Washington State Senate approves an eight-hour workday for women on March 2, 1911.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 10/08/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8315
See Additional Media

On March 2, 1911, throughout the day's session, Washington State senators consider House Bill 12/Senate Bill 74, limiting women's employment to eight hours a day. The bill gains senate approval, but only with an exclusion of fishery and cannery workers.

Campaign for the Eight-Hour Day

John Campbell (1880-1924) was confident that he had the votes needed. The young Washington State House Representative from Everett met in Olympia with the Joint Committee on Labor and Labor Statistics on the evening of January 26, 1911, to discuss passage of House Bill 12. If passed, it would give Washington women an eight-hour workday.

Seattle activist Alice Lord (1877-1940) had led the way, organizing Seattle waitresses in the early 1900s and beginning the struggle for shorter working hours. A ten-hour day was the state standard, with women primarily employed in the fisheries, canneries, laundries, breweries, hotels, restaurants, and confectioneries. Many, including waitresses, worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. A failed attempt was made to introduce the "Waitresses' Bill" in 1904, which would have limited working hours to eight a day. Lord found an effective supporter in Campbell, who authored and introduced the bill during his first term as State Congressman in 1909. In that year, however, the measure failed.

Although the struggle for an eight-hour day was a cause championed worldwide as early as the 1830s, and one supported in 1870 by the American Federation of Labor, few workers actually had it. But in the dawning years of the twentieth century, Washington lawmakers supported many progressive causes.

For and Against

When Washington women gained the vote in 1910, Campbell and Lord had a new constituency -- voting women. In partnership, they began to work toward passage of the eight-hour employment bill for women. Women's clubs, churches, and religious organizations supported the measure, and women's rights leaders, including May Arkwright Hutton (1860-1915) of Spokane and Emma Smith De Voe (1848-1927) of Tacoma, successfully lobbied for the cause, gathering signatures in support of the measure.

A number of influential employers and some of their female employees arrived at the January meeting by chartered rail car, to fight the bill's passage. Seattle businessmen spoke of the grave hardships an eight-hour workday would bring them. Production speed, they insisted, would need to increase in order to balance the loss of hours. Spokane's Chamber of Commerce representative pleaded that dire economic times would result and that manufacturers would choose to locate their businesses elsewhere, should the bill be passed. Some women workers testified against the measure, fearing a cut in pay or the loss of their jobs. Upon being questioned, however, most agreed that they would be happy working only eight hours, if they would receive the same pay.

A Petition Three Blocks Long

Campbell presented the committee with the petition of signatures supporting the bill. He unrolled the document from his speaker's podium to the length of the room and back again. It was, as a Labor Journal reporter described it, a petition "three city blocks long." It was his determination, obsession, and rhetoric in support of the bill that earned John Campbell the respect of his colleagues and the nickname "8-Hour Jack."

But Senate approval was more difficult. Fisheries and canneries were a large part of Washington state's economy and their lobbyists exerted strong influence. They asked for exclusion in the eight-hour bill. Accusing the legislature of being dominated by special interests, Senator Ralph Metcalf of Pierce County declared that the eight-hour bill should apply to all female workers.

But the strong lobbyists prevailed and on March 2, 1911, the bill passed the senate, with compromise, not as it was originally written. Presented in the Senate by Jesse Huxtable of Spokane, House Bill 12 /Senate Bill 74, entitled "An act to regulate and limit the hours of employment of females in any mechanical or mercantile establishment, laundry, hotel or restaurant, except establishments in harvesting, packing, curing, canning or drying certain perishable articles ... ." was read for the first and second times and immediately passed. The bill also contained a provision (Sec. 2) that employers provide seats for their women workers. Only five senators voted against the measure.

Washington state became one of the first in the nation to grant women an eight-hour workday.


“Session Laws of the State of Washington, Twelfth Session, 1911 (Olympia: E. L. Boardman, Public Printer, 1911), p. 131-132; Issues of the Olympian, January 1911; Issues of the Everett Daily Herald and Labor Journal, 1908-1915; Washington State Legislative Year Book, 1909 and 1911 (Olympia: E. L. Boardman, Public Printer); Mildred Tanner Andrews, “Washington Women as Path Breakers” (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1989), p. 24; HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Western Pine Manufacturers Association accepts the eight-hour day before dropping it on December 28, 1917” (by Ross Reider), www.HistoryLink.org/ (accessed September 24, 2007).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You