Outspoken Women Make History! Teach Women’s Leadership in the Labor Movement!

Our country’s need to declare March as Women’s History Month speaks volumes about the oppression of over half the planet’s population. That being said, this is a great month to incorporate labor history into our classroom studies. The Labor Movement as we know it simply would not exist were it not for the courageous leadership of female activists.

Throughout March, we will collect and post resources that you may choose to use in your social studies classes. These resources are meant to raise awareness of women’s role in history and, more specifically, Labor History. We will continue to add to these resources as the month progresses. We ask ATF members to share your lessons on women’s contributions to the fight for workers’ rights by emailing lesson plans and resources to act@atfunion.org with the subject “Women’s History Month.” We’d also like to direct you to the copious Women’s History Month lessons on AFT’s sharemylesson.com. 

Teach Salt of the Earth

[Paraphrased from Bill Bigelow from Rethinking Schools, as published at zinnedproject.org.]

The leadership of women in the Labor Movement has been essential to workers gaining our most treasured workplace rights. Where to start?

Let’s start right here at home. Show your students Salt of the Earth, filmed near Silver City, N.M. You can view Salt of the Earth or download it free online at Internet Archive.

Salt of the Earth was one of 100 films chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved for posterity. It was also banned at the time of its release during the McCarthy era.

Set in “Zinctown, N.M.,” Salt of the Earth explores the class and race struggle among zinc miners, but it is especially a feminist story, as women insist that their issues  be included as a demand of the all-male union. This is the women’s story of the strike as much as the men’s. The women of the community push for equality as they participate in strike activities. This struggle comes to a head as Esperanza confronts her husband, Ramon, about his determination to keep her in what he thinks is her place:

  • “Have you learned nothing from this strike? Why are you afraid to have me at your side?”
  • “Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?”
  • “Do you feel better having someone lower than you? Whose neck shall I stand on to make me feel superior?”
  • “I want to rise and push everything up as I go.”

Salt of the Earth celebrates the possibility of people being able to create a better, more inclusive society through solidarity and collective action.

Questions for discussion:

How are gender roles portrayed in this film?

How do anti-union forces exploit notions of race, ethnicity, and gender to undermine the solidarity of the union movement? 


Teach About Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

The largest, most effective labor uprising in American history occurred in 1861 when hundreds of thousands of enslaved people emancipated themselves from multi-generational involuntary servitude at the beginning of the American Civil War. This death-defying strike built on the work of generations of enslaved people in the United States. Enslaved African-Americans had rebelled and resisted both openly and secretly since the genesis of race-based slavery in the original 13 colonies.

Undoubtedly, many enslaved people who risked their lives for self-emancipation were inspired by outspoken female abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman who had emancipated themselves.

These videos are short and to-the-point in their portrayal of the contributions of these two bold activists. Their success and legacy stand on the shoulders of other fearless female leaders whose names we may never know.

Your union celebrates Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman as foundational pioneers of the American Labor Movement.

The Electrifying Speeches of Sojourner Truth– Just over 4 minutes long, this TED-Ed video offers an overview of Sojourner Truth’s life as an activist and her provocative elocution.

Women’s Experience Under Slavery: Crash Course Black American History #11– Part of the Crash Course series, this 12-minute video explores the lives of enslaved women, including a brief biography of Sojourner Truth. This video discusses the sexual violence experienced by enslaved African-American women.

The Breathtaking Courage of Harriet Tubman– Another short TED-Ed video that briefly chronicles the life of Harriet Tubman. This is a good primer for a study of the woman often called Moses.

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