Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Clara Lemlich

In honor of Lily Ledbetter’s speech last night, and Labor Day the day before that, the Awesome Woman for Wednesday, September 5, 2012, is Clara Lemlich (March 28, 1886 – July 12, 1982), U.S. advocate for working women’s rights.

From the Jewish Women’s Archive (quote): Clara Lemlich was born in 1886 in Gorodok, Ukraine, to deeply religious parents. Like most girls, she was taught Yiddish but was offered no further Jewish schooling. Her parents were willing to send her to public school, but found that Gorodok’s only school excluded Jews. Angered by the Russian government’s antisemitism, her parents forbade her to speak Russian or to bring Russian books into their home. The headstrong child continued her study of Russian secretly, teaching Russian folk songs to older Jewish girls in exchange for their volumes of Tolstoy, Gorky, and Turgenev.

Before she was in her teens, Clara was sewing buttonholes on shirts to pay for her reading habit. Already fluent in written Yiddish, she fattened her book fund by writing letters for illiterate mothers to send to their children in America. When her father found a cache of books hidden beneath a meat pan in the kitchen, he burned the whole lot and Clara had to start collecting again. She began storing books in the attic, where she would perch on a bare beam to read. One Sabbath afternoon, while her family dozed, she was discovered by a neighbor. He not only kept her secret, but lent her revolutionary tracts from his own collection. By the time the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 convinced her parents to immigrate to the United States, seventeen-year-old Clara was a committed revolutionary. (endquote)

Clara is probably best known for the speech she gave in Yiddish exhorting her fellow garment workers to strike and inciting what became known as the Uprising of 20,000.

From American Experience: Clara Lemlich | Triangle Fire (quote): As she stood in front of thousands of her fellow female workers at the Cooper Union in New York City, speaking in her native Yiddish language, she demanded swift action. "I am a working girl," proclaimed Lemlich. "One of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now." After a prolonged roar of approval, Lemlich and the thousands in attendance took a Yiddish oath to strike the following day, pledging, "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise."

The next morning, Lemlich and 15,000 factory workers stood in the streets of New York to protest wages and working conditions. This strike, later dubbed the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, lasted for over two months and transformed the culture of the industrial worker. Protestors won concessions from several factories for fair wages and shorter hours. Lemlich had not only started a protest, but she had also instigated a worker's revolution.

… In 1913, Lemlich married Joe Shavelson, a printer's union activist, and together they had three children. She continued to speak on behalf of several causes, and she lead a nationwide food strike in response to inflated prices during World War I. Throughout the 1940's Lemlich served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and became an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism. Due to her earlier involvement in the Communist Party, Lemlich and her family were monitored by the House of Un-American Activities Committee throughout the 1950s. Lemlich officially retired from the ILGWU in 1954. She died on July 12, 1982. (endquote)

From the New York Times (quote): Later in life, her own union said she had not put enough time in for a pension. Living in a nursing home, she urged the workers there to organize. In her 1965 letter, Mrs. Lemlich Shavelson concluded by writing, “In so far as I am concerned, I am still at it.” (endquote).

Unlike most of the Awesome Women I profile, there is a ton of information out there about Clara. She’s really something, and I highly recommend reading more about her.