If you are a leftist, a feminist, or an enthusiastic lover of NYC history, the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike is or should be an event of major importance on your historical radar. If, like me, you’re all three, it’s practically one of the most important events of the twentieth century.
In 1909, the mostly immigrant, mostly Jewish and partly Italian, almost entirely female workers in the shirtwaist manufacturing industry went on strike. They were a group that had to fight and advocate for themselves. Established Americans didn’t much care how these immigrant workers were treated, and the labor unions weren’t interested in organizing women–girls, they thought, didn’t have the grit it took to go out on strike and hang tough in the face of deprivation. The exploitation and sexual harassment in the industry was appalling, and after a workers’ meeting at Cooper Union on November 22, 1909, 15,000 women walked off their jobs. Within hours the number had grown to 25,000 (depending on whose numbers you read, the strike has also been known as the “Uprising of the 20,000”). It also spread outside of NYC, as women walked off the job in Chicago, Cleveland, and Rochester. The strike did not end until February 15, 1910. In the meantime, dozens of employers settled, and their employees were able to return to work victorious (the Triangle company held out and never settled; their name was destined to be written in NYC and labor history in letters of fire and blackened bone). The workers put out and sold a special edition of the New York Call, a local newspaper, to spread the word about their situation and demands. They picketed ceaselessly, despite the fact that they were regularly brutalized by cops and antagonized and set on by gangsters and sex workers paid by the shirtwaist bosses. They were sent to the workhouse and came back and picketed again. Amazingly, wealthy women became interested in their cause and came downtown to walk the picket-line alongside of the shirtwaist workers, where they were also attacked and arrested. Of course, this alliance did not last, as the workers did not appreciate the condescending attitudes and stingy contributions to the strike fund of the “mink brigade,” as they were called, and the wealthy women were alarmed and horrified by the heavy socialist bent of many if not most of the workers. Still, there was a brief moment when gender solidarity crossed class lines.
Theresa S. Malkiel, who wrote The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker was one of the socialists. She was a Jewish immigrant who had been one of the workers in this industry before she married out of it (she married a lawyer who also bought and sold real estate). She wrote a pretend diary of a striker who is radicalized by the strike and converts to the socialist cause (at the time it was originally published, I don’t believe that it was known to be fake), and in turn is able to convert her previously unsympathetic boyfriend. If you’re me, which I am, it was practically required reading once I found it.
The edition I read was published by Cornell University Press and has an extensive introduction by Francoise Basch (please forgive me; I don’t know how to do the cedilla under the “c” in Francoise here). It’s a pretty good introduction to the strike, the different streams of history that come together in it, and Malkiel herself. Basch does make some questionable choices, in my view, as when she portrays the strike as largely a failure–dozens of employers settled! Every other source I’ve read portrays it as a success if not a triumph! It demonstrated to the established labor unions that women were indeed tough enough to take on a huge industry and stay true to the cause! What more does Basch want? What strike would she consider successful? But OK, she makes a case. It’s not one I agree with, but it’s a reasonable case. In another place, she goes on and on about why Malkiel made her narrator a “native-born” American rather than a more representative Jewish worker, blathering about how this enables the reader to learn about radicalism along with Mary (the narrator) (Jews were more likely to have already been radicalized prior to immigration), allows her to have her narrator talk about how “noble” the Jewish women were, and tells labor leaders not to give up on the established American workers before finally admitting, in one sentence, that hey, Malkiel just might have been trying to garner sympathy for the strike by circumventing the anti-Semitism of the non-Jewish reader. Y’think?
