For much of her life, Rita Margules knew practically nothing about how her mother, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, had changed the world a century ago. “It never came up,” Ms. Margules said. “My mother was not one to say, ‘Oh, you know what I did as a young girl?’ ”
This week, as the centennial of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire is commemorated, Clara Lemlich is being recognized as a leading voice of working women in the early 20th century, a clarion force braided into the history of change that came before and after the fire. A new award, named for her, was given on Monday to 30 women activists, many in their 80s and 90s. Some Lemlich descendants plan to gather Friday evening, the anniversary of the fire, in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.
“People say to me, I didn’t know your mother died in Triangle,” Ms. Margules, 87, said. “That’s because she didn’t. She hadn’t even met my father yet.”
It was at Cooper Union on Nov. 22, 1909, that Ms. Lemlich, at age 23, electrified the American labor movement by demanding a chance to speak at a meeting of thousands of women who made shirtwaists. They worked six and seven days a week for weekly wages of about $5, jammed into dim lofts and the backs of stores. The garment union was led by men who were more interested in the men working in the higher-paid jobs, writing off the women as hard to organize and unwilling to stick out a strike.
Ms. Lemlich, whose family immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1903, was skilled as a draper and determined as a revolutionary. Between 1906 and 1909, she led strikes at three shops. “Every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she recalled in a 1965 letter to a graduate student.
In the months before the Cooper Union meeting, workers at Triangle, just east of Washington Square Park, went on strike. Meanwhile, Ms. Lemlich was arrested 17 times on the picket line outside the factory of Louis Leiserson at 26 West 17th Street. One evening in September, she was followed by thugs who broke her ribs and left her bleeding on the street. The Cooper Union meeting was called to discuss extending those two strikes to the entire industry.
For two hours, one man after another spoke, urging the workers to fight, but also counseling “caution and deliberation,” wrote David Von Drehle in “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America,” his acclaimed history of the period. Yet another notoriously long-winded speaker was edging toward the podium when Ms. Lemlich, who stood barely five feet tall and looked like a teenager, called out, “I wanted to say a few words.” Well-known, she was boosted onto the stage by an eager crowd. She spoke in Yiddish.
“I have listened to all the speakers,” she said. “I would not have further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured.
“I move that we go on a general strike.”
THE audience stood and roared its assent. In the days that followed, 20,000 to 40,000 workers, women and men, went on strike. They were backed by wealthy patrons, many of them suffragists, who provided bail money and small stipends. In February 1910, most of the factories agreed to recognize the Women’s Trade Union League as the representative for the workers.
“The union contracts enforced safety standards: regulations about fire safety, fire drills, handling of scraps,” said Michael Nash, head of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.
One prominent factory, however, refused to recognize the union: the Triangle, “a well-known anti-union stronghold,” said Joshua B. Freeman, a professor of history at Queens College.
A year later, a fire in the factory killed 146 people in minutes.
The once radical agenda of the union was absorbed by political reformers on the Lower East Side.
Clara Lemlich married two years later, had three children and raised them in Brownsville and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. She joined the Communist Party and ran for alderman. At rallies, she thundered against the high price of bread, kosher meat and rent. Later in life, her own union said she had not put enough time in for a pension. Living in a nursing home, she urged the workers there to organize. In her 1965 letter, Mrs. Lemlich Shavelson concluded by writing, “In so far as I am concerned, I am still at it.”
Email Jim Dwyer at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @jimdwyernyt.