Select Page

… records of women at work

We all know — or we should — that 2020 is the centennial year for women’s suffrage here in the United States.

So what better to work on and highlight on Labor Day 2020 than some terrific options for researching our women ancestors on the job?

Labor Day parade 1942

Yes, today is Labor Day — this first Monday in September1 — a holiday here in the United States:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes …2

Today, we call it Labor Day — a day to celebrate the efforts of all those who came before us to give us amazing things like eight-hour work days, 40-hour weeks, paid vacations, employee health benefits, worker safety laws, compensation for on-the-job injuries and so many of the other myriad benefits we think of today as perfectly ordinary and routine.

Each of these was fought for by our working ancestors and the unions they formed to stand up to big business. They fought for them, and sometimes died for them.

Including the women in our families.

So let’s spend some time today, Labor Day 2020, taking a look at the records we might find of the working women in our family histories.

Of course, with the pandemic ongoing, we need to focus first on online resources, and one of the best resources for researching our working women ancestors is Women Working, 1800-1930, a virtual collection of the Harvard University Library. It’s an astounding online cornucopia of materials on women documenting their working lives between 1800 and the Great Depression, “a unique digital collection comprising over 650,000 individual pages from more than 3,100 books and trade catalogs, 900 archives and manuscript items, and 1,400 photographs.”3 The topics covered include anarchism, consumerism, conduct of life, education and training, feminism, home economics, legislation, living conditions, mothers’ pensions, philanthropy, socialism, sociology, suffrage, social movements, unemployment, and working conditions.

Or take a look at the materials under the Subject Focus: Women in Labor Unions links at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. That’s where you’ll find “the largest labor archives in North America and is home to the collections of numerous unions and labor-related organizations. Its collection strengths extend to the political and community life of urban and metropolitan Detroit, the civil rights movement in Michigan and nationally, and women’s struggles in the workplace.”4

Don’t overlook smaller collections online as well. At the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, for example, you can take a look at a handful of photographs from the National Women’s Trade Union League of America.

We can use census records to record working women after 1850, and that includes paying special attention to Columns 29 and 30 in 1940 — that’s where we’ll get hints to possible federal employment (WPA, for example) so we can make records requests to the National Archives for employment files. We can review the city directories where our families lived, since women working outside the home and those running home businesses were often listed in their own names.

Of course, there will be so much more available once we’re all free to travel and research in person again. Just as one example, at the Library of Congress, when its reading room reopens, we should look at the manuscript collections of women in the labor movement:

• The National Women’s Trade Union League of America collection, with 7,400 items that span the years 1903-50. Originally concerned with promoting the unionization of women, NWTUL soon turned its attention to protective labor legislation. Microfilm edition available.

• The Nancy Blaine Harrison papers, part of the Gilbert Harrison Papers, document Nancy Harrison’s career as a union organizer in North Carolina in the 1940s.

• The Cornelia Pinchot collection, with its material on the National Women’s Trade Union League.

For now, though, let’s at least use what’s available online, and labor today — on Labor Day, in the centennial year of women achieving the vote — to document our women at work.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “In this centennial year,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 7 Sep 2020).


Image: “Detroit, Michigan… women workers carrying banners in the Labor Day parade” (1942). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. Farm Security Administration collection.

  1. I’m not entirely sure just how it got to be September already. In some ways, this year seems endless. But this summer has flown by awfully fast…
  2. “An Act Making Labor Day a legal holiday,” 28 Stat. 96 (28 June 1894).
  3. Women Working, 1800-1930, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard University Libraries ( : accessed 7 Sep 2020).
  4. See “About Us,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University ( : accessed 7 Sep 2020).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email