Imagine the scene: Cooper Union, downtown Manhattan, circa November 1909. Masses of young women, mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants, all employed at shirtwaist factories, congregate to rally in support of striking workers at two sweatshops on the Lower East Side. National labor bigwigs and local activists speak about the need for solidarity, but their words strike at least one 23-year-old girl in the audience as mere platitudes.
In comes Clara Lemlich, a truly amazing orator, advocate, organizer and firebrand you’ve probably never heard of. She demands the chance to speak and takes the stage by storm, rousing her fellow garment workers to action. By the time she’s finished, a massive strike is set to launch the following morning, sealed with a Yiddish oath taken by the crowd. And so, thanks to one woman’s gumption, the Uprising of the 20,000, a strike that would involve thousands of women, last over two months, and ultimately help transform conditions for workers, was born. To learn more about Lemlich, we recommend reading this New York Times piece commemorating 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or the only full-length treatment of her life, Annelise Orleck’s Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States.