5. A Lost Finger Led to Fighting for Labor Rights: Alzina Parsons Stevens
By the time that Alzina Parsons was 13, she had lost her right index finger in an accident at the cotton factory in which she worked. Born in 1849 in Maine, Alzina married young. By the time that she had arrived in Chicago in 1867, she was divorced but kept her husband’s surname of Stevens. To support herself, as she did as a child, she entered into the printing trade as an editor, typesetter, proof-reader, correspondent, and compositor. When fire broke out in Chicago in October 1871, Stevens likely reported on the disaster.
The Knights of Labor formed in 1869 and became one of the most important national trade unions. Low-skilled laborers, railroad workers, steel workers, and immigrants were all welcome to join as long as they were not lawyers, bankers, liquor dealers, land speculators, or gamblers. Working in the printing trade and a victim of a work injury, Alzina Stevens joined the Knights of Labor and organized the Working Woman’s Union, NO. 1 of Chicago in 1877. Alzina moved from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio where she continued organizing women laborers and becoming a representative of the Knights of Labor attending its general assemblies at annual conferences in Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, and Toledo.
In 1892, Alzina returned to Chicago and became a resident at Hull-House. Most of the people involved in the settlement house movement at the time were from wealthy backgrounds. Alzina was working class and provided a different perspective to her sometimes naive counterparts at Hull-House. Demanding change in child labor laws she began working with Florence Kelley who had recently been appointed as a factory inspector in Illinois and advocating for a law that would limit the hours that children could work to a maximum of eight. The law was repealed in 1895, but would be repurposed in the early decades of the 20th century.
Alzina believed that children forced to work in factories because their parents earned such meager pay was slavery. She was critical of the role that the state played in the factory system that forced children to work instead of having a developmentally appropriate childhood where they could learn skills that would make them productive adults instead of factory drones. Early life, she professed, required the “best growth of body, mind and ability,” which could not be obtained working in a dimly lit factory.