Dorothy Sue Cobble on the Full Rights Feminists

Full Rights Feminists
Members of Domestic Workers United protest at Federal Court in Central Islip before the sentencing of Varsha Sabhnani who has been found guilty of slave abuse.

Dorothy Sue Cobble joins the podcast to share the history of full rights feminists. Dorothy is the Distinguished Professor of History and Labor Studies Emerita at Rutgers University and the author of For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality.

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They wanted the full array of rights. Political rights, yes, they were active in the suffrage movement, but they also wanted economic rights and social rights. They wanted to lessen inequalities. They also wanted the rights of mothers and of children advanced.

Dorothy Sue Cobble

Key Highlights Include

  • Dorothy explains who the full rights feminists were and what they advocated for
  • Profiles of full rights feminists like Frances Perkins
  • How full rights feminism influenced the New Deal
  • A brief history of the conflicts between full rights feminists and equal rights feminists over the Equal Rights Amendment
  • A profile of early Japanese feminist Tanaka Taka

Podcast Transcript

When I was a child. my mother worked nights. She did it because she made an extra $2/hour and saved on childcare. After working all night she stayed home with the kids. My father worked full-time as a draftsman and went to night school to earn his degree in architecture. This meant the day never ended for my mother. This is called the double day. She was a nurse at night and mother during the day. She rarely slept. Instead she took naps. 

The full rights feminists advocated for ways to improve the lives of working women like my mom. Some might call them socialists or radicals, but they were not ideologues. Rather they wanted reforms to improve the lives of working women, mothers, and their children. Moreover, Dorothy Sue Cobble has shown these aspirations were not in vain. They spearheaded many of the reforms we take for granted today like unemployment insurance and Social Security.

Dorothy Sue Cobble is the Distinguished Professor of History and Labor Studies Emerita at Rutgers University and the author of For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality. Her research ties together the women’s movement and the labor movement to show their common aspirations. 

Our conversation touches on a lot. Feminists will discover new heroes, while traditionalists will discover Women’s History is central to American History. Of course, we don’t have time to touch on everything so please join the conversation at where you will find a full transcript of the episode and an area to leave your own comments. You can also mention me on Twitter @DemParadox or email me at I really do read your emails and try to respond the same day. But for now this is my conversation with Dorothy Sue Cobble…


Dorothy Sue Cobble, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thanks Justin. Thanks for inviting me.


Well, Dorothy, your book drew me in because it offered more than just ideas. It gave real portraits and stories of so many feminist leaders. It’s difficult to decide really where to begin, but Frances Perkins symbolized for me the intersection between women’s rights in a broader sense of human rights through her participation in the labor movement. So, I think this is the natural place to begin. She even demonstrated how women did not play a peripheral role in politics. They made substantial contributions. So, can you offer a portrait of Frances Perkins and explain how she brings many of your themes together?


That is a great place to begin. She represents so much of what I was trying to communicate in the book.  She’s what I call a full rights feminist. She was a woman who believed in, as you said, human rights and labor rights and women’s rights. She was the woman behind the New Deal and she was also, after FDR appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1932, she was the first female cabinet member in U.S. history. So, she’s really pivotal in many ways. She’s part of this generation, the first generation of social democratic full rights feminists that I write about.

She was born in the late 19th century and she experienced the dramatic social movements before World War I, the garment strikes in New York City. She was briefly a member of the Socialist Party. She also was at Hull House for a time where, in her memoir, she talks about how she learned about the value of trade unions, because her assignment at Hull house was to collect wages employers refused to pay their workers. And so, she realized that individual workers had very little power and that they needed a collective organization. She brought many of her beliefs into the 1920s when she became a high-ranking official in the New York state government under the governorship of Al Smith.

