Agnes Nestor – Working Women’s Advocate

By Scarlett Andes – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019.

            Agnes Nestor, a prominent labor leader and educator, stands out as an unusual contributor to the fight for women’s suffrage in Illinois, which she saw as directly tied to working women’s interests. Born in 1876 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Agnes Nestor soon saw her fortunes shift. In search of work, her father moved the family to Chicago but fell ill, and Nestor’s childhood was swept away as she left the eighth grade and began factory work to support her family. Struggling under the sixty-hour work week at the Eisendrath Glove Company, Nestor took inspiration from her male coworkers’ unionization. She raised her voice and led a women’s strike in 1898, which saw its demands met in only ten days, and in 1902 she formed a female glove workers’ local. She soon took part in forming the International Glove Workers Union (IGWU), for which she first served as a vice president, and then was elected to a paid full-time position as IGWU secretary-treasurer. Her career eventually included organizing women in a wide variety of occupations, ranging from milliners to stockyard workers and giving speeches [1].

Portrait of Agnes Nestor, Library of Congress.

This work easily aligned with the suffrage cause. In a pamphlet titled “The Working Girl’s Need of Suffrage,” Nestor stated that “to us, it is not a question of equal rights, but a question of equal needs.” She noted that working women were just as likely as men to be harmed by working conditions or jailed for striking, and thus, like men, they needed the vote to strengthen their fight for safe conditions and fair treatment under the law [2].

            Through her activism, Nestor befriended leading Chicago reformers, such as Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and Margaret Dreier Robins, with whom she lobbied for legal protections for working women [3]. In 1907, Addams spoke at Nestor’s IGWU chapter meeting, and in 1909 Addams invited Nestor to Hull House for an exhibit of sculpture, some depicting laborers, by the noted sculptor Charles Haag  and “labor songs by pupils of the music school” [4]. When, on March 29, 1909, a letter arrived from Hull House inviting Nestor on a lobbying trip to Springfield with Addams, Nestor agreed [5].

The Chicago Municipal Suffrage bill was going to the Illinois House of Representatives. This bill allowed women to vote in municipal elections under a new Chicago city charter, which would deliver a blow against national suffrage restrictions [6]. Addams and other leaders of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association (IESA) organized a special train with discounted fare on the Chicago & Alton Railroad to leave Chicago at 10:30 AM on Tuesday, April 13th, 1909. They made stops for speakers, including Nestor, to give three-minute speeches along the way at the Illinois towns of Joliet, Dwight, Pontiac and Lexington, Bloomington, Atlanta, and Lincoln. The train, decorated with banners emblazoned with suffrage slogans such as “Women’s Vote, Chicago’s Welfare,” drew hundreds at every stop [7]. Nestor was assigned to speak at Joliet on a topic aligned with her work for the IGWU: “The Lack of the Ballot the Handicap of the Working Girls.” [8]. Finally, they arrived in Springfield to prepare for the House hearing the next day [9].

While many of the suffrage movement’s leaders were white, middle-class women, Nestor was not alone in speaking for underrepresented groups. Other suffragist speakers for minorities and disadvantaged groups included Mrs. Raymond Robins, President of the Women’s Trade Union League of Illinois; Flora Witowsky, President of Jewish Women’s Aid; and Mrs. Thomas, Field Secretary of the Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago, which Addams had founded to advocate on issues related to child labor, racism, and prostitution [10].

The Municipal Suffrage bill did not pass, but the IESA’s lobbying led to a broader, more inclusive women’s coalition. The defeat did not discourage Nestor; in 1910, she wrote that “[a] new spirit for work and an added sense of power to bring about justice will come to every woman through full enfranchisement” [11]. After years of effort by the IESA and activists like Nestor, in 1913 Illinois women gained a step towards full suffrage, which Nestor and others made clear would benefit women of all classes [12]. Nestor lived until 1948 and saw the suffrage movement succeed with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, after which she became even more involved in government. Besides running (unsuccessfully) for the Illinois legislature in 1929, Nestor served on several federal committees and continued to work devotedly for women’s labor issues through the Great Depression until the end of her life to make her vision of justice and self-advocacy a reality at all levels of society [13].

Sources

[1] Opdycke, Sandra, “Nestor, Agnes.” American National Biography, Oxford University Press, February 2000. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1500506; Agnes Nestor, Women’s Labor Leader: An Autobiography Of Agnes Nestor (Rockford, IL: Bellevue Books Pub. Co., 1954).

(2) Agnes Nestor. The Working Girl’s Need of Suffrage (pamphlet). [1910?]. Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

[3] Opdycke, “Nestor, Agnes.”

[4] Elsie M. Smith Lucas and Jane Addams, “Elsie M. Smith Lucas to Agnes Nestor, December 1, 1906,” Jane Addams Digital Edition. https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/items/show/544 (accessed Oct. 25, 2019); Jane Addams and Hull House Residents to Agnes Nestor (invitation to a reception on January 27), 1909. Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum.

[5] Jane Addams to Agnes Nestor, 29 March 1909, Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum.

[6] Ella S. Steward and Catharine W. McCullough, “Special Train to Springfield for the Woman Suffrage Hearing,” 1909, Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum; Maureen A. Flanagan, Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women And The Vision Of The Good City 1871-1933. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.), 82-84.

[7] Ella S. Steward and Catharine W. McCullough, “Special Train to Springfield for the Woman Suffrage Hearing”; “Record Broken in Illinois,” Woman’s Journal, April 24, 1909, Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

[8] Jane Addams to Agnes Nestor, 9 April 1909. Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum; Catharine McCulloch to Agnes Nestor about speaking at Joliet and sending a synopsis of her speech, 1909. Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum; List of speakers and topics for the Springfield lobbying train, 1909, Box 1, Folder 4, Agnes Nestor Papers, Chicago History Museum Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago History Museum; Opdycke, “Nestor, Agnes.”

[9] “Record Broken in Illinois.” Woman’s Journal, April 24, 1909, [65]+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

[10] List of speakers and topics for the Springfield lobbying train, 1909; “Get To Know JPA,” 2018. Juvenile Protective Association (website). Accessed Oct. 25, 2019, https://www.jpachicago.org/about.

[11] Flanagan, Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women And The Vision Of The Good City 1871-1933.

[12] Agnes Nestor, The Working Girl’s Need of Suffrage (pamphlet).

[13] Nestor. Women’s Labor Leader: An Autobiography Of Agnes Nestor; Flanagan, Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women And The Vision Of The Good City 1871-1933.

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