On March 25, 1911, a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, claiming the lives of 146 workers. Most of the victims were young immigrant women from Eastern and Southern Europe. In the wake of the fire, a group of women labor activists fought to ensure that the tragedy led to concrete change.
In this episode, host Laura Free speaks with Dr. Annelise Orleck, author of Common Sense and a Little Fire, to learn about the women who agitated for better working conditions before and after the Triangle Fire. Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Clara Lemlich had a shared vision for a more equitable society. Together, they organized unions, led strikes, and fought for labor legislation, combating sexist and classist attitudes every step of the way. To exercise their full political power, they needed to make an impact not just on the picket lines but also at the ballot box. They needed the right to vote.
Narration: Pauline Pepe was approaching her 95th birthday in 1986 when she sat down to give an interview.
Pauline Pepe: I can’t imagine the years go so quick. I don’t know. I can’t imagine I’m that old. Nobody believes it. I am. I was born in 1891, and I am.
Narration: The interviewers wanted to know what pauline remembered about the infamous fire that happened in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. When Pauline was a nineteen-year-old worker there.
Interviewer: Were you working on the machines, were you an operator?
Pauline Pepe: Yes I was doing the tucking. I didn’t even want—my mother didn’t want me to go to work, but my friends, my friend says, come on, we have a good time. A lot of Jewish, young girls were there and girls to be married, engaged and everything.
Narration: A shirtwaist was a women’s button-down shirt, very fashionable in the early twentieth century. More than 500 companies in New York made them, but the Triangle Factory was the biggest. It was on the top three floors of a large building on Washington Square. The offices were on the tenth floor, and on the eighth and ninth hundreds of workers assembled the garments.
Pauline worked on the eighth floor. Her job was to add pleats and lacy details, called lingerie, to the shirtwaists. Most of her co-workers were teenage girls and young women, but from where she sat, Pauline could see the cutters, the men who stood at long tables with big bolts of fabric, cutting out the pieces to be sewn. Smoking was prohibited in the factory, but Pauline said the cutters smoked anyway…
Interviewer: Did you see them doing that a lot? They’d smoke in the room?
Pauline Pepe: That’s what they’d do. They must have thrown the match or something. That’s where it started. That lingerie was so light. It went in a blaze in a minute.
Interviewer: Yeah. It must’ve been floating all around the room.
Pauline Pepe: Then the windows got caught, the shades, everything. That was a terrible thing. Oh my God.
Narration: Pauline and the other workers all rushed to the stairs.
Pauline Pepe: It was a big crowd. We all fell over and then they had to take us down. So everybody was holding the banister. It was about 150 people there. How could you hold the banister. We all tumbled down. When we got there, the fireman wouldn’t let us out.
Narration: Most of the eighth floor workers got out safely by taking the stairs or elevators. The people on the tenth floor escaped from the roof to the building next door. But the ninth floor was quickly engulfed in smoke and flames. Some workers didn’t even have time to get up from their sewing machines. Some made it to the fire escape, but it broke apart under their weight and they fell to the street. Dozens of people were stuck by the windows and saw no choice but to jump. They fell to their deaths on the street below. That’s why the firemen wouldn’t let Pauline leave the building at first. They were afraid she would be crushed by someone falling.
Pauline’s Daughter: What was going on downstairs when you came down?
Pauline Pepe: The people. Oh, Oh bodies. Oh, it was terrible. We got sick. And how those girls did it. I don’t know how they had the courage to throw themselves down. I couldn’t do it. Oh I felt terrible. That was a sight to see.[Music]
Narration: On Saturday, March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. 129 women and teenage girls and 17 men. But this episode is not about a tragic accident and its helpless victims. Among the dead, and the survivors, were women and girls who were part of a massive organized uprising that started before the Triangle fire. Women all over New York were refusing to let the garment industry exploit their labor and endanger their lives. Because they were poor, because they were immigrants, and because they were women. The fire was not the start or the end of their fight to be heard.[Music]
I’m Laura Free, and you’re listening to Episode 4 of Amended, a podcast from Humanities New York. Our show traces a history of the fight for women’s voting rights that’s been left out of most textbooks. Our stories are about women who fought not just for suffrage but against discrimination based on their race, citizenship status, or class. We’ve been quiet for a bit, working on new stories for you, and we are so glad to be back. If you’re joining us for the first time, please start with episode 1. Amended is meant to be heard in order.
