In Good Faith: Working-Class Women, Feminism, and Religious Support in the Struggle to Organize J. P. Stevens Textile Workers in the Southern Piedmont, 1974–1980

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Published July 15, 2014

This essay examines the campaign to organize southern workers in the J. P. Stevens textile plants in the 1970s, placing working-class women at the center of the story. While Crystal Lee Sutton, the "real Norma Rae," has been described and celebrated by historians and Hollywood, this essay demonstrates that the activism of many white and African American textile women was crucial to the success of the union's corporate campaign and boycott. The union and its allies used the women's stories to captivate audiences and motivate allies from religious organizations, feminists, and women's groups within and beyond the South. The working-class women carried leadership skills and lessons learned during the campaign into other political arenas and community struggles after the mills left the South.

"In Good Faith: Working-Class Women, Feminism, and Religious Support in the Struggle to Organize J. P. Stevens Textile Workers in the Southern Piedmont, 1974–1980" was selected for the 2014 Southern Spaces series Spaces of Southern Labor, a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary publications drawn from the Southern Labor Studies Association meetings about working class history, politics, and life. The collection is edited by Jana Lipman and Steve Striffler.

"TWUA" cheerleaders featured in Gloria Steinem's PBS series Woman Alive!, 1973–1974.
"TWUA" cheerleaders featured in Gloria Steinem's PBS series Woman Alive!, 1973–1974.

In the spring of 1974, a dozen white and African American women and their daughters gathered outside the office of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.1 As the cameras of Gloria Steinem's PBS series Woman Alive! rolled, the girls, wearing handmade cheerleading uniforms with "TWUA" emblazoned across the front, chanted, "You can rock us, you sock us, but you can't knock us flat! Tell me Mr. Stevens, can you top that?" Their mothers tried to ignore the camera crew. They had created the cheerleading squad the previous year to support unionizing the seven J. P. Stevens plants in Roanoke Rapids, but they were unaccustomed to this kind of attention.

Steinem's episode featured Crystal Lee Sutton.2 On May 30, 1973, Stevens had fired Sutton for insubordination after she insisted on copying an anti-union letter posted on the company bulletin board. Sutton then climbed atop a shop floor table and raised a piece of cardboard with "UNION" scrawled on it. She spent the night in jail. Steinem read about Sutton's confrontation with Stevens managers and local police in a New York Times article on the TWUA's organizing drive and wanted to include her in Woman Alive!—an early example of the media coverage and outside support the union received in its six-year struggle with the J. P. Stevens corporation. While the episode called attention to Sutton, it also showed many other mill women front and center.

A bold, multi-faceted effort, the campaign to unionize J. P. Stevens included boycotts, community-based organizing, and publicity campaigns against corporate intransigence and irresponsibility. The union's deployment of these tactics reached many audiences and motivated allies within and beyond the labor movement. This essay contextualizes the mill women's experiences, illuminating the crucial role they played in capturing attention, garnering support, and motivating action from allies. Personal narratives of white and African American women workers tapped into concerns with workplace justice fostered by the women's and civil rights movements. Aware of the limits of Stevens unionization, I examine what women gave to the effort and the distinct forms their activism took.

The Stevens Campaign and the Southern Textile Industry

J. P. Stevens mills locations and employees in the mid-1970s. This interactive map can be moved to display locations in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennesse and zoomed to display all Stevens mill locations. At the most distant zoom level, only mills with significant union action are labeled. The larger the marker the greater the number of employees and mills at a given location. Hover over a marker for more information.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, textile unionists labored to organize mill workers in the southern Piedmont, a region stretching from north Georgia and central Alabama through the middle of the Carolinas and into southern Virginia. Flanked on the west by the Appalachian Mountains and to the east by the Atlantic coastal plain, the Piedmont was a stronghold of textile and apparel manufacturing, which provided the main source of industrial jobs for working-class white families. From the 1920s through the 1950s, white women comprised at least one-third of the textile labor force; in 1929, their numbers in North Carolina peaked at 44.6 percent. By 1960, the United States textile labor force was overwhelmingly white, southern, and female. More than three-fourths of all textile manufacturing in the United States happened in the southern Piedmont, where 45 percent of all textile workers were female. African Americans, barred from all but the least-skilled and lowest-paid jobs in the mills, accounted for less than 5 percent of the work force. Wages in southern textile mills were always lower than the national average for factory workers, with the exception of the 1950s, when average wages in the southern mills equaled those in the North. About 5 percent of Piedmont mill workers belonged to a union in the 1960s, compared to 37 to 46 percent in New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Despite low wages and harsh working conditions, most workers' standard of living improved when they traded agricultural and domestic work for manufacturing.3

Postwar growth and industrial diversification shrank the textile labor force in the 1950s and 1960s. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act enabled black workers to demand more and better jobs in the mills. African Americans organized through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) "TEAM" project (Textiles: Employment and Advancement for Minorities). They were more likely than white workers to believe unionization was necessary for wage justice and equal opportunity.4 Sensing an opportunity in the 1960s, the TWUA sent waves of organizers into the J. P. Stevens mills, the second-largest textile corporation in the United States with more than thirty thousand workers in some seventy mills in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Stevens proved an unrelenting opponent. Between 1963 and 1973, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found Stevens guilty of violating labor laws in twenty-one of twenty-two cases. Stevens paid $1.3 million in back wages to nearly three hundred workers illegally discharged for union support. In 1974, workers in Stevens's seven Roanoke Rapids plants voted for union representation, a stunning achievement for the interracial group of workers who led the organizing drive. As Stevens fought a contract for the next six years, the Roanoke Rapids struggle transformed from a local conflict to a national campaign. The election victory united labor, civil rights, and women's rights activists behind the newly merged textile and clothing workers' union and its "Don't Sleep with Stevens" boycott.5

Cover of Norma Rae, directed by Martin Rich, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1979. The 2001 DVD re-release cover of Norma Rae features Sally Field's title character in the film's most famous moment.
Cover of Norma Rae, directed by Martin Rich, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1979. The 2001 DVD re-release cover of Norma Rae features Sally Field's title character in the film's most famous moment.

In 1979, Hollywood told a fictionalized version of the Stevens campaign in the Academy Award–winning Norma Rae. Scriptwriters framed the movie around Sutton's life story, as told to journalist Henry Leifermann in a 1973 New York Times Magazine article and 1975 book, Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance.6 Sutton revealed her past marital infidelity and that she had never married her second son's father. She feared that anti-union people in town who knew or suspected these things about her would use her secrets to silence her. Sutton later reflected that the New York Times Magazine article freed her from the small town rumor mill because "nobody will ever have anything to hold over me no more."7 Sutton's unabashed revelations about her checkered past and her unrepentant sexuality caused trouble for her with pro- and anti-union people. "Rumor has got back to me," she recalled, "that people are saying that it's a bunch of whores standing out getting people to join the union." While she was leafleting outside of the mills between shifts, an older white woman refused to take a union card, saying to her, "I been wanting to meet you. I sure do feel sorry for you because of any woman that has little enough respect for herself to [reveal sexual indiscretions in a newspaper article]."8 In 1974, a dozen pro-union workers wrote to Harold McIver, regional director of the organizing drive, complaining that Sutton exerted too much influence over Eli Zivkovich, the organizer in Roanoke Rapids. One letter insinuated that Sutton and Zivkovich were having an affair: "[Crystal] has got a key to the office. She has got a key to Eli's motel room. So why shouldn't people be talking?"9 To the chagrin of Sutton and union leaders, Norma Rae relied heavily on these themes of sexuality, rumor, and internal tensions. But the movie was enormously popular and drew positive attention to the union's Stevens campaign. Sutton toured the country as "the real Norma Rae" in support of the boycott of Stevens's products, always stressing that there were many Norma Raes.