So, the ideas that she brought that are so crucial to this first generation of full rights feminists and that run through the next hundred years of the story that I tell have to do with democracy, both at the workplace and in politics, but also what we could call social minimums or the right to a standard of living. She was crucial in the first policies of Roosevelt’s first hundred days. The Unemployment Insurance that was passed, the National Recovery Act with its commitment to collective bargaining, the wage boards. She chaired Roosevelt’s Social Security Commission. She advocated for a lot of things she didn’t get. She wanted healthcare in 1935 for everybody. And she was astounded by the pushback from the medical profession.

She was also key in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Wagner act, the first federal minimum wage and the first limits on hours, as well as the first federal restrictions on child labor. They had pushed hard for decades to pass these kinds of laws on the state level against a formidable opposition of courts and businessmen and conservatives, but they wanted to bring these laws to the federal level as well and gain coverage for a much wider swath of the public.


I think something that struck me was that in selecting Frances Perkins as a member of his cabinet and as the Labor Secretary. FDR was implicitly recognizing the fact that many, many women were in the workforce and had a role within labor that it wasn’t something that only men participated within the workforce. It doesn’t mean that women were on an equal footing, but women participated, particularly working-class women were in the workforce. Can you talk a little bit about women’s role within the workforce and why that mattered so much for the full rights feminists?


Let me, broaden what you say, because I think it’s important that he did recognize the existence of wage-earning women and the needs of wage-earning women and I think how he came to that is an interesting story. He certainly learned a lot from Frances Perkins about this because they had worked closely together when he was governor of New York from 1928 to 32. But he also was influenced by some of the other women that I write about women like Rose Schneiderman, and Maud Swartz, and other women in the Women’s Trade Union League who had organized that general strike of the garment industry in New York city in 1909. They were the leaders in it.

They were some of the first responders and pushed forward social policies in 1911 following the Triangle Shirtwaist Strike and they had become close to Eleanor Roosevelt by the twenties and through Eleanor they also became friends with FDR and were invited to Hyde Park and other occasions to talk with him. And Frances Perkins actually has some lovely descriptions of how they explain the labor movement to him. He was sympathetic to the labor movement, she explained, but he didn’t really get it. Didn’t really understand it until he had these long conversations with some of the women in the Women’s Trade Union League. So I think that context is important to understanding why he appointed Perkins and his attitudes toward the labor movement in the 1930s.


I think it also brings to light how the labor movement was important for many feminists. That the working conditions for women was one of their main goals, but not just women, but all workers. And their involvement in many of the labor organizations was interesting. You go through a broad history of that, about how there were some organizations for labor that were specifically for women, how some were more inclusive and some were very exclusive and refused to recognize the place of women within the workforce. Can you talk a little bit about how labor organizations treated women and maybe help us understand some of the positive examples, but also go into some of the negative examples?


That’s a great question. And I’m happy to talk about that. I’ve been writing about women in the labor movement for much of my life. The first book that I wrote actually was on the history of waitress unions. I finished that in 1991 and it was a surprise to me that women had organized waitress unions, organized separately from men. And had built a network of women’s unions across the country and eventually represented some quarter of all waitresses nationwide. I was interested in that subject because at the time, so many people argued that the labor movement was in decline in part because the workforce was shifting to service workers and women and these groups were never going to organize. So, I was curious about, well, had women and service workers organized in the past. And that led me to the history of waitress unions.

In this book, I tell a bit broader story because I’m interested in organizations like the Women’s Trade Union League, which was the largest working women’s organization in the U.S. from 1903 into the 1930s. And they certainly took in waitress unions, those unions affiliated with the league and cooperated with the league, but they also took in many, many other kinds of occupations and trades. Now, one of the things that’s interesting about the Women’s Trade Union League is that it was a cross class organization. And many politically active progressive women in the early 20th century, but right into the 1960s and seventies, prioritized the needs of working class and poor women and joined organizations, not so much to raise the opportunities for career women or to shatter the glass ceiling. But to, , create minimums and good working conditions for all women, and in particular wage-earning women.

