In the early 1900s, East European and Italian immigrant women working in the city’s growing garment industry organized into early unions to challenge unsafe conditions and unfair practices. The wages they earned allowed them to enter mass consumer culture, empowering them to help shape working-class fashion and popular culture.
Bessie and the Garment Industry
In 1910, sixteen-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant Bessie Rogarshevsky worked as a sewing machine operator in New York’s growing garment industry. By then, garment work had moved from small tenement “sweatshops” on the Lower East Side to newer factories farther uptown. Powered by electricity, the new shops had higher ceilings, larger windows, and more air and light – but workplace abuses continued.
But these workers had a new advantage. It had been a challenge to organize workers in hundreds of small tenement sweatshops, but in the loft factory shops, where large numbers of people were concentrated together, it was easier to build support. Workers could discuss unsafe and miserable working conditions, and labor unions offered an avenue to organize for change.
Women working in the shirtwaist trade had been periodically striking against wage cuts, sexual harassment, and unpredictable work weeks of up to 75 hours. In 1909, after a series of hostile interactions between workers and employers, members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union [ILGWU] gathered in the Great Hall at Cooper Union to strategize.
Frustrated with the advice of the mostly male union establishment, Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old shirtwaist striker, made her way to the podium. In a rousing spur-of-the-moment speech delivered in Yiddish, Lemlich inspired,000 shirtwaist makers to walk out of their factories the following day – the largest strike of women in history. This “Uprising of 20,000” fought for a 52-hour work week, a pay raise, and union-exclusive contracting.
We don’t know whether Bessie Rogarshevsky participated in this uprising, but she certainly knew about it. The 20,000 strikers were mostly teenagers like Bessie, with the same issues and concerns. Through daily reports in newspapers, and debates in streets and kitchens, young tenement women were aware of – if not directly involved in – the debates, demands, and tensions of the strike.
Working in the garment factories was empowering in another way too. Surrounded by peers, young women like Bessie forged a new social world. On factory floors they made friends, traded new ideas about fashion, shared pop literature, and discovered amusements like dance halls, movies, and trips to Coney Island. While living at home, young women workers were expected hand over their pay envelopes to their families, but many of them advocated to keep a larger share of their weekly earnings. With their own spending money, Bessie and her fellow workers enjoyed the power of making their own choices in clothes, cosmetics, leisure, and entertainment offered by a growing mass consumer culture.