Suffrage History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Strike and Fire



For my current writing in progress, I’m researching the women’s suffrage movement, a movement I knew little about despite having taken at least half a dozen U.S. history classes. (Why is discussion of this movement left out of classrooms?) In my research, I came across the triangle shirtwaist strike and fire. I’d heard of it before, but never delved too deeply into it. It’s a horrifying story.

Women pledging to join the strike in November, 1909

In September 1909, the women workers of two factories went on strike: Leiserson & Company and The Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Most of these women were between the ages of 16-23. They objected to:

  • unsanitary working conditions
  • fire hazards (which would later prove all too relevant)
  • the endless fines for talking, laughing, singing, stitches being crooked, etc
  • long working hours, often until 10 at night, with only 1 break for eating
  • low wages (around $6 a week, men made $12 a week for the same work in 1907)
  • the inappropriate behavior (aka, sexual) of their bosses.
Clara Lemlich — teenage heroine — taken in 1909.

Obviously the women had good reason to strike. However, after only a few weeks, it looked like the strike might disintegrate. But at a meeting in November, Claire Lemlich, a teenage factory worker and well known striker (having taken many police beatings fighting for better conditions in factories) rallied the women together: “I am a working girl,” she said, “and 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 or not we shall strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now!” And with those words the women fully committed to the cause.

This strike became the first general strike of its kind, and proved that women could hold out for the long haul. Previously, women’s labor unions and suffrage organizations struggled with mass organization, but this strike proved that large numbers of women could be organized into an effective protest. Though it’s unknown exactly how many women workers across New York and Philadelphia participated in the strike, the estimates are between 10,000 and 30,000. Women picketed the factories every day, carrying signs that said “We are Striking for Human Treatments” and “We Strike for Justice,” while police rounded them up for beatings. The history of police brutality against peaceful protests is a story for another day.

The strikers, 1909.

With no pay, the strikers endeavored to survive during a harsh winter. Several labor unions organized to help the strikers financially, especially The Women’s Trade Union League, and the suffragettes also donated to the cause, trying to help workers pay for rent, medical expenses, food, and the basics of living. The courts did not rally to the strikers’ cause. According to one magistrate, “You are on strike against God and Nature, whose prime law it is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God” — to which George Bernard Shaw chimed in: “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”

Shaw’s biting remarks did not help the strikers. The strike was called off February 15th, 1910, with only limited material gains. The women could not hold out any longer without pay. However, it did become easier for labor unions to organize.

Firefighters struggle to put the fire out.

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for the strikers’ demands to become realized. On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors had been locked so no one could escape, a common practice among factory owners to prevent their workers from going home ‘early’ or taking breaks. Locked inside the burning building, some women threw themselves from the windows, only to die on the pavement below. Others died crammed into the stairwells, desperately trying to push against the locked doors. Onlookers watched from the street, horrified, unable to help. Even once the fire department arrived, their hoses only reached the 7th floor. 146 people died, mostly women.

Charges were brought against the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. One was acquitted, and the other charged $20 — about three week’s pay for a single worker.

Workers forced to jump to their deaths to escape the flames.

This tragedy did bring about change. The fire was one of the most dramatic and mourned events of the year, and a huge funeral procession followed, honoring the women who’d died. More strikes occurred with better success. Public outcry led to the formation of The New York State Factory Investigating Commission, and eventual legislation that forced factories to have safer and more sanitary working conditions. Shocked suffragists rallied more forcefully as women flocked to their cause, the tragedy showing that working women needed to be able to vote, needed to have a say in their own welfare. As Mary Ware, member of The National American Woman Suffrage Association, wrote on April 1st, less than a week after the fire, in the Woman’s Journal:

“Over and over again we suffragists insist that women are citizens and should be equally responsible with men, but a frightful shock like this makes us know it as we never knew it before. It is enough to silence forever the selfish addle-headed drivel of the anti-suffragists who recently said at a legislative hearing that working women can safely trust their welfare to their “natural protectors.” We might perhaps be willing to consign such women to the sort of protection, care and chivalry that is indicated by the men who allow 700 women to sit back to back, wedged in such close rows between machines that quick exit is impossible; a ten-story building with no outside fire escapes, and only one rickety inside fire escape, with a jump of 25 feet at the bottom of it; with iron gates shutting off the staircase, and cigarette-smoking allowed in the midst of flammable material.

But we are not willing to consign unwilling women or helpless young girls to any such tender mercies. And we claim in no uncertain voice that the time has come when women should have the one efficient tool with which to make for themselves decent and safe working conditions — the ballot.”

The strike that began in 1909 only became successful once this horrific tragedy aroused public sentiment. This became a common theme in the suffragette movement (and in U.S. history in general). During the almost 10 years it took to finally win the vote after the fire, suffragettes tried to garner public sympathy with images and stories of forced feedings and police brutality, of the terrible living and working conditions of many women. It did work, though it shouldn’t have taken so long. Why does tragedy have to occur before people acknowledge basic human rights?

This is one story among many in the fight for women’s vote. I’ll post more as I research.

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