By Treva Walsh, Collections Project Manager
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city… 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 146 of us are burned to death.”
– Rose Schneiderman, April 2nd, 1911, New York City
This year marks the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. On March 25th, 1911, one hundred and forty-six garment workers – many of whom were young Jewish or Italian immigrants – were burned alive or forced to jump to their deaths from 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building. They were unable to escape—because the factory bosses had locked the doors to prevent workers from taking breaks.
In a time of mass unemployment, unlivable working conditions, and a renewed push for workers’ rights across American industries, it is worth remembering the pivotal role played by Jewish women in the labor movement of the early 20th century.
These young, working, immigrant women—like Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman—fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe only to struggle against economic, political, and gender-based oppression in the United States. And struggle they did. At a time when women were barred from voting, they found a way to transform their disempowerment into action, organizing workers into mass strikes throughout the country and refashioning how working people thought about the value of their own lives.
Spurred by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, these women changed the course of history in part through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Once one of the country’s largest labor unions, it was among the first unions in the United States with a primarily female membership. It became a major force in the labor movement of the early 20th century. The ILGWU was racially integrated, and African American women workers were actively recruited by Black organizers like Floria Pinkney. The union flourished, offering members economic security as well as educational programming and community.
At the same time, the Triangle fire revealed fissures in the labor movement between those who sought legislative reform and those who focused on direct action. In her April 2nd speech to the Women’s Trade Union League, Rose Schneiderman excoriated the audience of middle class and wealthy women social reformers for failing to defend striking women workers from state violence and brutal crackdowns.
Nor was the labor movement immune from race- and gender-based discrimination. In the ILGWU, a predominantly female and racially mixed labor force was led by a majority male and white leadership. This status quo was maintained under ILGWU President David Dubinsky, who served in that role from 1929 to 1966.
Explore the slideshow below to see artifacts from the Museum’s collection that document the history of the ILGWU and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.