If you’ve heard our previous episodes, you may remember that we started with a reframing. So much of suffrage history centers the stories of white, middle- and upper-class women. On Amended, we’re not doing that. We went back to Seneca Falls, New York, and asked “Who else was there?” We learned how enslaved women fought for the right to own their own bodies, and how Black suffragists in the 19th-century demanded racial justice and gender equality. Today’s episode is about a group of immigrant women in twentieth-century New York City. They were among the most exploited workers in the nation, and some of its fiercest advocates for equality. Their critical role in the suffrage movement is often forgotten, but without it, we can’t truly understand what’s been gained, what’s been lost, and what’s still left to be done.
Laura: Good morning, Annelise. Thank you so much for being here.
Annelise: Good morning, Laura. Thanks for having me.
Narration: This is Dr. Annelise Orleck. She’s a history professor at Dartmouth College. Annelise’s book, Common Sense and a Little Fire, is about a group of Jewish women from Eastern Europe who were pathbreaking labor organizers in New York City in the early 1900’s.
When I interviewed Annelise recently, she told me that her research was inspired by stories her grandmother, Lena, told her, when Annelise was a teenager and Lena was in her 90’s.
Annelise: My grandmother was one tough lady. A tough old bird. I aspire now to that status myself. She was very old when I was born, and in my life she mostly was in bed from a stroke. So she had a lot of time to tell stories; her head was still very clear.
Narration: It’s no surprise that Lena was tough. As a girl, she worked at the Triangle Factory, and although she moved on to another job before the fire, it was still not an easy life.
Annelise: So she was—Lena was a child immigrant from Kharkov in the Ukraine. She started working in the garment shops when she was seven I believe, or nine. She was still in the single digits. . .
Laura: Why did she go to work at such a young age?
Annelise: Well, my grandmother, like most young female immigrants, when she came to the United States in the late nineteenth century (and this was true into the early twentieth century as well) had an easier time finding work than her father did. The Triangle Factory really liked, and many of the factories did, they liked young children because their fingers were really small and they could trim. . .They were very commonly used to trim thread off of shirts and finished garments. They called it “The Kindergarten.” They thought kids were pliable and submissive and they didn’t need to be paid very much. Nevertheless, the amount that my grandmother was paid was essential for her parents and for her household.
Narration: “The Kindergarten” was a cruel misnomer. The children in the city’s factories had to grow up fast, without time for school or play. And garment work was grueling at any age.
Annelise: Well, my grandmother sewed buttonholes. She sewed buttonholes for 40 years and she was paid by however many buttonholes she sewed in the course of a day, how many buttonholes on how many shirts. That was piece rate and piece rate obviously encourages really fast work. It also encourages competition to see who can get the most. You basically were a contract worker, where they were forced to pay for thread and cloth and electricity.
Laura: Wait, so the workers were required to pay for the raw materials that they then turned into a product that was sold for a profit for the company?
Annelise: That is correct. The thing that always got me is that when electric sewing machines became more popular and after 1905, that they literally were forced to pay for the electricity, which is kind of—it’s just a staggering thought.
Narration: Workers also had their pay docked for even the smallest mistake, so it was hard to scrape by on what they earned. And the work environments were horrifying. Triangle was crowded and cluttered, but it was actually considered one of the better factories because it was in a big, new building. Other garment-making shops were wedged into airless apartments or basements crawling with vermin. Workers froze all winter and sweated all summer. And their living conditions weren’t much better.
Pauline Newman, one of the subjects of Annelise’s book, came to the U.S. as a child from Lithuania. She started working at the Triangle Factory when she was twelve and described what her life was like.
Annelise: Immigration comes with great hopes. You know, you leave your land, you go across the ocean and there’s a vision of what your life is going to be like. And, you know, she’d go to work, it was dark. She’d come home, it was dark. And one night she just came home and she could smell raw sewage in the streets, and there were children playing in garbage, and she just felt overwhelmed. Like, “These are the streets paved with gold? Is this what we came for?”
Narration: lena and pauline were part of a mass migration of 2 million jewish people who came from eastern-europe between 1881 and 1924 to escape a rising tide of anti-semitism.
Most arrived without much money. They found community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and housing in overcrowded row houses called tenements. The neighborhood quickly became one of the most densely populated square miles on the planet.
