‘Two Little Heroines’: Clara Lemlich and Fannie Zinsher from The Progressive Woman. Vol. 3 No. 36. May, 1910.

Clara Lemlich.
‘Two Little Heroines’: Clara Lemlich and Fannie Zinsher from The Progressive Woman. Vol. 3 No. 36. May, 1910.

“I have listened to all the speakers and I have no patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers for the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike.”—Clara Lemlich at the famous Cooper Union meeting.

The spontaneous strike of 20,000 shirt waist makers in New York City was the greatest event in the history of woman’s work. The majority of the strikers were mere girls, few of them over twenty years of age. They had no “great” leaders, but among them were individualities strong enough and great enough to hold a place in the history of our country’s industrial development. Two of these were Fannie Zinsher and Clara Lemlich. The following from The Survey is a sketch of the lives of these two brave little girls:

Fanny Zinsher.

I have two pictures of Fanny Zinsher in my mind, one as she came from Russia at fourteen, fleeing from persecution to free America, with round cheeks, smiling, irresponsible lips and clear eyes full of interest and delight in living; the other after five years of American freedom, with sad sweet eyes whose sight was strained by the flashing of the needle and by study late at night, mouth drooping with a weight of sadness and responsibility and an expression of patience and endurance far beyond her twenty years.

She came a little high school girl from Kishineff to San Francisco. She did not know what work for wages was, but she and her brother four years older had to turn to and support a mother and a little brother. Three hundred power-machines in one long room of the garment factory welcomed this little human machine-in-the-making. The roar and flash of the needles terrified her. She tried to work, but her nerves went more and more to pieces, her frightened eyes failed to follow her fingers as they guided her work and the second day she slit a finger open and was laid up for three weeks. When she returned she could adapt herself no better to the nervous strain. At piece work she could earn little over one dollar a week, until a kind forewoman removed her to a smaller room where in time she rose to five dollars.

The uprising.

To the older generation among the Russian Jews the hardest thing of all about America is to find that they can take no part in industry; that it is only their little children, cherished and protected by their patriarchal institutions at home, who are quick and “smart” enough to be used in our industries. For the sixteen years of her widowhood Mrs. Zinsher had supported her family in Russia trying to give them a fair start in life, and now after six months in California she felt that the fear of persecution at home, near relatives and friends, was not so deadly for her children as the machine, with no hope, even, of better things to follow. With what remained of the money she had brought to America she came east to sail, only to learn that a second massacre of her race was going on at Kishineff. So the two children settled down again to the machine and in a year the third boy took up the work.

Clara Lemlich

But they wished for something better and studied at night for the regents’ examinations. The older brother matriculated at a dental college and has been studying for eighteen months. Fannie passed her examinations a year ago, but the strike came and the money went and it will be back to the machine again when the strike is settled, not to save for the future, but to make up arrears of debt. The younger brother, a tucker on undergarments, is laid off now as his employer fears the strike will spread to his trade and so refuses to cut out new work. That is the situation as it stands today.

In the four years preceding the strain was continuous—to adjust oneself to mechanical work at a high tension all day and then turn to mental work at night and all Sunday. And during that time distress and worry of mind were seldom absent. The student frequently lost her place because school prevented her from working the prescribed number of hours a day—that is, from 8 a. m. to 8.30 p. m. for about six months in the year, and Sunday from 8 to 1, or some times to 5. For the same reason her pay was small, even when she had work. The end of mingled study and work came a year ago when she went to the position she held when the strike began, making nine dollars a week for the long day—tucking 2,200 yards a day, for which she should have received $13.20 at the piece wage of $2.20 a day—and planning to save for study.

Perhaps during her years of night school she had had no time to notice conditions in the shops. Now she was free to observe and what she saw of petty persecution, speeding and over work made her join the union, made her bring her friends in with her. The spirit spread until 140 out of the 165 in the shop during the slack season were organized. The union, Fannie Zinsher believes, is the only possible way of protecting the factory worker, for, she says the factory inspector is regularly duped, girls are primed how to answer his questions, and the forewoman is on hand to see that they say the right thing; girls under age are hidden away in closets or under tables and, in general, the law is never violated in any respect so far as the inspector can find out.

