57 Inches of Fire
Her enemies called her “The Red Rose of Anarchy.” Male union leaders dismissed her as a fabrente meydeleh (“fiery girl” in Yiddish…aka “hothead”). Her friends knew her as a force to be reckoned with.
Her name was Rose Schneiderman.
In her life, this capmaker wore many hats: lobbyist, suffragist, fundraiser, presidential advisor, the first woman elected to a national union office, and a passionate speaker who could move “strong men” to tears with her words.
And, though she stood only four feet nine inches tall, she had an outsized impact on labor rights in America.
Her story is particularly relevant right now, as workers at an Alabama warehouse are voting on whether to be the first Amazon workers in the US to unionize, and as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is making its way through Congress. If it becomes law, the PRO Act will be the largest piece of labor legislation since the reforms of the New Deal that Rose Schneiderman dedicated her life to achieving.
Fiercely intelligent and with fiery red hair to match, Rose Schneiderman was brought up to value education. Unfortunately, she was forced to leave school early to help support her mother and three younger siblings. Her father had died two years after the family arrived in New York from Poland, and her mother worked several jobs to try to make ends meet.
At age thirteen, after her mother was repeatedly forced to send the children to orphanages when there was no money to feed them, Rose decided it was time to go to work.
Her first job was in a department store. Being a shopgirl was considered genteel, “respectable” work, but Rose knew she could earn twice as much working in a factory.
So Rose Schneiderman entered factory life as a capmaker. She made $5 a week, after money was taken out to pay for her sewing machine. Let me repeat that: she had to pay the factory $45 for the sewing machine she used.
No Union-Made Caps for Sale!
The conditions in the cap factories like Rose’s were typical of what we think of as sweatshops: poor ventilation, unsafe conditions, long hours, and of course low wages. Despite the challenges, Rose did well there. She soon realized, however, that there were limited advancement opportunities for girls, and was not happy about it.
“After I had been working as a cap maker for three years it began to dawn on me that we girls needed an organization. The men had organized already, and had gained some advantages, but the bosses had lost nothing, as they took it out on us,” she wrote.
She went to the male union leaders and asked to join the union. Not believing she was serious, they told her to return when she had gathered the signatures of 25 other women who also wanted to be part of the capmakers union.
She brought them back hundreds of signatures.
Within the year, Rose had gotten herself into the capmakers union, been elected to represent the capmakers at the Central Labor Union of NY, and led her first successful strike.
The Uprising of the 20,000/Hey, Sister Suffragette
Her network of friends included many other young Jewish immigrant women working in various parts of the garment industry. Many of them — women like Clara Lemlich and Pauline Newman — were powerful organizers in their own right. Together, they dedicated their lives to the causes of socialism, suffrage, and most of all, trade unionism.
They saw that the problems they faced in the factories — the long hours, poor wages, unsafe conditions, and abuses by male bosses — were not unique to any one sector of the garment industry. So they decided to organize on a massive scale.
The largest women’s strike in history up to that time happened in 1909. Dubbed by the press “The Uprising of the 20,000,” it involved as many as 40,000 garment workers, almost entirely women, the majority of them immigrants. They were primarily shirtwaist makers, and they demanded better pay, shorter hours, and equal treatment of workers who were in the union and workers who were not.
As the strike dragged on, it got nasty. Police were beating women strikers with impunity. Many of Rose’s friends came home from the picket lines bloodied and bruised, some with broken ribs from being kicked or clubbed.
Outraged over the violence and desperate to stop it, Rose led 10,000 waistmakers on a march to city hall to demand Mayor George McClellan reign in the police. He refused.
Enter The Mink Brigade, as a group of middle and upper class women supporters were dubbed. They began organizing college women and society women to walk the picket lines with the workers.
All of a sudden, the violence stopped. It simply wouldn’t do for a patrolman to be found clubbing a member of society.
Ultimately, the strike ended with mixed success. Some of the demands were met, but, crucially, the safety concerns of them women shirtwaist makers were dropped by the all-male delegation of union negotiators. And not all of the companies signed onto the agreement.
These would prove to be deadly omissions two years later, when the fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
146 people died in that fire. We all know the stories. The doors were locked to prevent the taking of breaks or the stealing of materials. The rickety old fire escape collapsed. Desperate women jumped to their deaths from the 9th and 10th stories.
Rose was heartbroken, but not surprised. And she was angry. Very angry.