The New York garment industry was also based in lower Manhattan, and it exploded during these years. By 1910 New York was making 70% of the country’s women’s clothing and 40% of the men’s. The majority of the workforce was Jewish. The rest were mostly Italian and Irish immigrants.
As the industry grew, competition became fierce. Bosses, many of whom were also Jewish immigrants, kept their costs down by paying low wages. For the workers, the days were impossibly long, and weekends were not even a thing.
But life was not all misery for workers like Lena and Pauline. First of all, they had each other, and that was a lot. Annelise told me this about her grandmother, Lena.
Annelise: She became really, really attached to her co-workers. And she gave me a sense of the intimacy and the emotional affection on the shop floor between these young women. They weren’t in high school, these teenagers, although many of them did try to go to school at night after twelve, thirteen hour days, which is incredible. But they experienced all of the bonding and the drama and the friendship that you might experience in high school, cause they spent so much time working together[Music]
Narration: Sisterhood inspired the young women in the garment industry to envision a better life for themselves and for each other. When we come back, some brave, young leaders emerge to turn that vision into action.[Sponsor Break]
If you look at photos from the early 1900’s, you might notice that every man and boy is wearing a hat or a cap.
Rose Schneiderman worked in a factory that made them. She was a Polish Jewish immigrant, and things had been tough for her family ever since her father died of influenza. At times, when she was younger, Rose and her siblings had to live in an orphanage because their mother couldn’t afford to feed them. At thirteen Rose went to work to support her family. After nine years, Rose finally got fed up with the low wages she made sewing linings into hats.
She wanted to make the hats themselves, which was a higher-wage and higher-skilled job, but there was a glass ceiling in the factory. The men held those jobs for themselves and shut women like Rose out. The men in the shops were also in a better position to ask for pay increases because they were in a union, and they excluded women from that, too.[Music]
American workers had been forming unions across all major industries since the end of the Civil War. when unions were well organized, the members could band together when they wanted something to change. Their most powerful tool was a strike, where all the workers would walk away from their jobs at the same time. The more members the union had, the harder it would be for the bosses to replace the strikers. They’d lose money if they didn’t negotiate.
Big numbers were the key to a union’s success, so you’d think they would take as many people as they could get. But the men who led the garment unions had a huge blind spot. although women made up the vast majority of the workforce, union leaders thought women were just there temporarily, and would leave once they got married. They also assumed women were too timid to strike.[Music]
Tired of being held back by men’s sexist assumptions, in 1903 Rose and some of her female colleagues in the cap and hat factory went to the union and asked to join.
The male leaders didn’t believe Rose and her friends were serious. so they gave them a hoop to jump through. They told Rose to bring them the signatures of twenty-five women at other factories who also wanted to be in the union. If she could do that, she could join. They did not know who they were dealing with. Here’s Annelise.
Annelise: Rose Schneiderman, I suppose, like my grandmother, she was fierce as anything. She was angry, she was fierce. She was tiny. She was four foot eleven. Bright red hair, and apparently an amazing speaker, a riveting speaker.
Narration: As Rose went from factory to factory and spoke to the workers, she found her voice. She persuaded other women to turn their frustration into bargaining power, and she came back to the union with more than enough signatures.
The male leaders were surprised but also impressed. They admitted the women, and elected Rose to their board. This made her the first woman with a high ranking post in the American labor movement. But Rose was just getting started.
Soon after she was elected to help lead the cap and hat union, they organized a strike. Rose made electrifying public speeches that drew support for the strike. She also raised funds for the struggling families of the strikers.
Annelise: And there’s a story of her speaking in Cooper Union, the great hall of the people in the basement of that important public educational institution in lower Manhattan, and bringing people to tears with her stories of the strike and the conditions under which the girls lived, and just the fierceness of it. And there were young workers packed in the, in the seats and in the aisles. . .And everybody talked about who is this young? I think she was twenty-two at the time. Who is this firebrand?
Narration: This moment made Rose dream bigger. She saw the possibilities of organizing not just women hat and cap makers, but women who were starting to rise up all across the industry, like underwear makers. These women and girls were the youngest and poorest workers and most in need of collective power. Even though the male-led unions were now more open to working with women organizers, when Rose wanted to reach out to the underwear makers, the union refused to help. Rose needed other allies.
