Literary Links: Women’s History in the Work World

Each year the National Women’s History Project chooses a theme for Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” Over the last century, women saw much change and progress in many areas of their lives, but especially in employment. As men went off to war and women pursued higher education, doors that were previously shut flew open. It was not an easy societal transition, and many women have had to fight for equality in their workplaces. The efforts of these 20th century revolutionaries ended up improving working conditions for everyone and demonstrated that woman can take on any type of job.

The Good Girls Revolt book coverMany women entered the U.S. workforce during the 1960s, but they often obtained jobs that offered little or no advancement. In order to reach equality in the workplace with men, some women began turning to the judicial system for help. For example, Lynn Povich’s “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace” tells the true story of a group of women who lead the first female class action lawsuit against their employer for discrimination in hiring and promotions based on gender. Povich examines the lawsuit and the various repercussions it had on the lives of the women involved.

Grace and Grit book coverNearly 30 years after the Newsweek lawsuit, Lilly Ledbetter, a manager at Goodyear, received an anonymous note informing her that she had been paid significantly less than male colleagues in the same role. She eventually sued Goodyear, taking her fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Ledbetter ultimately lost because her lawsuit was not filed within time requirements according to labor laws. Despite losing her case, she went on to become a tireless fighter for women in the workplace. Ledbetter’s book “Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond” describes her time with Goodyear and the years she dedicated to improving pay for women. Her actions ultimately inspired President Obama in 2009 to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

WHousehold Workers Unitee may not normally think of domestic laborers as key players in changing the workforce, but Premilla Nadasen reveals how they organized to improve their work experience during the 1960s and 1970s in “Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement.” The book draws on the personal stories of women who served as cooks, maids and nannies, and illustrates how those jobs were shaped by society’s views of race and gender. Nadasen offers a fascinating portrait of these women who, despite mostly working alone, came together to achieve better pay and working conditions.


She was One of Us book coverEleanor Roosevelt is well known for dramatically reshaping the role of the First Lady, but she also made an impact on the labor movement in the area of worker’s rights. Brigid O’Farrell’s “She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker” explores Roosevelt’s actions after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Roosevelt believed the rights of workers were human rights and she was not afraid to A Sister's Memories book covercriticize labor leaders or point out changes that needed to be made. Grace Abbott, a friend of Roosevelt’s, also left a lasting and important mark on working conditions within the United States. Her sister Edith Abbott compiled her story in “A Sister’s Memories: The Life and Work of Grace Abbott From the Writings of Her Sister, Edith Abbott.” Abbott was a social worker and educator who helped to draft Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Social Security Act, which ensured aid for those who were out of work. Her actions were geared towards women, children and immigrants, but helped improve labor conditions for everyone.

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes book coverBrad Ricca tells the fascinating story of Grace Humiston in “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation.” In the early 1900s, Humiston worked undercover to expose forced labor camps in the South, and for her efforts was appointed as the first female U.S. district attorney. Her most notable case was the search
for a missing girl named Ruth Cruger, whom the NYPD had given up on finding. Humiston solved the Cruger case and ultimately earned the nickname of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes for her detective skills. She is an example of the countless women in this country who bravely forged paths into workforces dominated by men, but who history has nearly forgotten.