Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965


Over twenty years after its initial publication, Annelise Orleck's Common Sense and a Little Fire continues to resonate with its harrowing story of activism, labor, and women's history. Orleck traces the personal and public lives of four immigrant women activists who left a lasting imprint on American politics. Though they have rarely made more than cameo appearances in previous histories, Rose Schneiderman, Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and Pauline Newman played important roles in the emergence of organized labor, the New Deal welfare state, adult education, and the modern women's movement. Orleck takes her four subjects from turbulent, turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe to the radical ferment of New York's Lower East Side and the gaslit tenements where young workers studied together. Orleck paints a compelling picture of housewives' food and rent protests, of grim conditions in the garment shops, of factory-floor friendships that laid the basis for a mass uprising of young women garment workers, and of the impassioned rallies working women organized for suffrage.

Featuring a new preface by the author, this new edition reasserts itself as a pivotal text in twentieth-century labor history.


In the years since Common Sense and a Little Fire was first published, the fields of working- class women’s history, immigrant history, and labor history have been transformed. Analyses of race and gender have become thoroughly intertwined with discussions of class. Important studies have been published on women workers and popular culture, on Italian and Puerto Rican garment workers, on multiculturalism in the labor movement, and on the globalization of the garment trades. Labor history has moved off the shop floor and out of the union hall into working- class neighborhoods, schools, and kitchens. These changes have enriched our understanding of U.S. working- class women’s politics, evoking a world whose complexities would, I think, feel familiar and accurate to the Jewish immigrant women activists whose stories this book tells.

In some ways, the garment industry has also changed dramatically in the decades since 1995. in other ways—the dominance of the electric sewing machine, large retailers subcontracting rush orders to small manufacturers, and sweatshop labor conditions—garment work remains remarkably unchanged, not just since 1995 but since 1905. There is much about twenty- first- century garment work, organizing, and cross- class coalition- building that would feel familiar to the immigrant women who labored in garment shops in New York early in the twentieth century. But there are other dimensions of the trade—the globalization of capital, the rise of transnational corporations, and the competition among the world’s poorest countries for foreign investors—that would be almost unrecognizable to early twentieth- century activists. These crucial changes and continuities in the garment industry and in the lives of garment workers and their struggles for better wages and safer conditions moved me to write this preface to the second edition of Common Sense and a Little Fire. It is important, as one reads history, to reflect on the world we live in today. And, as we think about our world, it is always crucial to understand its roots in history. in that spirit, I begin this new edition in New York City in 2011.

Returning to the great hall

As evening settled over Lower Manhattan on March 25, 2011, hundreds of people poured into the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, a column- lined subterranean auditorium that has played an outsize role in the history of New York City and the nation. the crowds were there to commemorate the 100th . . .

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