Protective Legislation for Women

How To

Classroom Setup

Students will work in groups representing Metal Polishers Union, Industrial Investigators, Connecticut Consumer’s League, Factory owners and women workers. They will participate in a whole class discussion as well.

Activity 1 

Teachers should provide a context for Protective Legislation, have students read the Background, and watch the video, “Protective Legislation for Women” (5:27).

The teacher should give background on and describe what a legislative hearing is: the setting in the state capitol, the presence of both Representatives and Senators, and the collection of information to decide how to vote on a bill.

Then students can start the exercise on a 1913 bill to the Connecticut State Legislature on keeping women and boys out of metal polishing. Divide students into five groups and assign them the point of view of one of the groups. They should read the testimony and answer the four questions in their notebooks.

The teacher should set up a chart on the board that includes: 

  Metal Polishers Union  State Factory Investigators  CT Consumers League  Factory Owners

Women Workers 

Support/Oppose Bill


Argument and evidence


Ulterior Motive/Self-interest

Rank in power compared to other groups          

After the students fill in their column of the chart, they should share with the larger group. Students should rate the power of each group and justify their decision. The teacher should ask students whether they think the bill was passed - relative to who has power. 

The bill did not pass.  

Does this match with their evaluation of power? Does money = power?

Background on Progressive Legislation Inquiry

During the Progressive Era, many different groups and individuals tried to reform society.  Often times these reformers worked at cross purposes:  what one group saw as a means to safeguard a portion of the population, another group interpreted as taking away their freedom of choice. Protective legislation for women was one of these issues.

On March 12, 1913, the Connecticut State Legislature Committee on Labor held a hearing on a bill to prohibit women and minors from working on polishing machines. You will be asked to read the testimony from one group at the hearing. The groups include: Metal Polishers Union, Industrial Investigators, Connecticut Consumers’ League, Factory Owners, and Women Polishers. 

Please answer the following questions from the point of view of your group:

  1. Who does your group represent?
  2. Does your group support or oppose the bill to keep women and boys out of polishing?
  3. What evidence does your group use to support their argument? What is their tone in the argument?
  4. Are there reasons for your group’s position on the issue besides what they say in their testimony? That is, do they have a self-interest related to the work of women and boys?

Are there reasons for your group’s position on the issue besides what they say in their testimony? That is, do they have a self-interest related to the work of women and boys?  

1. Metal Polishers Union

An AFL Union organized around the skill of metal polishing, exclusively male workers.  

T.J. Spellacy: 

I appear as the attorney for the Metal Polishers Union, an attorney without a retainer, or hope of compensation. (he is not getting paid) This bill prohibits the employment of any person under the age of 18 and it prevents the employment of any female at any age. For the enlightenment of the committee, we have prepared by The Prudential Insurance company, of Newark, New Jersey, charts showing the experience of that Company, which is an industrial insurance company, with people employed in the dusty trades. This occupation is known as one of the dusty occupations. 

These charts show that a large percentage of the people employed die of tuberculosis. We think that such a law will prevent, as far as possible, with the least possible harm or detriment to our industrial workers in Connecticut, the breeding of tuberculosis. (1) 

We find there are approximately 400 women employed in the State of Connecticut, and about half as many boys, out of a total of 10,000. (5) 

H.M. Daly, Cincinnati:

I am the President of the National Polishers union.

On the part of the women, there is an added danger to the community where they contract tuberculosis at our business. They can transmit the disease to future generations more effectively than the men can. (7-8)

There is one real inducement offered to the manufacturers to employ women at this business and that is the fact that women are generally employed at lower rates than the men. Their general health is used to grind great profits.

In some places they take them as young as 14 years. Ten years ago it was as low as 12. The nature of the work is degrading to a woman.  The dust of the rouge that they work with is so penetrating, that it goes right through the clothing they wear. . . The women are more susceptible to it than the men. They need our protection.  They are not employed at the business because of the scarcity of men. They are employed at it because they will work at a lower rate.

Eli Brunnel, Head of CT AFL:

In behalf of the organized labor of the State, I wish to state that we are highly in accord with this proposed measure. Every state should, in our opinion, take up this legislation that will better the welfare of the rising generation, for upon them our state must depend for its future existence. (11)

2. Industrial Investigators/Factory Inspectors

Progressive reformers wanted the government to investigate and fix hazardous working conditions. They investigated industrial accidents, and daily working conditions, published reports and testified at public hearings about these conditions. If you want to know more, follow this link.

Mr. Conway, factory inspector:

I feel it is my duty to appear before this Committee today in favor of this bill.  In connection with the work of the Industrial Commission, we come across this industry in our investigations, and find women working upon polishing, grinding and buffing wheels.  I have come across factories where women operate four glazing machines at a time.  She is continually engaged from seven in the morning until six at night.  In my opinion, this is not work for women.  It is a man’s work,and it should be safeguarded more than it is at the present time in order to allow men to work at it.  (4-5) 

Mr. Wells, legislator:

Do you know of any female polishers who have contracted tuberculosis on account of their occupation? (5-6) 

Mr. Terry, factory inspector:

I know of a great many and will give you their names and addresses. (7)

3. Consumers’ League of Connecticut (1902-1946)

 A Progressive Reform group that worked to mobilize public opinion to improve the lives of working women through consumer power of boycotting stores and goods produced.

