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AFL Member Expresses Worry About Women in Industry (1897)

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans worried about the social and economic consequences of the visibly growing numbers of women employed in U.S. factories. The American Federationist, a publication of the American Federation of Labor, published articles about union issues and working conditions. In this article, originally titled "Women as Breadwinners: the Error of the Age," AFL member Edward O’Donnell described the impact he believed women's industrial work would have on families and the broader society.

The invasion of the crafts by women has been developing for years amid irritation and injury to the workman. The right of the woman to win honest bread is accorded on all sides, but with craftsmen it is an open question whether this manifestation is of a healthy social growth or not. 

The rapid displacement of men by women in the factory and workshop has to be met sooner or later, and the question is forcing itself upon the leaders and thinkers among the labor organizations of the land.....

The growing demand for female labor is not founded upon philanthropy, as those who encourage it would have sentimentalists believe; it does not spring from the milk of human kindness. It is an insidious assault upon the home; it is the knife of the assassin, aimed at the family circle--the divine injunction. It debars the man through financial embarrassment from family responsibility, and physically, mentally and socially excludes the woman equally from nature's dearest impulse. Is this the demand of civilized progress; is it the desire of Christian dogma?...

Capital thrives not upon the peaceful, united, contended family circle; rather are its palaces, pleasures and vices fostered and increased upon the disruption, ruin or abolition of the home, because with its decay and ever glaring privation, manhood loses its dignity, its backbone, its aspirations...

The wholesale employment of women in the various handicrafts must gradually unsex them, as it most assuredly is demoralizing them, or stripping them of that modest demeanor that lends a charm to their kind, while it numerically strengthens the multitudinous army of loafers, paupers, tramps and policement, for no man who desires honest employment, and can secure it, cares to throw his life away upon such a wretched occupation as the latter. 

The employment of women in the mechanical departments is encouraged because of its cheapness and easy manipulation, regardless of the consequent perils; and for no other reason. The generous sentiment enveloping this inducement is of criminal design, since it comes from a thirst to build riches upon the dismemberment of the family or the hearthstone cruelly dishonored...

Source |
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | “AFL Member Expresses Worry About Women in Industry (1897) ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 4, 2023,

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