the leading precedent, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration presented the best opportunity for reform since Woodrow Wilson's first administration. The foremost proponents of federal minimum wage legislation in the Roosevelt Administration became, not surprisingly, Molly Dewson and Frances Perkins.
After consulting with Felix Frankfurter, Dewson and Perkins sent a proposal to President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1933, just a month before his inauguration. Once in office, they suggested, Roosevelt should announce a conference of governors in Washington, D.C., to consider the issue of passing minimum wage laws based on the recent New York State measure. Dewson and Perkins further suggested that the federal government protect the states' passage of minimum wage legislation through such agencies as the Federal Trade Commission, which would prevent unfair methods of competition "by unfair wage cutting and long hours."
Determined to see her proposal become reality, Perkins continued to lobby the President-elect for federal minimum wage legislation. When Roosevelt approached her about the Secretary of Labor position, the New York State Industrial Commissioner told him that federal minimum wage legislation would constitute one of her top priorities. When the President-elect expressed his support, Perkins quickly reminded him that the Supreme Court had rejected minimum wage legislation. "Have you considered," she asked Roosevelt, "that to launch such a program we must think out, frame, and develop labor and social legislation, which then might be considered unconstitutional?" "Well, that's a problem," Roosevelt conceded, "but we can work out something when the time comes." Thus the supreme political experimenter reassured his future Secretary of Labor.
Once confirmed as Secretary of Labor in March 1933, Perkins swiftly gathered her WJLC-affiliated allies for a federal minimum wage fight. Sidney Hillman had sent a memorandum to Perkins shortly after the 1932 election, arguing that federal labor legislation constituted the only means of combating the Depression. Hillman also encouraged the Textile and Garment Workers' Union to support federal legislation. As Suzanne Mettler notes, "[T]hese unions stood out in the early 1930s for representing industries composed largely of unskilled women who worked for extremely low wages." Perkins soon called a conference of labor leaders to make further recommendations to the President. Hillman, William Green of the AFL, and Rose Schneiderman attended the conference, with Perkins forwarding their recommendations to the White House.
Even with his previous encouragement, Roosevelt still proceeded cautiously with the Dewson-Perkins proposal. While he convened a governors' conference at the White House in March 1933, he did not make minimum wage legislation a part of the agenda. When Lehman signed the New York State minimum wage bill in April 1933, Roosevelt did urge other states to follow suit. In addition, the Dewson-Perkins proposal, as well as labor's recommendations to the President, did help create the National Recovery Administration (NRA).
The contribution of WJLC leaders and their allies to the NRA initially came in the area of industrial codes, or hours and wages standards for different industries. Industrial codes had been an item on the reform agenda since 1930, when a Taylor Society committee, which included Florence Kelley and Mary Van Kleeck, had prepared a proposed national Industrial Employment Code. The proposed Code recognized the need for minimum wages, maximum hours, and collective bargaining between labor and management. Old rivals Rose Schneiderman and Jane Norman Smith came to the committee meetings to testify before the Taylor Society committee. Schneiderman stated that she approved of the Code's emphasis on collective bargaining. "Personally," she added, "I feel that industry will never be stabilized until the workers are organized into trade unions, not only locally, but nationally, and can bargain collectively with their employers." Smith naturally objected to the Code because it included a proposed night work law for women workers.
Political expediency eventually prompted the Roosevelt Administration to follow the Taylor Society's proposed agenda. Despite the flurry of legislation prompted by Roosevelt's fabled first "One Hundred Days," some congressional supporters believed that the President had proceeded too cautiously. Democratic Senator Hugo Black of Alabama therefore proposed a measure that would cut the average workweek to thirty hours. The measure, passed by the U.S. Senate on April 6, 1933, made President Roosevelt nervous for two reasons. First, he believed that the Supreme Court might declare the statute unconstitutional, thus according the New Deal an early and unnecessary defeat. Second, the Black bill contained no minimum wage language. To facilitate a compromise, Roosevelt turned to Frances Perkins.
