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How Class-Conscious Women Garment Workers Shaped the Movement for Women’s Suffrage

On the one-hundredth anniversary of American women’s right to vote, let’s remember the working-class socialist suffragists who struggled for the franchise. And let’s devote the next hundred years to realizing their vision.

Three National Woman's Party members with "Wage Earners" banner during the dedication ceremonies for the Alva E. Belmont House, 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

American women pursued the right to vote for nearly a century. Many suffragists died before they could see their vision realized, having lived their whole lives without ever casting a ballot. When women won the franchise, it was not a destination along the inexorable march of progress but rather a reward for decades of great struggle and sacrifice. On August 26, 1920, the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment was certified, one hundred years ago today.

The movement for women’s suffrage was national and indeed international, but if there was a focal point in the United States, it was the state of New York. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. The state was home to two of the movement’s leading lights: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Their organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association, was formed in New York in 1869. Its successor organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which spearheaded the final push to suffrage, was also headquartered in New York.

In order to develop a full picture of the political forces that combined to produce women’s suffrage, we must comprehend what transpired in New York specifically. And we can’t properly tell the story of women’s suffrage in New York state without accounting for the importance of the working-class immigrant women of its garment-industry cities, from New York City to Rochester.

Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, and Leonora O’Reilly are not household names like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but these working-class suffragists were indispensable to winning women’s right to vote in New York state in 1917. In the process, they brought a militancy and a fresh perspective to the movement, which galvanized and propelled it forward in those final, heady years.

On this one-hundredth anniversary, few mainstream news stories will mention them, but their significant contributions to women’s suffrage deserve recognition, especially as their broader emancipatory project remains unfinished.

Rochester Radicals

The small upstate city of Rochester was led by a conservative business elite, but it had a strong countervailing radical history as well. It was home to the egalitarian preacher Charles Grandison Finney and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Susan B. Anthony, too, hailed from Rochester.

Suffragism took root there as early as the 1840s, and over the next few decades, Rochester hosted several women’s rights conventions. In the 1872 presidential election, Anthony defiantly and illegally cast her ballot in Rochester, an act for which she was arrested and eventually tried. Inspired by her example, fifty more Rochester women followed suit. By 1894, suffragist Sarah Fleming Bradstreet had declared Rochester “the hotbed of women’s suffrage.”

But suffragist activity, which was primarily undertaken by middle- and upper-class women, wasn’t the only thing happening in Rochester. Industry in the city was booming, and the population was skyrocketing. In decades past, Rochester had been nicknamed “Flour City” for its gristmills and then “Flower City” for its nurseries, but by the late nineteenth century, the garment industry was dominant. German immigrants, who had worked as skilled tailors upon arrival, and their descendants were now running garment factories. They welcomed Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants as a cheap source of labor. The women, naturally, were cheaper than the men.

By the turn of the century, 40 percent of Rochester’s population was foreign born. One of these newcomers was Emma Goldman, later the most famous anarchist in the country and the “most dangerous woman in America.” Goldman moved to Rochester from Russia with her family in 1886 and began working in a garment factory as a teenager. She recalled in her autobiography, “We had heard that Rochester was the ‘Flower City’ of New York, but we arrived there on a bleak and cold January morning.” The workday, “with only half an hour for lunch, seemed endless. The iron discipline forbade free movement . . . and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like a stone on my heart.”

Goldman’s activities in Rochester were not entirely restricted to work. In her limited spare time, she also attended socialist meetings, which offered “an escape from the grey dullness of my Rochester existence. There one heard, at least, something different from the everlasting talk about money and business, and one met people of spirit and ideas.” This vignette offers a glimpse into the life of the new immigrant garment workers, not just in Rochester but also in the other garment industry hubs in New York state. Many immigrant workers came from countries with much stronger socialist and labor movement traditions, and they intended to keep those traditions alive.

In the late nineteenth century, there were thus two radical traditions running alongside one another in Rochester: suffragism, which sought the franchise for women, and socialism, which sought emancipation from capitalist domination for workers. These movements were geographically overlaid, but for decades, they might as well have existed on separate continents.

Suffragist Overtures

As early as the 1840s, suffragists in New York openly discussed the necessity of making inroads among the state’s working-class women. As time went on, the task began to feel even more urgent to the women’s movement leaders. Not only did the blatant mistreatment of the women garment workers make a genuine impression on the middle- and upper-class suffragists, striking them as a moral outrage, but given the demographic changes in the state, it was starting to seem likely that working-class immigrant women’s signatures and working-class immigrant men’s votes would be necessary to secure the franchise.

