Sabrie Akin: Organizing for Workplace Equality
Sabrie Akin’s Lasting Impact on Duluth
By Kyle Chisholm & Nick Schutz
Sabrie Akin – champion of workplace equality – was born in 1869 and moved to Duluth in 1895. As an advocate of “Americanized Socialism”, she wasted no time in announcing her intention to create a pro-labor newspaper in Duluth – which she did in 1896 – and was a prominent voice at the male-dominated Trades Assembly. To her male counterparts, she was known as “The Lady Organizer” and not to be trifled with. One of her earliest accomplishments was successfully organizing a Duluth waitresses union… something others had tried to accomplish but had failed. Shortly after this success, the waiters union made a bold decision and elected Sabrie as a delegate to the 150-man Trades Assembly where she represented 4,000 female and male workers. On top of all her hard-fought activism, she was also a single mother.
In her self-published newspaper, “Labor World”, Sabrie exposed unsuitable workplace conditions, supported newly formed unions, and took on the establishment at every turn. In late 1895, the City of Duluth moved to cut wages from city laborers and teachers but Sabrie countered, writing that if the city needed to save money, it should make cuts to the higher paid city administrators.
Although she was considered far to the left on the political spectrum, Sabrie attempted to make her paper as balanced as possible and used the publication to educate her readers about all sides of an issue. In fact, it was this thorough analysis and balanced perspective that made her respected by all – even her adversaries – and it’s why her articles were often reprinted by other newspapers that had their own political motivations.
While it’s true that Ms. Akin was an advocate for women’s labor rights in a world dominated by men, Sabrie also took a strong stance on poverty and its causes. Women of higher social status often judged women of lower social status, blaming their poverty on character flaws (e.g., drinking led to poverty). According to a friend who lived in Duluth’s Glen Avon neighborhood, Sabrie believed the reverse (e.g., poverty led to drinking). She believed higher income women had deep cultural misconceptions surrounding poverty and economic exploitation. It bothered her that income was preventing the women of Duluth from working together on important issues like women’s suffrage and improving economic opportunities for all.
She believed poverty directly resulted from exploitation, not a person’s character. If a woman stayed in a profession that was seen as “appropriate woman’s work” she still had to deal with lower wages. Sabrie wanted “woman’s work” to be seen as vital to society, respected, and valued. She also exposed a cruel double standard – if a woman tried to break into male dominated jobs to escape poverty, her character was attacked. This chauvinism and the barriers it created often forced women to turn to other means of escaping poverty – prostitution, for example.
By speaking at social clubs for Duluth’s higher income women, Sabrie sought to bridge the gap between women on opposite ends of the economic spectrum and create a more unified front for tackling the big issues that women were facing at the time. By bringing women together, she believed they could better advocate for equal opportunity and equal rights. Women’s suffrage, for example, was an important issue that Sabrie advocated for. By the late 1890s, women across 19 states had won suffrage on issues of taxation and school policy, and were being elected to school and library boards and church and labor assemblies. Women’s suffrage would be granted under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 but, sadly, Sabrie Akin would not live to see it.
Sabrie died suddenly on January 23, 1900 with an autopsy identifying her cause of death as intestinal blockage. She was 31 years old. Sabrie was mourned by the community on all sides of political spectrum, bearing witness to her incredible work and character. She was laid to rest at Forest Hill Cemetery. For many years, only a depression in the ground marked her grave. About six years ago, however, a proper memorial was donated so one can now go and pay their respects to this true Duluth hero.