by Eli Cook*
Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, the world of economic quantification was dominated by men in the nineteenth century. In honor of International Women’s Day, here is a story, excerpted from my book The Pricing of Progress, on Leonora Barry, one of the most important – and forgotten – economic thinkers of Gilded Age America.
An Irish immigrant, Barry was widowed in 1881. “I was left, without knowledge of business, without knowledge of work, without knowledge of what the world was, with three fatherless children looking to me for bread,” Barry would later note. These miserable conditions likely led to the death of her eldest child.
Desperate to find work to keep her other children alive, she got a job at a hosiery mill, where she made 11 cents a day. It was while working at the mill that she joined the Knights of Labor — the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Barry had a knack for labor organizing and within two years found herself not only the master workman of her own branch but the leader of an entire district assembly of fifty-two locals.
She was elected to represent her region at the national general assembly in 1886, where she was one of sixteen women among 660 delegates. While at the national assembly, Barry was made head of the new Department of Women’s Work. Her main mission was to traverse the country collecting statistics on women’s labor that would reveal “the abuses to which our sex is subjected by unscrupulous employers” and the need for “equal pay for equal work.”
By the late 1880s, Barry had become renowned for the statistical reports she compiled for annual general assemblies. With an arresting depiction of the condition of women’s labor in America, Barry’s reports combined statistical data with a strong moral critique of industrial capitalism. Her reports focused on both the laborer’s wages and the employer’s profits, which enabled her to measure the level of exploitation at the American workplace.
“The contractor who employed five operatives made 30 cents per unit, or 1.50 a day,” she noted in one example, “while each worker received only 30 cents for the entire day’s work.” “Men’s vests are contracted out at 10 cents each,” she noted in a second example, “the machine operative receiving 2.5 cents and the finisher 2.5 cents each, making 5 cents a vest for completion.” Since twenty vests constituted a day’s work, Barry calculated, “a contractor who employed five operatives reaped a dollar a day for doing nothing while his victim has 50 cents for eleven and twelve hours of her life’s energies.”
By the 1890s, however, Barry was once again forced to return to the factory. With the Knights of Labor all but destroyed, there were no statistical institutions through which she could make her voice, and those of countless other women, heard. Nevertheless, in the Progressive Era, statistic-wielding labor activists such as Florence Kelley and Crystal Eastman would follow Leonora Barry‘s trailblazing example.
* Eli Cook is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017)
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