… what the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist … the worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Rose Schneiderman, 1911
So reads a quote on a “Women of Valor poster on Rose Schneiderman” from the Museum’s collection.
The quote is her most famous from her almost 50 year fight to improve wages, hours, and safety standards for American working women – all rights that she metaphorically considered “bread.” But equally important to Schneiderman were “roses”: schools, recreational facilities, and professional networks for trade union women.
A Polish Jewish immigrant to the United States, Schneiderman was known for her short stature, her bright red hair, and her exceptional public speaking skills.
Only 8 years old when her family came to the United States from Poland, Rose was forced to quit school at 13 to find work. Her early workforce experience in department store retail taught her that “pink collar” jobs – work considered to be “women’s jobs” – paid significantly less than blue collar manufacturing jobs, so she switched industries after a friend trained her on how to make caps. But soon after her job change, she realized that the best-paying jobs in the garment industry belonged to men, with women being relegated to the lowest-paying and worst work. This eye-opening look at gender injustice introduced her to the political ideologies that would change her life: trade unionism, socialism, and feminism.
Schneiderman went on to serve as president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (NYWTUL) from 1917 to 1949, and as president of the National WTUL from 1926 to 1950. In these roles, she liaised between top elected officials and organized women workers. Schneiderman had a key role in shaping the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Throughout her adult life, Schneiderman championed Jewish causes in addition to her labor rights work. Her own Jewish identity was very important to her, and her speeches and letter-writing campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s mobilized the labor movement to help Jewish refugees escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor), found in the Hebrew Bible Book of Proverbs, describes King Solomon’s praise of a woman who constantly looked out, and stood up, for the good of her family. As Labor Day approaches, honoring American workers and the many contributions they have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being, we remember Rose Schneiderman’s success in using her voice for social justice. She was indeed a woman of valor.