In testimony before Congress in 1975, Jessie de la Cruz stated that she “measured land by the inch because I worked with an 8-inch hoe, 10 hours a day…” This Valley woman worked hard, first to sustain her own family, then to improve conditions for all farm workers. In time, she was able to measure both her progress and the land she worked by more than the inch. She helped establish worker’s rights and, along with her husband, bought land, pioneering cooperative and organic farming.
Work in the United States is a many-faceted story, and women’s work is frequently unacknowledged. Yet women have toiled to buy food for their children and to enhance working conditions for others. Slave women and farm women from the Dust Bowl to the modern San Joaquin Valley; Chinese and Italian immigrant women in factories of industrial U.S.; housewives and domestic workers, waitresses and secretaries in today’s service economy; all have dreamed and worked for bread and for “roses.”
Frequently, women were denied the luxury of moving up, a concept we often associate with being citizens of the United States. Ellen Betts, a former slave in Louisiana, reminisced to a Works (WPA) interviewer, “I wanted to get papers for midwifing but, Law, I never had no time for larning in slave time.”
At times, women came together, struggling to enhance their working conditions. Following the Triangle Fire in New York City in 1911 (where 145 workers died, most of them young immigrant women) Rose Schneiderman declared to a crowd, “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of women and men is so cheap… It is up to working people to save themselves.” It took years of resolute struggle for safety standards to become established.
Over the centuries, women have made our shoes, tended our peaches and picked cotton for our clothes. They bring us food in restaurants, change the sheets at Motel 6 and check us for breast cancer. Between work days, they made time to fight for safety standards, eight-hour days and the right to work without harassment. They marched for the right to vote and the right to inherit estates, agitated for civil rights, worked for child labor laws, then attempted to obtain pay equity and to raise glass ceilings. They struggled to get into professions that locked them out, then watched while social changes turned all-male professions (e.g. office workers, librarians and teachers) into some of the few positions open to them, accompanied by lower pay.
Each one of us, whether we recognize it or not, reap benefits resulting from these struggles. We are entitled to the right to vote, to workplaces where harassment is not permissible (and where there is legal recourse when it occurs), to safe and available birth control and much more, because of the women who came before us. In most cases, class and race worked against rectifying wrongs, and still women labored to maintain their jobs and establish the worth of what they did.
In the current economy, some of these struggles have changed locales, while others continue. A society that honors power and money rarely gives more than a nod (if even that) to the workers that improve our lives in a myriad of ways. The history of women’s work is relevant to our lives and important to understanding our place in a globalized society.
If there is one thing I would like people to appreciate, it is that there is a long and agonizing story that brought us to where we are today, and still there are things that need to be changed. For all the women, of every class and race and era, who worked their fingers to the bone and endured, who gave us life and kept us alive—and for all the women who are still doing—it Labor Day is a time to express our gratitude.
Hope Nisly is acquisitions librarian at Fresno Pacific University and is on the steering committee of the Reedley Peace Center.