Tenement Women: Agents of Change

Honoring Women’s History

From politics to pop culture, women on the Lower East Side have long led movements for social, cultural, and political change. Explore the digital exhibit to discover stories of workers and activists, creators and changemakers who brought new ideas to their homes, streets and factories, and consider how their legacies survive today. You can also learn more about these stories on our 100 Years Apart apartment tour.

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 prescribed 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.

Enter the exhibit below, or scroll to see individual pages.

Old newspaper drawing of two bull heads on a locked gate with Yiddish writing on its doors. A Jewish woman stands next to it, holding a key.

Homemaker Activists

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.

Two adult women stand together in the street wearing ornate hats and sashes over their coats that say, "Picket Ladies Tailors Strikers" in 1909

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.

Portrait of a 5-person women's political group including former 97 Orchard resident Sarah Burinscu.

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.

A group of women participating in a march with a banner that says “International Ladies Garment Workers Union Saluda al desfile Puertorriqueño.”

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.