UNION NO. 1
HOW SUSAN B ANTHONY PARTNERED WITH AN AMBITIOUS TYPESETTER TO CHANGE HISTORY
This past August, Americans celebrated the centennial of Universal Women Suffrage. The fight for that right blossomed at the infamous 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The convention was led by Women’s Rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Lesser known is their involvement in forming the first Women’s Typographical Union in New York and as publishers of a women’s rights newspaper called “The Revolution.” Last March, we published a series of articles on Women in Printing, including the fascinating story of Mrs. Agnes B. Peterson and the forming of the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union (WCPU) in 1869 San Francisco. On the opposite coast, in New York City, women were also fighting back against male typesetting trade unions.
The mid-nineteenth century was the epoch of the typesetting trade. Printing technology was moving at an industrial pace and demand for material had never been higher. The mechanization of typesetting, however, lagged behind in comparison. This gave rise to the giants of typesetting, the age of whole compositing rooms and a large staff of typesetters for big city newspapers or book publishers. According to Print Historian Walker Rumble in his book about nineteenth century typesetting, The Swifts, “The advent of women on the printing shop floor threatened to lower wages, ‘feminize’ male workplace culture, and present a competitive challenge to job performance.”
But this attitude was contradicted by the fact that in small towns across America, thousands of women worked in the printing industry. Fincher’s Trades Review reported at mid-century that at least half of the compositors in American towns were women. Similar to the Rosie the Riveters of WWII, the number of qualified female typesetters increased during the American Civil War, replacing men who went to fight. However, these women were excluded from apprenticeships and shut out of trade unions that dictated hiring and pricing practices, especially in big cities. With no other option, women who needed the work, or were determined to work, took lower wages and were often used as strikebreakers, ultimately pitting them against the male trade unions.
In addition, the compositing rooms of big city newspapers were fast paced, rambunctious places filled with wily young bachelors, old hats, gambling, drinking, saloon going and similarly “masculine” activities. The unionist no doubt feared that including women in a workplace would temper that spirit (sound familiar?). Keep in mind at this time there were few professions that were equally male and female. Things were either “Men’s Work,” or “Women’s Work” and men did not appreciate being identified with “Women’s Work” There were a myriad of reasons whether justifiable, societal, or just plain sexist, why men wanted to keep women out of the composing room but, as historian Mary Briggs observed, “Their most fundamental opposition was not to women but to the competition of inferior and cheap labor.”
In New York the tension was palpable. There was more work there than most places, therefore there was more work for the men to lose. The New York Typographical Union Chapter, Local No. 6. Local No. 6 was one of the most powerful unions in the nation, sometimes referred to as the “Big 6”. A talented young typesetter named Augusta Lewis entered the picture. Lewis learned typesetting not from an apprenticeship (women were shut out of apprenticeships and therefore union membership), but simple on the job training when the New York World hired a number of women typesetters in an effort to reduce costs. The inclusion of women in the typesetting room was a huge reason the typesetting staff of the New York World walked out on the job in 1868. Once the Big 6 Union resolved their differences with the New York World management, all women were fired from their positions. It was clear that management viewed women typesetters as a bargaining chip and cheap labor. They pitted unions against women and had no interest in who won, as long as they ended up saving money.
That’s when August Lewis turned to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony for help. Luckily, they just happened to have recently started publishing their own Newspaper called “The Revolution,” a weekly that covered issues of women’s rights, suffrage, and politics. The newspaper advocated for the female typesetters and, upon their firings, hired many of them to work for The Revolution. According to Elizabeth Cady Stanton “One of Miss Anthony’s most cherished plans is to have a magnificent printing establishment, and a daily paper, owned and controlled and all the work done by women, thus giving employment to hundreds and making the world ring with the new evangel for women.”
But the partnership was a shaky one from the start. When they established the Working Women’s Association in September of 1868, the divide between working and middle-class women became apparent. The middle-class women, who made up the majority of suffragists, pushed to gain political standing in order to further women’s rights while the working-class women pushed to first gain economic equality in order to further women’s rights.
By October of 1868 Lewis and about forty others had formed the very first all women labor union in America, Women’s Typographical Union No. 1. Before organizing, women’s financial threat to the men was easily overcome by the power of the union. But once the women organized into their own union, the threat became legitimate. Members of the ITU were well aware of the havoc competing unions could wreak on wages, so instead they swallowed their pride and invited the Women’s Typographical Union to apply for a charter from the ITU.
The Women’s Typographical Union was soon forced to prove their union loyalty when in January 1869 the New York No. 6 Union led a strike against the book and job printers who employed low waged non-union female typesetters. One of these firms was Gray and Green Printers, the feminist leaning financial backers of Susan B. Anthony’s “The Revolution” newspaper, where Augusta Lewis happened to be employed. Even worse in the Union’s eyes, Gray and Green Printers offered a crash two-week training program for women typesetters, essentially training rat printers. Susan B. Anthony saw the strike as an opportunity “to train women as compositors, it was the only way women could get experience in the trade” and to “open the way for a thorough drill to the hundreds of poor girls, to enable these women to earn wages with men everywhere.” Augusta Lewis protested and was fired. Although Augusta and the Women’s Typographical Union had cut ties with the mainstream suffrage and women’s rights movement, they had gained respect within the union itself, which is what Augusta thought was the best method to pursue gender equality. Susan B. Anthony considered August Lewis a union dope and Augusta Lewis saw Susan B. Anthony as an enemy of working women. Despite this splintering, both women would continue to pursue women’s equality throughout their lives in the way they thought best.
As for the Women’s Typographical Union No. 1 it burned bright and briefly, coming to an end by 1878. Walker Rumble put it best, observing that for the union “instead of welcoming women the tactic now enveloped the occasional extraordinary woman absorbing her but offering diminishing opportunities for most women to enter the trade.” Despite their efforts, the members of the Women’s Typographical Union No. 1 still lived in a society that made women choose between a family and career and many of them chose to marry, including Augusta Lewis. According to “Neither Printer’s Wife nor Widow: American Women in Typesetting, 1830-1950,” a historical study written in 1980, “Today two popular views of the situation exist: the union view of the typographers as pioneer egalitarians, and the feminist view of the union as destroyer of the first and best opportunity women had to participate in a remunerative skilled trade. As far as they go, both views are correct, yet the matter is still more complex.” The prologue to this being that in 2021 women are dominant in the field of printing and produce some of the best contemporary work there is. To this we say Happy Women’s History Month and keep teaching the next generation of amazing women printers to honor those that came before us.
Note from the Author:
Sara Halpert has been the Museum Manager at The International Printing Museum since 2015. Before that she worked as a tour guide at Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, the former headquarters of the suffrage organization “The National Woman’s Party.” She was thrilled to combine her love for printing and women’s history into writing this piece.
Main resources for this article came from
“The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races” by Walker Rumble and “Neither Printer’s Wife nor Widow: American Women in Typesetting, 1830-1950” by Mary Briggs.
To access the full archives of “The Revolution”