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

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

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

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


Common Sense and a Little Fire traces the personal and public lives of four immigrant women activists who left a lasting imprint on American politics. Though they have rarely had 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. Drawing from the women's writings and speeches, she 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. From that era of rebellion, Orleck charts the rise of a distinctly working-class feminism that fueled poor women's activism and shaped government labor, tenant, and consumer policies through the early 1950s.


Ah, then I had fire in my mouth! -- Clara Lemlich Shavelson, looking back on her radical youth

This book has its roots in the memories and stories of my grandmother, Lena Orleck, a sharp-tongued woman with a talent for survival and for dominating everyone she met. A child immigrant from the Ukraine, she was less than ten when she began work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, that most famous of U.S. garment shops. She claimed to have led a strike when she was seventeen, to have known "the famous anarchist Emma Goldman" and to have marched in the great early-twentieth-century Fifth Avenue suffrage parades.

But in the early 1970s, when I began to read histories of the immigrant labor movement, I found few echoes of my grandmother's life. The books available at that time contained no hint of the exhilarated activism she had described or the exhaustion she must have felt as a single working mother. Typical was Benjamin Stolberg Tailor Progress: The Story of a Famous Union and the Men Who Made It. This 1944 memoir of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) contained only brief, sarcastic references to women but showed picture after picture of male union officers. Women were nearly invisible in such accounts, appearing neither as leaders nor as shop-floor activists.

The past twenty years have seen dramatic growth in the literature on American working-class women. Historians have given us insight into their participation in labor unions and women's union auxiliaries, in shop-floor culture and leisure activities. But we still know very little about these women's private lives. What were their dreams and yearnings? What friendships did they form in the shops and in their neighborhoods? How important were racial, religious, and ethnic ties and conflicts? How did they balance long-term intimate relationships with work and activism? And how did these forces shape their political vision?

As a collective biography of four Jewish immigrant women radicals whose political activities . . .

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