19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio

Working Women's Rights

One of the benevolent programs connected to the Cleveland Settlement houses, the Ohio Consumers’ League, became a path for female reformers to join the suffrage movement. Founded in the Goodrich House in 1900, “the Ohio Consumers' League provided women with experience in fighting for political and social causes, including for such opportunities as the right to vote.” Belle Sherwin, the League first president, traveled this path. The privileged daughter of Henry Sherwin, co-founder of Sherwin-Williams, Belle Sherwin enjoyed an education at Wellesley and Oxford and comfortable teaching positions in Boston private schools for girls. On her return to Cleveland in 1900, she first took up the cause for working women before getting involved with the suffrage movement and the League of Women Voters.  

Although working women in Cleveland had previously struck as early as 1876, their plight appeared increasingly desperate in the wake of the 1893 economic crisis, possibly “the nation’s first modern industrial depression.” Florence Kelley had founded the National Consumers’ League in 1900 in New York City. Wealthy and middle-class Cleveland women used the methods Kelley popularized to help poor women, leveraging their social activism and buying power. The Consumers’ League of Ohio, as it would be called in its 1911 official incorporation, began investigating local businesses to find out how they treated their workers. They added factory owners who
provided adequate wages and good working conditions to their “White List” and spread the word about acceptable products to buy, publishing notices in newspapers, distributing pamphlets, and putting up placards. The Consumers’ League members were unlike other women’s charities in that they respected poor women’s need to work, where other organizations tried “to get factory women back into the home where what was left of woman’s innate morality could thrive.” Certainly the solutions the League offered--publicity for fair employers and (later) lobbying for legislative protections--were surface solutions to deeply rooted problems of sexism and economic injustice. Yet their work became the foundation for labor organizing that continues to this day.

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