Working with her aides, Perkins fashioned proposed amendments to the Black bill by mid-May, 1933. The amendments, modeled on the New York State minimum wage measure, suggested the creation of minimum wage committees to oversee wage standards and to decide exemptions to the thirty-hour workweek. Recognizing the Administration's formidable opposition, Senator Black and the U.S. House Labor Committee eventually compromised with Perkins. As she had done countless times in New York State, Perkins skillfully brokered a new measure. Labor wanted the recognition of its collective bargaining rights and minimum labor standards. Business interests wanted to engage in voluntary agreements with labor. By late May 1933 Perkins presented to Congress a new statute that proved satisfactory to both sides.
The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of June 1933 presented the initial New Deal version of maximum-hours and minimum-wage legislation. It empowered the President to establish a National Recovery Administration (NRA), which would institute "industrial codes" mandating hours and wages standards with the cooperation of both management and labor. Most important to labor interests, Section 7(a) of the NIRA recognized, if voluntarily, the right of labor to collective bargaining. In addition, part of the Act's purpose echoed the goal pursued in its New York State minimum wage legislation: "[t]o increase consumer purchasing power by mandating wage increases." This feature proved no coincidence, since Rose Schneiderman had extensively participated in the bill's drafting as a member of Perkins's special labor committee. "At the summons of the Secretary of Labor," Schneiderman reported to Eleanor Roosevelt, "I was in Washington Thursday. We . . . made suggestions for amending the [NIRA] so as to give employers some lee-way. We all felt that the bill also carry a provision for industry boards which shall have [the] power to fix minimum wage rates for the specific industry." President Roosevelt personally met with Schneiderman and her fellow labor leaders after their deliberations. "[We] were much heartened by his understanding and willingness to help," Schneiderman added.
Ex-WJLC leaders were well represented in the NRA. Molly Dewson became a member of the Consumer Advisory Board, while Schneiderman joined the NRA's Labor Advisory Board. Dewson eventually became disenchanted with her NRA service. "The NRA is a great pipe dream," she remarked in late 1933, "but pipe dreams are rather nebulous." Schneiderman did not share Dewson's pessimism. Instead, she saw her work on the Labor Advisory Board as significant in two ways: as a means of influencing national policy and of continuing the work she had started with African-American laundry workers in 1924.
The first goal proved
more feasible than the second aim. Schneiderman traveled to Puerto Rico
to investigate the state of native textile workers in the American commonwealth.
Alarmed by the situation, she held hearings throughout 1934 to establish
hours and wages standards. In addition, Schneiderman asked Eleanor Roosevelt
to help underage employees in the chorus industry and to request that
the President appoint a NRA board for the American textile industry. Both
requests were fulfilled. But the institution of labor standards for African-American
women across the nation proved a difficult venture. Laundry employers
refused to pay their black workers wages
equivalent to their white counterparts. In the other national industry that employed black women-domestic service-the NYWTUL president could not convince employers to include their employees within the NRA codes. This failure proved a major disappointment for Schneiderman and Eleanor Roosevelt. As Roosevelt noted in her 1933 book, It's Up to the Women, domestic service was still "entirely unregulated" by either the federal government or its state counterparts. A frustrated Schneiderman could only make progress in the handkerchief industry, where employers did allow African-American women access to skilled jobs. These disappointments demonstrated how far black women had to advance before achieving full social justice.
While Dewson and Schneiderman encountered mixed results in their NRA service, another Conference colleague met with total disaster. By 1933, Mary Van Kleeck, who once enthusiastically supported Al Smith in her 1928 presidential campaign, had become associated with the American Communist Party. She regularly submitted articles to communist and socialist newspapers, once admonishing the editor of The Daily Worker that he was not being "comradely" enough. "I am not a liberal," Van Kleeck added. Despite this potential embarrassment, Secretary of Labor Perkins still appointed Van Kleeck to a position on the NRA's Labor Mediation Board in August 1933. The new board member resigned after one day, stating that she disagreed with the agency's caution about collective bargaining. Although Van Kleeck remained at the Russell Sage Foundation until 1948, none of her papers reveal any further correspondence with Perkins or any other WJLC colleagues. It was a sad ending for a woman who had contributed to the WJLC's success in so many ways from 1918 through 1933.