Luckily, there was a group of progressive middle- and upper-class women in the city who were looking for outlets for their time and money. These college-educated women were shut out of the professions, but didn’t necessarily have to work for a living. They were appalled by the poverty that industrialization was causing, and they formed a new group to help working-class women unionize. They called it the Women’s Trade Union League. When League members saw Rose speak, they offered to provide funds and support so Rose could organize the women the male union leaders ignored.
With her new women allies, Rose could also work on one more thing that was critically important: Votes for women. At this point, it was fairly easy for European immigrant men to become voters, which meant they had the power to support the parties and candidates who spoke to their interests. Rose wanted working-class women to have that right, too.
Through her connection with the league, Rose met some of the most prominent suffragists in America. one of them was Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You may remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton from previous episodes. She argued in the 1860’s that educated white women deserved the right to vote more than immigrants and African Americans. In the early twentieth century, many upper- and middle-class suffragists still felt the same way. But Harriot saw that the suffrage movement couldn’t be an exclusive project for wealthy women to discuss in their parlors. It needed to grow and change if it was going to survive. So Harriot recruited Rose to attract working-class women to the movement.
Rose used her grassroots organizing skills to get her fellow labor activists and workers excited about how women’s voting rights could help them. Annelise’s grandmother Lena definitely saw the potential.
Annelise: She became involved in the suffrage movement because it was so visible on the street and, so for my grandmother, it, you know, it galled her that nobody needed to listen to them because they didn’t have the right to vote. So, you know, their vision of change was, was not taken seriously. And then I think my grandmother also was very dramatic, and she really liked the spectacle of the New York suffrage marches. The big, you know, big marches down Fifth Avenue with the women on horses and women dressed as cleaning ladies to clean up the political system and all of the, the floats and the drama of it. She really liked that.
Narration: Working-class women marched in those parades, and they were making more and more noise in the streets. One of the loudest voices of them all was Pauline Newman. That little girl who saw children playing in garbage in the streets became a radical teenager.
Pauline cropped her hair short and smoked cigars with union men. Like Rose, Pauline was a union organizer. And she’d been incredibly successful at rallying workers and homemakers on the Lower East Side to protest working and living conditions. She was such a local celebrity that New York’s Socialist Party nominated her, when she was only seventeen, as their candidate for secretary of state.
Socialism argued that workers should own the factories and the profits from their work, instead of struggling to survive while the owners got rich. That resonated deeply with immigrant workers, many of whom joined the American Socialist Political Party, including both Rose and Pauline.
Officially, the Socialist Party was pro-suffrage. but Pauline’s campaign for secretary of state exposed some serious hypocrisy. As she toured the state making speeches, party members heckled and harassed her when she talked about women’s voting rights.[Music]
As socialists, unionists, and suffragists, Rose and Pauline had to walk a tightrope between imperfect allies. Working-class women needed class and gender equality, but they had working-class men telling them suffrage was less urgent than union building or class revolution. When they talked about voting as a way to get socialism, wealthy suffragists told them to stop making the movement look too radical. And at times, middle-class suffragists and reformers talked down to working-class activists, and questioned their authority. It was a lot of work to navigate these uneasy relationships. Fortunately, Rose and Pauline also found each other.
Annelise: They were best friends. If you look at their letters, you can really get a sense of the contours and the emotions in their relationship. They shared the stresses of trying to work within male dominated unions, the stresses related to the antisemitism and anti-immigrant feeling and anti-working-class feeling. They encountered some, some of the middle class women, and just life and loneliness and, you know, things they weren’t necessarily comfortable talking about publicly. Sexual harassment in the shops, sexual harassment sometimes by union officials.
Narration: Rose and Pauline also bonded with a scrappy, Ukrainian shirtwaist maker named Clara Lemlich. Clara had piercing dark eyes and fearless conviction. She’d been fired for striking at every job she ever had. By 1909, shirtwaist makers like Clara were ready to explode, and with Rose and Pauline’s help, Clara lit the fuse.[Music]
Late that year, Clara and hundreds of angry workers at her job decided to strike. Pauline got the shirtwaist makers at the Triangle Factory to join in. Dora Maisler was one of them. When Dora was interviewed in 1957, she remembered how hard the whole thing was.