So, before World War II, working class women organized primarily with other women in sex segregated organizations like the Women’s trade Union League. They organized their own unions, but they also did join with the largest union at that time, which was the AFL. The AFL, however, did not prioritize the needs of women. And for many of the women that I write about who were leaders of the Women’s Trade Union League, they had a difficult time cooperating with the AFL, because the AFL pushed for restrictions on immigrant rights, in particular, the 1924 Immigration Act. But also, the AFL was hesitant to form broad-based coalitions with socialists and other progressives.

The women I write about were more interested in those coalitions. And I think also most importantly and this is something that’s not generally understood, but the tradition of the labor movement before the 1930s was really more syndicalist. They looked to advance their interests only in the workplace and to achieve economic power. And were not that interested in thinking about expanding the state and how to use the state in a positive way. So, for example, the AFL opposed unemployment insurance in 1932, very much unlike Frances Perkins and the women’s labor traditions that she represented.

Things changed quite dramatically in the thirties, however both in terms of the politics of the labor movement and also in terms of the relationship of the labor movement to women. One of the stories I tell, in terms of the thirties, is not just the impact of women in the government, women like Perkins, but also the women who organized their own shops who built the new labor movement, the CIO, who reached out and formed interracial coalitions. These women were the foremothers really of the women who came later and moved into top leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement that took decades. But a big change did happen in the 1930s and in the post-war as the service economy expanded and women moved more and more into wage work. Labor unions feminized and they began to take on women’s priorities more as their priorities.

So, probably the best example here is the AFL-CIO. By this time, the AFL and the CIO merge in 1956, but by the sixties they become one of the prime backers of the Equal Pay Act, which was passed in 1963 and had been a long-standing policy goal of the full rights feminists that I write about.


You mentioned about service workers organizing into unions, but there were women in the past who worked, not just as service workers, but were involved in manufacturing. A classic industry that involved many women was the garment industry. And you give an account of a very famous story of one of their factories that took fire and women were jumping out of the building. And if I remember right, that was one of the moments that influenced, I think it was, Francis Perkins heavily.

But I think it symbolizes for me a lot of the conditions beyond just wages and beyond just contracts with employers, but the broader labor conditions that a lot of these women were looking to bring about within these employment conditions. That it wasn’t just about how much money people made, which was important, but it was also about the conditions that they worked, the time that they worked. There were so many different factors that they felt were very important for women, especially working women including ones that oftentimes had families and had multiple responsibilities.


Absolutely. Rose Schneiderman, whom I mentioned earlier, was key to many of the efforts before World War I in the garment industry to organize, but she certainly wasn’t alone. And I talk about this very active group of women in New York, but also in Chicago where the garment workers organized as well. Schneiderman’s phrase, bread and roses, which she coined in 1911 sums up I think a lot of what that movement was about, because it was about labor rights, as you say, and the conditions were grueling. These were sweatshops. The hours were unbearably long. Women were not given any say in their working conditions, the health and safety hazards were extraordinary, but it was more than just a struggle for labor rights.

It was a struggle for women’s rights. These women were crucial in the suffrage campaigns, particularly in New York City and New York State. They also wanted access to the finer things of life. That’s what Schneiderman meant by roses. They wanted access to education. Many women had grown up in families where women’s education was not valued. One of the key demands was an end to what they call the double day, which meant having a job outside the home with incredibly long hours, but also having to then come back to the second job and caring for the family.


You describe these women as full rights feminists. Can you help explain the difference between full rights feminists and what you also described as equal rights feminists? What issues set them apart?


Well, the phrase full rights feminists is one that I got from my historical subjects. I think I said earlier that many of the women that I write about for a long time were not even considered feminists. They were often described as women who believed in protection rather than equality. They were not thought of as feminists in part because they opposed the Equal Rights Amendment until the 1960s. But they considered themselves feminists even though they often took care to say, ‘We don’t mean the kind of feminism that the National Woman’s Party represents or that many elite women propose.’ We think of feminism similar in some ways to what we would say today is a kind of intersectional feminism.

