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Hidden Histories

Long overlooked, labor feminists stirred political, economic and social ideas

Dorothy Sue CobbleWomen were invited.

But, they couldn't vote at the first meeting of the International Labor Organization in 1919.

So, they held their own summit.

The International Federation of Working Women meeting helped set the stage for policy changes throughout the century, said Rutgers University Professor Dorothy Sue Cobble, speaker at Thursday’s annual Alice Hanson Cook Distinguished Lecture.

From 19 countries, the 200 women at the first international gathering of trade union feminists were bold thinkers, Cobble said.

"They sought not to end capitalism, but to challenge and transform it" through labor reform, she said. "They hoped … to influence new global institutions."

The mix of working-class and elite women sought to end unfair workplace practices such as pay inequities by working as a group and through unions, Cobble told more than 70 people at Ives Hall.

Individual bargaining, they felt, "was not a recipe for freedom, but one for exploitation," said Cobble, who received the 2010 Sol Stetin Award from The Sidney Hillman Foundation for the body of her work, which includes Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century and Women and Unions: Forging a Partnership.

After the historic meeting in Washington, D.C., the federation lasted five years. After the formal organization faded, the informal networks among federation activists continued for decades and helped sustain the influence of women in the labor movement and political life.

Another reformer, Alice Hanson Cook, shared the disregard for norms embraced by federation members, she said.

Cook's research, teaching, and activism on behalf of women workers continued the legacy of the federation, said Cobble, a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

One of the first women to teach at ILR, Cook died in 1998. Her work is commemorated through the Cook lecture and through a professorship in her name. Rosemary Batt is ILR's Alice Cook Professor of Women and Work.

Cook did some of her most important work while in her 70s and 80s as she traveled around the world to continue her scholarship and share her knowledge on women’s work issues, said Cobble, who began her lecture by recounting a moment from Cook's career.

Cobble had invited Cook to talk to 150 women unionists at a conference in 1991 in New Jersey.

It was a blistering hot day. The unionists were restless and tired after a week of workshops.  

As the group waited in an uncomfortably warm auditorium for the next speaker, Cobble wasn't sure how well the next speaker would be received.

An older woman, barely taller than the podium, took the stage and quickly commandeered their attention.

It was Alice Cook.

She seized the moment, as she had throughout her career, to rally women in pursuit of better work lives.

Cobble shared the vignette Thursday, then paused to say, "Thank you, Alice, for your life and your work. We miss you."

Related Destination

2010 Alice Hanson Cook Distinguished Lecture Webcast