The Waistmakers' Revolt

by Alexandra Hanson-Harding

In the early 1900s, women and girls worked under dreadful conditions, making clothes in sweatshops. In 1909, they took action.


*Fictional character; all others were real people.
*Malka, a factory worker
*Foreman at a factory
*Chaya, a factory worker
*Pinna, a factory worker
*Police officer #1
Clara Lemlich, a factory worker and union organizer
Benjamin Feigenbaum, chairman of a union meeting
Crowd, people at a union meeting
Mary Dreier, a wealthy woman and union leader
Anne Morgan, a rich heiress
Pauline Newman, a union organizer
Violet Pike, a college student
*Owner of a factory
*Thug, hired by factory owner
*Police officer #2
*Protester, woman in a picket line
*Judge #1
*Judge #2
*Narrators A-E

"We wore cheap clothes, lived in cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to expect the next day to be better." That is what Pauline Newman said about her days as a worker in a New York City clothing factory.

In the early 1900s, many Jewish and Italian women worked in U.S. factories making shirtwaists, a popular kind of women's garment. More than 500 shirtwaist factories in New York City employed about 30,000 workers, most of them young women aged 16-21.

Working conditions were horrible: Women spent long hours bent over sewing machines. Their salaries, which averaged about $6 a week, were barely enough to feed and house them. Their pay was half that of men doing the same kind of work.

Some people said that the women should organize themselves into a union, so that they could fight together for better working conditions. In 1903, women founded the Women's Trade Union League. Three years later, Local No. 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded. The two groups worked together. Few male union leaders took female workers seriously. In 1909, however, that began to change.

^ Top of Page


Narrator A: A shirtwaist factory, fall of 1909. Three 17-year-old girls, recent Jewish immigrants from Russia, are standing in line on payday.

Malka (crying): What am I going to do? I lost two of my work tickets. If I don't get paid, my family doesn't eat.

Foreman: No tickets, no pay.

Chaya: It isn't fair! You give us these little tickets for doing piecework. You know how easy it is to lose them! Malka did the work! It's just a trick to cheat us out of our wages.

Foreman: I don't make the rules. If you don't like it, tell the union.

Pinna: You know that we don't have a union here! Maybe if we did, we wouldn't have to pay for the thread and electricity we use!

Chaya: Or rent the boxes we sit on!

Pinna: Or have to work till late at night with no overtime pay!

Chaya: Or get paid so little that we can barely survive!

Foreman: Are you girls going to be troublemakers? If so, get out!

Malka (wiping her eyes): They didn't mean it, sir. They're just upset for me.

Foreman: Well, you'd better be careful! There are plenty of other people to take your jobs if you don't want 'em.

Narrator A: That night, the three young women walk home together.

Chaya: Malka, I can help you out.

Pinna: Me, too.

Malka: My pride says not to accept — but I promise I'll pay you back.

Pinna: It makes me so mad: We're paid less than men, but our families need our paychecks just as much!

Chaya: Something has to change!

^ Top of Page


Narrator B: In the fall of 1909, workers in several factories go on strike. On November 4, Mary Dreier, head of the Women's Trade Union League, is arrested for speaking to a striker. The police quickly release Dreier when they learn who she is.

Police officer #1: Why didn't you tell me you was a rich lady? I'd never have arrested you in the world.

Narrator B: The officer's remark is widely reported in newspapers. Many workers are outraged that wealth can make such a difference in how the police treat people. On November 22, the Women's Trade Union League and the ILGWU hold a joint meeting to talk about a general strike — a strike of the workers of an entire industry, not just one factory. Many speakers urge the workers to be cautious. Then, a 19-year-old worker who is barely five feet tall climbs onto the stage.

Clara Lemlich: I have listened to all of these speakers, and I have no further patience for more talk. I say that we go on a general strike. Now!

Narrator B: The crowd jumps to its feet as people cheer, stamp, and wave handkerchiefs in agreement.

Benjamin Feigenbaum: Will you take the old Hebrew oath?

Narrator B: Three thousand people lift their right arms and repeat after him:

Crowd: If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.

^ Top of Page


Narrator C: The next day, workers report to their jobs, unsure what to do. Then they stand up and walk out. The streets are crowded with workers. Traffic is completely stopped. That day, 25,000 workers leave their jobs. Within the next few days, the number increases to nearly 30,000.

Pinna: I can't believe it! Why, there are thousands of workers out here!
Malka: What a show of strength!

Chaya: With this kind of turnout, the owners will have to make changes.

Narrator C : In the first four days of the strike, almost half of the original 25,000 strikers win contracts for better working conditions and return to work. Thousands of workers line up to join the union. In the union office . . .