Another area of controversy that soon arose centered on the institution of a general code by the NRA. Announced in July 1933, the code instituted a thirty-five hour week for blue-collar workers and a forty-hour week for office employees. Minimum wages were also instituted, ranging from 12 1/2 cents an hour for needlework employees in Puerto Rico to 70 cents an hour for wrecking and salvage workers in New York City. This code did not satisfy women reformers, for the standards allowed wage differentials based on gender. The connections made by the WJLC in the mid-1920s now became central to the fight against this discriminatory policy. Mary Anderson still headed the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau. She and Dewson demanded that Perkins contact General Hugh Johnson, head of the NRA. By May 1934 Anderson could announce that the NRA had changed 119 codes to equalize the situation between men and women. Perkins later proudly noted that the NRA codes constituted the first labor standards in the United States which recognized equality between men and women.
Even as Perkins and her colleagues celebrated their victory, business opponents, who claimed that the federal agency violated the U.S. Constitution, threatened the NRA's existence. In early 1935 the Supreme Court agreed in Schecter Poultry Corp. v. United States, ruling the NRA an "unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.
Perkins still remained determined to advance the cause of federal minimum wage legislation. She therefore prepared two bills for Congress's consideration. The first bill, known as the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act, passed in 1936. The statute required federal contractors to meet minimum wage standards in the production of goods sold to the U.S. government. The passage constituted a small, but significant victory. The second bill eventually became the basis for FLSA. But its introduction was delayed by the Supreme Court's decision about the New York State minimum wage law.
1936-1937: Morehead v. Tipaldo Arouses Controversy and Helps Lead to West Coast v. Parrish
Even with the successful passage of the New York minimum wage bill, Molly Dewson and Elinor Morehouse Herrick knew that the NWP would still challenge the statute in federal court. Jane Norman Smith now turned to her allies in the Republican Party and businesswomen for support. A challenge to the New York minimum wage statute slowly wound its way through the court system. Finally, in early 1936, the Supreme Court considered the law in Morehead v. Tipaldo. The Justices announced their decision in June 1936, finding by a narrow 5-4 majority that the New York statute was unconstitutional. Justice Pierce Butler, one of the six Justices who had voted against minimum wage legislation for women in Adkins, brushed aside the arguments of the New York State Attorney General's Office and the NCL. Noting that the law did not constitute an "emergency" measure, Butler dismissed claims that the bill encompassed Sutherland's discussion of "fair value" in Adkins, thus making the law constitutional. Adkins, Butler declared, clearly made minimum wage legislation for women unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court majority, however, misjudged the political situation, for the Morehead decision aroused national indignation. Unlike 1923, when reformers faced an apathetic public content with prosperity, 1936 witnessed the peak of public support for the state's intervention. Social movements led by Louisiana U.S. Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin fed on public restlessness about the devastating effects of the Great Depression, demanding responses from the federal government. Always acutely aware of public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt had quietly shifted his agenda leftward in early 1935, resulting in the passage of both the Social Security and Wagner Acts. Reform legislation, moreover, seemed to be improving the nation's desperate economic situation. By mid-1936 unemployment had decreased from nearly 13.2 million in 1932 to 7.7 million and the average annual wage for factory workers had risen from $1,086 to $1,376. Just five months after the Morehead decision, moreover, Franklin D. Roosevelt would win the largest presidential popular margin in American history-10.8 million votes-over his Republican opponent, Alfred Landon. It was thus not a good time for conservative Supreme Court justices to invalidate reform legislation.
Recognizing a rare opportunity, Herrick, now regional director of the newly formed National Labor Relations Board, led a public relations campaign against the Court, declaring that the Supreme Court had given women "the constitutional right to starve." The NCL also reacted quickly to the decision. Lucy Mason, Florence Kelley's successor as general secretary, contacted Benjamin Cohen and asked him whether the organization should pursue a constitutional amendment. Cohen cautioned Mason that the Morehead decision did not constitute the last word from the Supreme Court.
Subsequent circumstances proved Cohen right. Angered by the Supreme Court's New Deal decisions, a newly reelected Roosevelt submitted to Congress in February 1937 a measure that would allow him to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice for every current Justice seventy years of age or older. Although eventually defeated in Congress. In March 1937 a 5-4 majority of the Justices decided that a women's minimum wage statute from Washington was constitutional. New York immediately repassed its 1933 minimum wage statute, which remained in effect until 1944, when it was amended to include men.
