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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

August 30, 2018 by

A Treasure Trove of Fiery Jewish Labor Activists You May Not Have Heard Of

Rose Schneiderman

Rose Schneiderman

The directory of Jewish female labor activists is endless, from the better-known to the nearly invisible.

Many of these women are unknown outside of academic circles, their letters and speeches languishing in dusty academic archives. Ahead of this Labor Day, here is a list of Jewish female labor activists you never knew, or never knew were Jewish, or never knew said that, or never knew did that.

In 1908, Muller v. Oregon limited the female workday to 10 hours. The winning side of the case was supported by the Brandeis Brief, which set forth data about women overworked in factories. The 100-plus pages of the legal brief were compiled largely by Pauline and Josephine Goldmark, Lillian Wald, and Florence Kelley in the span of two weeks, following years of research. 

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

In 1909 in New York City, Clara Lemlich Shavelson (a Lilith favorite) co-organized the Uprising of the 20,000, a labor strike of female shirtwaist factory workers, the majority of them Jewish. At the time, it was the largest strike ever by American female workers. 

Anna Strunsky Walling was a socialist and novelist who co-founded the NAACP.

Golda Meir may have been described as “the best man in the government”, but Pauline Newman, the first woman appointed general organizer by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union – one of America’s largest labor unions in the 1920s and 30s – was described as “capable of smoking a cigar with the best of them”.

In 1911, Rose Schneiderman declared that “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too” – the true origin of the phrase ‘bread and roses too’.

Mary Belle Grossman, radicalized by unequal pay at her jobwas one of the first two women admitted to the American Bar Association – in 1918, two years before American women won the vote. A “militant feminist [who] has been bad news to wife beaters, gamblers, and persons charged with moral offenses,” said her local paper.

Sophie Udin co-founded both the American Magen David Adom (an equivalent to the Red Cross, with the Christian cross replaced with the Jewish star) and the organization which would later become Na’amat U.S.A.. 

In her 1931 autobiography, Emma Goldman protested a young man’s suggestion that her enjoyment of dancing was unbecoming to an anarchist. This encounter was distilled into words Goldman never said nor wrote: “If I can’t dance I don’t want any part of your revolution”.

Labor activist Vivian Leburg Rothstein co-founded the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which then gave birth to the Jane Collective. Jane was co-founded by Heather Booth as a women-run underground Chicago-based abortion service. From 1969-1973, before Roe v. Wade legalized abortions, Jane members, all laywomen, performed over 11,000 illegal surgical abortions at a fraction of male physicians’ costs.

Janet Jagan, jailed for five months and then put under house arrest for two years for her political views and labor activism, was the first American woman president – of Guyana, in South America, from 1997 to 1999.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.