A scene from Norma Rae (1979) illustrating the tension between Norma Rae, a worker at a textile mill, and Reuben Warshowsky, a union organizer. In this scene, Norma Rae's attempt to copy the company's racially inflammatory anti-union letter is mostly faithful to Sutton's biography and official records. The sexually-charged argument between Norma and Reuben, however, was fabricated to demonstrate the unconsumated attraction between the two that the filmmakers wanted in the story. Reuben pushes Norma to prove her political commitment and personal investment in the union campaign, then storms out to relieve the tension by having sex with any woman in town but Norma.

Under pressure from leaders of northern and southern progressive churches and religious groups, women's groups, consumers, and stockholders, Stevens agreed to negotiate contracts in good faith at its mills in Roanoke Rapids and Montgomery, Alabama, the two sites where the union had won elections but did not have contracts. In return, the union agreed to end its boycott and corporate campaign. The 1980 settlement covered only about 12 percent of Stevens workers, but compared to totally nonunion textile corporations, such as Burlington and Cannon, this victory seemed extraordinary. Although national textile employment fell 26 percent between 1973 and 1983, pro-union mill workers in 1980 did not imagine that this victory marked the beginning of the end of their struggle with a failing domestic industry.10 The Stevens campaign built new alliances among feminists, civil rights, and labor advocates and brought publicity to the union's southern effort. Verdicts in the plaintiffs' favor were rolling in from class action discrimination lawsuits filed by African American and women workers against textile corporations. In Roanoke Rapids, Sutton's sister Syretha Medlin evoked the sentiment of her fellow pro-union workers when she said, "This is just wonderful. It's like a whole new life."11

Since the 1980s, several labor historians have written about Norma Rae and the Stevens campaign. Timothy Minchin's monograph explores the boycott and corporate campaign from the union's perspective and argues that J. P. Stevens set a precedent for aggressive anti-union attacks in the 1980s. Essays by James Hodges and Robert Zieger describe Crystal Lee Sutton's participation in the unionization effort, critique Norma Rae's poetic license, and celebrate her as a working-class heroine.12 In these historians' writings, however, the task of separating fact from fiction obscures the interplay between politics and fantasy, sex and race, and labor and feminism at work in the 1970s. The Stevens campaign reveals how important working-class women's labor feminism and considerations of gender and sexuality were to organizing the textile and apparel industries.13

Sick for Justice

On August 28, 1974 in Roanoke Rapids, 3,133 workers streamed through the polling stations in the seven Stevens plants in an NLRB election to determine if the TWUA would represent them. Maurine Hedgepeth, a middle-aged weaver who lost her job in the 1960s because she supported the union, observed the ballot counting that evening in the meeting room in front of the Rosemary mill. The union won by 237 votes. For organizers and union leaders, the success in Roanoke Rapids seemed to signal a turning point: black and white workers could unite against a company as aggressively anti-union as Stevens. "Roanoke Rapids is everywhere," proclaimed North Carolina civil rights activist Reverend W. W. Finlator. Organizer Michael Spzak, who had worked in Greenville, South Carolina, recalls that among labor organizers in the South in the 1970s, "everything was Roanoke Rapids."14

It soon became clear, as one NLRB judge noted, that J. P. Stevens "approached [contract] negotiations with all the tractability and openmindedness of Sherman at the outskirts of Atlanta."15 Two years after the euphoria of Roanoke Rapids, the workers still had no contract, and Stevens's persistent labor law violations mired the TWUA in legal battles that siphoned resources away from the organizing. In 1976, the TWUA and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACWA) merged to create the Amalgamated Textile and Clothing Workers Union of America (ACTWU, pronounced "Act Two"). Inspired by the ACWA's successful boycott against the Farah Manufacturing Company in Texas, ACTWU undertook "Don't Sleep with Stevens."16 ACTWU staffer Ray Rogers started a corporate campaign aimed to pressure Stevens executives through stockholders and the financial and insurance companies that supported the company's operations.17

Blonde Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_112.
Blonde Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_112.

Labor activists and pro-union politicians recognized that with the dramatic growth in economies of the southern states since the 1950s, the future of manufacturing workers in the United States was linked to the South. At the 1977 national labor law reform hearings held in the Roanoke Rapids Civic Center, Congressman Ted Weiss of New York told the Stevens workers there to testify that "the fight that you are waging here in North Carolina and the rest of the South is not just your fight for the workers down here." Wilbur Hobby, president of the North Carolina state AFL-CIO, spoke to the assault on trade unionism through decertification efforts. Civil rights and anti-poverty advocates understood the Stevens campaign to be the next step in keeping alive the 1960s vision of a more equitable and just society. Diana Wilson, a young, African American anti-poverty activist, told the House subcommittee, "People's concerns with union campaigns today are like what black Southerners experienced during the early civil rights days." In March 1977, Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and Bayard Rustin, executive director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, marched with workers in a protest at Stevens's stockholders meeting in New York.18

ACTWU allies included politicians, such as US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS), and the National Football League Players Association; and civil rights groups and liberal religious associations. Southerners for Economic Justice (SEJ), formed in 1976 with financial support from ACTWU, became the backbone of the coalition. High profile figures from the 1960s Virginia Durr, Georgia senator Julian Bond, freedom rider John Lewis, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, Rev. W. W. Finlator of the Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and NAACP southern director Ruby Hurley. These veterans joined forces with young, relatively unknown social justice activists coming out of the 1960s New Left and student movements such as Bob Hall, a thirty-two-year-old Florida native and one of the founders of ISS, and Bill Finger, a thirty-year-old civil rights and labor activist from Mississippi who served as SEJ's first executive director. SEJ emphasized its background in the civil rights movement, origin in the South, and independence from ACTWU.19

SEJ sought to unite activists and organizations around the goal of economic justice. It portrayed the union's campaign as a human rights struggle pitting decent, hard-working women and men against an impersonal corporate giant with a record of discrimination and law-breaking that affronted Christian principles.20 SEJ put pressure on Stevens through letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and rallies, television and magazine ads, and protesting at stockholder meetings. In January 1978, for instance, SEJ paid for a television commercial, featuring Tom Banks and Ken Reaves of the St. Louis Cardinals, a professional football team that later moved to Arizona, which aired on Greenville, South Carolina, stations just days before the Super Bowl. Banks likened the Stevens campaign to the struggle to organize professional football players.21 SEJ helped the union secure boycott endorsements from civic and religious organizations against Stevens products and the stores that sold them. The United Presbyterian Church identified three Biblical concepts that supported workers' right to organize and passed a resolution that urged its two-and-a-half million members to make a "public witness" through the boycott and "cast their economic ballots in favor of collective bargaining."22

The boycott, as Spzak makes clear, "brought the issue of J. P. Stevens workers to the public eye and into the public arena."23 This did not guarantee change. In a 1976 working paper, SEJ admitted that "the participants in the J. P. Stevens campaign . . . are relatively unknown to most people," making it difficult to "define the merits" of unionization. The participants were "vast numbers of working women who call on the average consumers of Stevens products—another working woman—to help them earn a living for their families."24 The personal testimonies of white and African American women workers sought to transform public attention into action. Rank-and-file women displayed their paychecks, private lives, and their bodies as evidence of injustice and as a call to action.

Woman Working with Textiles. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992-11_73.
Woman Working with Textiles, ca. late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992-11_73.