ILGWU Local 25 Executive Board group photograph, which includes Clara Lemlich (top row, third from left), Morris Hillquit (lower standing, second from right) and Benjamin Schlessinger (front, second from left), 1912.

In the recent strike Fanny was arrested for speaking to one of the pickets The officer pinched her arm black and blue as he dragged this dangerous criminal to court, and there glibly told the judge she had been arrested four times before. Her heart leaped at the insult. Quick as thought she raised her hand, “I swear I have never been arrested before.” Her face and tone gave the man the lie. He turned purple and could make no answer, but she was fined just the same, on his evidence.

Clara Zemlich.

Fannie Zinsher is strong and stead fast, but the soul of this young women’s revolution was Clara Lemlich, a spirit of fire and tears, devoid of egotism, unable to tolerate the thought of human suffering. The dramatic climax of the strike came when this girl was raised to the platform at Cooper Union and “with the simplicity of genius,” as one reporter says, put the motion for the general strike. “I have listened to all the speakers and I have no patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers for the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike,” she said. Dramatic, too, was the moment two years before when she stood, a solitary little figure, distributing circulars of her union to the girls employed in “the worst shop in New York.” For this “disorderly conduct” she was arrested and had her first experience of a prison cell.

At sixteen her real education began—in the shop. Her description of the slow and blundering way she pieced together the relation of the workers to their work and their employer recalls the slow dawning in Judge Lindsey‘s mind of the outline of the “Beast.” What outraged her most from the beginning were the petty persecutions, the meannesses, and the failure to recognize the girls as human beings. She tells of the forewoman following a girl if she left the room and hurrying her back again, of the pay of the new girls kept down because they did not know what the market rate was, of excessive fines, of frequent “mistakes” in pay envelopes hard and embarrassing to rectify; of a system of registering on the time clock that stole more than twenty minutes from the lunch hour, of the office clock covered so that the girls could not waste time looking at it, or put back an hour so that they should not know that they were working overtime. She sat and worked and observed, and her greatest wonder was that the workers endured this constant dragging down of their self-respect.

Very soon she began to say things that made her parents call her a “Socialist.” She thought more deeply about her industrial experiences in America, and became one. At the same time she joined the International Union of Shirtwaist Makers—one of the handful who fought for years to keep that infant union alive. From that time she became an agitator in a small way. She had no personal grievance. She was a draper, always well paid and in demand. She needed money, furthermore, because she wished to take a course in medicine, but this did not prevent her from trying persistently to organize every shop she worked in. She tells of one time when she felt that she must keep her place and determined to be a good girl—from the boss’ point of view—but in two days found herself talking unionism again. She found, too then as almost always, that the girls listened and in a crude sort of way hung together in the shop even when they did not join the union. She gradually learned to look for work in the smaller shops where she could make her influence felt. Two years ago the girls in her shop went out on strike because in one department married men were being turned off to make room for cheap girls. That is Clara Lemlich’s idea of solidarity.

The Socialist Woman was a monthly magazine edited by Josephine Conger-Kaneko from 1907 with this aim: “The Socialist Woman exists for the sole purpose of bringing women into touch with the Socialist idea. We intend to make this paper a forum for the discussion of problems that lie closest to women’s lives, from the Socialist standpoint”. In 1908, Conger-Kaneko and her husband Japanese socialist Kiichi Kaneko moved to Girard, Kansas home of Appeal to Reason, which would print Socialist Woman. In 1909 it was renamed The Progressive Woman, and The Coming Nation in 1913. Its contributors included Socialist Party activist Kate Richards O’Hare, Alice Stone Blackwell, Eugene V. Debs, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and others. A treat of the journal was the For Kiddies in Socialist Homes column by Elizabeth Vincent.The Progressive Woman lasted until 1916.

PDF of original issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/socialist-woman/100500-progressivewoman-v3w36.pdf

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