Interviewer: You want to tell us some things about the strike? You know today when there’s a strike there’s strike benefit and we have the kitchens. . .
Dora: We didn’t have anything, anything, they didn’t have anything. I was standing and I was freezing. We didn’t have enough clothing, too.
Narration: But not only did strikers like Dora sacrifice their comfort and their income, they also faced brutal violence.
Dora Maisler: When we were on strike, we weren’t allowed to picket. So the bosses put out gangsters to find us. And that was the plan. So we used to go with tools in our sleeves.
Interviewer: You weren’t arrested then, for getting…?
Dora Maisler: We used to be arrested three times a day. Every time we went picketing. In fact, the judges used to know our first name. “Are you here again?”
Narration: Dora had her teeth knocked out on the picket line, and she wasn’t alone. As a known agitator, Clara Lemlich was targeted by police and guards hired by the factory owners. They broke six of her ribs. But Clara continued to picket. As the strike dragged on, with no concession from the bosses, the strikers knew they needed backup.
So in November to get more support, Rose, Pauline, and Clara, and a big crowd of women workers met with the garment union, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the American Federation of Labor, the most powerful coalition of trade unions in the country. They all crowded into the big meeting hall at Cooper Union in Manhattan. For the women workers, there was nothing left to lose. They were more afraid of what would happen if things stayed the same than if they got clubbed on the picket lines. They wanted a general strike of every shirtwaist maker in the city, and they insisted that enough women would walk out to make it work. Here’s Annelise again.
Annelise: Everybody is telling these young women, you know, just, you know, girls can’t lead a general strike. This is, you know, this is going to be a disaster. You’re going to put your families in danger. And then twenty-three year old Clara Lemlich jumps up on the stage, uninvited and says, “I have something to say.” And she said, “I’m one of those girls you’re speaking about. I’d be the one taking the risk. And I say, we do it.” And the whole place famously explodes and they take a Yiddish oath. “If I forget thee O, Jerusalem,” is the prayer, right. “And may my right hand wither, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” Uh, but they say “if I forsake thee union.”
Narration: Moved by the young workers’ passion, the unions agreed to lend their support. Then everyone held their breath. What if Clara was wrong?
Annelise: To everyone’s shock, lower Manhattan street corners were filled. They just didn’t know how many young women would walk off.
Narration: With the whole industry out on the street, the owners were losing money fast, and the violence and arrests escalated. But this time the strikers drew even more allies to their side.
Annelise: The strikers were being beaten by the police. They were being arrested and what happened to them was visible, you know, you had these garment factories in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, where you also had very wealthy people. And middle class women, you know, Barnard college students. And so middle class and upper class women started to walk the picket lines, what came to be known as mink brigades, with these young women workers. Then when the mink brigade started walking the line, the police force miraculously stopped clubbing people because you don’t want to club someone on the social register accidentally. So they were able to stop the violence against the young women.
Narration: After five long months, many of the shirtwaist owners came to the negotiating table with the garment union and agreed to meet some of the workers’ demands, including a wage increase and more humane hours. As news of this victory spread, so did the spirit of protest. As an organizer for the garment union, Pauline Newman went on the road to rally workers in other cities. Over the next decade, women workers would keep rising up in New York, and in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and Kalamazoo.
The 1909 uprising achieved many things, but male union negotiators threw out one of the women’s demands: cleaner working conditions.
Annelise: The fabric that was popular then for the shirtwaists was something called grass linen, and it was really shiny and crinkly and beautiful and highly flammable. So they had been calling to get this fabric out of the aisles. There was a terrible fire that killed 35 in a Newark, New Jersey, garment shop. And at the negotiating table, the union leaders were like, “yeah, you know, women are always worrying about messes. They’re always cleaning up messes. So yeah, you know, we can let that one go.”
Narration: Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Factory, never came to the negotiations with the union. So after the strike, their workers returned to a shop where they were still overworked, underpaid, and, it would soon be obvious, in mortal danger.
On march 25, 1911, a pile of scrap fabric at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames. A thirty-one-year-old social reformer named Frances Perkins was just one of the witnesses who never forgot what she saw. She talked about it fifty years later at a ceremony to commemorate the fire.