Lucy Taylor was the president of the Roanoke Rapids chapter of the Carolina Brown Lung Association, a group dedicated to getting compensation for mill workers afflicted with respiratory diseases caused by inhaling cotton fibers. She was a fiery public speaker, peppering her speeches with statements like, "They gave me brown lung, I'm giving them hell." Taylor testified at the 1977 annual J. P. Stevens stockholder meeting that at Stevens the "machinery [is] more important than people."25 Mildred Whitley of the West Boylston plant in Montgomery, Alabama, explained that after she had a mastectomy, her supervisor told her she could either continue working at the expected pace or go on welfare. SEJ printed her photograph and story in fliers and newsletters sent to supporting organizations, such as the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression.26 In an interview with the Appalachian magazine, Mountain Life and Work, Addie Jackson of Statesboro, Georgia, linked the treatment of black mill workers to the history of chattel slavery.27 At the labor law reform hearings in Roanoke Rapids in 1977, Louise Bailey, a spinner for thirty-six years, testified that her support of the union in the 1940s got her blackballed for four years. "I feel just sick to my gut," said Bailey, "because when I go in [to work] now, I don't know whether I am going to have a job or not. I know what it is to go hungry. I know what it is when you have a child."28

The women's stories made visceral and vivid the abstractions of labor law violations and corporate intransigence. The everyday details in the stories drew the public sympathetically into the workers' lives and complaints: how they had to eat their lunches in the bathrooms because the air in the mill was thick with "cotton dust"; how foremen told crude jokes and vulgar stories to harass and intimidate them; how Stevens monitored bathroom breaks, embarrassing female workers when their "womanly troubles" required more frequent visits; how the company passed them over for promotions and raises because of their sex or race or both. Lucy Taylor's husband quipped that he should sue Stevens for "alienation of affection" because the couple slept in separate beds when brown lung kept Lucy coughing all night. Then he added, "When she gets quiet, I start to worry that she's dead."29

Religious Support for Stevens Workers after the 1974 Election Victory

SEJ focused much of its energies on religious leaders and church groups and on publicizing their support. This was especially important in mill towns, where churches provided space for gatherings, were often the center of community life, and lent moral credibility to the activities on their grounds. Chip Hughes and Len Stanley, organizers for the Carolina Brown Lung Association (CBLA) in Erwin, North Carolina, noted that most workers they encountered had grafted their union and CBLA activism onto their church activities. Stanley noted that this was especially true of the women, who organized fish fries and potluck dinners that brought activists and workers together.30 SEJ's independence from the union allowed it to work through institutions that might have been prejudiced against or wary of organized labor. Spzak recalls that a Free Will Baptist church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, lent its bus to Stevens workers protesting in Columbia.31 Aware that organized religion in the South was often a strong force working against unionization, SEJ sought to organize through sympathetic churches to demonstrate "with maximum visibility the broad range of citizens and southern leaders that support the J. P. Stevens workers" and "minimize the potential for the Stevens campaign to be viewed as a contest between ‘big labor' and ‘big business.'"32

SEJ reported that in 1977 it held more than sixty workshops with ministers, local leaders, and teachers in almost thirty towns and cities and five universities in Tennessee, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.33 In November 1978, SEJ sponsored a conference, "The Church's Responsibility in the Changing Southern Economy; Case Study: The Church and J. P. Stevens," at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Seventy clergy and laity from Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, DC, and the Carolinas participated, representing seven different Christian denominations. In the summer of 1979, SEJ secured a $5,000 donation for the Stevens campaign from the World Council of Churches and organized an economic justice ministry with Sister Mary Priniski in Rock Hill, South Carolina.34

Southeners for Economic Justice (SEJ) pamphlet for the symposium for southern churches held in North Carolina, November 4-5, 1978. Courtesy of the Textile Union of America records, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.
Southeners for Economic Justice (SEJ) pamphlet for the symposium for southern churches held in North Carolina, November 4-5, 1978. Courtesy of the Textile Union of America records, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

In Roanoke Rapids in February and November of 1977, Reverend Jim Sessions, then an organizer with the Southern Appalachian Ministry and soon-to-be director of SEJ, and Collins Kilburn of the North Carolina Council of Churches met with ministers of Rosemary United Methodist, First United Methodist, and First Presbyterian churches. "All three are generally supportive of the workers' right to organize," Finger summarized in a report to ACTWU, however they "had some reservations about the boycott." First Union Methodist's pastor had many "high level management people in his church" who did not "believe in the tactic of a boycott," but admitted the NLRB process was an inefficient way to resolve the impasse over a contract. The minister of First Presbyterian, "a patriarch in town [with] some 35 years at the same church," agreed to publicly state that he supported the workers' right to form a union, but felt the boycott "might hurt the town."35 While many African American and northern Baptist and Methodist churches and Catholic leaders endorsed the boycott, the support of white southern Protestant churches was more difficult to secure. Getting white southern church leaders to agree to any public acknowledgement of workers' rights—or even just neutrality rather than anti-unionism—was a step forward. Union organizer Joe Uehlein recounts meetings in which he helped Spzak and Sessions talk with anti-union Baptist preachers in Mississippi, explaining that, "Our hope was—and it worked—was to neutralize them so they wouldn't preach against the union."36

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By 1979, an array of religious groups endorsed the boycott: the National Council of Churches, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church (with nearly one million members), the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Catholic Charities, the Commission on Religion in Appalachia, and the North Carolina Council of Churches.37 At a Roman Catholic Call to Action conference in Detroit, Michigan, in October 1976, the participating bishops issued a statement that advocated the repeal of right-to-work laws and urged the Catholic Church to "commit itself with monies and human resources to aid the struggle of non-union workers to organize in the South, especially the textile industry."38 "We believe that those multinational corporations [like] J. P. Stevens . . . must be challenged by Christians in the name of the Lord," extolled the National Coalition of American Nuns. Forty-three-year-old Lucille Sampson, an African American who worked for SEJ after Stevens fired her from its Greenville plant, explained, "They [anti-union co-workers] put you through mental torture. [But] God says, ‘Fear not for I am with thee,' so I'm not afraid."39 ACTWU secretary-treasurer Jacob Sheinkman and boycott director Del Mileski claimed that the union's boycott "stirred the nation's conscience" and received more support than the Farah or the United Farm Workers boycotts. SEJ's organizing carried ACTWU's message through networks the union could not or would not work through. Support from preachers, churchwomen, and priests infused the Stevens campaign with a moral urgency and righteous indignation.

Labor Feminism

Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_88. African American Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_91.
Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_88. African American Woman Working in a Textile Plant, Tennessee, circa late 1970s. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Memphis-Jackson Joint Board Records, L1992_11_91.

In the last twenty years, historians and feminist scholars have challenged stereotypes and popular images of second-wave feminism, revealing the feminisms of women of color, the gender-conscious activism of working-class women, and the concerns for economic justice that infused many feminist agendas in the 1970s.40 Dozens of women's rights groups endorsed the Stevens boycott, including: the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Church Women United, the National Assembly of Women Religious (NAWR), and the YWCA. Bella Abzug, NOW president Eleanor Smeal, Jane Fonda, and Gloria Steinem spoke in support of the union's campaign. In March 1978, representatives from more than thirty women's organizations met in Washington and established the National Women's Committee to Support J. P. Stevens Workers. The Committee organized letter-writing campaigns aimed at major department store chains, urging them not to sell Stevens products. "As the major purchasers of domestic products," one letter to Woolworth's stated, "we are using our consumer power to help bring justice to the workplace at J. P. Stevens."41 The New York chapter of NOW burned Stevens bedsheets in front of Madison Square Garden. The Durham chapter held NOW meetings in the state AFL-CIO's Labor Temple, where they connected their efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment with the Stevens campaign.42

Crystal Lee Sutton's speaking tour as "the real Norma Rae" provided the most public example of the connection between labor and feminism in the Stevens campaign and demonstrated how personal narratives engaged a broader public. Norma Rae was a rare Hollywood movie: a sympathetic portrayal of organized labor with a female protagonist. The Washington Post editorialized that "chances were better than good that [audiences] would emerge from the theater cheering for Norma Rae and the Union against the Big, Powerful, Impersonal Company."43 Sutton was disappointed that the film obscured the role of other workers—especially the black workers—who sacrificed their time and often their jobs for the campaign. She also disliked the movie's portrayal of her character as a promiscuous and directionless unwed mother whose romantic interest in the union organizer motivated her activism.44 Scenes that demonstrate Norma Rae's personal growth hinge on her sexuality: her prior promiscuity, the sexual tension between her and union organizer Reuben Warshowsky, and her revelations about her past to her children. In contrast, director Martin Ritt desexualized Warshowsky to protect "the whole moral fiber of the film" so that it would not seem to audiences that the organizer "was going from one town to another, screwing every dame he made a connection with."45 The audience, Ritt believed, needed to see Norma Rae's sexuality in order to understand her commitment to the union, but they could not see Warshowsky's sexuality if they were to believe in his integrity.

