This summer’s Filson Friday talks by staff members of The Filson included a two part series entitled ‘Her’Story: Encountering Women in The Filson’s Special Collections. The blog will occasionally be featuring some of the women and women’s organizations discussed during these sessions.
By Sarah-Jane Poindexter
Restricted by legal and cultural practices, religious and education traditions, women did not enter or participate in the paid workforce primarily until the industrial era. From the first generation of women entering the workforce to contemporary female professionals, women’s experiences are diverse and complex.
The Filson has many collections and writings by women engaged in professional activity, one of which is labor journalist Ethel du Pont. Given the era within which she lived and the great wealth of her prominent industrialist family, Ethel du Pont certainly did not need to work. While she could have engaged in charity work, as so many other women in her position did, her vigorous intellect, restless curiosity, and passion for justice compelled her into the workforce. While growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, du Pont lost her mother and was raised by her aunt Zara du Pont, a noted suffragist and civil liberties activist. Along with du Pont’s father, Zara likely had great influence on her interest in liberal politics. The earliest letter among du Pont’s papers at the Filson is to her beloved aunt in 1918. Fresh out of college, the twenty-two year old wrote about her desire to do constructive, beneficial work, and not to be like, “so many charity workers who have gone straight to charity from school...It seems that you ought to know how to do something yourself before you go to showing others how.” These proved to be prophetic words for du Pont’s future. Shortly thereafter Ethel du Pont moved to Kentucky having secured a position teaching economics at the University of Louisville. In this position she began what may be seen as her life’s work: labor activism, specifically trying to improve working conditions for teachers.
She traveled continuously throughout the state, especially in Eastern KY, organizing teachers in labor unions. She helped coordinate strikes, worked as a field organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, served as president for the organization’s Kentucky affiliate and edited their publication The Kentucky Teacher.
Du Pont was a tireless voice for labor concerns. From 1938 to 1951, she wrote a bi-weekly column for the Louisville Times titled “With Labor’s Ranks.” As a journalist she covered Kentucky’s labor news and issues as well as national labor issues which affected the state. The column was popular with skilled labor unions but her tenacious pro-labor writing often made her a target with executives and to some degree isolated her from the friendship of her socio-economic peers. For example, in 1945, she attended a General Motors stockholders’ meeting, where as a stockholder herself, she challenged the company to open its records for the United Auto Workers.
Du Pont family biographer, Joseph Frazier Wall wrote that her agitating activities came at a great personal cost. Because of Ethel du Pont's position in a prestigious and wealthy family, she was expected to act like a socialite. Many of her friends and peers abandoned her on account of her activism and, at times, abrasive efforts to support civil, labor, and women’s rights. What’s more, because of her family connections, labor leaders and rank-and-file members were often suspicious of her motives.
Ethel du Pont’s manuscript collection documents the breadth and depth of her professional life and activism. Her papers provide valuable research in the study of twentieth-century women’s history, labor, and civil liberties as well as a glimpse into the life of a professor, activist, journalist, and overall indomitable professional woman.
[See the Ethel Bidermann du Pont papers, Mss. A/D938 in The Filson’s Special Collections Department and the Encyclopedia of Louisville.]