Illinois Woman's Alliance (IWA)

The Illinois Woman's Alliance (IWA) was founded on August 18, 1888, by a coalition of members from 26 women's and civic organizations in Chicago. Guided by the principles of “justice to children and loyalty to women,” the IWA's formation was a result of public outrage generated by a series of undercover exposé articles written by Nell Nelson and published on the front page of the Chicago Times. The articles offered a first-hand view of the working conditions present throughout most of Chicago's garment and packingtown districts, including Philip Danforth Armour's meat-packing facility later featured in Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle. Newspaper editor Charles Chapin noted Nelson's articles were in such demand that the paper's presses were overtaxed. Nelson successfully infiltrated nearly 50 firms, documenting and exposing a social norm of abuse (physical, emotional, and financial) towards women and children in the workplace. Nelson's series of exposé articles began a major movement toward social and political reform, beginning with the formation of the IWA.

The focused reform efforts of the IWA were categorized by author Meredith Tax (1980) into four main areas: (1) a campaign against sweatshops, (2) a campaign to protect children (focused on both legislation against child labor and passing a compulsory education bill), (3) the placement of public baths in Chicago's working-class districts; and (4) a drive for inspections of state institutions (asylums, police courts) because members felt women were being abused. The IWA lobbied extensively to effect change. Its primary and most successful campaign was a lobbying effort for compulsory education legislation to combat the excessive use of child labor. In December 1888 the IWA successfully petitioned the Chicago Common Council to pass compulsory education legislation. Then, in early 1889 the IWA sponsored a compulsory education bill before the state legislature providing for a 12- to 24-week school year. The bill was passed in May 1889. The IWA then began petitioning for external inspections of factory working conditions, public bathing facilities, and enforcement of labor practices, securing success in each of these endeavors.

In addition to these local legislative changes, the IWA also fuelled a national movement towards labor reform; they modeled a successful mode of social organizing that had broad-reaching effects. Historian Bessie Louise Pierce (1957)

In reflecting back on her exposé series and the success of the IWA, Nelson stated the articles were written with both “a feeling of interest and a sense of responsibility greater than ordinarily follows obedience to a newspaper assignment.” Sadly, however, the IWA was a relatively short-lived organization, lasting only six years and dissolving in 1894 due to internal political and turmoil. Nevertheless Tax (1980) noted, “During the six years of its existence, the Illinois Women's Alliance accomplished more in the way of practical reform and political education than many organizations that have lasted five times as long.”

Eric W. Liguori

See also: Addams, Jane (1860–1935) ; Eight-hour Day ; Gilded Age ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; The Press and Populism ; Public Education


Chapin, Charles. Charles Chapin's Story: Written in Sing Sing Prison. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1920.

Nelson, Nell. The White Slave Girls of Chicago. Chicago: Barkley Publishing Company, 1888.

Pierce, Bessie Louise. A History of Chicago. Vol. 3. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Scharnau, Ralph. “Elizabeth Morgan, Crusader for Labor Reform.” Labor History 14 (3): 340–351.

Tax, Meredith. The Rising of Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980.