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Lenora M. Barry Describes Women's Working Conditions in New Jersey (1887)

Lenora M. Barry was the national women’s organizer for the Knights of Labor in the late nineteenth century. The Knights of Labor aimed to improve the lives and health of laborers by encouraging them to organize unions and other groups to fight for better pay and working conditions. In 1886 and 1887, Barry inspected working conditions for women throughout New Jersey, where there were 4,400 women members of the Knights of Labor at the time. This excerpt of Barry's report describes what she found from visiting factories and talking with workers. In addition to noting ways that employers exploited women and children in their factories, Barry described how many Irish immigrants were forced to keep working in order to pay off the expenses of their transportation from Belfast to the U.S.

December 6th I went to Trenton, N.J., in compliance with the request of L.A. 4925. While there made an investigation in three woolen mills, and found the condition of the female operatives to be in every respect above the average. Also visited the potteries, where many women are employed. Those people stand greatly in need of having their condition bettered, as they receive poor wages for laborious and unhealthy employment. Also visited the State Prison, and noticed with regret, the vast amount of work of various kinds the inmates were turning out to be put on the market in competition with honest labor. While in the city, I addressed five local assemblies and held one public meeting of working women.

December 10th went to Newark to investigate the matter concerning the sewing-women of that city... in general the working-women of Newark were very poorly paid, and the system of fines in many industries was severe and unjust. Instance: A corset factory where a fine is imposed for eating, laughing, singing or talking, of 10 cents each. If not inside the gate in the morning when the whistle stops blowing, an employee is locked out until half-past seven; then she can go to work, but is docked two hours for waste power; and many other rules equally slavish and unjust. Other industries closely follow these rules, while the sewing-women receive wages which are only one remove from actual starvation. In answer to all my inquiries, of employer and employed, why this state of affairs exists, the reply was, monopoly and competition.

…March 14, was sent to Paterson to look into the condition of the women and children employed in the linen-thread works of that city. There are some fourteen or fifteen hundred persons employed in this industry, who were at that time out of employment for this reason: Children who work at what is called doffing were receiving $2.70 per week, and asked for an increase of 5 cents per day. They were refused, and they struck, whereupon all the other employees were locked out. This was what some of the toadying press called “Paterson’s peculiar strike”, or “unexplainable phenomena”. The abuse, injustice and suffering which the women of this industry endure from the tyranny, cruelty and slave-driving propensities of the employers is something terrible to be allowed existence in free America. In one branch of this industry women are compelled to stand on the stone floor in water the year round, most of the time barefoot, with a spray of water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the breast; and the coldest night in winter as well as the warmest in summer those poor creatures must go to their homes with water dripping from their under-clothing along their path because there could not be space or a few moments allowed them wherein to change their clothing. A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any who dare rebel against the iron-clad authority of those in charge. The law is evaded in this matter; but the passage-tickets on the Inman Steamship Line, that are advanced at from $5 to $7 more than they actually cost to the friends of those employed here or in the factory of this firm in Belfast, Ireland, and which are paid for after they commence work for the firm on this side of the ocean in $1 installments, at their semi-monthly payments, furnish good ground for a test case in the near future. Add to this the most meagre wages, crowded, badly ventilated rooms, want of proper sanitary conditions, and many other cruelties, and a fair-minded public can form some solution of this unexplainable “phenomena”. 

Source |
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | “Lenora M. Barry Describes Women's Working Conditions in New Jersey (1887) ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

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