by Olivia Sandbothe | March 28, 2016
Wyatt, who died in 2012, first took a job in a meatpacking plant on the South Side of Chicago in 1941, as World War II was pushing more women into industrial and manufacturing jobs. She was only 17, but she quickly realized that something needed to be done about the racism and sexism in the industry. After she learned that men working in the plant made 14 cents more per hour than women doing the same job, she began to question the practices in her workplace and became active in her union.
“I realized it was very profitable to discriminate against women and against people of color,” she said of her early days in the union. “I began to understand that change could come but you could not do it alone. You had to unite with others.”
In 1953 she was elected president of Packinghouse Workers Local 56, making her the first black woman in the nation to lead a local union. She pushed for equal pay and freedom from discrimination in union contracts years before the Equal Pay Act. She would later become an international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which affiliated the Packinghouse Workers — again as the first black woman in the nation to hold such a position.
In 1955 she was ordained as a minister, and became active in the civil rights movement. As a labor adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King and other giants of the era. She was also tapped by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to serve on a national committee addressing the rights of working women.
Rev. Wyatt was a founding member of both the National Organization of Women and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Her leadership didn’t go unnoticed. In 1975, Time Magazine chose 12 women as their “People of the Year” in honor of the International Year of the Woman. Rev. Wyatt was among them.
As we continue to fight for racial and gender equality in the workforce, we can learn from Rev. Wyatt’s example. “We had the responsibility of trying to help make the world better for [our children], and it was for them that we were involved in the struggle,” she said. “If the world was going to be better, we had to make it so. “
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