This season of the Tenement Museum’s podcast explores stories of people who shaped American identity by doing everything from creating street games to traveling to outer space.
The Lower East Side has long been an incubator of change – social, cultural, and political –much of it spearheaded by women. In streets, storefronts, parlors, kitchens, and factories, tenement women led, supported and inspired political and social movements, constantly shaping and reforming American culture.
Even as sexism and proscribed gender roles constrained their lives and experiences, the immigrant, migrant and refugee women of the tenements of 97 and 103 Orchard Street found ways exercise their agency. We remember them today as agents of change.
At the turn of the twentieth century, East European Jewish immigrant “housewives” pushed gender-role boundaries to organize and challenge kosher meat retailers over a steep rise in prices. Literally fighting to feed their families, these women leveraged their role as homemakers to become a political force on the Lower East Side.
Strikers and Stylemakers
A decade later, 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.
Pathbreakers and Politicos
By the end of the 1910s, many tenement women fought for and the right to exercise their political voices in a more direct way: by voting. In increasing numbers after the passage of women’s suffrage, the female residents of 97 and 103 Orchard Streets registered to vote and cast ballots in favor of their chosen candidates. Some would even become political figures in their own right.
Garment Shop Advocates
And in the decades that followed World War II, Puerto Rican and Chinese women organized under the banner of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to fight exploitation by factory bosses and owners. With the benefits of union membership, recently arrived migrant and immigrant could provide their families not only with wages, but health care, child care, and other services.