On this day in 1831, a garment worker in New York City named Sarah Monroe made an eloquent plea for female solidarity to overcome deplorable working conditions and low pay.
We know very little about Monroe other than that she was a working class woman, employed in the city’s garment trade, and was president of the newly-formed United Tailoresses Society, the first women-only union in the United States.
Even though women performed much of the skilled labor in the “needle trades” — tailoresses, shirt sewers, dressmakers, lace makers, cap makers, and shoe crimpers — they were excluded them from the earliest unions, or craft associations.
Inspired by the success of labor actions by New York City’s mechanics and journeymen, Monroe and her “fellow sufferers” came together in the Quaker Friends Academy in lower Manhattan on a cold, late-winter evening to discuss how they could improve their working conditions and earn a living wage.
The UTS had about 1,500 members, most of them working 16 hours a day, earning $2 or less a week, about $59 today.
In her March 3 speech — the only one we have by Monroe — she displays a fiery determination as she rallies the members to collective action. Her speech was published in the New York Daily Sentinel.
What’s noteworthy about her words is her astute political awareness and the note of female solidarity she strikes as she makes an eloquent argument for women to use their voices: “Patience is no longer a virtue,” she says, “and in my opinion to be longer silent would be a crime.”
“My friends, if it is unfashionable for the men to bear oppression in silence, why should it not also become unfashionable with the women?”
“My friends,” she asks, “if it is unfashionable for the men to bear oppression in silence, why should it not also become unfashionable with the women?”
Although it was short-lived organization, the UTS helped expose abuses in the textile and clothing industry and provided a powerful example of working women banding together and using their voices for change.
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