After nearly thirty
years of struggle, advocates of minimum wage legislation could relax.
But one more fight remained: the passage of a federal minimum wage statute
to encompass all workers. In that fight, ex-WJLC leaders and allies would
1937-1938: The Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
By 1937 the three major ex-WJLC leaders in the New Deal had gone their separate ways. Rose Schneiderman returned to New York City to resume her presidency of the national Women's Trade Union League. Molly Dewson, having played an important part in FDR's re-election in 1936, had found a sinecure on the Social Security Board. Only Frances Perkins remained in the forefront of the minimum wage fight. She now used the skills garnered through her years in New York State to support the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
As historian Vivien Hart notes, "[t]he legislative battle for the FLSA was long and acrimonious." In May 1937 the Roosevelt administration confidently introduced the bill in Congress. But political circumstances had changed since the heady days of 1933. FDR's Court bill, while apparently convincing the Supreme Court to swiftly change its mind, hurt the President's political standing in Congress. Opponents of Roosevelt had quickly seized the opportunity to denounce the bill as a "Court-packing" measure. Recognizing that the bill would never pass Congress, Administration allies quietly let the measure stagnate in committee. Suddenly Roosevelt, despite his commanding electoral mandate of the previous year, looked vulnerable. A coalition of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans began to form a coalition that would last for the rest of Roosevelt's presidency.
The FLSA presented a tempting target for Roosevelt's legislative opponents. Southern manufacturers, particularly textile employers, objected to the requested minimum wage of forty cents an hour because, they claimed, higher wages meant higher business costs. The National Association of Manufacturers also objected to the measure. Although an amended bill passed the U.S. Senate in June 1937, the new version remained in the House of Representatives Rules Committee until later that year. Even when the FLSA reached the House floor, the measure, and an alternative version offered by the AFL failed to win enough votes in December 1937.
This situation echoed the WJLC's struggles with the counternetwork in New York State throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. The NCL and Frances Perkins therefore relied upon the Conference's old tactics of legislative lobbying and grassroots mobilization to push FLSA through Congress. Relying on the precedent set by New York's Labor Standards Committee of 1932-1933, the NCL created the National Labor Standards Committee in March 1938, encompassing a wide variety of civic, political, and labor organizations. The Committee pressured legislators on one key issue: a minimum wage of at least 40 cents an hour without regional differentials. The lobbying of Mary Edna Cruzen, Missouri's Commissioner of Labor, typically reflected the coalition's efforts. "This will inform you," she related in a letter, "that I have addressed telegrams to all of the members of Congress, from the State of Missouri, urging them to support the Wages and Hours Bill, and that I have had favorable replies from nine . . . of them."
While the NCL instituted legislative lobbying, Frances Perkins mobilized her New York labor connections. On April 27, 1938, for example, a delegation of New York City garment and textile workers testified before their representatives at a House Labor Committee meeting. The workers expressed fears that they could lose their jobs to Southern factories, whom usually paid low wages, if national standards were not established. They also cited a resurgence of "sweatshops" in the New York metropolitan area.
This joint effort was assisted by Claude Pepper's dramatic victory in the Florida U.S. Senate Democratic primary on May 3, 1938. Encouraged by the Administration, Pepper had made passage of the FLSA a key part of his program. Events now followed swiftly. On May 6, 1938, Administration allies successfully reintroduced FLSA on the House floor. After the bill passed the House in late May, a conference committee between the House and the Senate secured an acceptable compromise. On June 25, 1938, the President signed the statute into law.
"The National Labor Standards Committee wishes to express its heartiest congratulations to you on the passage of [FLSA]," Mary Dublin, secretary of the Committee, told Mary T. Norton, chairperson of the House Labor Committee, on June 16, 1938. In her reply, Norton thanked Dublin for her congratulations. "I am sure," Norton added, "I need not tell you what a great source of joy and satisfaction its final passage was to me. I am particularly happy at the thought of better working conditions now in store for so many men and women in this country." Thus the process continued by the Women's Joint Legislative Conference during the 1920s resulted in successful federal legislation.