Whatever misgivings Sutton had about Norma Rae and the script's sexual double standard, she eagerly supported the Stevens campaign. The union ignored the movie's poetic license and embraced its potential to raise public awareness. ACTWU sent publicist Gail Jeffords on a nationwide speaking tour with Sutton. Jeffords wrote to Mileski that Sutton was "a proven media ‘draw,'" and that "ACTWU's position in the Stevens conflict can only be enhanced by taking advantage of her inherent usefulness in public relations." In the first six months of 1980, Sutton was featured in fifty-seven newspapers and made sixty-three appearances on local television and thirty-nine on radio, reaching a potential audience of seventy-five million people.46

A Woman's Place Is in Her Union, button by the Women's Department of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, date unknown. Photograph by the Minnesota Historical Society. Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society's Collections Up Close Blog. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.
A Woman's Place Is in Her Union, button by the Women's Department of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, date unknown. Photograph by the Minnesota Historical Society. Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society's Collections Up Close Blog. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Across the country, labor activists arranged screenings of Norma Rae. Reverend Finlator wrote to North Carolina AFL-CIO president Wilbur Hobby recommending that when introducing the film, Hobby should "mention that it was the Women who shut down the machines first—Black and White."47 In May 1979 in Laurens, South Carolina, the Oaks Cinema cancelled the screenings of Norma Rae after the manager received harassing phone calls and unknown individuals attempted to tear down the cinema's marquee. SEJ organized a petitioning campaign to the stars of the film from moviegoers in Laurens. One handwritten letter accompanying the petitions stated, "We beg you Mr. Liebman [Ron Leibman, who played the union organizer] please don't let us miss Norma Rae. We have heard so much about it and want to see it in our home town where it should be shown." The authors added, "P.S. There is a J. P. Stevens supervisor who works part time at the Oaks Theater."48

Norma Rae and Sutton's speaking tour garnered support for the Stevens campaign from feminists and women's groups. Sutton renewed her ties with Gloria Steinem, who wrote a scathing indictment of Stevens's labor law violations in the Village Voice. Sutton was in conversation with Barbara Kopple, director of the 1977 Oscar-winning documentary of a Kentucky coalminers' strike Harlan County USA, hoping to collaborate on a more factual account of Sutton's experiences with Lily Tomlin in the leading role. Sutton connected the movie's theme of a woman's liberation from her dependency on men with the fight for economic justice in the textile industry. She reminded audiences that in the mills, "women stay on those same jobs year after year with no promotions and few raises [and] it's women who have to smile and flirt to be sure they keep their jobs or don't get impossible jobs."49 She described letting housework take a backseat to the organizing drive in 1973 and the strain on her marriage. "When I got involved with the union there was just no way that I could do [all the housework]," Sutton explained, "And that started causing trouble [at home]."50

Sutton's stories and Norma Rae rang true to many women in the 1970s who discovered a new vocabulary through the women's movement for discussing the challenges they faced as daughters, wives, mothers, and workers.51 Pat Burgess, for instance, worked at the White Horse and Monaghan Textile plants in Greenville, South Carolina, in the 1970s. When she saw Norma Rae in the theater, she told the Greenville News and Piedmont, "I got so excited I had to holler two or three times." Burgess's coworkers shunned her for passing out union literature. "It's like you're working in a pit of snakes," she said. "Those ladies, I love them, but they're afraid, they define their opinions with what their husbands think."52 Charlotte Brody, an activist who lived in Roanoke Rapids from 1976–1979 and worked for the union and the Carolina Brown Lung Association, traveled with Stevens workers to hearings and rallies up and down the eastern seaboard. On the long bus rides, Brody recalls, white and African American working-class women talked about their lives and families. "They were basically saying," Brody recounts, "this is who I always had to be, this is how I always had to fight."53 Some African American women, such as Roanoke Rapids worker Lucy Sledge, had previous organizing experiences with the NAACP and the Halifax County Voters Movement. Many older white women drew on their experiences in church ladies auxiliaries. For most, the campaign was their first chance to be leaders and to speak out as women and workers. Norma Rae was the first time they saw their stories on the big screen.

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The extent to which southern working-class women embraced (or even tolerated) the principles and values of women's liberation should not be exaggerated. Brody recalls white working-class women punishing her through gossip and shunning for wearing tight pants and a two-piece bathing suit: "Your politics alone were enough to dismiss you and to suggest that you were less worthy. And then if anybody knew anything about your sexual politics . . . it meant that all forms of misogyny were deserved. It's a lot to stand up to. And people still did."54 Maurine Hedgepeth, the middle-aged weaver in Roanoke Rapids who had won reinstatement and back pay, met Jane Fonda in 1977. Fonda was one of several actresses under consideration for the role of Norma Rae; she came to Roanoke Rapids to research the campaign and stayed in a rental house owned by the Hedgepeth family. Hedgepeth told Fonda not to take the role because the movie would "throw us in a bad light" and the Norma Rae character was "a loose woman."55

For some workers in Roanoke Rapids, whether pro- or anti-union, the organizing drive and nationwide campaign tapped into social anxieties in the 1970s: desegregation, sexual liberation, Watergate, the oil embargo, soaring inflation, and the ignominy surrounding the Vietnam War. The activism of mill women threatened the gender and sexual normalcy that structured family life and social relationships and supported privileges enjoyed by men and women, including local status and respect. Women such as Hedgepeth had good reason to be invested in the cultural strictures of respectable womanhood. Gossip and rumor had political purchase in Piedmont mill towns. For women labor activists, a sterling reputation as a "good woman" offered protection against accusations of impropriety.56 Transgressions against gendered codes of ethics had consequences, from the loss of a job and friends to public shaming and abandonment. Millworkers relied heavily on "who you knew and how you were known" to get and keep a job at the mill. Reverend Joseph Battle, black pastor of the Quankey Baptist Church in Roanoke Rapids, recalled that in 1974 he went to Jessie Shaw, a white man whose family owned a store in town, to get a reference to work at Stevens. Shaw was "the person that folk listened to and if he gave you a reference, you were in."57 Good standing in the community was critical to white and African American working-class women. A damaged reputation, from fact or fiction, could mean unemployment and poverty. White and African American women took substantial risks when they stood for the union.

In the Textile Mills in Union Point, Greene County, Georgia, 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USF34-046430-D.
In the Textile Mills in Union Point, Greene County, Georgia, 1941. Photograph by Jack Delano. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USF34-046430-D.

The working-class women of the Stevens campaign joined a long history of "disorderly" working women who blended indictments of labor exploitation, gender inequality, and racial discrimination in their protests and resistance, from the mill girls who formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844, to the "washing Amazons" of the Atlanta laundresses' strikes in 1877 and 1881, to the female strikers who led the "flying squadrons" across the southern Piedmont in the 1934 General Textile Strike, and the women of the black freedom struggle who led "a rebellion of working-class women" in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.58

By the late 1970s, opportunities for living very different lives from their mothers arose for a younger generation of mill women. Cohabitation before marriage was more common, there were legal tools to combat discrimination and abuse, and for all but the most isolated of women, televised evidence of women's "liberation," from demonstrations in Durham, Atlanta, and Gainesville to sitcoms about single mothers like Alice.59 When Sutton graduated from high school in 1959, she could not imagine any options other than living with her parents or living with a husband. She had never worked closely with African American men or women. In 1974, Sutton befriended Jeannie Bailey and Cheryl Wasmund, two young white women at a Stevens Fabricating Plant who rented a trailer together in town. The three attended interracial union meetings in Sutton's home on Henry Street, next door to one of her foremen at Stevens.60 Lucy Sledge came from a black working-class family in Halifax County, North Carolina, where her uncle Otis worked for the Stevens mills. In 1970, Sledge represented more than a thousand black workers in Roanoke Rapids in a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the company.61 The TWUA cheerleading squad may not have been the first time mill women brought their daughters into public protests, but because of the women's movement, it was broadcast on public television. "Looking back," said a Roanoke Rapids union activist, the Stevens campaign "really was a working-class women's campaign."62

