Alzina Parsons Stevens (May 27, 1849 – June 3, 1900) was born on May 27, 1849, in the small town of Parsonfield, Maine. An active trade unionist, she was also instrumental in the establishment of the United States’ first juvenile court and served as its first probation officer. She was also a prominent resident of Chicago’s Hull House, where she worked closely with social reformer Florence Kelley. Her efforts were successful in effecting reform in child labor and workplace conditions, and laid the foundation for even greater legislative changes to protect children and workers. A tireless worker for the sake of improving the lives of others, she remains a strong example of how an individual can overcome their own adversity and use their experience to protect and help others, thus advancing the rights and improving the lives of all people.
Alzina Parsons Stevens, daughter of carpenter and farmer Enoch Parsons and Louisa Page, was born on May 27, 1848, into a poor, working-class family in Parsonsfield, Maine. After relocating to the mill town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, where Alzina attended high school, she was later sent to work at the age of thirteen after her father’s sudden death in 1864. First entering the textile trade, Stevens lost her right index finger in an industrial accident. In later years, she would see her missing finger as a constant reminder of the need to improve working conditions within industrial factories and to regulate child labor in the workplace.
Relocating to Chicago in 1871, Stevens entered the printer’s trade, working as a proofreader, typesetter, and compositor. In 1872 she joined the Typographical Union No. 16 and later served as president of the Working Women’s Union No. 1 upon its founding in 1878. While in Chicago, Stevens became a resident of Jane Addams’ Hull House, where she joined social reformers Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and Sophonisba Breckinridge. Stevens, one of the few women involved at Hull House who had first-hand experience of working-class life, became an active trade unionist and developed an acute interest in social reform. Her working-class background and workforce experience proved to further fuel her desire for substantial improvements in urban working conditions and allowed her to become one of the most influential leaders of the nineteenth century labor movement.
While in Chicago she would marry a Mr. Stevens, though the marriage was short-lived. Despite the marriage’s end, she kept his name throughout her professional career.
Throughout her time with the Working Women’s Union, Stevens promoted the fundamental freedom of women to work and compete with men on a level playing field within the workplace. Arguing against the role of the dependent female, Stevens advocated for independent, self-supporting women to embrace their right for work.
In 1882, Stevens left Chicago for Toledo, Ohio to work with the Knights of Labor, an American labor organization aimed at unionizing industrial workers nationwide. Becoming active in the labor press, in 1887 Stevens published A Military History of Ohio and made later contributions to both the Democratic Daily and the Toledo Bee. By 1890 Stevens had organized within the Knights of Labor a women’s sect known as the Joan of Arc assembly where she became its first master workman. Steven’s growing leadership among wage-earning women allowed her to play a significant role in the labor movement, making her a prominent leader among both male and female workers.
In 1892, Stevens returned to Chicago where she accepted an offer to co-edit the Vanguard, a populist newspaper circulated weekly throughout Chicago. In the same year, she was named assistant factory inspector to Florence Kelley, the state inspector of workshops and factories for Illinois. Working closely with Kelley, also a Hull House resident, Stevens wrote numerous papers on the working conditions of industrial factories state wide.
In 1895, she and Kelley co-authored Wage Earning Children, a detailed study of child labor in which they analyzed labor statistics, Illinois legislation, health afflictions, and the physical mutilations of children within the workplace. Kelley and Stevens argued against the reckless employment of children in injurious occupations and the presence of children in the workforce altogether. Together, the two women helped Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld to pass and enforce legislation that controlled child labor throughout Illinois. Their work would later lay the foundation for the passage of further improved child labor laws in 1916 and educational requirements for children throughout the state.
In 1899, Stevens published a review of author Hariett Robinson's Loom and Spindle in which she criticized the author for her "total misconception of the iron economic laws which regulate today's factory employment." In the same year, Stevens and her Hull House colleagues lobbied for the passage of a state juvenile court law that proved to ultimately establish the first juvenile court within the United States. Stevens was appointed the first probation officer of the court, and served on its committee, the Cook County Juvenile Court Committee.
In June of 1900, Stevens died of diabetes at the age of fifty-one, while still a resident at Chicago’s Hull House.
Considered one of the earliest female sociologists, Alzina Stevens worked as a progressive labor leader, journalist, social reformer and settlement worker. Stevens’ frank nature and tireless pursuit of the reform of widespread labor injustices, the exploitation of wage-earning women, and protection of children in the workplace earned her a respected role within the male-dominated labor movement. During her work with the Knights of Labor, Stevens held the title of chief officer for more than twenty local Knights’ assemblies at one time. She later represented the organization at the 1892 national convention of the Populist Party in Omaha, Nebraska.
Throughout her lifetime, Stevens also served as a member of the women’s committee at the World’s Fair labor congress, head of the Dorcas Federal Labor Union, a member of the Council of Women’s Trade Unions of Chicago, and president of the Hull House Women’s Club.
Stevens' establishment of the first female labor union, improved factory and workplace regulations, and substantial protection of children in the workforce defines her as one of the most progressive labor organizers in American history.
- Stevens, Alzina. 1886. Military History of Ohio. Illustrated in Editions by Counties. Soldiers Edition. Toledo: H.H. Hardesty Publisher.
- Stevens, Alzina and Florence Kelley. 1895. Wage Earning Children. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.
- Stevens, Alzina. 1899. "Review: Loom and Spindle, by Harriet H. Robinson" in The Journal of Political Economy. volume 7, page 412. University of Chicago.
- Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. "Stevens, Alzina Parsons" in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
- Gordon, Ann D. 1999. "Stevens, Alzina Ann Parsons" in American National Biography. Oxford University Press, Inc.
- Grand Forks Herald, Iss. 186. Grand Forks, ND. Death Notice: Alzina Stevens. Published June 5, 1900.
- Schultz, Rima Lunin, and Adele Hast, eds. Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. ISBN 0253338522
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