MYTH 10: A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE HOME

MYTH 10: A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE HOME

Posted
10/11/13

LOOKING BACK: Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Ukraine & the U.S.

Clara Lemlich had grown tired of wish-washy speeches as she and other garment factory workers crammed inside a windowless auditorium in New York's Cooper Union in November of 1909. The topic: unsafe working conditions and low pay. The 23-year-old, Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Ukraine strode down the aisle, interrupted the proceedings and demanded to be heard. "I have listened to all the speakers. I would not have further patience for talk," Lemlich said. " ... I move that we go on a general strike!"

It was a pivotal moment for a firebrand labor organizer who would blaze new trails for women in the workplace, help inspire International Women's Day and grow into a celebrated figure in the U.S. women's suffrage movement. Lemlich knew that women had so much to offer society — outside their homes.

Lemlich launched the "Uprising of 20,000," one of the largest strikes by a female workforce in American history. It led to a successful settlement, changing attitudes about women in the labor movement and improving conditions in much of the garment industry. Tragically, a March 1911 fire at a factory whose owners refused to sign the settlement killed more than 100 workers, most of them young women trapped behind locked doors. In the mind of Lemlich and others, the fire underscored the need for women to have a louder voice not just inside factories but outside them too.

Resistance to the incipient women's movement was great, however. Just a few years earlier, in 1905, U.S. President Grover Cleveland had said, "The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago, by a higher intelligence than ours."

Cleveland hadn't counted on women such as Lemlich, who refused to accept assigned positions and, instead, carved out new ones of their own. 

LOOK FORWARD

They used to say you couldn't even organize women. They wouldn't come to union meetings. They were 'temporary workers.' Well, we showed them!

- Clara Lemlich Shavelson

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