The Legacy of the WJLC: A Catalyst for Reform
This dissertation began with a quotation from a 1957 letter written by Molly Dewson. Now eighty-three years old and living with her partner in Maine, Dewson was contacted by Isador Lubin, New York State Labor Commissioner, for her thoughts on the twentieth anniversary of the repassage of the New York minimum wage statute. Reflecting upon the long struggle for minimum wage legislation, which had taken her from Massachusetts in the 1910s to New York in the 1920s and then finally to Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, Dewson told Lubin in her reply that the battle "has been a long fight, but worth it."
Dewson's remark about minimum wage legislation can also be applied to the legacy of the Women's Joint Legislative Conference. The Conference proved a catalyst for reform by creating coalitions with both working women and the New York State Democratic Party in the 1920s and early 1930s. The eventual successes of the Conference showed how important cross-class coalitions were to the continuation of reform in the 1920s. The middle-class women in the WJLC had learned through their failures of 1919 through 1924 that unless working women showed strong support of labor legislation, the counternetwork of business interests, the NWP, and the state Republican Party could block the Conference's agenda. Opponents such as Mark A. Daly could heap scorn upon Conference members as "uplifters," upper-class women who interfered with business interests for no sufficient reason.
Although many women contributed to the establishment of a successful cross-class alliance, the major credit belongs to Rose Schneiderman. From her participation in the NYWTUL network of 1908-1915 to the NRA of 1933-1935, the NYWTUL president consistently sought to unite all classes of women behind labor legislation. Schneiderman believed the WJLC measures constituted the best means to assist working women in a world where male trade unions traditionally treated their female counterparts with hostility.
Social justice always remained foremost in Schneiderman's mind, even in the difficult days of 1921 through 1925, when her failed 1920 U.S. Senate candidacy and accusations of "bolshevism" unfairly alienated her from her middle-class WJLC colleagues. In 1925 she effectively mobilized working-class women with the assistance of Mabel Leslie for the Conference's 48-hour bill. In addition, she extended her generous vision of social justice to a group not normally considered within the purview of reform: African-American women. When her efforts to mobilize laundry workers failed in the mid-1920s, Schneiderman joined forces with Molly Dewson and the CLNY to protect such workers through the "force of law."
Yet even with Schneiderman's tenacity and dedication to working women, the WJLC would not have succeeded, even survived, without the efforts of a diverse group of women. Florence Kelley and Mary Elizabeth Dreier initiated the two Progressive Era networks that provided models for the WJLC. The two women demonstrated how legal and political networks could be constructed to promote and defend labor legislation. They later provided invaluable leadership to the Conference. Kelley's hard-won political experience enabled her to lead the Conference through its darkest days in 1921 through 1923. Dreier, whose initial leadership of the WJLC from 1919 through 1921 was marked by continuous frustration, later provided decisive leadership in 1925.
Mary Van Kleeck, once the protégé of Kelley and Josephine Goldmark, became a key figure in the 1920s. From 1919 through 1926 the RSF official acted more as an industrial expert who provided key legislative testimony rather than ideas or important connections. From 1926 through 1933 Van Kleeck fulfilled more of a leadership role. Through her membership in the Taylor Society came the key idea of "industrial citizenship." From her connections with Mary Anderson of the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau came technical knowledge and essential support. Van Kleeck also helped successfully frustrate the efforts of Alice Paul and the NWP to use the Women's Bureau as a means of criticizing women's labor legislation. Finally, Van Kleeck provided support to Molly Dewson's long and successful battle for minimum wage legislation.
Even with these women's efforts to establish cross-class alliances, the deepening relationship between New York State women reform leaders and the Democratic Party in the 1920s and early 1930s proved the decisive factor. From 1911 through 1915 the NYWTUL and NCL networks had fashioned seemingly permanent alliances with such New York State Democratic figures as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner. The Republican control of the state legislature after 1915, however, made identification with the Democrats risky. Upon its creation in 1918 the WJLC staunchly proclaimed its non-partisanship. The organization hoped that it could continue the tradition of women's voluntary organizations in previous eras; that is, the Conference would formulate and propose legislation, and its allies in the state legislature would pass the proposals.