At an event in New York City in 1980 celebrating an exhibition of photographs of southern textile workers, Roanoke Rapids weaver Maurine Hedgepeth apologized to Fonda for dissuading her from taking the Norma Rae role. Fonda embraced Hedgepeth and replied, "I've got China Syndrome, Sally [Field] has Norma Rae, we've both got big hits. So it's okay."63

The Norma Raes Win a Contract and Create a Legacy

Women Support J. P. Stevens Workers. Courtesy of the National Alliance Against Racism & Political Repression Collection, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
Women Support J. P. Stevens Workers. Courtesy of the National Alliance Against Racism & Political Repression Collection, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

In 1980, ACTWU and J. P. Stevens agreed to a settlement. Stevens would not block negotiations over contracts in Roanoke Rapids plants and at West Boylston in Montgomery, Alabama, the two sites where the union had won bargaining rights. Stevens agreed to recognize the union at plants ACTWU was able to organize within the next year and a half. The company agreed to automatic check-off of dues, binding arbitration of grievances, and compensation for the wage increases the workers lost during the years spent trying to secure a contract. In the wake of the settlement, dozens of Roanoke Rapids workers joined the union for the first time. In return, ACTWU called off the boycott and agreed to not single out Stevens as a target in the corporate campaign.64

Success came at a price. In debt, the union laid off many organizers and staffers. Stevens closed the West Boylston plant in 1982; the union negotiated severance pay. ACTWU won more than a third of its elections in the early 1980s, but this was overshadowed by plant closures and layoffs.65 Facing import rates that doubled in the 1980s, Stevens, like many textile and apparel manufacturers in the United States, reduced production and shut down many operations. There were more than two million textile and apparel workers in the United States in 1973. By 2009, there were 400,000, nearly all in the Carolinas. Between 1980 and 1985, ACTWU lost more than 50,000 members.66 With the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, US-owned factories flourished in the maquiladora zone along the Mexican border, exacerbating the decline in textile and apparel manufacturing. The Piedmont lost hundreds of thousands of jobs between 1989 and 1999, and Asian imports continued to flood American markets, especially after China's admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001.67

Production in Roanoke Rapids declined, but the mills—and the union—survived the 1980s. WestPoint Pepperell, Inc. bought J. P. Stevens in a leveraged buyout in 1988 and broke the corporation into three separate businesses. The mills in Roanoke Rapids continued operating under the Bibb Company, and in 1993 Bibb and WestPoint Pepperell merged to create WestPoint Stevens.68 When the last mill in Roanoke Rapids closed in 2003, WestPoint Stevens employed about three hundred workers, and the union local was part of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). Two decades of assaults on organized labor through decertification campaigns, a deindustrialized manufacturing base, and hostility at the state and federal levels of government had considerably weakened the United States labor movement. Less than 10 percent of all textile and apparel workers in the United States were organized.69 Looking back over the previous thirty years, Bennett Taylor, president of Roanoke Rapids UNITE and one of the many African American workers who worked alongside Crystal Lee Sutton, considered the Stevens legacy with sadness and pride. "J. P. Stevens was, at that time, known as the number one lawbreaker, and for us to organize J. P. Stevens back then," he paused, and took a deep breath, "we made history. I think it's a good legacy. Maybe people don't talk about it enough."70

Mary Robinson was an in-plant organizer in Montgomery and president of the West Boylston local. "I was a nice, little old black girl from the country when I started," she says, "but Stevens made me a woman." When Stevens closed the West Boylston plant, Robinson worked at an axle-factory and then as a bus driver for juvenile disciplinary facilities. She organized the bus drivers and janitors and won representation by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. "I try to teach the support personnel what I learned in ACTWU," she said.71 Reflections by working-class women who were leaders in the Stevens campaign echo Taylor's pride and suggest that the Stevens legacy has multiple layers. Crystal Lee Sutton declared that getting involved with the union "gave me an opportunity to be the woman I always wanted to be."72 In the 1970s, after her marriage ended and she left Roanoke Rapids and J. P. Stevens, Sutton worked in a hotel and organized her co-workers at the Hilton Inn in Burlington, North Carolina. Her participation in the Stevens campaign gave her a sophisticated grasp of labor politics and her 1980 speaking tour as the "real Norma Rae" honed her skills. In a speech to flight attendants in Dallas, Texas, in 1987, she called for the elimination of the two-tier wage system, explaining how it disproportionately affected women and minorities and discouraged worker solidarity. At a high school in Graham, North Carolina, she warned students about letting racial differences impede class solidarity, telling them, "Green is the color we all need to be concerned about."73 She embraced her persona as the real Norma Rae and spoke across the United States, in Canada, and the Soviet Union. Since 1979, "Norma Rae" has become a title of sorts, bestowed on female activists to indicate a woman who is sometimes a feminist, usually a workers' rights advocate, and always a strong-willed leader. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich nicknamed Ai-jen Poo, the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the "Nannies' Norma Rae."74 In an interview in 1995, Harold McIver, director of the Industrial Union Department's southern campaigns, continually referred to Sutton as "Norma Rae," suggesting the deep intertwining of movie and memory.75

J. P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, January 20, 2011. Photographs by Donna Longenecker. Courtesy of Donna Longenecker.
J. P. Stevens Mill, Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, January 20, 2011. Photographs (above and below) by Donna Longenecker. Courtesy of Donna Longenecker.
J. P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, January 20, 2011. Photographs by Donna Longenecker. Courtesy of Donna Longenecker.

Workers such as Mary Robinson regret the loss of their roles as activists. "I sit sometimes and think about all the wonderful people I met during our struggle," Robinson wrote, "and I think I wish that part of it was not over. Life is so short and the good times always go by so fast. But, as long as I can stay close to the labor movement in any way, I will be happy."76 For Mildred McEwen, working nights at the West Boylston mill made her feel alone and "empty." Two things comforted her: watching the 700 Club and working for the union: "I think working with the union is a real Christian act because you're working for other people, not just yourself. I could do something else, I don't have to be there [but] I want to see it through."77 When the mill closed, McEwen left Montgomery to live with her daughter.

In Roanoke Rapids, the legacy of the Stevens campaign took hold in workers' engagement with local politics. Bennett Taylor, James Boone, and Maurine Hedgepeth became active in voter registration drives and local elections. Between 1974 and 1984, voter registration increased by 20 percent in Halifax County (where the mills were located) and nearby Northampton County. For minority residents, registration more than doubled.

Edith Jenkins, one of the first African American women hired as an operative in the late 1960s, supported the 1973–1974 union drive. In the summer of 1985, she organized other black mothers through the Parent Teacher Association to picket the Weldon school superintendent—a white man in a school district that was 90 percent black—after he fired three black administrators. (Weldon is a small town east of Roanoke Rapids in Halifax County.) In 1992, Jenkins won a seat on the school board. "You've got to fight just to survive around here," she said. "That's how we won the union, that's how I won my school board seat."78

In 1993, union workers allied with the NAACP to stop a toxic incinerator from being built near a low-income African American neighborhood in Northampton County.79 The Stevens campaign had a lasting impact on its participants, especially the women. Their experiences as organizers and leaders motivated them as activists in other political arenas long after the 1980 settlement. Their years as union activists gave them knowledge, skills, and a sense of confidence and purpose that bolstered them long after the Stevens campaign ended.

