International Women's Day

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Date: Fri, 31 Jan 1997 10:56:41 -0800

Last year for (the day before) International Women's Day, a hardworking mom at my kids' school (Jefferson, in Berkeley) prepared a lesson on the lives of the women who worked in the garment industry late last century. It was exceptionally interesting and well researched, and it really made an impact on the kids I talked to. She closed her lesson by teaching them the song Bread and Roses. I got her permission to distribute some of the information she compiled to others. It made this holiday much more understandable to the kids, and like the best of education, it was _memorable_.

Tomorrow is a school holiday for International Women's Day. Does anyone know why we commemorate International Women's Day? It is a day set aside to honor working women. I will tell you how it came to be, over 80 years ago. To do this, I will be reading a lot of the actual words of women who lived and worked in that long ago time. These are called primary sources -- and they are the most interesting because they were there.

When America was very young, most women worked with their families in their homes. They cooked, sewed, helped with the farm work, and made all their own clothes by hand, and even wove their own cloth.

Then, about 150 years ago, people started moving from the farms to the cities and they began to want machine-made clothes, for there were now machines to weave the cloth and sew the clothes.

Many young women called factory girls worked in these factories known as sweatshops. Many of the women were immigrants. Do you know what that means? Immigrants are people who come from another country to have a better life. They speak many languages and have many different customs. And what kind of life did they have?

Let me read to you the words of some of the immigrants who worked making clothes. Many of them made shirtwaists, which we would call a blouse. You can see how elaborate it is and how much work went into it.

But here are some descriptions of these people's lives. This is from Pauline Newman, who told her story when she was an old lady. (Picture 1)

I'd like to tell you about the kind of world we lived in 75 years ago because all of you (ed: and your parents and probably your grandparents) weren't even born then. Seventy-five years is a long time, but I'd like to give you at least a glimpse of that world because it has no resemblance to the world we live in today, in any respect.

...I went to work for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1901. The corner of a shop would resemble a kindergarten because we were young, eight, nine, ten years old. ...The hours were from 7:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night when it wasn't busy. ...No overtime pay, not even supper money. There was a bakery in the garment center that produced little apple pies the size of this ashtray [holding up ashtray for group to see] and that was what we got for our overtime instead of money.

My wages as a younster were $1.50 for a seven-day week. I know it sounds exaggerated, but it isn't; it's true. ...I worked on the 9th floor with a lot of youngsters like myself. When the operators were through with sewing shirtwaists, there was a little thread left, and we youngsters would get a little scissors and trim the threads off.

And when the inspectors came around, do you know what happened? The supervisors made all the children climb into one of those crates that they ship material in, and they covered us over with finished shirtwaists until the inspectors had left, because of course we were too young to be working in the factory legally.

The Triangle Waist Company was a family affair (Picture 2), all relatives of the owner running the place, watching to see that you did your work, watching when you went into the toilet. And if you were two or three minutes longer than foremen or foreladies thought you should be, it was deducted from your pay. If you came five minutes late in the morning because the freight elevator didn't come down to take you up in time, you were sent home for a half a day without pay.

...The early sweatshops were usually so dark that gas jets (for light) burned day and night. There was no insulation in the winter, only a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the factory. ...Of course in summer you suffocated with practically no ventilation.

There was no drinking water, maybe a tap in the hall, warm, dirty. What were you going to do? Drink this water or none at all.

The condition was no better and no worse than the tenements (Picture 3) where we lived. You got out of the workshop, dark and cold in winter, hot in summer, dirty unswept floors, no ventilation, and you would go home. What kind of home did you go to? Some of the rooms didn't have any windows. I lived in a two-room tenement with my mother and two sisters and the bedroom had no windows, the facilities were down in the yard, but that's the way it was in the factories too.

We wore cheap clothes, lived in cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to expect the next day to be better. Someone asked me once: 'How did you survive?' And I told him, 'What alternative did we have?' You stayed and you survived, that's all.

So you can see how horrible the conditions were for the factory girls in the sweatshops -- one writer called sweatshops a system for making clothes under inhuman conditions. But the workers suffered in silence -- they felt weak and powerless against the companies that owned the mills and factories.