In 1893, as Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello observe in Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State, an eighteen-year-old woman collapsed from hunger in downtown Rochester. When Susan B. Anthony discovered that the woman had been jailed as a result of her own misfortune, Anthony was furious and strongly condemned the exploitation and immiseration of the city’s working-class women. Goodier and Pastorello write that the incident “marks the point when activist women’s attitudes began to shift,” and making overtures to working-class women became more of a strategic priority.

But “working women did not immediately flock to middle-class allies when summoned,” observe Goodier and Pastorello. Not only did working women spend long and depleting hours at the factories, but there were significant language and cultural barriers between the two groups of women. Working-class women also harbored a suspicion of middle- and upper-class suffragists, rooted in the class politics — for some a sophisticated analysis, for others a vague impression — that informed many of their worldviews.

The suspicion was not entirely unfounded. Even as they sought to build connections with working-class women, there was more than a hint of paternalism in the way middle- and upper-class suffragists made their appeals. This was evident in the proliferation of suffragist-led progressive nonprofit organizations that, even as they brought women into contact with one another across class lines and materially improved the lives of many working-class women, were nonetheless stewarded by elites and philanthropic in nature.

By the end of the first decade of the new century, the suffragist movement was taking the responsibility of winning working-class women to its cause much more seriously, and its tactics were maturing. “Eventually, New York City leaders sent organizers out from the state association headquarters,” write Goodier and Pastorello, “into upstate garment-producing cities such as Utica, Troy, Gloversville, and Rochester.” They “recruited ethnic organizers to appeal to specific immigrant groups” and printed suffragist tracts in twenty-six languages.

In 1913, the garment workers of Rochester went on strike for eight weeks. In the crowds of strikers were many thousands of young women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, demanding union recognition and an end to long hours, unsafe working conditions, and inadequate pay. Rochester suffragists made an earnest effort to support and appeal to the strikers. They walked the picket line, intervened in instances of police brutality, and gave galvanizing speeches.

In a testament to how far their own political development had come over the course of two decades, the suffragists’ speeches during the strike emphasized that working-class women’s political rights were necessary in order to truly secure their economic freedom. Of course, they had not developed this political vocabulary overnight or in a vacuum. Instead, they had been influenced by a new group of suffragists from downstate, who themselves came from the ranks of the working class, and whose ideas were forged in the crucible of class struggle.

The New Sentiment

For decades, the gulf between working-class women and suffragists was as wide in New York City as it was in Rochester. This changed with the intense and rapid politicization of young working-class women in the city’s garment district in the first decade of the twentieth century. The fact that suffragist ideas were already in circulation made their adoption by this group much more likely, but the main thrust of this new suffragist sentiment came from within New York City’s working class, not outside of it.

As in Rochester, but on a vastly larger scale, New York City’s garment industry ballooned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so did its exploited young, immigrant, female workforce. New York City’s garment factories and tenements were populated, in particular, by many young Jewish women who had left Eastern Europe, sometimes with their families and sometimes alone, as economic migrants or refugees of antisemitic violence and discrimination or both.

Back in their countries of origin, many of these young women and their families had been steeped in the politics of the Jewish Labour Bund and other socialist and trade union formations. More than a few had been raised around talk of Marx and Engels, of capitalism and socialism, of an economic structure divided into bourgeoisie and proletariat, of a political world divided into friends and foes. In New York, they were egregiously exploited, but many were also class conscious.

One of these young women was Clara Lemlich, who was twenty-three years old in 1909. Another was twenty-seven-year-old Rose Schneiderman. Lemlich and Schneiderman cut their teeth organizing a 1909 garment workers’ strike that came to be known as the Uprising of 20,000. Three-quarters of the strikers were women, many of them teenagers. Among their unmet demands were safety ordinances that, if they’d been implemented, could have averted a tragedy. Instead, in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took 146 working women’s lives in a garment factory in New York City.

Schneiderman and Lemlich felt betrayed by wealthy progressives, including suffragists, who’d initially supported the strike but had quietly backed away when the strikers began rejecting compromises, dragging the strike out and appearing unreasonable. Schneiderman’s resentment is palpable in the speech she gave to middle- and upper-class sympathizers at the Metropolitan Opera House after the fire:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting . . . I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.

But while Schneiderman and Lemlich were wary of the suffragist movement’s limitations, they and other garment workers in New York City had themselves become strong believers in the suffragist cause. In fact, a mere three days before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Lemlich had been one of the cofounders of the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage, a working-class women’s organization dedicated to securing the franchise for women.

The group was short-lived, but it made its mark on the broader suffragist movement in New York state, as did the rhetoric of Schneiderman, who became one of the most outspoken suffragists through the rest of the decade. Though wary of wealthy progressives and sensitive to the prospect of manipulation and abandonment by fair-weather friends, they were not averse to joining forces with middle- and upper-class suffragists in vigorous pursuit of the vote. Many working-class socialist women did oppose building coalitions with the “bourgeois suffrage movement,” but at one meeting in 1909, Schneiderman and Leonora O’Reilly, an Irish garment worker and the leader of the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage, sought to dissuade them from leaving strategic opportunities on the table.