The union learned lessons from the Stevens campaign that supported later efforts. ACTWU became UNITE in the 1980s and continued to organize in the South. Plant closures made organizing more difficult, but did not completely halt the union's efforts. In one instance, UNITE organizers followed laid-off garment workers in the Miami, Florida, area into their new occupations in nursing homes and successfully organized about 250 workers.80 Willie Jones, currently the Southern Region Organizing Director for Workers United, worked in the Cone Brothers's White Oak Cotton Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the late 1970s. Jones recalled that when she began working at the mill, the union's leadership "didn't reflect the people that [they] were actually representing." She credits Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE and Workers United, for the change that occurred in the early 1980s. When he took over as director of the southern region, she noted, "women got a chance and minorities got a chance." Raynor started his career as an ACTWU organizer during the Stevens campaign.81

Southerners for Economic Justice continued organizing in the Carolinas after the 1980 settlement. Its "job rights workshops" in unorganized plants in the Carolinas developed into the Worker's Rights Project (WRP), which claimed several state legislative victories, most notably a 1986 South Carolina law making it harder for companies to dismiss injured workers. WRP expanded into the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFÉ) in 1987, which then broadened to include concerns over immigration, criminal justice, and domestic violence.82 With organized labor under attack from corporations, think tanks, well-funded political action committees, and some state governments, the numbers of functioning labor temples and union halls has fallen across the United States, making projects like WRP and CAFÉ all the more valuable for worker education and empowerment.

Postcard featuring Crystal Sutton. Courtesy of The Crystal Sutton Collection, The Learning Resources Center, Alamance Community College, Graham, North Carolina.
Postcard featuring Crystal Sutton, ca. 1979. Courtesy of The Crystal Sutton Collection, The Learning Resources Center, Alamance Community College, Graham, North Carolina.

While the Stevens campaign did not have the effect on other corporations that ACTWU hoped it would, it promoted women's leadership and a more community-based approach that many organizers adopted in the 1980s and 1990s.83 Joe Uehlein worked under Harold McIver, organizing furniture workers in 1979 in Tupelo, Mississippi, in an "experimental organizing project where [we] organized through the churches. We set up the women's organizing project. We were doing all this community stuff, which Harold had no patience for." Uehlein reflects on the changes in the union leadership's attitudes in the 1980s, a change he credits to the 1970s Stevens campaign. In Tupelo he hired two women organizers. "I remember it really clearly," he says, "because when [they] showed up, it was like the talk of the union movement." By the late 1980s, the Industrial Union Department had set up the Women's Organizing Project and female staffers and organizers were more common. "A lot of things led to that, but clearly the J. P. Stevens thing, with Norma Rae the movie coming out, Crystal Lee being the leader, that had a lot to do with it."84 The architects of the Stevens campaign and the working-class women who put themselves front and center to win a contract blazed a trail for future organizers and women workers that has outlasted the mills they organized.

About the Author

Joey Fink is a PhD candidate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her dissertation, "The Many Norma Raes," examines the roles of working-class women in the campaign to unionize the J. P. Stevens textile plants in the Piedmont South in the 1970s. While tracing the connections between the women's movement, civil rights groups, and liberal religious organizations in the labor struggle, Fink explores the local contexts and national platforms in which white and African American textile women became leaders and spokeswomen for a workers' rights movement.

