This blog post was written by Museum intern Dalia Rubinstein.
On July 12, 37 years ago, the world lost a Lower East Sider whose chutzpah changed life for many immigrants of her time. Clara Lemlich, although not a household name today, was one of the “farbrente Yidishe meydlekh” [“fiery Jewish girls”] who made a strong impact on the labor, suffrage, and housing movements of New York City. From her early beginnings as a rebel-in-training in Eastern Europe to her leading role in the 1909-1910 Uprising of the 20,000, Lemlich’s story is one of activism, dedication, and tzedek [justice].
Lemlich was born on March 28, 1886 in Gorodok, Ukraine. Her family was deeply religious, though from a young age, Lemlich displayed rebellious tendencies. Her parents taught her to speak Yiddish rather than Russian, the language preferred by the anti-Semitic government, but Lemlich taught herself Russian anyway. To fund her secret stash of subversive Russian literature, Lemlich sewed buttonholes and wrote letters for her illiterate neighbors. Following the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, Lemlich moved with her family to the United States, only 16 years old but already a revolutionary at heart.
Upon her arrival in New York, Lemlich found work in a Lower East Side garment shop, like many of her immigrant peers. There, she experienced squalid conditions, low wages, long hours, and gender inequality. Indeed, social disparities existed not only between immigrants and longstanding citizens, but also within immigrant communities, where workers were sharply divided by skill, sex, and ethnicity. On the job, women often faced sexual harassment and lower pay than their male counterparts did, issues that continue to plague American workplaces today. Furthermore, even the labor unions that represented workers were highly stratified among similar lines: in 1909, the majority of leadership positions in the Shirtwaist Makers Union were held by men, while claiming to represent the workers of a trade whose demographic makeup was 80 percent female (and predominantly Jewish). As gender scholar Ann Schofield explains, women in the workforce at the time were held back both by the skepticism male unionists had for female workers’ ability as trade unionists, as well as a prevailing social ideology that assigned to women a domestic, rather than industrial, role.
By 1909, Lemlich had become a dedicated and militant labor rights activist, protesting exploitative conditions in factories and challenging the chauvinist culture in unions in the process. Her ideas, in addition to the role she took on, were ahead of their time: she advanced theories that linked the personal to the political (and professional), an idea which wouldn’t become mainstream until the Second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s. She also advocated for grassroots resistance tactics, such as consumer boycotts, that are still popular today. In her pursuit of justice, she was arrested by the police 17 times and once beaten by police and company guards, who broke six of her ribs in the process.
On November 22, 1909, at a mass meeting held at Cooper Union, Lemlich cemented her role as a leader of the labor movement. Lemlich grew frustrated by what she heard from the men onstage: she believed that they spoke of solidarity and resistance in too abstract of terms, and instead sought a more pragmatic call to action. After listening for several hours, Lemlich made her way onstage, crying out in Yiddish: “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on strike.” The authenticity of her testimony, physically evident by the marks on her body from the beating she endured, made her call to action even more compelling. The audience rose to their feet, enthusiastically cheering her on. They then voted to move to a general strike.
The next morning, over 15,000 of New York’s shirtwaist makers walked out of their factories, demanding a 20 percent pay raise, a reduction in working hours to 52 hours per week, and additional pay for overtime hours. Eventually, this number rose to over 20,000 workers, giving the name to the strike “The Uprising of the 20,000”. While the small and medium-size factories accepted these demands relatively quickly, larger factories were much more resistant. The strike went on for roughly three months, during which activists picketed, braving the risk of being arrested, fined, and brutalized by the police.
The strike came to a halt in February of 1910, with two main victories. First, the majority of factories had settled with the striking workers, who obtained a raise in pay and a reduction in working hours. Second, the Shirtwaist Makers Union had become a union with large-scale organizing capacities; whereas before the strike it represented only a few hundred members, it now boasted over 20,000. Despite these successes, many workers, such as those at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, went back to work without a union agreement. Just over a year later, on March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle factory ravaged the building, killing 146 garment workers– mostly young Jewish and Italian women. The deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, the effects of the fire would arguably have been mitigated had some of the demands of the strikers been met, such as unlocking factory doors during production and functioning fire exits.
After the strike, Lemlich was blacklisted from New York garment shops, but her time as a political trailblazer had not begun with the strike, nor would it end there. Lemlich continued the fight for equality and justice throughout her life: in 1917, she led kosher meat boycotts to protest rapid price increases (just as the Eldridge Street community had experienced in 1902), and in 1919 led the city-wide rent strike movement, beginning a lifelong fight for rent control and federally funded public housing options. Lemlich was also a dedicated suffragette, helping to found the working-class suffrage group Wage Earners League for a Woman Suffrage in 1911. Though a passionate community organizer, she was deemed too radical by the more moderate mainstream suffragette movement and eventually fired from her position. In 1926, Lemlich co-founded and later presided over the United Council of Working-Class Women (which in 1935 became the Progressive Women’s Councils), which alleviated the effects of the Great Depression in working class communities. While Lemlich’s own work was focused in New York, the movement she led soon spread across the country.
In 1913, Lemlich married printer Joe Shavelson and moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where they had three children. After Shalveson passed away in 1951, she remarried in 1960 to fellow labor movement activist Abe Goldman, with whom she lived until he passed away seven years later. At age 81, she moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, where she spent the remainder of her life. The spark of this “fiery Jewish girl” remained ablaze as ever well into the later stages of her life: she helped the workers of the Jewish Home to successfully unionize!
Lemlich passed away at the home on July 12, 1982 after a lifetime of strong-willed activism and the relentless pursuit of justice. Today, on her yahrzeit, we pay tribute to her many accomplishments. We give thanks for the workers’ rights she won then that continue to be enjoyed now— victories inconceivable without her unwavering conviction and bravery.
Dalia Rubinstein is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. She is a rising junior in Wesleyan University’s College of Social Studies.