Published: March 13, 2024

The Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike of 1881 stands as a seminal event in the history of the labor movement in the United States. This strike was not only a bold assertion of dignity and rights by Black working women, but also an early demonstration of organized labor action by Black workers in the post-Reconstruction South.


In the late 19th century, Atlanta, Georgia was a growing urban center, and the laundry industry was predominantly the domain of Black women workers. These workers toiled under grueling conditions, working long hours and for meager wages, washing clothes by hand before electric washing machines existed. Despite the essential nature of their service to the city’s households, their labor was undervalued, reflecting the broader social and economic devaluation of Black women’s work.

The Strike

In July 1881, twenty Black women organized the Washing Society in Atlanta to challenge their working conditions and wages. They demanded higher pay for their labor, specifically setting a uniform rate of $1.00 for washing, which was a significant increase from the rates they were previously paid. What began with 20 women quickly swelled to a movement of thousands, as 3,000 Black washerwomen joined the strike, refusing to wash clothes under the existing conditions.

The strikers organized door-to-door campaigns to rally support, held mass meetings, and even faced down attempts at intimidation by local employers and authorities. The city’s response was to enact licensing fees and regulations aimed at breaking the strike by criminalizing the women’s collective action. However, these measures largely failed to deter the striking workers.

While not all their demands were met, many washerwomen successfully negotiated higher rates for their work, and the strike itself served as a powerful assertion of their rights as workers. Moreover, the strike inspired other labor movements and strikes in the South, signaling the potential for collective action among marginalized laborers and disrupting the social order, challenging the racial and gender hierarchies that underpinned the post-Reconstruction South.

The Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike of 1881 underscores the role of Black women as agents of change and challenges the narrative that organized labor in America was solely the domain of industrial, white male-dominated unions. The strike is a testament to the power of collective action and the enduring struggle for justice and dignity in the workplace.