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seven women in coats and hats standing on steps in front of a building with the rain coming down
National Women's Trade Union League, 1922. National Photo Company.

Unions, Feminism, and Margaret Dreier Robins

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This post was written by Kelsey Diemand, Librarian in Residence in the Science, Technology and Business Division.

seated portrait
Margaret Dreier Robins, ca. 1921.

The historian in me is constantly on the lookout for new sources of historical business information and,  the Library of Congress collections never disappoint. My latest interest is labor history, which is how I discovered a person that I didn’t know much about: Margaret Dreier Robins. After a quick biographical search, I realized that I probably should have paid more attention in history class! Robins’ activism in the National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was a significant aspect of early 20th century reform and was instrumental in the United States Progressive movement.

No group of people can hold what they have won in the way of fairer conditions except by their courage, initiative, and vigilance and their trained capacity to stand together. – Margaret Dreier Robins in her Presidential Address to the Fourth Biennial Convention of the National Women’s Trade Union League, 1913.

emblem with two women one hold a child, one a shield; reach across a scroll that says "The eight hour day. A living wage. To guard the home." 1903
National Women’s Trade Union League emblem.

Originally called “The National Women’s Trade Union League of America,” WTUL was founded as an alliance of middle-class and working women of Boston in 1903 and was active until 1950. WTUL was inspired by the work of the similarly named Women’s Trade Union League in England, which was founded a few decades earlier, in 1874. The American WTUL was formed to help working women advocate for themselves and the organization’s mission demonstrated a unique combination of unionism and feminism in the Progressive Era. Their platform consisted of five main ideals (as cited in several WTUL publications and proceedings):

  1. Organization of all workers into trade unions
  2. Equal pay for equal work
  3. Eight-hour day
  4. A living wage
  5. Full citizenship for women

Margaret Dreier Robins was elected president of the national organization in 1907 and held a fifteen-year tenure as its leader. Robins led the organization in its mission of movement and reform, advocating for progressive legislation and unions for women workers. Robins also advocated for the “industrial education” of girls and women. In her 1913 presidential address to the fourth biennial WTUL convention, she stated, “If the difficulties are great confronting the education of boys, they are many times greater when we consider the education of girls…This confusion is due to the belief that the girl is a potential wife and mother only. The fact that she is a bread winner also is forgotten or ignored.” Such “confusion” surrounding this matter was “dangerous,” according to Robins. She believed that the “question of industrial education” was one of utmost importance and a key to success for industrial workers, especially women.

Group phot of women women sitting and standing holding banners for the convention
6th Biennial Convention, Nat’l Women’s Trade League, Kansas City Missouri, June 4-9, 1917.

The end of Margaret Dreier Robins’ tenure in the National Women’s Trade Union League in 1922 marked the beginning of the end to her activism, as she eventually retired from active reforming and moved to Florida. However, the WTUL continued crusading for almost three decades after Margaret Dreier Robins stepped down as president. The organization was dissolved in 1950 and, shortly thereafter, decided to donate the records of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America to the Library of Congress, where they are housed in the Manuscript Division. Interested parties can consult the finding aid to determine more details about this collection. We also have the papers of Margaret Dreier Robins on microfilm available for users to access onsite.

There is even more to discover about the inspiring Margaret Dreier Robins and the National Women’s Trade Union League at the Library of Congress! In the stacks of the Adams Building, you can find WTUL convention handbooks and proceedings to gain a contemporary perspective of the National Women’s Trade Union League in the first half of the twentieth century. We also have issues of Life and Labor, the monthly magazine published by the National Women’s Trade Union League from 1911-1921,  succeeded by the Life and Labor Bulletin, also published monthly by WTUL from 1922-1932.

These publications covered the activities of the organization and current events of the labor movement. You can also check out some of the books that have been written about Robins, the WTUL, and the early 20th century labor movement, which may also be available through your local public or university library: Margaret Dreier Robins: Her Life, Letters, and Work (available electronically through HathiTrust) and Reform, Labor, and Feminism.

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