And then one terrible day, on March 25, 1911 at 4:30 p.m., something happened -- a tragedy that would change history:

A muffled explosion at about 4:30 in the afternoon was the first warning anyone had that March 25, 1911, would be different from any other Saturday in industrial history. Smoke billowed from the eighth floor of the building on Greene Street and Washington Place, the middle floor of the three which housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One passerby saw what he took to be a 'bale of dark dress goods' being thrown out of a window. Another who saw it thought the factory owner was trying to save his cloth from the fire. But then the screams began. It had not been a bundle of cloth, but a human being, leaping from the window. Then came another, and then another.

The fire engines drove up, the horses drawing them frightened by the shouts and the smell of blood. Fire ladders were raised -- and the crowd gasped in horror as they saw that these extended only to the sixth floor. Women from the ninth floor of the Triangle Company, where the fire was burning full force, tried the fire escapes, which twisted and broke under their weight and were useless. The workers were urged to jump into blankets held by men below, only to have the impact of their bodies rip through the blankets, leaving the women smashed and lifeless on the street. Fire nets meant to catch one body tore under the weight of three and four young girls, who would jump together, their arms wound around each other. The force of their fall was so great that the bodies broke right through the industrial glass sidewalk to the cellar below. ...bodies lay everywhere, charred beyond recognition in the factory above, broken and bleeding on the street below. A newspaper reporter who witnessed the entire tragedy and called in the story as it was happening, wrote: 'The floods of water from the firemen's hoses that ran into the gutter were actually red with blood.' Doctors and policemen went through the piles of bodies, sometimes finding a worker alive and moaning underneath. Ambulances raced between the scene of the fire and the hospitals. Relatives and friends of workers caught in the fire and the hospitals. Relatives and friends of workers caught in the fire rushed to the scene. A crowd of a thousand broke through police lines in an effort to search among the bodies for their loved ones. All through the night they waited, as the dead were carried down the stairs one by one.

The many corpses found after the fire still bending over their sewing machines attested to the speed with which the blaze took its toll. Many victims did not even have time to leave their workbenches before the flames reached them. Most of the dead had expired within the first ten to fifteen minutes of the fire.

Other women, crazed with fear and pain, their hair and dresses aflame, made the terrible decision to jump. 'They didn't want to jump,' said one of the survivors. 'They were afraid. They were saying their prayers first, and putting rags over their eyes to they could not see. They said it was better to be smashed than burned.... They wanted to be identified.' Fifty-eight women who could not bring themselves to jump crawled into a cloakroom on the ninth floor, where they were later found burned to death, their faces raised toward a small window.

Before it was over, the Triangle fire had snuffed out the lives of 145 women, mostly immigrants. Many were the sole support of families. A little old tailor whom I knew came shrieking across the Square, tossing his arms and crying, 'Horrible, horrible.' He did not recognize me, nor know where he was; he had gone mad with the sight.

A sense of public outrage swept the city. A protest meeting at the headquarters of the New York Women's Trade Union League launched an immediate study into conditions in the city's factories, including a confidential questionaire for workers to fill out: were doors in their shops locked, fire escapes inadequate, scraps of fabric and oily rags lying about?

A memorial meeting...was held in the Metropolitian Opera House under the sponsorship of the New York Women's Trade Union League. ...Each speaker spoke of the tragedy and of the need for better factory inspection laws. When it appeared the meeting would end in a near-riot, tiny Rose Schneiderman moved to the speaker's podium, her long red hair hidden by her hat, her powerful voice now barely raised above a whisper. ...With the acoustics of the Opera House, her words carried to the uppermost gallery:

'I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. ...This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 143 [sic] of us are burned to death. ...But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against the conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us. Public officials have only words of warning to us -- warning that we must be intensely orderly and must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings.... I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

Shortly after this disastrous fire another meeting was held by the factory girls, this time to decide whether or not to go on strike. A strike is when workers refuse to work until they receive better conditions and better pay.

At this meeting, another young woman, still in her teens got up to speak. Her name was Clara Lemlich. She spoke in Yiddish, which most Jews spoke at that time, and said I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.

Instantly, the crowd was on its feet -- adult women, men and teenagers -- cheering, stamping, crying approval. Three thousand voices shouted their unanimous approval, waving hats, handkerchiefs, and other objects. 'Do you mean faith?' cried the chairman. 'Will you take the old Hebrew oath?' Three thousand right arms shot up, and three thousand voices repeated the oath: 'If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.' Meanwhile, messengers carried the news of the meeting to the other halls where the waistmakers had gathered. There the strike vote was ratified just as enthusiastically, and thus began the famous labor struggle that has become known as the 'Uprising of Twenty Thousand,' 'women's most significant struggle for unionism in the nation's history.'