  • 1. The union in 1974 was the Textile Workers Union of America, which merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in 1976 to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU).
  • 2. Joan Shigekawa, Woman Alive! (June 19, 1974; Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas: KERA-TV), Documentary. Accessed in Crystal Lee Sutton's personal papers 986.87, an unprocessed collection housed at Alamance Community College, Graham, North Carolina. For more information about the history and content of the Woman Alive! series, see Woman Alive! produced by KERA-TV Dallas/Fort Worth and WNET/13 New York; made possible by a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting; exective producer, Joan Shigekawa: A Finding Aid, MC 421; Vt-30, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliff College.
  • 3. Timothy J. Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 164–165; Timothy J. Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!: The J. P. Stevens Campaign and the Struggle to Organize the South, 1963–80 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 10–11, 22–24; Linda Frankel, "Southern Textile Women: Generations of Survival and Struggle," in My Troubles Are Going to Have Trouble with Me: Everyday Trials and Triumphs of Women Workers, eds. Karen Brodkin Sacks and Dorothy Remy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), 41–42; Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 79.
  • 4. Minchin, Don't Sleep With Stevens!, 23–24; MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough, 78–79, 84.
  • 5. Minchin, Don't Sleep With Stevens!, 27; Timothy J. Minchin, "‘Don't Sleep with Stevens!': The J. P. Stevens Boycott and Social Activism in the 1970s," Journal of American Studies 39, no. 3 (2005): 512.
  • 6. Norma Rae, directed by Martin Ritt (1979; Hollywood: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001), DVD; Henry Leifermann, "The Unions Are Coming: Trouble in the South's First Industry," New York Times Magazine, August 5, 1973, sec. 6, 10–11, 25–26. Leifermann later published a book based on his interviews with Sutton entitled Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1975).
  • 7. Sutton, quoted in Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1986), 212.
  • 8. Shikegawa, Woman Alive!, Documentary.
  • 9. Letters to Harold McIver from Roanoke Rapids workers, October 29 and 30, 1974, Box 5, Folder "JPS-Roanoke rapids, N.C., General Information and Correspondence," Textile Workers Union of America records, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin, Collection 396. (Hereafter cited as TWUA records, WHS, 396.)
  • 10. Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 166–168,177; John Gaventa and Barbara Ellen Smith, "The Deindustrialization of the Textile South: A Case Study," in Hanging by a Thread: Social Change in Southern Textiles, eds. Jeffrey Leiter, Michael D. Schulman, and Phillip J. Wood (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1991), 139–162. For more on the decline of textile manufacturing in the United States and the effects of globalization on textile and apparel industries, see Grace I. Kunz and Myrna B. Garner, Going Global: The Textile and Apparel Industry (New York: Fairchild, 2007); Mary E. Frederickson, Looking South: Race, Gender, and the Transformation of Labor from Reconstruction to Globalization (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011); and Timothy J. Minchin, "Shutdowns in the Sun Belt: The Decline of the Textile and Apparel Industry and Deindustrialization in the South," in Life and Labor in the New New South, ed. Robert H. Zieger (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012).
  • 11. Medlin quoted in Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 170. On verdicts in class-action discrimination lawsuits, see MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough, 86–87.
  • 12. Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!; James A. Hodges, "The Real Norma Rae," in Southern Labor in Transition, 1940–1995, ed. Robert H. Zieger (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 251–272. See also James A. Hodges, "J. P. Stevens and the Union: Struggle for the South," in Race, Class, and Community in Southern Labor History, eds. Gary M. Fink and Merl E. Reed (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 53–64; Jefferson Cowie, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: New Press, 2010).
  • 13. My use of gender and sexuality to analyze the roles of women in labor organizing and economic justice campaigns is greatly influenced by the following scholarship: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South," The Journal of American History 73, no. 2 (1986): 354–382; Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "Public Eyes, Private Women: Images of Class and Sex in the Urban South, Atlanta, Georgia, 1913–1915," in Work Engendered: Toward A New History of American Labor, ed. Ava Baron (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 216–242; Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987); Mary E. Frederickson, "Heroines and Girl Strikers: Gender Issues and Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century American South," in Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South, ed. Robert H. Zieger (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press 1991), 84–112; Mary E. Frederickson, "I Know Which Side I'm On: Southern Women in the Labor Movement in the Twentieth Century," in Women, Work, and Protest, ed. Ruth Milkman (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 156–180; Nancy MacLean, "Redesigning Dixie with Affirmative Action: Race, Gender, and the Desegregation of the Southern Textile Mill World," in Gender and the Southern Body Politic, ed., Nancy Bercaw (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 161–191; Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Nancy Gabin, Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1933–1975 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Alice Kessler-Harris, Gendering Labor History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990), see especially Chapter 3, "Work, Family, and Black Women's Oppression"; Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).
  • 14. Statement of W. W. Finlator, August 26, 1977, Box 2363, Folder 1, North Carolina State AFL-CIO records, 1945–1981, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta, Georgia, Collection L1981-20. (Hereafter cited as "NC State AFL-CIO records, GSU Library.") Michael Spzak, recorded interview with the author, March 23, 2011, in author's possession. (Hereafter, cited as "Spzak interview.")
  • 15. Mimi Conway, Rise Gonna Rise: A Portrait of Southern Textile Workers (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979), 11. The quotation from the NLRB judge also appears in Hodges, "J. P. Stevens and the Union," 59.
  • 16. For information on the Farah Strike, see Emily Honig, "Women at Farah Revisited: Political Mobilization and Its Aftermath among Chicana Workers in El Paso, Texas, 1972–1992," Feminist Studies 22, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 425–452.
  • 17. Minchin, Don't Sleep With Stevens!, 111–112, 122–124. Hodges, "J. P. Stevens and the Union," 59–61.
  • 18. Conway, Rise Gonna Rise, 130–131, 148, 154–155.
  • 19. "ACTWU Press Release," December 1978, Box 25, Folder "IUD information," TWUA records, WHS, 396; Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 94; "Hearings Before the Committee on Education and Labor (Sub-committee on Labor-Management Relations), H.R. 8410, Labor Reform Act of 1977," August 9, 1977, Box 16, Folder "Misc. Legal Cases," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 20. "Report from Jim Sessions, SEJ Executive Director," August 8, 1978, Box 12, Folder "Southerners for Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 21. "Letter to Harold McIver from Bill Finger, with ad script enclosed," December 22, 1977, Box 12, Folder "Southerners For Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 22. "Final report and recommendations on the J. P. Stevens situation, United Presbyterian General Assembly," May 29, 1979, Box 1799, Folder 144, AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department Southeastern Office Records,1974–1984, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta, Georgia, Collection L1985-16. (Hereafter cited as "AFL-CIO Civil Rights Dept. SE Office records, GSU Library.")
  • 23. Spzak interview.
  • 24. "Southerners for Economic Justice, Working Paper on J. P. Stevens Campaign," December 1976, Box 1799, Folder 130, AFL-CIO Civil Rights Dept. SE Office records, GSU Library.
  • 25. Conway, Rise Gonna Rise, 131, 136.
  • 26. "J. P. Stevens Flier," undated, Box 2, Folder ‘Behavior Control," National Alliance Against Racism & Political Repression Collection, The Schomburg Library, New York City, New York. (Hereafter cited as "NAARPR, Schomburg.")
  • 27. "Testimony of Addie Jackson," Mountain Life and Work: The Magazine of the Appalachian South, Volume 53, No. 3 (April 1977), accessed in the Sutton collection, ACC, 986.87.
  • 28. Testimony of Louise Bailey at the congressional field hearings on national labor law reform, the Roanoke Rapids Civic Center, Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, August 9, 1977, quoted in Conway, Rise, Gonna Rise, 142.
  • 29. The examples of harassment and intimidation that the women described can be found in: Fred Powledge, "The South Will Fall Again," Penthouse, May 1979, 72–79, and Wayne King, "Southern Leaders Form Group to Support Stevens Textile Workers," New York Times, December 12, 1976. Both articles were accessed at Sutton, ACC, 986.87. For personal testimony on women experiencing racial and sexual discrimination in hiring and job placement in the mills, see Conway, Rise Gonna Rise, 109–113. Lucy Taylor's husband quoted in Conway, Rise, Gonna Rise, 86.
  • 30. Len Stanley from field notes of interview with Betty Bailey, Len Stanley and Thad Moore by Alicia J. Rouverol January 6, 1995, (G-0222), in the Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chip Hughes recalled the importance of church organizing experience for the elderly women in Erwin. Joseph "Chip" Hughes, recorded interview with the author, December 20, 2011, in author's possession. (Hereafter cited as "Hughes interview.")
  • 31. Spzak interview.
  • 32. "Southerners for Economic Justice, Working Paper on J. P. Stevens Campaign," December 1976, Box 1799, Folder 130, AFL-CIO Civil Rights Dept. SE Office records, Georgia State University Library.
  • 33. "Proposal for SEJ's Third Year," August 8, 1978, Box 12, Folder "Southerners for Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 34. "Conference pamphlet, ‘The Church's Responsibility in the Changing Southern Economy; Case Study: The Church and J. P. Stevens,'" November 4 and 5, 1978. "Report from Bill Finger, SEJ Staffer, to Harold McIver," January 19, 1978. "Memo to SEJ Board of Directors, two-month report July 15-Sept. 15, 1979 from Jim Sessions, Director," September 1979. All items from Box 12, Folder "Southerners for Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 35. "Staff Report by Jim Sessions, Southern Appalachian Ministry," November 3, 1977, and "Report to Concerned Parties by Bill Finger," Box 12, Folder "Southerners for Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 36. Joseph Uehlein, recorded interview with the author, March 24, 2012, in author's possession. (Hereafter cited as "Uehlein interview.")
  • 37. "ACTWU Press Release," December 1978, Box 25, Folder "IUD information," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 38. "Catholic Leaders Urge Church to Aid the Organizing Struggle of Textile Workers in the South," Labor Unity 62, no. 13 (December 1976): 11, Sutton, ACC, 986.87.
