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“The Baby Was Made ’Delegate No. 800’”: Frances Willard Meets Elizabeth Rodgers in the 1880s

by Frances E. Willard

The commitment of the Knights of Labor to equality for women was more than rhetorical, as seen in the career of Elizabeth Rodgers, the Master Workman, or head, of the organization’s giant Chicago District No. 24. This 1889 portrait of Rodgers, offered by leading national anti-liquor activist Frances Willard, underscored the desire on the part of many Knights, both men and women, to connect the struggle for labor reform with a broader vision that included vehement opposition to liquor. It also showed the complex ways in which the Knights managed to simultaneously advocate equal rights for women at the same time they upheld the Victorian ideal of domesticity for women. Thus, although Rodgers presided over a Local Assembly with 50,000 male and female members, she was still listed as a “housewife” when she attended the 1886 Richmond convention.

So I went; in an unfamiliar, but reputable part of the city where the streetcar patrons are evidently wage-workers. I was welcomed to a small, but comfortable, modern house by a woman who came to the door with sleeves rolled up and babe in arms. She was the presiding officer over all the Knights of Labor in Chicago and the suburbs, except the Stock Yards division... including fifty thousand or more working men and women... Probably no parallel instance of leadership in a woman’s hands, conferred by such peers, can be cited in this country, if indeed in any other.

Mrs. Rodgers is about forty years of age... She has been the mother of twelve children, ten of whom are now living. The youngest was but twelve days old when her mother started for the [1886] Richmond Convention, where the baby was made “Delegate No. 800,” and presented by the Knights with a silver cup and spoon, and the mother with a handsome Knights of Labor gold watch.

“My husband always believed that women should do anything they liked that was good and which they could do well,” said Mrs. Rodgers, proudly; “but for him, I never could have got on so well as a Master Workman. I was the first woman in Chicago to join the Knights. They offered us the chance, and I said to myself, ‘There must be a first one, and so I’ll go forward.’”

Mrs. Rodgers got her training as the chief officer of a local board of the Knights of Labor, which office she held four years, and by the death of the District Master Workman became the chief for our great city.

“We take no saloon-keepers,” she said, “not even a saloon-keeper’s wife. We will have nothing to do with men who have capital invested in a business which is the greatest curse the poor have ever known; but wage-workers connected with the liquor business are not forbidden to join us.” I told her I hoped the pledge of total abstinence might be made a test of membership, and she heartily acquiesced in the plan... She seemed to me a sincere Christian, and warmly seconded my statement that "Mr. Powderly [the Knights' national leader] must have the help of God, or he could not speak and act so wisely."

Source: Frances E. Willard, Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman (Chicago: H. J. Smith & Co., 1889), 522–525.