Nonetheless, Basch establishes the context of the strike and the major players in it, and doesn’t forget to include my favorite piece of the strike lore. When, at the Cooper Union meeting, Clara Lemlich leapt to the stage and called for a strike (depending on the source, she either said “I’m tired of all this talk! Strike, strike, strike!” or “I am tired of listening to speakers….What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike shall be declared–now.” I prefer the first version, but I am given to understand she was speaking in Yiddish, so it might just be a matter of translation.):
The Souvenir History of the Strike tells us that “the chairman then cried, ‘Do you mean faith? Will you take the old Jewish oath?’ and up came two thousand right hands, with the prayer, ‘If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither away from the arm I now raise.'” (31)
Anyway, the “diary” itself is fascinating, in my opinion, as Mary learns about the living conditions of her worse-paid immigrant co-workers, becomes a socialist, is arrested, goes to the workhouse, falls out with her family and her boyfriend, and reunites with her boyfriend as he is inspired to become a better socialist sort of person. It’s particularly touching if you have a soft spot for traditional leftist rhetoric, which I do. Mary comes to the realization that the socialist fervor must cross all lines in the interest of class unity, “man, woman, Jew, Gentile, dark and white alike” (137). She also experiences a feminist awakening, rebelling against her father telling her that unions were a good thing but never meant for the ladies, and noting that she and other women were carried under a mother’s heart, just as men were, and “What’s the difference between men and women when it comes to work? I walk under the same sky and tread the same earth as men do” (68).
This awakening to commonality makes the two instances of flat-out racism all the more jarring when they occur; they don’t come until late in the book, after more than one proclamation of the sort I describe above. The first concerns lynching, when the newly converted Jim is deeply upset at the way Mary and the other workers are being treated and says “In the South they put a noose around a man’s neck for insulting a woman. Here we’ve grown so callous and cold-blooded that we take it as a joke” (164). One could argue that this is mere ignorance on Malkiel’s part of what lynching really was, but why should she have been ignorant? Ida B. Wells had been active and on the lecture circuit in NYC, though it’s true she was first speaking in the years just active Malkiel’s immigration to the US, when Malkiel was working in the factories and unionizing her workplace in her spare time, but Wells’s activism continued for decades. Malkiel seems to be making the white feminist move of gesturing toward inclusion without actually paying attention to what black women are saying (though Malkiel would not have qualified as white at the time, of course, which is no excuse for that sort of behavior, anyway).
The next incident occurs just a few pages later and has even less relevance to the plot or the issues of the strike. Mary is on a train to somewhere-or-other for Reasons, and she goes to use the ladies’ room but gets lost:
…[I] landed in the porters’ quarters instead. It gives me a chill even now when I think of the half a dozen dark grinning faces. In anger I rushed back to my seat. (171)
Why is she angry? Why is she chilled? Because black working men have the temerity to smile in their own rooms? It’s a bizarre interlude: it make no difference to the action or plot, and if anything should have been an opportunity for Mary to expand on her previous realization that dark and white makes no difference in the eyes of socialism (obviously, this is untrue, but this is the ideology of the book). Instead, it’s a gratuitous insult. Why is it there? Well, I think it’s there specifically because of those earlier musings on socialist brotherhood. Don’t worry, it’s saying to its white readers. Mary and her Jewish and Italian sistren, they’re good white girls. They’re disgusted by black people. In other words, I think it’s an unconscious move to make sure no white readers are put off by the putative racial equality the book suggests.
Other choices Malkiel makes are interesting as well: Jim, Mary’s beau, becomes a socialist and devoted to the strike despite utter intransigence for the first half of the book. Basch convincingly argues that this is because Malkiel is ultimately a traditionalist when it comes to relations between men and women and doesn’t want readers to think that becoming a socialist means losing the opportunity to wed. I buy that, but I’m still unsure why she chose to have Jim come around rather than to have Mary meet some other nice young socialist man, maybe while she was canvassing the established unions for donations to the strike fund. It’s as though Malkiel is playing out a form of “the divine feminine urging man ever upward” vis-a-vis socialism. Mary’s pure example and steadfastness changes Jim’s heart. The transformation is quasi-divine–she doesn’t give him anything to read and think about, they don’t have a reasoned debate about it. He just one night randomly sees that it’s wrong for children to have to beg in the street (NYC was full of homeless children at the time).
Mary is dismissive of the mink brigade and listens for a while to suffragist speeches before concluding that the class war is more important than the ballot, and the latter will have to wait. Heartwarming, if you’re into it, which I am.
All in all, I’m very glad I read this book; it’s been on my list for a while. If you’re interested in labor history, women’s history, Jewish history, NYC history, it’s work getting a hold of. If you are interested in reading more about the strike, I recommend Triangle, by David von Drehle, which uses it as context for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.