Barbara Mayer Wertheimer
1932 – 1983
Barbara Mayer Wertheimer’s guiding passion in life was to empower workers, especially union women. She recognized the barriers that union women face from management and from male-dominated union structures. As a result, she built a remarkable environment of support, encouragement, learning, and skill training at Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial-Labor Relations by establishing the Institute for Women and Work and trade union women’s studies programs. She always believed that it was women who “will be the ones to organize other women, ... to transmit enthusiasm and confidence in trade unionism.”
The trade union women’s program, initiated under her leadership in 1972, gave many New York women unionists their first opportunity to meet, network, and explore issues of leadership within their respective unions. Wertheimer inspired the New York Trade Union Women’s Conference in January 1974, which built a strong foundation for a new organization, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). At CLUW’s founding convention, Wertheimer expressed faith in the organization’s educational potential to “provide a training ground for women.” She said that it made her “blood boil to see what women have to put up with and how long they have had to wait for justice.”
Wertheimer revived working women’s summer schools, modeled after earlier summer schools for working girls at Bryn Mawr College. These schools, which now operate under the auspices of the University and College Education Association, bring hundreds of union women together from across the United States for a one-week intensive study session of trade union leadership. The summer schools also help to renew union women’s extraordinary spirit of sisterhood and solidarity.
At the Institute for Women and Work, Wertheimer developed academic programming, such as the career women’s studies program, and undertook research on nineteenth-century women organizers, including Lavinia Waight of the New York Tailoresses Union, Kate Mullaney of the Troy, New York, Collar and Laundry Union, Augusta Lewis of the Typographical Union, and countless others who worked as union activists. The research turned into a book, We Were There, which documents the history of working women in America, their roles in the American workplace, and their efforts to unionize.
Barbara Mayer Wertheimer died on September 20, 1983, at age fifty-one, survived by her two children. Her husband, Val Wertheimer, a vice president with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union, had died in 1978. Lane Kirkland, the former head of the AFL-CIO, said that Wertheimer’s death was “a loss for all of organized labor” and noted that “generations of working women will continue to benefit from her work.” Her rich legacy of activism, female empowerment, and education lives on at Cornell’s Institute for Women and Work and the summer schools she founded for union women.
NYTimes, September 22, 1983; Wertheimer, Barbara Mayer. We Were There (1977).