Jane Addams becomes vice president of National Women's Trade Union League

Founded in 1903 by Jane Addams, Mary Anderson and other trade unionists, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) devoted itself to securing better occupational conditions for women and encouraging women to join the labor movement.

The WTUL had a strong reformist agenda, "sponsored a combination of vocational training and protective legislation," and quickly emerged as one of the most liberal organizations of its kind. (1)

From 1907 through 1922, the WTUL achieved a number of its legislative goals, including an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor. After the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, the WTUL took part in a four-year investigation that ultimately helped establish new industrial safety regulations. In addition, the league helped women gain access to labor unions, trained women for leadership positions within unions, and even provided temporary assistance for unemployed trade union women.

Perhaps most importantly, the WTUL emerged as the central meeting place for reform-minded women interested in labor issues, and it was through the WTUL that many of these women cultivated important political relationships. Eleanor Roosevelt became an active league member in 1922, cementing her ties to figures like Rose Schneiderman and Margaret Dreier Robins. These women eventually became staunch Roosevelt allies, providing the WTUL important access to powerful politicians and insuring that their voices would be factored into the formulation of labor policy in Washington. Despite the league's closeness to the White House during the Roosevelt years, the WTUL's role grew increasingly irrelevant once labor unions allowed women to join on a widespread basis. Mounting financial problems and declining membership numbers also hampered WTUL's effectiveness. Even though ER remained supportive of the League until the end, the WTUL closed its doors for good in 1950.

The Women's Trade Union League was inspired by a women's boycott of high priced kosher beef in New York in 1902. William English Walling, a wealthy native of Kentucky and a resident of a university settlement house, witnessed the event and decided to visit England to study the Women's Trade Union League founded by Mary Ann Patterson in 1873. Walling was particularly interested in how the group integrated women of different social classes into a single organization for defending the rights of women workers.

After returning to America, Walling joined forces with Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, a Hull-House resident, to form the Women's National Trade Union League in 1903. The WTUL was created when it became clear that the American Federation of Labor would not admit women. Mary Morton Kehew served as the first president of the organization with Jane Addams as vice-president and O'Sullivan as secretary. Other notable figures on the first executive board included Leonora O'Reilly and Lillian Wald, both active in New York settlement houses and local women's trade unions. Ellen Lindstrom and Mary McDowell of Chicago also sat on the board. The organization soon spread to other major cities in the United States with local branches being supported by settlement houses and an intertwining network of women's organizations.

The Women's National Trade Union League changed its name to the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1907. The league fought for women's suffrage, better pay and working conditions for women, and supported other progressive causes, e.g., William Walling, Mary McDowell, Leonora O'Reilly, and Lillian D. Wald all helped to found the NAACP in 1909. The League was technically required to maintain a majority of women's trade unionists as members and power was to rest in their hands, but "allies," or sympathizers from other social classes often played prominent roles.

The Chicago Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was one of the most active branches of a national organization that aimed to organize women workers into trade unions, lobby for protective legislation and woman suffrage, and promote vocational education. Its membership included both working-class women and upper-class “allies” who supported the organization financially. Led by an unusual and at times uneasy mix of civic reformers including Jane Addams and Mary McDowell and trade unionists including Agnes Nestor and Mary Anderson, the WTUL held its meetings in Hull House from its inception in January 1904 until 1908, when it moved to the offices of the Chicago Federation of Labor. In addition to supporting strikes of women workers, WTUL programs included musical and dramatic clubs, a national publication edited in Chicago by Alice Henry, educational programs such as English-language classes and instruction on parliamentary procedure, and a visiting physicians program.