Mr. R.E. Potter:

I speak for a group of people whom I think have not been represented here. The Consumers League of the State is interested in the question of the women and children particularly.  The League has a committee which considers general matters of this sort.  Our committee voted at the last meeting to approve this bill.  (12)

4.    Factory owners  

 Mr. D.C. Rice:

I represent the Underwood Typewriting Company.  We employ in our Polishing Department about 160 hands, 19 of whom are women.  We have employed women for about 10 ½ years.  The steadiness, with which those women work, so far as loss of time is concerned, is ahead of any department in our plant.  For those 19 women it figures 7.23 days per year lost time.  In the other departments they average from 7 to 9 lost time per year.  We have never had a tubercular case.  Our polishing room is as clean in every particular as our office.  I realize that grinding, as an occupation is unhealthful.  Our women have protested personally against this bill.  They do not see the justice of being disturbed when they are doing as well or better than they could do elsewhere.  As near as the records show, there are less who leave positions in that department than compared with any of the other departments.  The women are more efficient in handling the small parts than the men are and they can do the work as good as the average man.  

It is an ideal occupation for them, and I do not see why they should not be privileged to work there the same as men.  I cannot but feel, as has been stated, that the men feel that this work belongs to them.  I do not see why it belongs to them any more than washing dishes does. (13-14) 


How do the wages of the girls compare with the men?  

Mr. Rice:

The girls make from $9 to $10 per week.


How much do the men make? 

Mr. Rice:

I do not know as I care to tell you.


If the women are proficient in this work why should they not be paid as much as the men?  (15) 

Mr. Baldwin, New Britain:  

I extend to the committee an invitation to go to New Britain at our expense, and inspect one or two of our polishing departments, in which we have both men and women working. They earn good wages there.  It is more healthy there than at any department store. The girls can sit down at their work. If you are looking for any information, come and see us.  (20-21)

5. Women Polishers 

Miss Daly:

I am employed at the Royal Typewriter Company. I have worked there about 4 years.  We are on piece work and it is very light work.

Mr. Spellacy (lawyer for Metal Polisher’s Union):

How many girls are there employed in your department? 

Miss Daly:

About 7.


About how much do you average a week? 

Miss Daly:

About $11.


How did you know about such a bill as this? 

Miss Daly:

I read it in the paper. 


Did any of the manufacturers ask you to come here? 

Miss Daly:

No sir.

Mr. Spellacy:

Did you ask for permission to take the day off?

Miss Daly:

We asked for permission to take the afternoon off.

Mr. Spellacy:

Did they ask what you wanted to get off for?  Do you get paid for today’s work?

Miss Daly:

No sir.

Miss Harris:

I am employed at the Royal Typewriter Company. I like the work. It is very easy for us.  I would rather do it than any other work in the factory. I am 18 years old and have been working there nearly two years. (19) 

Miss Green:

Corroborated the statements of the other girls. I have worked there about one year and like it very much. I worked twice as hard in the Rubber Works for half as much pay, and it was very unhealthy there.


Have you heard any talk in the shop about this bill?  How did you know it was coming up today?

Miss Green:

I read about it in the paper.

Mr. Spellacy:

I want to call the committee’s attention to the fact that this bill did not appear in the paper until today. It was dropped from the bulletin, and restored at my request. It was not published last night.


When did you first hear of this bill?

Miss Daly:

I read it in the papers about a month ago. (20)

Activity 2

Teachers can use this information to talk about changes in the workplace at the turn of the 20th century. All of the following topics are mentioned or serve as a context for this attempt to pass this legislation:

Metal Polishers Union

  • Inside contracting system being replaced by Personnel Offices (factory owners hired contractors who were the head of the union and the head of the union then hired the workers to complete a job -- this way the unions controlled the employment.  If the union did not allow women to join, then they could not work at this job.  In the early 20th century, factory owners added Personnel Departments to hire, thus taking away power from the unions and opening up employment to women.  Workers became employees of the factory, not of the union)
  • De-skilling with new machine tools (with new machine tools, semi-skilled people could do the work, thus taking away the power of skilled union workers, and opening up jobs to women)
  • Discrimination against women in AFL craft unions
  • Fear of women undercutting men’s wages; job loss 

State Industrial Investigators

  • “Need” for government intervention in a capitalist economy to protect workers
  • Support for organized labor
  • Appropriations for investigations always less than needed
  • Governmental concern for health of workers

Connecticut Consumers' League

  • Middle-class reformers trying to protect working class women who didn’t want to be protected
  • Protective Legislation:  Lochner v. NY (1905); Muller v. Oregon (1908)

Factory Owners Manufacturers

  • Paid women lower wages 
  • New factories like typewriter factories had new blower systems which made them cleaner, safer 
  • Gave women a chance at a new occupation
  • Women made more than at a typical “woman’s job” - in sewing/garments - about $6/week

Women Polishers

  • Increase in number of women in the workforce 
  • Making choices for higher paying job 
  • Willingness to speak at a public hearing - at a time when women did not have the right to vote 
  • Discrimination against women - lower wages 
  • Categorizing all women as childbearing
Consumers’ League and Recent Enactments: Organization Tells What the Legislature of 1913 Accomplished, Hartford Courant, September 17, 1913, p. 5.