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Women's Educational and Industrial Union

The Rochester Womenís Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU) was organized in 1893. It was modeled on similar associations that had been established in other cities across the nation, including Boston in1877 and Buffalo in 1884. A womenís club that had as its goal the promotion of womenís "educational, industrial, and social advancement," the WEIU was one of the cityís most influential civic reform organizations throughout the Progressive era.

Impetus for the formation of the Rochester WEIU came from Susan B. Anthony. Anthony had become indignant over an incident involving a Rochester homeless woman in early 1893. When the woman fainted in the street, she was brought to jail, simply because she had nowhere else to go. Anthony, believing that this was no way to treat the cityís poor women, felt that they should have an activist group who worked for their welfare. She asked Harriet Townsend, head of the Buffalo WEIU, to come to Rochester and speak about the work of the Union.

In April of 1893, Townsend spoke with a group of women representing a number of clubs in the Rochester area. These groups had initially decided to meet to discuss a womenís clubs alliance. Once there, however, they heard Townsend speak about the accomplishments of the Buffalo WEIU -- accomplishments which included the establishment of classes, an employment bureau, a lecture and recreation program, a legal aid department, and a lounge and lunch room for working girls and women. Upon hearing Townsend, clubwomen put aside their plans for an umbrella organization of clubs, instead deciding to form a Rochester WEIU. Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected its first president and she, along with other activists including Mary Gannett, launched a number of ambitious social reform programs based on those established by the WEIUs in Buffalo and Boston.

Soon, the Rochester WEIU could boast a "Noon Rest" for working girls, located at a large house on Clinton Street. The Unionís headquarters were also located at this site, which had been donated by Mrs. Don Alonzo Watson. In addition, the WEIU had a legal aid program that provided free advice to working women. They also sponsored playgrounds for children in poor areas of the city and a shop where women could sell their homemade goods.

During the first years of the twentieth century, the WEIU lent its support to numerous Progressive reforms. In 1901, it supported the establishment of the Baden Street Settlement, Rochesterís first settlement house. The Union also supported the Childrenís Playground League in its attempts to open public school grounds for community activities. This effort achieved success in April 1907, with the opening of a social center at the Number 9 School.

In 1907, the Union sent nurses to schools in districts where poverty was rampant; soon the city would assume responsibility for this function. In 1908, members of the WEIU opened a model housekeeping center on Davis Street. One of its workers moved the operation to an Italian neighborhood on Lewis Street, and this center soon evolved into the second settlement house in Rochester.

The WEIU combined its activism on behalf of working women and its goals of social reform with a feminist attempt to advance the position of all women. In October of 1898, Mary Gannett, as a representative of the WEIU, spoke to Democrats in support of the candidacy of Helen Barrett Montgomery for School Commissioner. Gannett was later gratified to see Montgomery elected to the school board on a reform ticket as Rochesterís first woman commissioner. In 1901, Montgomery was re-elected to a second term on the board, again with the active support of the WEIU.

The WEIUís most notable reform successes came in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth; from 1910 to 1920 its activities and effectiveness waned. This was in part because many of its most prominent leaders began to focus their energies elsewhere. Montgomery, the Unionís first dynamic president, began to make frequent trips abroad on behalf of the National Federation of Church Women. Mary Gannett, who had chaired the Unionís Legal Protection Committee and who assumed the presidency of the WEIU in 1911, was increasingly involved in the efforts to pass a woman suffrage amendment. Other members of the WEIU also poured their efforts into suffrage activities during the decade before its passage.

The decline of the WEIU was also the result of a few unpopular moves by the organization. The majority of Rochesterís citizens were outraged by a largely critical sanitary survey of the City, undertaken in 1911 by Caroline Bartlett Crane and sponsored and published by the WEIU. Two years later, the Union became involved in another controversy when it promoted sexual hygiene at a display in a Child Welfare Exhibit.

The work of the Womenís Educational and Industrial Union was a prime illustration of the link between Rochesterís progressive social reform movement and its womenís movement. The Union was an attempt by womenís rights advocates to advance the position of all women by ameliorating the condition of the poorest. Many of the projects undertaken by the WEIU are now recognized as necessary for civic health, and have been incorporated as functions of local government. Although the WEIU no longer exists in most of the cities where it flourished during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, it still plays a role in social and civic life in Boston, where it was first established.

Bibliography of Suggested Books & Articles
Blair, Karen J., The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868-1914, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1980. See especially Chapter 5: "Womenís Educational and Industrial Unions of Boston and Buffalo."
*Crane, Caroline Bartlett, A Sanitary Survey of Rochester, N.Y., Rochester, NY: Womenís Educational and Industrial Union, 1911 (119 p., available in Rochester at Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester Public Library, University of Rochester, and University of Rochester Miner Medical Library).
*Huntington, Jeannette W., Womenís Educational and Industrial Union 1893-1943, [Rochester, NY?: s.n., 1943. (11 leaves, available at Rochester Public Library).
McKelvey, Blake, "Historic Origins of Rochesterís Social Welfare Agencies," Rochester History, v. IX, nos. 2 & 3 (April 1947).
McKelvey, Blake, "The History of Public Health in Rochester, New York," Rochester History, v. XVIII, no. 3 (July 1956).
McKelvey, Blake, "Rochesterís Ethnic Transformations," Rochester History, v. XXV, no. 3 (July 1963).r
McKelvey, Blake, "Susan B. Anthony," Rochester History, v. VII, no. 2 (April 1945).
McKelvey, Blake, "Walter Rauschenbuschís Rochester," Rochester History, v. XIV, no. 4 (October 1952).
McKelvey, Blake, "Womanís Rights in Rochester: A Century of Progress," Rochester History, v. X, nos. 2 & 3 (July 1948).
Pease, William H., "The Gannetts of Rochester: Highlights in a Liberal Career, 1889-1923," Rochester History, v. XVII, no. 4 (October 1955).
*Womenís Educational and Industrial Union (Rochester, NY), Program and Information, 1907-1908, Rochester, NY: 1907 (26 p., available at University of Rochester).
*Womenís Educational and Industrial Union (Rochester, NY), Yearbook of the Womenís Educational and Industrial Union, Rochester, N.Y., 1896-7, Rochester, NY: H.D. Bryan, Printer, 1896 (40 p., located at University of Rochester).
*indicates not examined for above article.

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