I only recently learned that the original Women’s Day was organized in 1909 by the New York chapter of the Socialist Party of America. In honor of the occasion, I wanted to re-share an article I wrote on the links between the labor movement, women’s history, and Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century. The following was originally published in Kibbitz, a zine by Edith’s Brooklyn, and was edited by Emily Wilson. This piece was conceived in collaboration with A Sweet History, and you can get the accompanying ice cream recipe by joining her Patreon.
It was hot in the Great Hall of Cooper Union the night of November 22, 1909, despite the chill autumn air. Thousands of young women packed together, sweating in their overcoats. Some had come straight from a long day’s work at a garment factory, while others had already been on strike for weeks. All of them had been there for hours.
The organizers of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), mostly men, spoke at length, one after another, their voices joined by lawyers and journalists. Those who spoke in English were unintelligible to most of the young women, who had come over only recently from the Pale.1
Finally, one woman had enough. 23-year-old Clara Lemlich had already earned her place on the executive committee of ILGWU Local 25. On strike since the summer, she had called for this meeting to take place. Too short to be seen over the crowd, Lemlich had friends hoist her onto a table, from which she spoke in Yiddish the words that would lead almost two thirds of the city’s garment workers into the streets:
“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions….I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”
Within two days, over 20,000 garment workers joined the strike, which had been a long time coming. The ladies’ garment industry was one of the most exploited in the country, but until 1909, organizing efforts were focused on men who held the higher-paid, “skilled” positions. Women were considered temporary workers, difficult, and not worth the effort to unionize. Still, the wave of immigration catalyzed by antisemitic violence in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century led thousands of women to enter New York’s garment industry.
What made this immigrant group so unique—aside from being disproportionately young and female—was that many of the women were already trained in labor organizing. As members of the Bund, the secular Jewish socialist party, they arrived radicalized.
The strike that followed the Uprising of the 20,000 lasted 11 harsh weeks. The strikers met unrelenting opposition, not just from factory owners, but from the NYPD who arrested picketers on trumped-up charges of assault. But the movement persisted with the support of mutual aid funds and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and even achieved solidarity across class lines when upper-class suffragists began raising money for the workers on strike.
That solidarity began to crumble when factory owners offered the ILGWU a compromise. They would agree to reduced hours and paid holidays, rights of nondiscrimination and collective bargaining for union members, and would provide necessary tools and materials without an added fee. The workers refused. Their employers had failed to address one of their key concerns: the practice of locking women into the factories during work hours, without access to fire escapes. Sensing tension and citing “radicalism,” the suffragists began to back away, leaving the ILGWU stranded without financial support. After a few more bitter weeks, the union had no choice but to accept the compromise. In March of 1910, they returned to work still without workplace safety requirements in place.
The Uprising of the 20,000 galvanized workers across the garment industry. Union membership soared across the country and 60,000 cloak-makers began a strike of their own later that year. Yet at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, whose workers had been among the first to go on strike in the summer of 1909, the refusal of owners to concede to the ILGWU’s workplace safety demands had tragic consequences. On March 25, 1911, the factory caught fire, killing 146 people.
Still, the women instrumental in organizing the Uprising of the 20,000 continued to fight. Lemlich became an active member of the American Communist party and petitioned for women’s suffrage alongside her fellow organizer Rose Schneiderman. They saw the causes of workers’ and women’s rights as inextricably intertwined. The intersectionality of this work gave rise to the socialist-feminist rallying cry, articulated by Schneiderman in 1911: “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too.”
1 The Pale of Settlement was a territory within the borders of czarist Russia wherein the residence of Jews was legally authorized.