Feb. 21, 2020
When you hear the words, ‘black women’ and ‘historical protest movements,’ what comes to mind? Many of us immediately think of Ida B. Wells’ journalism, Rosa Parks’ bus ride, young Ruby Bridges’ lonely walk to school, or Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech delivered at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
But how many of us think of Matilda Crawford, Sallie Bell, Carrie Jones, Dora Jones, Orphelia Turner or Sarah A. Collier?
These six women were arrested, tried, and fined for their involvement in the Atlanta Washerwomen Strike, a protest movement that many have never heard about. In the summer of 1881, 20 women gathered together to form the Washing Society. Frustrated by meager wages and poor treatment, they initiated a strike on July 19 to demand higher pay for their labor as laundry workers. By the third week, membership had exploded exponentially, totaling 3,000 individuals. The strike captured the attention of an entire city; and yet today, we know so little about it.
The Gender, Work, and Social Policy Pioneers in Black History series exists to spotlight historical moments like this one, which often lack attention. Thanks to historian Tera Hunter’s book, To Joy My Freedom, we have access to research and a few existing primary documents that will help us better understand who the washerwomen were, how they rallied support, and the outcomes of the strike. The washerwomen’s fight for dignified work reminds us that when we build power through unity and recognize the value in tenacious persistence, we can accomplish daunting feats and inspire others to do the same.
The remarkable success of the washerwomen’s strike quickly sinks in when we remember that the black women engaged in this fight were not far removed from the harrowing realities of slavery; the Thirteenth Amendment had only been ratified less than two decades earlier in 1865. In 1877, the progressive era of Reconstruction and its promises of political and economic opportunity had ended and by 1881 the brutally violent legal system of Black Codes had taken its place. Imagine the bravery and conviction of these 3,000 women. In such a hostile environment, they dared to demand better pay and refused to endure work conditions reminiscent of bondage.
During the nineteenth century, black women in the south had few employment options. From the 1860s to the 1870s, African American men and women sought opportunities beyond sharecropping and migrated from rural areas to burgeoning cities, like Atlanta. There, women found employment in white households as maids, cooks, servants, or they worked as laundresses. Of these options, laundry work promised the most autonomy.
Washerwomen worked according to their own schedules and in their own space. A typical worker started the week by picking up dirty loads from the homes of white families. Over the course of several days, they cleaned the garments, returning the cleaned products before Sunday. Often, washerwomen worked from the comfort of their own homes. But for all the work they did, they only earned an absurdly paltry sum of $4 to $8 dollars a month.
The wages paid to washerwomen were not commensurate with the strenuous labor they undertook. Hauling water, scrubbing for countless hours, lifting heavy irons, and carrying large loads, all while managing personal household chores, took a toll on the body. Washerwomen had the added responsibility of making their own supplies: a mix of lye, starch, and wheat bran gave rise to soap and a beer barrel cut in half worked as a tub.
Pump water, haul it to a basin, scrub garments, hang clothing to dry, iron, deliver freshly cleaned laundry, receive an average of one dollar a week—repeat. This was the life of a laundry worker.
But in July of 1881 twenty laundresses decided they’d had enough. Resolved to call for change, they created the Washing Society of Atlanta and decided to strike on July 19 in pursuit of higher wages. According to The Atlanta Constitution, a local newspaper which covered the protests, the workers sought to establish a uniform rate of one dollar for every dozen pounds of wash.
Though observers initially underestimated the strength of the strike and dismissed the proposed wages as unrealistic, the movement proved successful. Thanks to the coalition building strategies employed by the laundry workers, it grew exponentially in size. Moreover, it compelled customers to pay attention to demands for better pay and ultimately inspired a wave of protests amongst other black domestic and low-wage workers.
As explained by Hunter, the washerwomen’s strategic employment of grassroot tactics allowed them to generate the powerful momentum needed for collective action. On July 21, the local newspaper reported that the striking washerwomen added new members every single day. Workers knocked on the doors of those who had not yet joined the movement and held nightly rallies that boasted impressive turnout. To energize the crowd, they gave speeches, talked about their rights, and held prayer meetings. The main message was that of persistence. In three weeks time, a meeting initiated by 20 women swelled to a movement supported by 3,000. Very quickly, it caught the attention of their white consumer base.
As anticipated, the strike created waves of frustration amongst customers and local officials. A July 26th article released by the paper noted that “The Washerwomen’s strike is assuming vast proportions and despite the apparent independence of the white people, is causing quite an inconvenience among our citizens.” This came only days after the newspaper opined that the laundresses were demanding “unreasonably high prices.”
Quickly, the strike put pressure on white customers. Throughout its duration, people obviously still wore clothes and those garments obviously still needed washing. But there was no one to do it. The work was so unbearably back breaking that white women, regardless of their families’ socioeconomic status, preferred not do their own laundry if they could afford to pay for services. Consequently, white households dependent on black laundry workers grew frustrated with their smelly clothes and the wet piles of laundry which were dropped off by workers who joined the strike mid-wash.
By July 26, just one week into the strike, some white customers conceded to the demands for a one dollar wage. Others sent their laundry to neighboring cities. By August, the city council had threatened the movement with a 25 dollar license fee. But when the washerwomen openly expressed their willingness to incur the costs, the council eventually dropped the topic altogether. In the face of arrest, lost wages, and financial penalties, the strikers demonstrated tenacious persistence which ultimately paid off.
The outcome of the washerwomen’s strike was threefold. First, it established black women’s incredible capacity to mobilize en masse using grassroots strategies. Second, it interrupted business as usual, leading to media attention, changes in consumer behavior, and higher wages. And finally, it encouraged other black workers to seek improved conditions and pay; maids, cooks, hotel workers, and nurses began pressuring their employers for better wages.
Today, both the legacy of the washerwomen’s strike and its commitment to dignified work live on through the work of organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Fight for $15. Both seek to improve the working conditions and lives of workers. These organizations call for job protections, employee benefits, and healthier work. If the washerwomen of 1881 could send a message of encouragement from the past, it would be this: Remember that there is strength in unity and power in persistence.