Women have only recently made headway into real positions of power in organized labor, after making slow progress over the movement’s history. “The male leadership have been very pleased to accept the assistance and support of women union activists and leaders,” said Ileen Devault, a professor of labor history at Cornell, “but they haven’t been so eager to give them actual power in the union movement.” The early labor movement organized workers by occupation, in highly gender-segregated workforce, women were often left out of jobs that became unionized. Even when women began to be organized, they were relegated to segregated locals.
By the mid-1930s, union leaders began to realize that success would rest on organizing all workers at a workplace, no matter their gender, race or skill, explained Roosevelt Institute Fellow and labor expert Dorian Warren. That’s when women began to make gains in leadership. But women labor leaders aren’t only found at the top: between the late 1980s and late 1990s, the percentage of female lead organizers increased from 12 to 21 percent. Meanwhile, the rise of the “worker centered movement”—groups such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance or ROC United that aren’t formal unions but help workers organize and advocate for better conditions—has been more effective at fostering the leadership of women and people of color than traditional unions, Warren says.