In Their Own Eyes

Shirtwaist Strikers Raise Newly Found Voices

"I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions."

--Clara Lemlich, at the Cooper Union meeting

Shirtwaist workers elect to strike.
Following Clara Lemlich’s enthusiastic speech at Cooper Union, tens of thousands of shirtwaist makers took to the streets of New York’s Lower East Side to picket their places of employment. Passion carried the women easily through the first few days, even weeks. But as time wore on, the difficulty of striking during the bitter winter cold took its toll on some. The picket lines became battlegrounds between the demonstrators and scabs, thugs thought to be hired by the factory heads and even the police force. Just about a week into the strike, “10,000 striking waistmakers marched four abreast to call upon the mayor and present him with their petition protesting the abuse they had received from the police force … The major assured the committee that he would take up the matter with the police commissioner” (McCreesh 136).

In addition to shouting on the picket lines each day, some women sought other avenues to tell their stories. Lemlich wrote in to the New York Evening Journal to describe the conditions that led her and her fellow demonstrators to the picket lines. Mary Dreier, an upper-class woman who headed the Women’s Trade Union League, a support network for female trade workers hoping to unionize, joined picketers on the streets and was arrested. At the police station, the arresting officer "apologized humbly, asking: 'Why didn't you tell me you was a rich lady? I'd never have arrested you in the world.'" (Foner 23). Dreier and other socialites-with-a-cause came to the aid (and occasional resentment) of the picketers, staging a meeting at the Hippodrome, a New York theater, on December 5, another on January 2 at Carnegie Hall, as will as a dinner at the Colony Club, the purpose of which was “to present the case of the strikers to high society” (Stolberg 63). Theresa Serber Malakiel wrote in 1910 a fictionalized account of the demonstration, Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker, that speaks to the many divisions within the strike, from the socialites peddling help (or perhaps just trying to gain help for their main cause, women’s suffrage), to the occasional dissent toward the socialist leaders in the labor arena.

Hypertexts of Lemlich and Malakiel’s account are available here:

Clara Lemlich’s Life in the Shops
Theresa Serber Malakiel’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker