'Women's Work' Broadside, 1887

Women at the Knights of Labor General Assembly, 1886

Female Delegates to the KoL General Assembly in 1866

The Knights were unusual in that they accepted people of all trades, and that they encouraged workers of a variety of occupational backgrounds to work together toward the improvement of all workers. Terence Powderly, for example, had been drawn to the Knights initially because they welcomed a diversity of workers. In Powderly's Scranton local, LA 222, boilermakers, blacksmiths, grinders and molders were all accepted. This inclusive attitude aimed at including all workers stretched to include women and blacks. Tolerance had its boundaries; the Knights, for example, supported the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 on the grounds that it protected the American labor force from outside competition, a prejudiced position that did not extend to excluding European laborers. The inclusion of women and blacks, however, was clearly progressive.

Lenora Barry, n.d.

Leonora Barry (1849-1930)

Powderly set about including African Americans, allowed after 1883, in the movement by meeting labor spokespeople and letter writing. At the 1885 Knights General Assembly meeting in Ontario, Canada, Powderly invited Joseph Brown Johnson, the African American Master Workman of District Assembly 92, to join him on the platform for his opening address. Powderly pledged to Johnson that "the services of the order for his race to fulfill for them their complete enfranchisement in common with those whose faces were white." Symbolic gestures like this one, along with letter writing and organizing activities, ensured the numbers of African American Knights would grow along with the non-African American membership. Sometimes African Americans became members of white locals, at other times they formed all-ethnic locals, which was a practice among other ethnic groups as well.

Powderly and other Knights also sought to draw working women into the Knights, and these women, too, became members of male-dominated assemblies, or formed their own, in the latter case choosing to focus on the particular problems of women in the workforce. The 1880 General Assembly legalized the admittance of women, and Powderly continuously stressed the contributions of women to the order. In 1886, ten percent of all Knights were female, and sixteen women delegates attended the General Assembly meeting that year.

To address women's issues, the Knights maintained a Committee on Women's Work, which employed a full-time investigator named Leonora Barry, an Irish immigrant, one- time teacher, and former factory worker. Barry became a Master Workman in charge of 1,000 women Knights in her local assembly, and as the head of the women's work committee, she traveled around the country gathering labor statistics and encouraging women to join the order.

This 1887 document presents one of the ways the Knights sought to send messages to women into the order: broadsides posted about town.

"Women's Work" Broadside, 1887

"Women's Work" broadside, 1887

Questions:

As you read the document, reflect on the following questions:

  • What is the broadside announcing?
  • Does the announcement represent progress for the role of women in the order?
  • What was Leonora Barry unanimously elected to do?
  • What are the stated goals of the female locals?

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