Political reality proved otherwise in the 1920s. Progressivism in the state Republican Party had only lasted from 1898, when Theodore Roosevelt won the New York governorship, through 1911, when Roosevelt's successor Charles Evans Hughes left Albany for the U.S. Supreme Court. Thaddeus Sweet ruthlessly exterminated any progressivism in the State Assembly in 1919 and 1920, and only a few Progressive Republicans such as Frederick Davenport lingered in the State Senate. This gloomy political picture continued throughout the decade, as conservative Republicans controlled the state legislature from 1915 through 1931.
With the continual stalemate from 1919 through 1924, middle-class organizations in the Conference slowly changed their non-partisan viewpoint. When Dreier and Schneiderman advocated political campaigning as a tool in 1919 and 1920, organizations such as the WCCNY reluctantly exempted themselves from the campaigns and eventually took control of the Conference. The key changes came in 1924 and 1925. When the Republicans reneged on their promise to support the 48-hour bill in early 1925, Conference leaders, bitter at being betrayed, finally turned to Al Smith and the Democratic Party. The key women in establishing an alliance with the New York State Democratic Party were Eleanor Roosevelt and Molly Dewson. As shown in Chapter 5, Roosevelt and her colleagues at the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Party effectively made the Democrats a partner with the WJLC from 1924 through 1927. Molly Dewson continued the partnership after Eleanor Roosevelt "retired" from her public commitments in late 1928. Dewson became the foremost proponent of minimum wage legislation in New York State from 1928 through 1933. Her shrewd political sense formed effective alliances with first Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and then his successor, Herbert H. Lehman.
The Conference's alliance with the New York State Democratic Party also reflected two new developments in social justice feminism. First, a generational shift took place among women reform leaders in New York State throughout the 1920s. In 1918, for example, Florence Kelley, Mary Elizabeth Dreier, and Rose Schneiderman controlled the central organizations in the WJLC: the NCL and the NYWTUL. Each women possessed many years of experience in promoting and defending women's labor legislation. By 1933, the women's political landscape in New York State had drastically changed. Florence Kelley was dead; Dreier had semi-retired; and only Schneiderman remained in an important position (presidency of the NYWTUL.) Three new, significant political leaders from the WJLC now asserted national control. Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady of the United States. Molly Dewson was now poised to become a key women leader in the national Democratic Party. Frances Perkins left her position as New York State Industrial Commissioner to become U.S. Secretary of Labor. The Progressive Era generation had thus passed on the torch to its New Deal successors.
The second important development for social justice feminism centered on its growing participation in the state. In 1918 WJLC leaders such as Kelley and Dreier stood apart from state involvement. Although Kelley had served as Illinois's factory inspector in the 1890s, and Dreier had served as a FIC Commissioner from 1911 through 1915, only Mary Van Kleeck was involved in state service through the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Women in Industry. By 1933 this situation had changed. Besides the obvious example of Perkins, other WJLC leaders served, or had served, in the New York State government: Nelle Swartz, Maud Swartz, Belle Moskowitz, and Frieda Miller. This development helped ease the way for former WJLC leaders to serve in the New Deal.
Through its alliances with both working women and the New York State Democratic Party, the WJLC became an effective catalyst for reform in a decade where conservatism reigned supreme. As historians from Arthur S. Link to Nancy Cott have concluded, the early 1920s did temporarily retain the Progressive spirit. A farmer-labor coalition in Congress made it difficult for Republicans to pass conservative legislation, particularly after the 1922 congressional elections. The Women's Joint Congressional Committee, moreover, kept a progressive agenda alive on the national stage, particularly through the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act. But by mid-decade, the attacks of right-wing organizations proved too strong for reform on the national agenda. In sharp contrast, the WJLC continued to catalyze reform in New York State. Its long-fought but eventually successful lobbying on behalf of the 48-hour bill and minimum wage measures established important precedents for the New Deal. It also emboldened WJLC leaders such as Molly Dewson and Frances Perkins to pursue similar policy goals on the national stage. Thus an effective bridge was built from the Progressives to the New Dealers.
Last Updated: 8/14/14