The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Women in industry

ON THE NIGHT of November 23, 1909, thousands of shirtwaist makers gathered at New York's Cooper Union to protest the wages and working conditions in the city's garment industry.Some of the women earned as little as $3.50 a week. Others were forced to buy the needles and thread they used on the job and to pay for their own electricity. In the preceding months, tensions between workers and employers had worsened, and now the women had been called together by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to voice their grievances.The meeting progressed in orderly fashion until, suddenly, a young Russian woman stood up and announced that she had heard enough speeches. "I am one who thinks and feels from the things they describe," she declared. "I too have worked and suffered.I am tired of talking. I move that we go on general strike." The young woman's plea electrified the crowd, and within minutes, her motion to strike received thunderous applause.By the next night, over 25,000 garment workers had walked off their jobs.

The "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand," as the strike came to be called, attracted immediate public sympathy.Most of the strikers were women, and their struggle against sweatshop working conditions had an appeal which crossed class and economic lines. When newspapers headlined stories of police brutality on the picket lines, people from a variety of backgrounds rushed to the workers' defense. In a rare and exceptional display of cross-class solidarity, prominent socialites joined in demonstrations outside garment factories; Alva Belmont rented the Hippodrome for a giant rally addressed by leading suffragists; and women's clubs and college students contributed substantial sums to the strike fund.Most important, the garment workers themselves displayed

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