When workers go on strike, they often have what are called picket lines. They march in front of their factory with signs urging people to support them. (Picture 8)

Thousands upon thousands left the factories from every side, all of them walking down toward Union Square. It was November, the cold winter was just around the corner, we had no fur coats to keep warm, and yet there was the spirit that led us on and on until we got to some hall to keep warm and out of the cold at least for the time being.

I can see the young people, mostly women, walking down and not caring what might happen. The spirit, I think, the spirit of a conqueror led them on. They didn't know what was in store for them, didn't really think of the hunger, cold, loneliness, and what could happen to them. They just didn't care on that particular day; that was their day.

But picketing was very hard for the factory girls. One other factory girl described what happened at her factory like this:

I could not tell how many would go on strike in our factory the next day. When we came back the next morning to the factory, though, no one went to the dressing room. We all sat at the machines with our hats and coats beside us, ready to leave. ...And then there was whispering and talking softly all around the room among the machines: 'Shall we wait like this?' 'There is a general strike.' 'Who will get up first?' But I told them 'What difference does it make which one is first and which one is last?' Well, so we stayed whispering, and no one knowing what the other would do, not making up our minds for two hours. Then I started to get up. Her lips trembled. And just at the same minute all -- we all got up together, in one second. No one after the other; no one before. And when I saw it -- that time -- oh, it excites me so yet. I can hardly talk about it. So we all stood up, and all walked out together. And already out on the sidewalk in front, the policemen stood with the clubs. One of them said, 'If you don't behave, you'll get this on your head.' And he shook his club at me.

Meanwhile, the picketing continued through a bitter winter. As before, the pickets were almost entirely women, because it was assumed that they would be handled less roughly than the men.

'In spite of being underfed and often thinly clad, the girls took upon themselves the duty of picketing. Picketing is a physical and nervous strain under the best conditions, but these young girls go of their own volition, often insufficiently clad and fed, to patrol the streets in midwinter with the temperature low and with snow on the ground, some days freezing and some days melting. After two or three hours of such exposure, often ill from the cold, they returned to headquarters, which were held for the majority in rooms dark and unheated, to await further orders.

It takes uncommon courage to endure such physical exposure, but these striking girls underwent as well the nervous strain of imminent arrest, the harsh treatment of the police, insults, threats and even actual assaults from the rough men who stood around the factory doors. During the thirteen weeks over six hundred girls were arrested; thirteen were sentenced to five days in the workhouse and several were detained a week or ten days in the Tombs.'

But finally they were successful -- at one time more than 150,000 people were on strike. They won agreements for a 52 hour week, employees would be furnished machines, needles, and thread, and the right to form a union, to negotiate their wages and working conditions. A union is a group of workers who agree to band together so that they may all benefit. Like the fingers of a hand, each worker, or each finger, is weak, but together they make a strong fist. When the strike was over:

That same day one of the greatest parades in the history of the city occurred, as thousands upon thousands -- estimates varied from 25,000 to 80,000 -- of strikers in the...garment industry marched demonstrate their solidarity. The line of march in the Manhattan parade extended for more than thirty blocks.... 'One of the remarkable features of the parade,' noted the New York Times, 'was the number of nationalities represented. Workers from fifteen countries were pointed out, and they all marched shoulder to shoulder, seemingly on the best of terms.' It then went on to add: 'Fully a third of the marchers were women. Some of these were girls ranging in age from 16 to 20 years.' But there were also 'older women, whose bent backs told of years spent over sewing machines.

The working women who won the strike were Russian and Jewish, and Italian and African American, and Polish and American born and many other nationalities. But they all stood together for better working conditions for they knew that only by being united would they get better working conditions for all. And we celebrate International Women's Day in March, the same month as the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, to honor their bravery.


When Kary presented her piece on Int'l Women's Day, she closed by playing a recording of this song. I think it's worth including with the history of Int'l Women's Day.


As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched by all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew,
Yes it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

James Oppenheim
written for the women of the Lawrence mill strike