Giving Voice and Visibility to Working Class Women

June 18, 2021

The Other Front Line (COFL) provides a platform for the unheard voices of people bearing the brunt of life in unequal societies – before, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. The project resonates with me given my long history of working with people on the other frontline in the US including union members and women on welfare. This organizing work brought me into regular contact with women clerical workers and welfare recipients, routinely overlooked, dismissed, disparaged and/or punished by the powers-that-be for who they were and when they fought back. Today, I use my platform as a university-based social policy researcher to document and share the stories of the working-class women activists that I meet. I am also writing a book about the history of collective action by Black and white working-class women in the US since 1900. [1] 

Throughout the 20th century, women in the US and many other countries fought for economic and racial justice on the job, in the community and from the state. With notable exceptions, the history of working-class women’s activism has remained largely untold/ignored by the media, many historians and wider society. Why? The media preferred to cover large events and famous people, skipping over working-class women. Some scholars, often men, mistakenly defined women as politically uninformed, tied to the home and did not see their activism or viewed it as apolitical. Others assumed the political experiences of women to be the same as men – as if gender differences did not exist or did not differently shape the lives of each. Other scholars focused on established political structures (i.e., political parties), organized social movements (i.e., trade unions, civil rights organizations) and other mainstream institutions (i.e., military, religious and governmental institutions), that traditionally barred women. Soujourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio [2] still holds. A Black, anti-slavery and women’s rights activist born into slavery, Truth asked “Ain’t I A Woman?”  Many in white society continue to ignore, devalue and/or do not see Black women as women at all. [3] [4]

Feminists were the first to study female activists. However, their early stories focused mostly on white middle- and upper-class activists such as well-known women leaders, the wives of famous men, and the social reformers who led the suffrage, temperance, consumers, women rights, and other social change movements. The scholars overlooked the working-class women because unlike middle-class activists, they did not leave the paper trail (i.e., letters, diaries, minutes of meetings and news coverage) on which historians depend.[5] The absence of this data combined with the scholar’s own implicit race and class biases led many to miss the distinctive form of politics created by white and  Black working-class women who also overcame the socially-imposed gender constraints to become politically active.

Bringing the activism of Black and white working-class women into view requires new approaches to the study of history, politics, and collective action. This includes broadening the prevailing definitions of place/space, consciousness, and feminism and highlighting the contradictions in the political economy that sparked political struggles and women’s activism in the first place. By looking past, the well-known middle-class women and their formal organizations and advocacy groups we find the working-class women activists hidden in plain sight. Often seen as more militant than the men, [6]  the women developed their own collective actions on the job but also on the porches and in the parks, childcare centers, community centers and the other spaces typically inhabited by women. Tracing this history reveals the stories of working-class women activists told in their own words.

The COFL website presents stories of people around the world whose lives in unequal societies were laid bare by the Covid 19 pandemic. Sharing their stories, in their own words can provide these contemporary community journalists – also hidden in plain sight – with a sense of power that flows from knowing and sharing their own experiences and pave the way for policies targeted to social change.

Mimi Abramovitz


Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy

Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College, and The Graduate Center, City University of New York

[1] A book titled, Gendered Obligations The History of Activism Among Black and White Working-Class Women in the United States Since 1900.  (In process)

[2]  National Park Service, Women’s Rights, Sojourner Truth

[3]  Coles, S. M., & Pasek, J. (2020). Intersectional Invisibility Revisited: How Group Prototypes Lead To The Erasure And Exclusion Of Black Women. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 6(4), 314–324.

[4] Bank, Nina (2019) Black Women’s Labor Market History Reveals Deep-Seated Race And Gender Discrimination. Economic Policy Institute. Blog.

[5]  Greenwald, Maurine Weiner ( 1985)  From Hired Hand to Day Worker: Household Labor in the United States, 1800-1920. International Labor and Working Class History 27, (5): 60-71

[6] Foner, Philip S. (1979).  Women and the American Labor Movement: From World War I To the Present (Vol I). New York, The Free Press, pp, 173175