They didn’t want just rights for the few. They didn’t just think that you should end disadvantage based on sex. They wanted to end multiple forms of disadvantage and address the multiple kinds of inequalities that affected women. So, inequalities of race, as well as class, they had a broad, big tent vision. And I call them full rights also because they wanted the full array of rights. Political rights, yes, they were active in the suffrage movement, but they also wanted economic rights and social rights. They wanted to lessen inequalities. They also wanted the rights of mothers and of children advanced so they have this broad vision.


And again, to bring this back to the idea of women’s rights, they felt that these broader social rights were intrinsic to the uplift of women. So, looking back, we can see them very much as feminists, even if at the time they weren’t always described as such.


Right. Absolutely.


Now, near the end of your book, you have what some might feel is a controversial statement. But I bring it up because I think it shows this tension between the needs of upper class and working-class women continues to exist today. And I feel like that’s the tension that you’re getting at when we talk about full rights feminists that are concerned about all women, especially working-class women that have very specific concerns in terms of trying to have a better life versus equal rights feminists that have a more narrow view of what producing equal rights for women would be.

You write, “Elite women like Facebook executive Sheryl, Sandberg peddled Lean In assimilationist feminism for the few. I think it does show the tension between these two directions of feminism. Do you believe that this tension continues to exist today and is it similar to the tension of the past?


That’s a great question. It’s a very complicated question too. Let me start with the lean in feminist vision and talk a bit about what it was and some of the criticisms of it. Sheryl Sandberg who’s a Facebook C-suite leader wrote a book in 2013 and really launched a movement that was primarily directed at how women could lean in or work harder to move into top positions in the corporate world. And that’s a worthy goal in many ways. As I said earlier, certainly the glass ceiling is something that should be removed and those kinds of constraints are important to get rid of.


And just to confirm, you’re not opposed to the basic idea of women moving into these top positions. The more limited view of Sheryl Sandberg’s argument, right?


No, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say, Justin, is that I wouldn’t say that that is not an important goal and certainly the boardrooms should represent America. They should be diversified. We should have all kinds of people represented in positions of power. I think the criticism, however, from many sectors was that we need that and more. That if the movement just limits itself to that, it’s not going to address some of the other kinds of inequalities and constraints that bear down on women and men.

So, I think one of the best examples of this is that you can think of lean in feminism if we think of the economy as a kind of game of musical chairs and you can tell people, ‘Women go out there and push harder and grab one of those chairs, those few good jobs for yourself,’ or you can say, ‘We need more chairs. We need enough good jobs for everybody.’

So, there were other sectors of the feminist movement that took exception to Sheryl Sandberg, because they said what we really need is to challenge the fact that people at the bottom don’t have good jobs and that the corporate arena needs to be democratized, not just at the top, but at all levels. That pink collar and white-collar women need more voice, not just constraining and restricting voice to the top. So, it was about challenging the structures of capitalism as well as opening up opportunities for women.


Is this a parallel of some of the same conflicts that you saw earlier between full rights feminists and what you describe as equal rights feminists from earlier generations?


Certainly, there are a lot of parallels. The full rights feminists took exception to the primary goal of the National Woman’s Party which was for an ERA, because they said that this was too narrow a vision. That it might help a few women. They weren’t even sure about that, but that it’s certainly not something that would advance the cause of working women, particularly because the ERA as it was formulated did not protect many of the laws that had been pushed by full rights feminists to address the unequal playing field between men and women.


It really caught me off guard that there was so much opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in earlier generations of women that we look at as feminists, and not just feminists, but feminist from what we might describe as from the left, rather than something from the right. So, it’d be great to hear about this earlier debate over the equal rights amendment that dominated so much of the conversation in the 1960s.


Yeah, it is a surprising story because it flips in many ways, the current situation in which by the 1970s forward, it was progressive women and women in the Democratic party who pushed forward the Equal Rights Amendment. And more conservative women, often women in the Republican Party, who were the ones opposing it. That’s just the reverse of the earlier history of it. The ERA was proposed by the National Woman’s Party. They had been founded in 1916 as a party to push forward the 19th amendment. And they were crucial in that fight.