She was angry at the factory owners and foremen. She was angry at the male employees who had brazenly and routinely ignored the no smoking rules of the factory floor. She was angry at the male union negotiators who hadn’t taken their safety concerns seriously. She was angry at the owners of the factory who hadn’t signed the bargaining agreement. And she was angry at their upper class allies who had preached patience and moderation.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city,” Rose raged at a fundraiser held for the victims families at Carnegie Hall by a wealthy heiress. “Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death. I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.”
The Big Leagues
The tragedy only sharpened Rose Schneiderman’s determination. By then, she had become a battle-hardened organizer, as well as a shrewd politician and media savvy operator.
In 1913, she led one more major strike, this time with over 30,000 young women workers. Once again, they captured public attention and once again they partnered with the Mink Brigade to offer financial support, food, bail money, and physical protection to the strikers. (A practice that continues today — jail support, mutual aid, and crowdfunding are common during political demonstrations like the BLM protests of 2020.)
Former President Teddy Roosevelt himself visited the strikers and asked the young women to tell him their stories. He was moved, and the resulting publicity helped motivate progressive politicians and policymakers in New York to work harder for the passage of labor laws.
The tide was turning, and the convergence of the labor movement with the suffrage cause bolstered both.
After the 1913 strike, Rose began to turn her attention from the grassroots to the political — using her talents to achieve political power, systemic change, and the all-important vote.
Votes for Women
“Feminism,” according to Rose Schneiderman and her compatriots, was for upper class women. She would not have called herself a feminist.
Rather, she was part of a group of what author Mildred Moore termed “industrial feminists.” They were labor organizers whose aims extended beyond the workplace to education and culture, cost of living, and egalitarian relationships.
Their goal was to reshape society so that “working girls” could fulfill their dreams.
Thus, her brand of campaigning for suffrage was different from that of the mainstream suffragists we learn about in school. Though her voice has been largely drowned out in the history as it’s been told, at the time it was loud, gritty, sarcastic, and confrontational.
She was the prototypical AOC, coming in to challenge the status quo and shake shit up.
“I wonder if it will add to my height when I get the vote,” she mused in a 1912 speech at Cooper Union, to cheers and laughter from the crowd. “I might work for it all the harder if it did.”
The event was held at the Great Hall of the People after the all-male New York State legislature failed to pass a resolution endorsing women’s suffrage.
Each of the labor organizers who spoke connected the issue of suffrage directly to the plight of working women. Responding to one State Senator who was worried that voting would make women lose their delicacy and charm, Rose declared:
“Senators and legislators are not blind to the horrible conditions around them… it does not speak well for the intelligence of our Senators to come out with statements about women losing their charm and attractiveness… [when] women in the laundries… stand thirteen hours or fourteen hours in terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch.
Surely… women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round.”
In 1917, New York State enfranchised women. In 1918, during the state senate elections, Rose targeted the state senators who had voted against suffrage. She organized women to vote in successful campaigns against them — in one case even replacing an outgoing state senator with a woman.
Rose Schneiderman never did receive the formal education she’d longed for as a child. When a wealthy benefactor offered to pay her college tuition in her 20s, she declined. Until all women of her class had that opportunity, she vowed, she would not take it.
Instead, Rose got her education in the factories and union meetings, from soap box socialists, books, and the Jewish Daily Forward. And she channeled all those street-smarts and keen understanding of labor economics into her speeches and her organizing.
In 1919, she was the Labor Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, and ran on a platform that included “Equal economic, political, and legal rights regardless of race, color, or creed.”
By then, half of all women garment workers were in unions. And the following year, many (but not all) women gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment.
Rose Schneiderman’s work was not done, not nearly. She went on to become an advisor to FDR, working closely with Labor Secretary Francis Perkins and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the New Deal reforms. She was instrumental in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
In other words: it’s because of Rose and her friends that we have the phrase “9 to 5”, weekends, employer-provided healthcare, minimum wage, and much more.
She was famous for demanding more than just survival.
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” — Rose Schneiderman
Orleck, A. (2017). Common sense & a little fire: Women and working-class politics in the United States, 1900–1965. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Neuman, J. (2019). Gilded suffragists: The New York socialites who fought for women’s right to vote. New York: Washington Mews Books, and imprint of New York University Press.
Perry, E. (1987). Feminine Politics & The Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kessler-Harris, A. (1982). Out to work: A history of wage-earning women in the United States. Oxford Univ.
Scelfo, J., & Heald, H. (2016). The women who made New York. In The women who made New York (pp. 62–64). Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.