Today in Feminist History: Women Workers Testify to Horrific Work Conditions (March 23, 1895)

March 23, 1895: The plight of women and girls who work in New York City’s dry goods stores was the subject of compelling testimony at a hearing today.

PHOTO: Josephine Shaw Lowell.

Members of the New York State Assembly heard detailed accounts of oppressive working conditions, but also learned of measures being implemented by women determined to improve them.

Alice Woodbridge was an early witness. She testified: “It is nothing unusual for the girls to work from ten to sixteen hours a day.”

When asked if she could name specific stores in which this was the practice, she said it was customary in all stores except for three: Arnold and Constable, B. Altman and Company, and Lord and Taylor. 

Woodbridge said the pay is as deplorable as the hours: “The average wages of women in dry goods stores of this city is $4.50 a week.” For “cash girls”—who carry change and parcels, and act as floor messengers—the average is $1.50 a week. Even some of the saleswomen at Macy’s get only $2.00 a week, and that store also compels its employees to take unpaid vacations. 

Dr. Jane Robbins has many patients who are “cash girls,” and they complain not only about wages and hours, but about the way they are treated in large retail stores. The older ones say the younger ones are also subject to “corruption” by male employees. The details of this practice and where it occurs were not described in public, but Dr. Robbins said this will be discussed privately with the head of the committee later.

Dr. Robbins described one patient,

“under fourteen years of age, who is slowly murdered by overwork in a 14th Street dry goods store. But it takes a long time to kill a little girl who comes of good stock … I could show you a great many children in this city who ought to be playing tag, but who are in charge of counters in retail dry goods stores at $2 a week.”

She would like to see employment of girls under 14 banned, and endorsed an extension of the factory law. The worst-paid and hardest-working girls Dr. Robbins sees are employed in flower factories, where they must run up and down stairs all day for one dollar a week. 

Another witness was Josephine Shaw Lowell, President of the Consumers League. Her organization has compiled a list of firms who practice what it calls the “standard of a fair house” and whom their members will patronize. Among the things that Lowell has done recently is to make the rounds of stores at various times of day to see if the law that mandates seats for women employees is being observed. At some stores there were no places to sit at all, and the managers stated quite frankly that they had no intention of complying with the law. 

Another witness verified this attitude. When she complained to the manager that he provided no seats, she was told: “This is a business house and not a hospital.”

The manager did finally agree to put a couple of seats at the side counters, but they were mainly used to stand on when the women reached for the shelves. Even in the stores where there were a number of seats, such as Macy’s, virtually none of them were being used—even during times of the day when business was slow—meaning women were clearly being discouraged or prohibited from using them. 

The Consumers’ League traces its origins to 1888 when Leonora O’Reilly asked Josephine Shaw Lowell to work with the New York Working Women’s Society to improve conditions for the city’s female workers. Five years ago the League was formally organized and circulated its first “White List” of companies with fair employment practices. 

Thanks to activist women like Woodbridge, Robbins and Lowell, plus organizations like the Consumers League and labor unions, it is hoped that working conditions will improve over time. 


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.