When Our Great-Great-Grandmothers Led Historic Strikes Against Their Bosses & The Patriarchy

Women workers propelled massive strikes in the early 20th Century. But they ran into a buzzsaw of male chauvinism that weakened their efforts.

Eleanor J. Bader Apr 16, 2022

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In 1909, approximately 30,000 New York City-based garment workers, most of them young, white, immigrant women and teens, went on strike for better working conditions and higher wages. The spontaneous action followed a mass meeting at Cooper Union called by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). After two hours of listening to mostly male speakers, Clara Lemlich, a 21-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who had come to the United States in 1903, stood up and addressed the crowd. 

Lemlich was already a seasoned activist — she’d been jailed and her ribs had been broken by police during an earlier strike — and had helped form Local 25 of the ILGWU three years earlier. As Meredith Tax writes in The Rising of the Women, “the oppressive conditions in the trade kept her at the boiling point.” Among the outrages: The bosses required workers to pay for the needles, thread and electricity used; pay envelopes were routinely short; and managers followed the women to the restroom and urged them to hurry. 

At the time of the Cooper Union meeting, Lemlich was fired up and ready for action. She literally stormed the Cooper Union stage and, in Yiddish, put forward a motion for a general strike. To everyone’s amazement, it passed.

Lemlich’s chutzpah is, of course, thrilling, as were the initial weeks of the rebellion. “The strike was run out of twenty halls, each of which had a woman in charge,” Tax reports. “It was women who arranged picketing, schedules, made reports on scabs and police brutality, wrote leaflets, spoke at other unions, visited rich women to raise money, went to court to bail out strikers or act as witnesses, kept track of the shops that settled, gave strike benefits to needy workers, organized new women into the union, kept up spirits, and persuaded people not to go back to work.”     

Illustration: Gary Martin.

But despite this momentum, by the time the strike petered out three months later — individual shops were allowed to settle one at a time — public support had withered, allowing the bosses to refuse to negotiate further. Fierce anti-labor backlash followed. 

Tax provides an encyclopedic denouement that deconstructs the political and social factors that caused this backlash and explores the rifts that developed between workers as the attacks unfolded. To wit, she highlights the redbaiting that was stoked by male unionists who refused to recognize the invaluable strike support provided by women in the Socialist Party. Indeed, the chauvinist male leaders of the ILGWU, whose overt sexism got a boost from American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers, treated the women with condescension and hostility.   

At the same time, Tax includes reasons to celebrate the uprising, as higher wages and an elevated sense of self-worth gave the striking women a long-lasting psychological victory and inspired future organizing efforts.

Then as now, we need to understand patriarchy, racism, and class, and the specific ways they intersect and overlap.

In fact, three years later, textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike to protest an announced 30-cent wage cut. Like their New York City comrades, the mill workers were largely young and female. This time, though, the strike was led by the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, whose tactics included the sabotage of machinery and mass picketing to block replacement workers from entering the workplace. IWW leaders Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood coordinated the walkout and helped publicize the workers’ demands: a 15 percent pay hike and double pay for overtime. 

They also held organizing workshops for women and children, focusing on stay-at-home wives. “As a result of the Wobblies’ encouragement, female leaders began to develop,” Tax writes, “and women were elected to the strike committee.” 

Children, sensitized to the issues facing their caregivers, acted as emissaries and were sent by train to New York City where they garnered publicity for the struggle. “The press had a field day,” Tax writes, “over the dreadful, starved, and sickly condition” of kids who had been sent to the city for temporary fostering. A second group, destined for Vermont, was greeted by a gaggle of police who threatened to send them to the poor farm; a third contingent of children and adult chaperones was beaten upon arrival in Philadelphia. “The story of the ‘Cossacks’ beating defenseless women and children … made headlines across the country,” Tax reports. “The tide of public opinion began to turn in favor of the strikers.”

Meredith Tax

After eight weeks, the mill owners met with the strike committee and eventually agreed to a 25% raise for the lowest-paid workers and time-and-a-quarter for overtime. The company also agreed not to retaliate against the strikers, a settlement that the workers accepted.  

But like the New York City strike, in the aftermath of the Lawrence job action, backlash developed. Divisions erupted between the IWW and the Socialist Party, groups that had collaborated during the strike, and a split occurred, weakening both groups. Then, the 1913 recession sent workers scurrying, catapulting the country into an economic freefall that lasted until the start of World War I. The upshot was the sidelining of women and the implosion of the IWW.

All told, while Tax’s evocation of the strikes is exciting and moving, the book is also depressing — so many of the same issues that galvanized the workers a century ago continue to vex us, from a lack of affordable childcare to wages that are too low to sustain a family. What’s more, sexism, male domination, sexual harassment and sexual violence continue to run rampant in organizations within, and apart from, the left.In a brief introduction to the 2022 edition of The Rising of the Women, Tax lays out the case for intersectional feminism, socialism and working-class solidarity in today’s political milieu. “It is critical for progressives to fight attacks on trans people while strengthening the fight against patriarchy in general,” she concludes. “Only by doing both can we build a progressive movement that will fight for all of our rights, not play one group off against another. Everyone in the movement needs to understand patriarchy, racism, and class, and the specific ways they intersect and overlap. … Unless we can do all these things, and fight climate change, we will fall short. And failure could mean the end of human life on earth.”  

The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917
by Meredith Tax/ Foreword by Sarah Jaffe
Verso Books/ 368 pages/ Third reprint: 5 April 2022 

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