The UAW and the Women’s Movement

Brigid O'Farrell

Brigid O’Farrell

In a September, 2014, keynote address, Brigid O’Farrell of the NWU Bay Area celebrated union women who were active in both the labor movement, and the second wave feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. 

 “To say the movement was all elite white women is to silence the voices of working class women and women of color,” O’Farrell told an audience at the Veteran Feminists of America’s (VFA) conference in St. Louis, MO. Throughout the day, feminist stories from the past were interwoven with research and action projects from today’s up and coming scholars and activists.

The subject of O’Farrell’s speech, “Labor & the Women’s Movement: The Untold Story and Why It Matters,” was based on her book Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices 1915-1975. She highlighted the roles of important organizers such as Millie Jeffrey, long time union and political activist who became the first director of the UAW Women’s Bureau in the mid-40’s; Caroline Dawson Davis, president of Local 764 in Indiana, director of the Women’s Department from the late 40’s to the early 70’s; and Dorothy Haener from the Ford Willow Run plant, which made bombers during World War II. Haener also became an activist and joined the Women’s Department staff in the early 60’s. Five of her nieces were in the audience at the VFA conference.

These women, and other union sisters, contributed to President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Davis and Haener joined with Betty Friedan, author of the Feminine Mystique, to form the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1968. Few people know that for the first year, NOW was run out of the UAW Solidarity House in Detroit. And, while there was much turmoil over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the UAW was one of the first unions to endorse the ERA in 1970, with UAW sisters figuring prominently in the founding of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in 1974. 
 
O’Farrell’s remarks acknowledged the role of such union women as Addie Wyatt of the United Packing House Workers, who was a co-founder of CLUW; and Catherine Conroy, Communication Workers of America, who also helped found NOW. In all, the spirit of the conference celebrated powerful women of history who had the guts to take action.
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