A Garment Worker's Impatient Call for Fairness
Second in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.
We know very little about this speaker, Sarah Monroe, other than that she was a garment worker and president of the newly formed United Tailoress Society -- the first women-only union in the United States.
Inspired by the success of labor actions by New York City’s mechanics and journeymen, the women had come together in the Quaker Friends Academy on a cold, late-winter evening to discuss how they could improve their working conditions. The UTS had about 1,500 members, most of them earning $2 or less a week -- about $59 today.
In this March 3, 1831 speech -- the only one we have by Monroe -- she displays a fiery determination as she rallies the members to collective action. What’s noteworthy is her acute political awareness and the note of female solidarity she sounds in her appeal to her “fellow sufferers.” She lashes out against the indifference of the male employers and makes an eloquent argument for women to use their voices. “Patience is no longer a virtue,” she says, “and in my opinion to be longer silent would be a crime.”
By Sarah Monroe
Friends’ Academy, New York City
We have been told, my friends, that it is impossible for us to do anything at present to improve our miserable condition. That it will be impracticable without a union — without a cooperation. I am well aware. But if we fail, my friends, it will not be without a good cause, but because its advocates are poor and inexperienced. That we are oppressed, and very much oppressed, all, who have eyes and ears, will acknowledge. That our burthens are becoming heaving and heavier every succeeding year is a truth that cannot be denied. That we are not used to using charity is well known — and that we are not in the practice of pleading our own cause, our employers are well aware.
But, my friends, let us not be discouraged. Our cause is one that the tailors themselves dare not openly slander; and I think they would be ashamed openly to oppose.
We shall have all the honest and humane part of the community in our favor. The voice of the righteous will be heard in our defense, not in this city only, but throughout the United States. Let us turn a deaf ear to the slander from our enemies; for enemies we have, no doubt: But if we are true to ourselves and each other, they cannot harm us. After all, my friends, who is to stand between us and oppression? If we do not come forth in our own defense, what will become of us? Need I ask what is to become of us — let us bring back to our recollection the scenes of distress that have been exhibited in this city during the past winter — let us remember the widow that is making round jackets for one shilling and sixpence each.
What is to find her food and clothing, to say nothing of her children? Long have the poor tailoresses of this city borne this oppression in silence; until patience is no longer a virtue — and in my opinion to be longer silent would be a crime. High time it is, my friends, that we awake. High time it is that we were up and doing, and that we take our cause into consideration. Let us trust no longer to the generosity of our employers, seeing that they are men in whose heads or hearts the thought of doing justice to a fellow being never seems to enter.
Yes, my fellow suffers, let us unite — let us organize ourselves — let us do all in our power to increase our members, for on that the success of our cause depends. Are there any here who think us presumptuous in coming forward in our own defense? Let them place themselves in our situation — let them be obliged to endure all the confinement, fatigue, privations and sufferings that we must necessarily endure in consequence of our getting only partly paid for our labor, and I think they will be disposed to applaud rather than censure us.
We have been told, my friends, that we should coolly and calmly consider our present undertaking. Some of us have done so, and though our minds are awakened and our bodily strength demolished with incessant toil, we have come to the determination to leave no fair, honest and honorable means untried to secure to ourselves an adequate and permanent reward for our labors. It needs no small share of courage for us, who have been used to impositions and oppression from our youth up to the present day, to come before the public in the defense of our own rights. But, my friends, if it is unfashionable for the men to bear oppression in silence, why should it not also become unfashionable with the women? Or do they deem us more able to endure hardships than they themselves?
My friends, I am under the necessity of informing you that we have unfortunately, though innocently, incurred the displeasure of the Friends, who have been so kind as to let us have this house to meet in. I said we had incurred their displeasure, or disapprobation, and I appeal to all who were present at our last meeting, how innocently it was done!
Perhaps you will be surprised when I tell you that the resolutions, ended by some stranger to our chairman, which were read and laid on the table at the close of our last meeting, are, or will be, the cause of our having to seek another place to meet in. The Friends say that the resolutions read from that paper were agrarian! I now assert, and without the fear of contradiction, there were not 10 women in the room who so much as understood the meaning of the word agrarianism! But, my friends, if we had been aware of all the wiles and snares set for the unwary and inexperienced, we should have read those articles by a committee previous to their coming before the public. Had the Friends been as much interested as I think we had reason to believe and hope they were, they would have first known whether we were traduced or not. That they have always been the friends of the poor and the oppressed, even of the poor African, we know. I say, had they been as interested as we had reason to believe, they would have given us a hearing before they condemned us — they would have shown us more brotherly love, kindness and charity than by dismissing us in this way. This is not all. For if we cannot look up to the Friends, or such men as these, to countenance and uphold us, to whom, I ask, shall we look? To whom shall we go? What does reason, religion and virtue require, but to unloose heavy burdens, to break every yoke of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to do justice to the poor, the widow and the afflicted?
This, my friends, is all we ask; and shall we ask it in vain?
Source: Sarah Monroe, “An Address Delivered by Sarah Monroe,” New York Daily Sentinel, 3 March 1831.