Francis Perkins: I am one of the very few people still alive, who not only remember the triangle fire but who saw it, for I was visiting a friend on the other side of the square that bright fine spring Saturday afternoon, when we heard the fire engines. And hearing them on a second alarm, we rushed out to see what was going on and saw all the smoke pouring out of the Ash building. We rushed into the square. We got there just as they started to jump. And I shall never forget it and the frozen horror, which came over us as we stood with our hands on our throats, watching that horrible sight.[Music]
Narration: Triangle was not the first or the last factory fire to take the lives of garment workers, but the scale of it was impossible to ignore. It was the largest workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001. And like 9/11, it made people say “never again.”
Francis Perkins: But what I want to speak of today is not that horrible event, but the events which followed it. For the whole of the city of New York, and for a large part of the state of New York, there was a stricken conscience of public guilt. We all felt that we had been wrong. Something was wrong in that building or it never could have happened.
Narration: The whole country saw the photos from the scene. The twisted metal of the broken fire escape, the rows of coffins laid out. Families searching for missing daughters. Six days later, a public funeral procession was held for seven of the dead, who were still unidentified.
Annelise: That funeral attracted between 3 and 500,000 people on the streets of New York who saw the caskets go by in the rain. And there are all these pictures of seas of black umbrellas, and the banners that the union people carried, you know, “we mourn our dead” in Yiddish and English. So from the very beginning, there wasn’t a family that wasn’t affected, and Al Smith, who was the Irish American assemblyman from the district where most of them lived the Lower East side, with the help of Francis Perkins and Pauline Newman visited every family of every victim of the fire. And so it was really personal.
Narration: The New York D.A. charged the factory owners with second degree manslaughter. At their trial, several survivors testified that it was common practice at Triangle to keep some exit doors locked so workers couldn’t leave without being inspected for stolen fabric. Locked doors were illegal during working hours, but the judge at the trial told the jury it wasn’t their job to determine if the doors were locked. Instead, they had to decide if the owners personally knew that they were locked. The jury decided they did not. Blanck and Harris went free, after paying a mere $25 dollar fine for the locked door. The clear message to factory owners was that they could keep putting their profits before their workers’ lives.[MUSIC]
The Triangle tragedy hit Rose and Pauline especially hard. They had achieved so much through their labor activism, but it hadn’t been enough to save the workers’ lives, or hold anyone accountable for their deaths.
Annelise: Well, first of all, Pauline was a Triangle worker She lost many friends. She sank into a deep depression. She was on the road for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union at the time, and she wrote to Rose Schneiderman and she said, Rose, I just, I just can’t. I can’t, you know, I can’t motivate, I can’t get out of bed. I’m so depressed. It just seemed like change could not come soon enough.
Narration: But as devastated and exhausted as the activists were, they had to keep working. And for the first time, Rose and Pauline were in a position to get their message widely heard. There was intense public pressure on New York politicians to respond to the fire. So the state government formed a commission to investigate industrial working conditions, not just in the garment factories, but in all industries across the state—from meat packing plants to bakeries, chemical companies to print shops. The commission hired Frances Perkins as the head safety investigator, and she asked Rose to testify about the conditions in the garment industry. She asked Pauline to help her document the violations inside factories.
Annelise: She would tell stories of going into canneries in upstate New York where there was no fire escape, There was just a hole you were supposed to crawl out of. And it was so covered by ice in the winter that they took these pictures of trying to get their bodies through that hole in the wall to demonstrate that it would be impossible for workers to get out if there was a fire.
Narration: It was the largest government inspection of working conditions to date. And when it was over, New York state adopted many of the recommendations the commission made, from enforcing fire rules, to rolling out new regulations to protect basic worker safety and health. States around the country used New York’s reforms as a model for their own protective laws.
I’d love to tell you that after this moment of reckoning, Rose, Pauline and their fellow activists could sit back and take a much-deserved break. Actually, they did the opposite. It would take constant vigilance to make sure the new safety laws were enforced. But also, if they stopped now, that would mean accepting a very low bar for what working women deserved. Yes, at a bare minimum, going to work should not be a death sentence. But workers also needed more than basic safety, and more than just enough food and just enough shelter. What about a chance at lives worth living? Rose started calling this vision “bread and roses.”
Annelise: A living wage should be enough that a girl could, could buy a book or two, that a girl could go to the theater, right? That a, that a girl could get out of the, you know, take the train up and go and hike somewhere. This wasn’t bread and butter unionism. On the ground, it was about it all. It was about why did we come here? What kind of life could we imagine for ourselves here? What kind of life can we imagine for our children?