  • 39. Quotation from the National Coalition of American Nuns from Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 96. Quotation from Lucille Sampson in "Church Women Investigate J. P. Stevens & Company," undated clipping from the newsletter of Church Women United, The Church Woman, page 24, Box 12, Folder "Southerners for Economic Justice," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 40. See for instance: Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America's Second Wave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Anne M. Valk, Radical Sisters: Second-wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); Dennis Deslippe, Rights, Not Roses: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945–1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Donald Mathews and Jane Sherron De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA: A State and the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Stephanie Gilmore, ed., Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the United States, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); Stephanie Gilmore, Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America (New York: Routledge, 2012); Lisa Levenstein, "‘Don't Agonize, Organize!': The Displaced Homemakers Campaign and the Contested Goals of Postwar Feminism," Journal of American History 100, no. 4 (March 2014): 1114–1138; Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Anna Enke, Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Melissa Estes Blair, Revolutionizing Expectations: Women's Organizations, Feminism, and the Transformation of Political Culture, 1965–1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014).
  • 41. "ACTWU Press Release," December 1978, TWUA records, WHS, Box 25, Folder "IUD information," 396; Social Justice 17 (May 1978), accessed in Sutton collection ACC, 986.87; quotation in Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 98.
  • 42. "Letters from Harriet Hopkins (coordinator of the NOW Durham chapter) to NC AFL-CIO president Wilbur Hobby," September 10 and 22, 1978, Box 2376, Folder 15; "News from the AFL-CIO: ERA," July 7, 1976, Box 2349, Folder 2, both items in NC State AFL-CIO 1950-81, GSU; "Let's Stand Together: The Story of Ella Mae Wiggins," September 14, 1979, Metrolina Chapter of NOW, Charlotte, NC, in Sutton, ACC, 986.87. See also Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 96–98.
  • 43. "Norma Rae 1, J. P. Stevens 0," Washington Post, October 24, 1980, accessed in Sutton collection, ACC, 986.87.
  • 44. Sutton expressed her displeasure with the movie in several interviews: Mary Bishop, "The Diary of a Union Organizer," Charlotte Observer, May 7, 1978, Section D, 1, 3; Megan Rosenfeld, "Through the Mill with Crystal Lee and ‘Norma Rae,'" Washington Post, June 11, 1980; C. S. Crawford, "Life on Film? One-time Organizer, Crystal Lee Says Movie Is Based On Her Life," Greensboro Daily Times, April 18, 1979; William C. Lhotka, "Real-life Norma Rae Recalls Stevens Fight During St. Louis Visit," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 1980, 12A; all accessed at Sutton, ACC, 986.87.
  • 45. Ritt quoted in Lyn Goldfarb and Anatoli Ilyashov, "Working Class Hero: An Interview with Martin Ritt," in Martin Ritt: Interviews, ed. Gabriel Miller (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 87.
  • 46. "Gail Jeffords to Del Mileski," October 16, 1979, and "Gail Jeffords to Murray Finley et al, Final Media Report on Media Coverage for Crystal Lee Sutton," June 30, 1980, both in Box 23, Folder 25, ACTWU Papers, Organizing Department Records, the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 5619/007. (Hereafter cited as "ACTWU Paper, Kheel Center, Cornell University.) On Sutton's "Norma Rae" tour, see also Hodges, "The Real Norma Rae," 267.
  • 47. "‘Rev. – W. W. Finlator – Best Regards,' handwritten letter from Finlator to Wilbur Hobby," undated, Box 2363, Folder 1, North Carolina State AFL-CIO records, 1945–1981, GSU Library, L1981-20.
  • 48. "Notes on Norma Rae viewings and controversy at the Oaks Cinema," dated April 30–May 18, 1979, TWUA records, WHS, Box 25, Folder "Norma Rae (cancellation)," 396.
  • 49. For more quotations from Sutton that connected economic justice and women's liberation, see Elizabeth Stone, "Norma Rae: The Story They Could Have Told," Ms. Magazine, May 1979, 30–32; Mary Bishop, "The Diary of a Union Organizer," Charlotte Observer, May 7, 1978, Section D, 1, 3; Anicia Lane, "Fact and Fiction: Crystal Lee Sutton Insists She Is Not ‘Norma Rae,'" Signal, April 8, 1980, 10–12. On the number of women in the US labor force in the 1970s, see: "U.S. Department of Labor Employment Standards Administration Women's Bureau ‘Highlights of Women's Employment and Education,'" Box 2443, Folder 18, NC AFL-CIO State Records, GSU. Sutton quoted in "Transcript, International Women's Day Speech," March 8, 1980, Sutton, ACC, 986.87. For scholarly analyses of the themes of unionism and feminism in the movie, see Edward Benson and Sharon Hartman Strom, "Crystal Lee, Norma Rae, and All Their Sisters: Working Women on Film," Film Library Quarterly 12, no. 2/3 (1979): 18–23, and Gay P. Zieger and Robert H. Zieger, "Unions on the Silver Screen: A Review-Essay of F.I.S.T., Blue Collar, and Norma Rae," Labor History 23, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 67–78.
  • 50. Sutton quoted in Megan Rosenfeld "Through the Mill With Crystal Lee and ‘Norma Rae,'" Washington Post, June 11, 1980.
  • 51. For an example of southern feminist literature on changing men's attitudes and reforming the institutions they dominated, see Gainesville Women's Liberation Movement, "What Men Can Do for Women's Liberation" in Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement, eds., Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 76–77. For an example of an evangelical feminist leader addressing Christian men's unease with women's liberation, see Letha Scanzoni, "How to Live with a Liberated Wife," Christianity Today, June 4, 1976, 6–9.
  • 52. Sharon Todd, "Two Reviews of Norma Rae," March 25, 1979, Greenville News and Piedmont, Box 26, Folder "Norma Rae Articles," TWUA records, WHS, 396.
  • 53. Charlotte Brody, recorded interview with the author, September 3, 2011, in author's possession. (Hereafter cited as "Brody interview.")
  • 54. Ibid.
  • 55. Moe Foner, interviewed by Robert Master, Columbia University Oral History Research Office, Notable New Yorkers collection, Session 15, page 359,, January 23, 1986. Hereafter cited as "Foner interview."
  • 56. On the sense of social disorder in the 1970s, see Cowie, Stayin' Alive. For an excellent overview of African American experiences integrating the mills in the 1960s and 70s, see Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker. Nancy MacLean argues that "southern white mill workers did not, by and large, militantly act out anxieties about life troubles on black newcomers" in textile mills, but points out that white women "redrew racial boundaries around areas they had more power to control: courtship, family, and church life." "Redesigning Dixie," 179, 184. See also interviews with mill women in Roxanne Newton, Women Workers on Strike: Narratives of Southern Women Unionists (New York: Routledge, 2007); Victoria Morris Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1986); and Conway, Rise Gonna Rise, for evidence in the oral histories of white and African American workers that anxieties over racial integration in the mills tended to play out through social exclusivity rather than physical violence.
  • 57. Reverend Joseph Battle, recorded interview with Rob Shapard and the author, December 4, 2013, in author's possession. (Hereafter cited as "Battle interview.")
  • 58. On the Lowell mill girls, see Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). On the "washing Amazons," see Tera Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1997). On the disorderly women of the 1920s strikes and 1934 General Textile Strike in the southern Piedmont, see Hall et al, Like A Family, and Hall, "Disorderly Women." The "rebellion of working-class women" quotation comes from Ruby Nell Sales, interview by Joseph Mosnier, Library of Congress, Civil Rights History Project,, April 25, 2011. Partial transcript in author's possession.
  • 59. See, for instance: Cowie, Stayin' Alive; Enke, Finding the Movement; and Beth Bailey, "‘She Can Bring Home the Bacon': Negotiating Gender in Seventies America," in America in the Seventies, eds. Bailey and David Farber (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004). Oral history interviews in the Southern Oral History Program's "The Women's Movement in the South" series U-16, and "The Women's Movement and North Carolina Churches," series R-25 offer many firsthand accounts of how the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s changed women's communities and lives in North Carolina and east Tennessee.
  • 60. Leifermann, Crystal Lee, 132.
  • 61. Conway, Rise Gonna Rise, 96–101, 109–113.
  • 62. Anonymous union activist, in discussion with the author, October 26, 2013.
  • 63. Foner interview.
  • 64. Minchin, Don't Sleep with Stevens!, 166–171.
  • 65. Ibid., 175–176; Mary Robinson, Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist, An Oral History, Compiled and Edited by Fran Leeper Buss (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 180.
  • 66. Minchin, "Shutdowns in the Sun Belt," 260, 264.
  • 67. Minchin, "Shutdowns in the Sun Belt," 267. See also Frederickson, Looking South, 241–246.
  • 68. Minchin, "Shutdowns in the Sun Belt," 265; Battle's interview. More information on the history of the J. P. Stevens textile corporation can be found at "Global Manufacturing," WestPoint Home, accessed August 9, 2017,
  • 69. Frederickson, Looking South, 235.
  • 70. Taylor interviewed in "North Carolina Now," UNC-TV, June 25, 2003, accessed at Sutton, ACC, 986.87.
  • 71. Robinson, Moisture of the Earth, 182, 184, 190.
  • 72. Woman Alive!, Documentary.
  • 73. "Crystal Lee Sutton's Union Experience," speech given at Graham High School, October 11, 2000; "Crystal Lee Sutton, the ‘real Norma Rae,'" speech given at the Professional Flight Attendants Union in Dallas, Texas, April 22, 1987. Both transcripts accessed at Sutton collection, ACC, 986.87.
  • 74. Barbara Ehrenreich, "The Nannies' Norma Rae," April 26, 2011, New York Times, accessed May 6, 2014,
  • 75. Harold McIver, interview by Chris Lutz, Meansville, Georgia, Southern Labor Archives, Special Collections and Archives Department, GSU Library, September 26, 1995.
  • 76. Robinson, quoted in Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, ed. Fran Leeper Buss (University of Michigan Press, 1985), 244.
  • 77. Whitley quoted in Buss, Dignity, 241–242, and in Labor Unity, November 1980, 7, Sutton, 986.87, ACC.
  • 78. William Adler, "A New Day in Dixie," Southern Exposure 22, no. 1 (1994): 18.
  • 79. Ibid., 24–25.
  • 80. Bruce Nissen, "A Different Kind of Union: SEIU Healthcare Florida from the Mid-1990s through 2009," in Zieger, Life and Labor in the New New South, 291.
  • 81. Willie Jones, recorded interview with the author, January 15, 2010, in author's possession.
  • 82. Janice Fine, "Workers Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream," February 2006, "Publications," Economic Policy Institute, accessed May 6, 2014,
  • 83. Groups like Interfaith Workers organize within and without the formal institutions of the labor movement on issues of wage theft, the right to collective bargaining, immigration and labor laws, and corporate responsibility for workers' safety and public health. See "History," Interfaith Worker Justice, accessed May 6, 2014, For a recent essay on the alliances between labor and women's groups in North Carolina, see Jennifer Ferris, "Are you One of the 90,000 NC Women Living on the Edge?," March 19, 2014, Women AdvaNCe, accessed June 3, 2014, For a recent essay on conservative and corporate alliances against labor and religious organizers responses in North Carolina's "Moral Mondays," see Dan T. Carter, "North Carolina: A State of Shock," September 24, 2013, Southern Spaces, accessed June 3, 2014,
  • 84. Uehlein interview.
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