After the amendment passed, they wanted to propose a second constitutional amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment. Many African-American women asked them to reconsider women like Mary Church Terrell. She pointed out that the 19th amendment had barred discrimination on account of sex, but that many, many women were not enfranchised because they were discriminated against on the basis of race or citizenship or other things. But the National Woman’s Party headed primarily by Alice Paul, a New Jersey born Quaker and fearless autocratic, uncompromising leader, she was insistent that the party wanted to focus on the ERA and that suffrage rights had been won.

Another group of women led by Florence Kelley of the National Consumers’ League and also many of the women in the Women’s Trade Union League that I write about sat down with Alice Paul and said, ‘Yes, we can understand that women are discriminated against in certain ways in credit, jury service, other kinds of problems. And we too believe in equality. However, the language you are proposing is dangerous for working women, because many of the laws that we have just spent 20 years fighting for, laws such as the Sheppard-Towner Act, the mother’s pension laws that gave state income and support to poor women. These kinds of laws might be ruled unconstitutional.’

And indeed in 1923, the courts ruled against one of the minimum wage laws that established minimum wages for women because that’s all its proponents could get. It was all the courts allowed. That law was overturned. The National Woman’s Party celebrated that as a victory for women. The full rights feminists were appalled. The National Woman’s Party refused to include any language in the era that would have exempted the laws that advantaged women by treating them differently than men in terms of maternity rights and other kinds of things. The situation only worsened after that and both sides dug in. The fight went global. So, Alice Paul established the World Woman’s Party and spent a considerable amount of time along with another leader of the National Woman’s Party, Doris Stevens, pushing for what they called an Equal Rights Treaty, which was really the ERA in international dress.

And again, the full rights feminists, not just in the U.S., but organized in partnership with labor and social democratic women in many, many countries around the world pushed back against these kinds of treaties because they believed that what they had fought for through the International Labor Organization from 1919 onward, specifically conventions such as the Maternity Protection Convention, which protected women primarily that these would be overturned. These conventions were passed by nations gathering in Conference. Representatives of employers, labor, and the public debating out these standards, then member states would actually bring them up to their legislators and they would become state law. Many, many nations across the world had adopted convention one, the Maternity Convention, as well as the Night Work Convention. So, this conflict went global.

It really did not resolve itself until the 1960s and early seventies after the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment, when the courts actually began to overturn some of these laws that protected women, but not men. There were still many at the state level and The Fair Labor Standards Act, the law at the federal level, which did include men came to protect a much broader swath of the public. So, at that point, the National Woman’s Party was a tiny group of women.  Few younger women had joined the party, but with the organization of the National Organization of Women, that group revived the ERA and pushed for it in the 1970s. There was a concerted push by this decade. Working class women were among the most vocal in support and many associated it with winning equal pay.


So, you mentioned already that the women’s movement went global and even some of the debates about the American feminist movement were global. There is a character that you discovered from Japan named Tanaka Taka and she is so incredible. The stories that you tell about her are fascinating. Can you give a portrait of her?


Thanks a lot, Justin, for that question, because she is certainly somebody who captivated me. She was the grandniece of one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in Japan. She came with him on a friendship tour to the U.S. in 1909 and stayed. She moved to California to learn English. She went to Stanford. She was influenced by the Y and Christian socialism. She tells the story in her memoir of being on a Pacific coast California beach at a Y retreat at a beautiful place. It’s still there, Arcilla Mar, and dedicating her life to helping low income and poor women. She then goes to Hull house. Imbibes the values there of the settlement house community. Writes a master’s thesis on the problems of women’s subordination in Japan and then returns to Japan in 1918.

At the same time, the Versailles treaty is being negotiated and passed and the ILO is set up. And its inaugural conferences in Washington in November and December 1919 and 40 nations are set to send delegates. She ends up being the one woman in the 60 person Japanese delegation and the world is watching her for many different reasons. One, Japan is in this strange position as a global power, but the only Asian global power. It’s unclear whether they will agree to go along with many of the ILO recommendations and abide by global standards or whether like many of the other Asian nations ask for special exemptions. Japan is also in a very visible position because of their textile industry. Very powerful globally, but really built on the labor of thousands of young girls between the ages of 10 and 16.