“You make a mistake if you think you can work hand in hand with the suffragists,” said one woman, adding that she was in favor of votes for women long before the wealthy suffragists came on the scene.

“I want fair play and want to give fair play,” responded O’Reilly. “If this is an educational work and these other women say, ‘Come on our platform,’ why not go and use it as a school for educating older people? Sometimes you have to close your ears to the name of a school you don’t like. If you can get work done with money, why not let them do it? If you go on their platform, you gain a stanch heart.”

“If there is any educating to do, we had better do it among our own people,” said another woman, offended that striking women had been speaking about their abuse at the hands of employers on a platform provided by wealthy suffragists, and afraid that the cross-class alliance would be deleterious for the development of the striking women’s class consciousness.

“I was responsible for taking those girls to that meeting,” said Schneiderman. “Just as I think it will do good when the girls tell the reporters what has happened to them, so I think it was good to have them talk to the people. You can’t limit their education.”

Socialist suffragists like these felt that the franchise was a necessary component of the fight for liberation from economic bondage. They were increasingly active as the years went on: O’Reilly came up to Rochester during the strike in 1913 and delivered her own pro-suffrage, pro-striker speeches, and thereafter, she went on to play a large role in the New York suffragist movement. When the Rochester suffragists, and others throughout New York, spoke of the fulfillment of economic rights through the franchise, they were channeling Lemlich, Schneiderman, and O’Reilly, their working-class sisters to the south.

Bread and Roses

The next seven years were a full-on suffragist crusade, characterized by monumental political advances inside the chambers of power and creative direct action and mass popular agitation outside of it. Ultimately, of course, the effort was successful: women won the vote in New York in 1917, and in the entire country in 1920.

In this last phase of the movement, the influence of working-class suffragist politics was strong. As historian Susan Ware writes:

Working-class women played active and vibrant roles in the movement, especially in its last decade. These suffragists, coming out of the trade union movement and committed to organizing women into unions alongside men, were street-smart and politically savvy. They helped to revitalize the suffrage movement in its final years, and they contributed a broader theoretical perspective . . .

The theoretical perspective advanced by working-class socialist suffragists was twofold. The first aspect is that the fight against economic domination must have a political component and that universal suffrage is vital for opening up this terrain of struggle. This is not a new idea to socialists who have long maintained that democratic reforms, chief among them universal suffrage, are a critical step toward eliminating poverty and economic coercion.

Many suffragists readily adopted these ideas, as when Rochester suffragists published a bill intended for strikers that read:

You have no vote. Better working conditions can best come in America by the political will of all people. Strike, and you will need to strike again. Vote, and you can govern the nation with your employers. Vote together, and make better laws and you need never strike again. Don’t ask your employer’s protection, work for a woman’s vote and thus protect yourself. The vote of Rochester’s wage-earning women will be large and influential. Visit the headquarters of women’s suffrage in Rochester . . .

The second aspect of the political perspective advanced by working-class suffragists is less obvious: if economic rights cannot be won without advances in political equality, neither can the promise gestured at by political equality be fulfilled without sustained class struggle, inside and outside the official political realm. We can see that this aspect is missing in the flyer above, which posits the ballot as a cure-all for class domination. Indeed, many suffragists maintained that women’s votes would translate — if not automatically, then pretty close — to substantial social reform.

The socialist working-class suffragists did not believe this. Consider Rose Schneiderman’s famous “bread and roses” speech:

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.

And consider the mission of the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage, which was “to urge working women to understand the necessity for the vote, to agitate for the vote, and to study how to use the vote when it has been acquired.”

The ballot to fight with. How to use the vote. It is up to working people to save themselves. It’s clear that the socialist suffragists did not believe an expansion of the franchise alone would guarantee a more rational, more humane, more equal, or more democratic society. Its value was that it would create additional opportunities for the people who would most benefit from social and economic transformation to pursue it. If they chose not to, or if they were successfully repressed by those who benefit instead from the economic and political status quo, then there would be no substantive reform as a direct result of the franchise.

Women have had the vote for one hundred years in the United States. It is a monumental achievement for feminism and democracy, and a cause for celebration in its own right.

And yet poverty is still rampant, and the many are still coerced and exploited by the few for profit, which governs all economic activity and eclipses all moral considerations. The second aspect of the socialist working-class suffragists’ perspective on the franchise, which emphasizes the necessity of class struggle to realize the potential of political equality, invites reflection on this otherwise triumphant centennial occasion. May the next hundred years be dedicated to realizing their vision.