Mary Dreier: We're going to need publicity, so people will know what we're trying to accomplish. We'll need money to help pay the strikers and bail them out of jail. We'll have to get someone to organize the picket lines. This won't be easy.

Narrator C: To raise money, the union sends powerful speakers to wealthy women's clubs in New England and upstate New York. Pauline Newman, a former factory worker, is one such speaker. Wealthy women raise money for the strikers. They also build popular sympathy for the strikers by talking to newspaper reporters. Anne Morgan, a rich heiress, speaks to editors of The New York Times :

Anne Morgan: When you hear of a woman who presses 40 dozen skirts for only eight dollars a week, something must be wrong.

Narrator C: The striking female workers become so popular that a song is written about them: "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl." Speakers also go to women's colleges.

Pauline Newman: Imagine living on six dollars a week, sleeping on a mattress on a kitchen floor, and going hungry for weeks just to buy a winter jacket.

Violet Pike: Why, that is terrible! I've got to find a way to help!

Narrator C: Pike leaves Vassar College and goes to New York City. She joins dozens of young college women who march with striking workers in the picket line. The police are reluctant to arrest the rich girls. Pike talks with a worker who is about to cross the picket lines and go to work in the factory.

Pike: Miss, do you really want to put these other girls out of work? Do you want to be a scab [strikebreaker]?

Narrator C: The owner comes out of his factory and begins to argue.

Owner: You don't understand — this is a cutthroat business. We have to make our products as cheaply as possible or we won't be able to sell them for a profit — and if we don't make a profit, we don't survive.

Pike: Look at these girls! Half of them don't have the money to buy a winter coat in December and you're saying that you won't survive? If all the factory owners would pay a living wage, then you'd all survive!

 ^ Top of Page


Narrator D: The owners hire thugs to harass the protesters. The police side with the owners and arrest the young women on any excuse.

Thug (to a woman on the picket line) : Hey, keep away from me!

Narrator D: He pushes the woman against the wall.

Thug: Hey, officer, officer! She hurt my little finger.

Police officer #2: Why, that's assault!

Protester: But I didn't do anything!

Police officer #2: Oh, and now you're resisting arrest, too? They'll teach you a lesson about how to behave — in jail.

Narrator D: By Christmas, more than 700 women have been arrested. Like the police, most of the judges are harsh with the young protesters.

Judge #1: You have no right to picket. Every time you go down there, you will get what is coming to you and I shall not interfere.

Judge #2: You are on strike against God and nature, whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.

Narrator D: Nineteen young women are jailed. The rest are fined. Still, the strikers refuse to give in. As soon as they are set free, most of them return to the picket lines.

 ^ Top of Page


Narrator E: As the strike drags on, the union becomes desperate for money. There is not enough money to help many of the strikers pay for their rent or food. Most of the $60,000 dollar strike fund is spent on bailing young women out of jail. One day, while they are picketing, Pinna collapses.

Chaya: Oh, no! Here, let's get her into this stairwell to get warm!

Malka: Pinna, when did you last eat?

Pinna (weakly) : I had a roll yesterday. You know, my mother is sick . . . She needs medicine.

Chaya: And here you are, out in the bitter cold!

Narrator E: Chaya reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of bread.

Chaya: Here, eat this. Now let's get you home to rest.

Narrator E: On December 23, Chaya visits Pinna at home.

Chaya: I have news: The bosses and the union have worked out a deal. We'll get shorter hours and higher wages. But the owners won't let us keep the union. They say that half a loaf is better than none. We have to vote on the offer. What do you think?

Pinna: If we don't keep the union, the owners can wait a few months and change everything back to the way it was before. Our struggle will have been for nothing!

Chaya: You're right. I'm voting no.

Narrator E: On December 27, the women vote no by a big majority and reject the proposed agreement.

^ Top of Page


The strike dragged on through January 1910, during one of the coldest winters on record. More women got sick, and the newspapers began to lose interest. Finally, on February 15, the strike came to an end. The factory owners agreed to improve working conditions — but some of the largest employers refused to recognize the unions. Still, the young women had much to be proud of. They had shown that they could organize for a cause and could be as tough and determined as men. Other strikers modeled themselves on the shirtwaist workers' strike. A song was written about them:

Hail the waistmakers of
Making their stand on the
picket line,
Breaking the power of those
who reign,
Pointing the way, smashing
the chain.

Victory was followed by tragedy. In 1910, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Many of the factory's doors were locked shut, trapping workers. More than 145 people, most of them young women, were killed. After this widely reported tragedy, many new factory-safety laws were passed. But for those 145 workers, the laws came too late.

Adapted from Junior Scholastic, March 9, 1998

^ Top of Page

Back to Women's History