Tanaka is, as I said, born in a middle-class prosperous family, but she has decided that she’s going to dedicate her life to raise standards for working women. So, before she goes to Washington, she tours a factory. She talks to the women. She promises to vocalize their concerns on the global stage in Washington, DC. She doesn’t have an easy time of this because she’s not a voting delegate. She’s an advisor to the top government delegate and she’s not permitted to speak in public or to vote.

She finds a way, however, to make her voice heard and this happens in the second week of the conference. It’s at a meeting where the focus is on whether Japan will agree to regulate night work. Tanaka knows that one of the most important concerns of the factory women in Japan is overwork and limited hours, but she hasn’t yet figured out a way of bringing that to the attention of the world. She’s at this meeting. A representative from Japan who happens to be the owner of the largest silk mill in Japan stands up and explains how Japan does not need global regulations. That employers can take care of the needs of workers.

Tanaka’s been asked to read the next delegates remarks. She stands up and does that, but before she can be removed from the stage, she whips out her own statement from underneath his papers that she’s been reading from and explains that these women are dying at a young age. They’ve been abused by Japanese capitalists and that night work should be immediately abolished. The other Japanese delegates don’t quite know what she’s saying at first, but as it becomes clear, bedlam ensues. She’s taken off the stage. The attack on her is relentless that she has shamed Japan internationally, that she is mentally deranged, because it turns out she was four months pregnant.

She is removed from the delegation and the reason given is that Americans would be embarrassed to have a pregnant woman speak in public. She goes to the American feminists, the Women’s Trade Union League, who intercede on her behalf. That makes some difference, even though the main reason that things begin to move toward her and her position is that the Japanese newspapers began to air this story and public opinion begins to shift. So, in the end, she wins quite a lot. She’s reinstated. Japan actually shifts its position on night work. They don’t fully embrace the ILO standard, but they move toward it. There’s a debate within Japan over whether women should have the right to speak politically in public. There had been a long standing law from 1900 restricting women’s political speech that is changed, in 1922.

Her actions also invigorated the women’s suffrage movement in Japan and the women’s labor movement. So, her story is an example of transnational solidarity, of one woman’s bravery, of the important venue of the ILO and these kinds of international arenas. It’s also a story that ends somewhat tragically for her. She suffers multiple miscarriages and the death of an infant son. And then she has to withdraw from politics to care for a newborn daughter and ill and elderly husband.

And this is what Tanaka said in her memoir. When she had to withdraw from politics, she described her quote agony at being immobilized like a knight in the novel by Sir Walter Scott who lies wounded, hears the battle nearby and lamenting his own body cannot rise. So she felt that her own body and her childcare responsibilities had kept her from fulfilling her promises fully to working women.


I think her story also shows how the needs of women, especially during this time, but even today are much more complex than just asking for equal wages or anything like that.  Because women so often are asked to take on these multiple responsibilities. These responsibilities at home that oftentimes take them away from other pursuits that they cherish and that they have an opportunity to do. So, in a lot of ways her story is very symbolic of the stories of many women during that time. And sometimes even the stories of many women today.


Yes, I think you’ve captured it really well. Just the complexity of women’s needs and the way in which childrearing and childbearing and other kinds of constraints, a law that actually specifically targeted women’s political speech, that those kinds of barriers existed a hundred years ago and they continue with us today.


Well, thank you so much for joining me, Dorothy. Your book is so well-researched and offers such a broad picture. I was amazed how many stories you told that I had absolutely no familiarity with. It’s amazing how much care you put into this book and the type of research you delivered. Thank you so much.


Thank you, Justin.

Key Links

For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality by Dorothy Sue Cobble

Visit Dorothy at

Learn about the Triangle Shirtwaist Workers Strike

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