anna brones

writer + artist + producer

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Clara Lemlich Shavelson

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“I had fire in my mouth.”

-Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982)

Fire sparks revolution, and while the fiery anger of women is so often suppressed, scoffed at, and used against them, it is that fire that has created longlasting change. As Rebecca Traister writes in her book Good and Mad, “… in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”

Clara Lemlich Shavelson is a prime example of that fire, a women who at the age of 23, sparked an entire labor movement. In 1909 Shavelson stood before a crowd of garment workers, announcing in Yiddish, “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. I move that we go on a general strike!” Her call ignited the many women, who just like her, were suffering under terrible conditions; eleven-hour workdays, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week.

The call led to the Uprising of the 20,000, an extensive strike by mostly immigrant women garment workers which eventually led to safer workplaces, shorter workdays and higher wages. It also caused factories to recognize the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. But not everyone heeded the womens’ calls; at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory male union negotiators refused to listen to the striking women’s concerns, nor put them into practice. A year later, a fire in the factory killed 146 workers.

Of that day, Shavelson later shared this account:

We were all gathered at Cooper Union, you know there on Lafayette and 8th street. And all the workers from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Leiserson Company were there. We all listened to leading figures of the American Labor Movement and Socialist leaders of the Lower East Side speak to us. You know, they just made me so mad because they talked in such general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness and all that. well, you know, just then I asked for the opportunity to speak and I demanded action. I remember I said that I had been listening to all the speakers, and I had no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, I said, and one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. And finally I offered a resolution that a general strike be declared. I was just saying what all the workers were thinking, but they were just too afraid to say. And so we all walked out of the factories two days later.

Born Clara Lemlich in Gorodok, Ukraine in 1886, Shavelson had come to the United States at the age of 16, her family fleeing poverty and the Russian government’s anti-Semitism. While her parents had forbidden her to speak Russian or bring Russian books into the household, the headstrong girl studied the language in secret and dove into the world of letters. By the time she landed in the U.S. she was already a committed revolutionary. Like many other immigrants, she found work in textile-manufacturing, but kept fueling her revolutionary roots: after long workdays, she would go to the local library to read Russian classics and study Marxist theory.

Her fiery spirit is documented in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America:

“A men’s-only strike was doomed to fail, she insisted. A walkout must include the female workers. “Ah—then I had fire in my mouth!” Lemlich remembered years later. She moved people by sheer passion. “What did I know about trade unionism? Audacity—that was all I had. Audacity!”

While blacklisted from garment shops after the 1909 strike, Shavelson continued her work, shifting her focus to the suffrage movement. This led to a long life of activism and organizing, eventually marrying Joe Shavelson, a printer’s union activist. The couple had three children, and Shavelson was known for bringing the children with her to Socialist  meetings.

Her work and passion for a better world continued to the end of her life. Shavelson was profiled last year in The New York Times‘ ongoing series of overlooked obituaries, and it held this anecdote, which I think sums up a lifelong fiery spirit:

Near the end of her life, she moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, where she organized the nurses and orderlies, according to “Common Sense.”“How much worse could these conditions get?” Shavelson, then 83, asked hesitant staffers before they successfully unionized. “You’d be crazy not to join a union.”.”

May we all embrace our fire and channel it into good.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

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