Narration: To get both bread and roses, women workers needed real political power. They needed to vote, and maybe it was finally time for that to happen. Hundreds of thousands of women across the country had joined the suffrage movement.
Annelise: And they had been building this alliance for a long time, and they really felt we should be able to do this. We should be able to pass this. We have this cross-class cooperation. That was, of course, the paradox of the suffrage movement, which was that the only way women were going to get the vote is if they convinced men to vote for it.
Narration: At the national level, suffragists were working to get a constitutional amendment, but they were also trying to get more states to enfranchise women. And it was working. Between 1910 and 1912, women got the right to vote in five western states, but the northeast and midwest still lagged behind. During the 1915 election, there were suffrage referenda on the ballots in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. That meant voters had the opportunity to enfranchise women in those states. Suffragists were devastated when the referenda lost in all four states, especially in New York, where the cross-class alliance had worked so hard. In 1917, though, they had another chance.
Rose, Pauline, and Clara were determined to convince working-class men to vote for suffrage. They doubled down on their outreach to unions. Rose even wrote to every union leader in the state, and the evening before the election she made sure a pro-suffrage leaflet was handed to every male worker on his way home.
Annelise: When it finally passes in New York in 1917, it’s because these working women are then able to convince their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons, you know, that this is part of the class struggle, right? It’s what the working class needs. It’s what immigrants need, um, so that the class can rise together.
Narration: It had taken decades of work by many groups to get woman suffrage passed in New York state. Rural, Black, and working-class activists were as important as the white middle- and upper-class women who often get the credit. The alliances that working-class activists made were essential to the movement’s success. New York was the only eastern state that enfranchised women before the 19th amendment. After the referendum succeeded in 1917, most of New York’s women could vote. I say most because there are still some important groups who were excluded, and we’ll talk about that in future episodes.[Music]
Narration: Once again, I’d like to tell you that our women activists could finally rest. Women workers had more political power then ever. But male-led unions were still sexist institutions. Labor laws were still lacking, and poorly enforced.
Clara Lemlich, instigator of the 1909 uprising, stuck to her radical roots. She continued organizing for class revolution in the poor neighborhoods of New York. She also got married and started a family, which strained, but never stopped, her activism.
It is truly impossible to summarize all of the work Rose and Pauline would do in the decades that followed, but here are some critical highlights:
By the 1920’s, both Rose and Pauline had entered into long-term romantic partnerships with women they worked closely with in the labor and suffrage movements. With their partners, who were middle-class reformers, they built a close network of friends with access to the highest levels of American politics. One of those friends was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor’s husband, Franklin, was at the time a former state senator, and failed vice-presidential candidate, who was recovering from polio. Rose became close with Franklin, and he listened when she told him all about working-class Americans’ struggles and organizing efforts.
After Franklin recovered, he made a political comeback, first as governor of New York, and then as president of the United States. He took Rose’s insights with him.
When Franklin became president, he appointed Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, the first female cabinet member in American history. And she turned to her old friend Pauline to keep her in touch with working people’s labor struggles. Franklin also named Rose to his labor advisory board. The Great Depression required the new president to look for radical solutions, a set of policies Franklin called “the New Deal.” The New Deal was transformative for a lot of American workers, especially those in urban factories. For the industries it covered, workers got better safety protections, minimum wages, unemployment insurance and social security. This was the foundation of a lasting social safety net for Americans, and Rose helped design it.
Annelise: But the way I look at her is, you know, to try to imagine being, you know, uh, Immigrant girl from a family that was so poor she ended up at an orphanage, you know, too, you know, leading these citywide strikes to becoming, you know, the president of the New York women’s trade union league. And, you know, and a force, the only woman on the national labor advisory board during the early new deal, well, um, negotiations for wages and hours and prices and an open, you know, pretty much open lesbian, even if she didn’t use the word right. Wow. You know, that’s a lot, that’s a lot. It took a lot of courage.[Music]
Narration: Young women immigrants on the Lower East Side were not the last garment workers to be exploited. The industry has never given up its race for fast, cheap labor. Or the practice of hiring populations that executives believe they can get away with mistreating.
By the 1920’s, that group included large numbers of Black women migrants from the South and immigrants from the Caribbean. When those workers unionized, the garment factories expanded to the rural South.
Today in the United States, low-income communities of color and immigrants, especially the undocumented, are still among the most vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous working conditions. And we still have sweatshops that evade fire codes and labor laws.
For the most part, though, garment production for U.S. clothing brands has moved abroad. So the work of organizing workers and holding companies accountable is a global job. One of the people leading the charge is a woman named Kalpona Akter, from Bangladesh. She became an activist after being mistreated as a child worker in the 1980’s.
Garment workers in Bangladesh had lots in common with those in early-twentieth-century New York. Poor building codes, locked doors, flammable materials. There were hundreds of factory fires. Maybe you remember the one in 2012 in Dhaka that killed 117 people. Or the building collapse there in 2013 that killed over 1,100 garment workers. Those factories were making clothes for big Western brands who were completely evading responsibility for workers’ safety. Kalpona set out to change that.
Annelise: She would go into burned shops, you know, where there were still embers, you know, her feet were burning from the hot floor and try to find invoices and labels. So the workers would know who they were sewing for, because it wasn’t straightforward. The garment industry was so fragmented and the supply chains were kept so intentionally complicated that you didn’t know who you were making clothing for. And that was how Walmart liked it. And that was how Sears liked it. And that was how H&M liked it.
Narration: Determined to break the silence, Kalpona started touring the world. She worked with the U.S. Congress, the E.U., and the U.N. and persuaded many major Western clothing brands to address the problem of worker safety. And when New York commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire in march of 2011, Kalpona was there.
Annelise: And she described to me getting to New York, um, before the hundredth anniversary and seeing the Triangle building for the first time and leaning, leaning her forehead against the building feeling and holding her fingers against it. And she said to me, you know, when I talked to my workers in Bangladesh and I talked about the Triangle fire, I talk about it as a triumph that came out of tragedy because all these labor laws were passed, because unions became so much stronger.
Narration: And when a crowd gathered in the Cooper Union hall of the people, the same place where Clara Lemlich started the 1909 strike, Kalpona told the audience that the work was far from over. She also met a ninety-five year old woman named Rita Margules with piercing dark eyes. She was Clara’s last surviving daughter.
Annelise: Kalpona came over to her and she kneeled down and she took her hands in her hands and she whispered to her, “I just want you to know that your mother is our mother too. She was the mother of our movement and we honor her every chance we get.”[Music]Narration: Next time on Amended, we’ll be back in a few weeks with the story of another teenage immigrant in New York City. Mabel Lee lived just blocks away from all the action of today’s episode, but her experience was vastly different because of where she immigrated from. When she came to the U.S. from China, Mabel’s choices were tightly restricted by racism and prejudice, but that didn’t stop her from forging a path entirely her own.
Laura Free, Host & Writer
Reva Goldberg, Producer, Editor & Co-Writer
Scarlett Rebman, Project Director & Episode 4 Co-Writer
Episode 4 Guest and Collaborator: Dr. Annelise Orleck
Consulting Engineer: Logan Romjue
Art by Simonair Yoho
Archival footage courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives, WNYC, and the Kheel Center at Cornell University.
Special thanks to Janette Gayle, Susan Goodier, and Karen Pastorello whose scholarship helped frame the episode. And also to Davor Mondom, who consulted on this episode.
Amended is produced with major funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and with support from Baird Foundation, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Phil Lewis & Catherine Porter, and C. Evan Stewart. We received special support for this episode from Susan Strauss and Karen Gantz.
Copyright Humanities New York 2020
This episode’s guest and collaborator, Dr. Annelise Orleck, has published numerous books about the history of labor and economic inequality. Check out Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics, 1900-1965, Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, and “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising against Poverty Wages.
To learn more about the Triangle Factory Fire, visit the Kheel Center’s Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire online exhibit. Check out Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello’s book, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State, for more on the path to New York’s 1917 suffrage victory. Visit this Gotham Center blog post by Janette Gayle for more about Black women garment workers.
Read more about the lives of Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Clara Lemlich. These short biographies by Annelise Orleck are available via the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women from the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Rose and Pauline defied gender and sexual norms, forming decades-long romantic partnerships with other women, and they were not unique. Discover the queer history of the suffrage movement in this National Park Service article.
For more information on Kalpona Akter’s work, visit the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity website.