Funding, and the class politics of activism


Funding, and the class politics of activism


Activism needs resources. Wealthier women provided funding that working class suffragists needed: to print leaflets & posters, rent meeting halls, and most of all to pay salaries so activists could quit their factory jobs & organize full-time. But money inevitably means control.

Here’s how it works, then and now: imagine you’re a donor to grassroots community activists. Let’s say a group you support endorses a political candidate you dislike. As a result, you give less, or nothing. Other middle-class donors do too. Next time, the group hesitates.

Or they don’t hesitate, but they lose funds and their impact shrinks. Ideally, they stick to their principles and build a broader base of donors so they aren’t dependent on a handful of wealthy people - but that only works if they have the ability to reach a broad base.

Working-class suffragists didn’t have access to a broad base. The Socialist and union men who could have supported their work with lots of small donations were skeptical about the value of women’s suffrage. 👀

So they needed the financial support of wealthier women, who were often uncomfortable with their radical politics. Rose Schneiderman, Leonora O’Reilly, Clara Lemlich and Pauline Newman negotiated for support and control of the agenda across multiple organizations. First, WTUL:

The Women’s Trade Union League was created in 1903 to unify working women from different trades and encourage unionization. WTUL’s members included union women, women not yet union members, and “allies” - upper- & middle class women who brought money and clout.

In 1907, Harriot Stanton Blatch created the Equality League for Self-Supporting Women. She imagined it as WTUL's political arm; Schneiderman and O’Reilly were the star speakers. But the wealthy women squirmed at Socialism, and didn’t get the urgency of the labor struggle.

They had never had Rose Schneiderman’s experience of making $2.16 for a 64-hour week - or $6/week if she brought her own sewing machine. Louise La Rue of the San Francisco Waitresses Union explained the disconnect as follows: “We got along fine with [the mainstream suffragists], we endorsed everything they did; but the street car strike came along, and of course we had to walk. Some of those women objected to walking. So you can just imagine how we felt about it.

"We had to pull out from them but we thought it quite important that we should have a suffrage league, so we organized a Working Girls’ Suffrage League.” -Barbara Mayer Wertheimer

That was in 1909. In 1911 Leonora O’Reilly and Clara Lemlich organized a New York City Wage Earners May Suffrage League - their inaugural meeting was just days before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. (@AnneliseOrleck1) Unlike the WTUL or the Equality League, in the Wage Earners Suffrage League only workers could be voting members with a say in policy. #Suffrage100 #CenturyofStruggle May 10, 2020


Daily Suffragist




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Daily Suffragist, “Funding, and the class politics of activism,” Daily Suffragist, accessed September 27, 2022,

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