A Vital Force: Immigrant Garment Workers and Suffrage

By Karen Pastorello


At a New York City suffrage parade in the fall of 1912, Wage Earner’s Suffrage League vice-president Leonora O’Reilly led a delegation of working women toward Union Square toting a sign that read “We Want the Vote for Fire Protection.” Other women marching held signs depicting the “Asch Building Fire” that had ripped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company the previous year.[1] The industrial tragedy shook the city and exposed the plight of urban immigrant workers to the rest of the world for the first time in history. For activists already engaged in working to better the lives of industrial workers, women labor activists’ reaction to the tragedy directly linked the possibility of improving working women’s lives to the vote. Women in the United States felt powerless in the workplace and the broader world around them. They did not have the right to influence legislation that would affect their daily lives. They did not have the right to vote. Suffrage would give working-class women another weapon to fight against the harsh conditions of their labor.

Working women’s labor and political activism grew incrementally with the increase in the number of immigrants pouring into New York City in the early twentieth century. Tens of thousands of immigrants who had previously survived by tending the stalls in Eastern European shtetls or performing agricultural work in the citrus groves of Southern Italy found work in the New York clothing industry as machine operators and hand finishers. Demand for semi-skilled immigrant women workers escalated after 1900 with the mass production of women’s dresses, shirtwaists, undergarments, and children’s clothing. Plagued by long hours and meager wages, European workers anticipated better lives on this side of the Atlantic but the reality of the conditions in the America they had dreamed about shocked them. Large factories came to dominate the urban landscape often buying out smaller shops or driving them out of business entirely. Low-paying, monotonous jobs in crowded factories devoid of fresh air or natural light, the blaring buzz of machinery, and exploitive, harassing bosses drove workers to spontaneous but ineffective strikes.

Despite the appalling conditions women workers had little choice other than to keep working. Daughters of immigrants made up the bulk of the garment industry’s workforce. Many entered the world of wage work by the age of fourteen to help support their large families. Hindered by an unsympathetic male union leadership more concerned with the competition for jobs that newly arriving women immigrants presented than the women’s welfare, the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union reluctantly took up the cause of the women workers. The union chartered locals in several of the women’s trades. Most of these locals, however, did not last long without the union’s financial support. One notable exception to sluggish union organizing came in 1909 when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, assisted by the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization charged with helping women become union members and addressing deplorable working conditions led an uprising of 20,000 workers in the garment trades. Even this large-scale collective action did not result in victory for the workers. On the contrary, large employers including the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, came away with a stronger manufacturers’ association or elected to “runway” to nonunion strongholds.[2] Unionists refused to give in.

With their reform efforts pushed to the margins by male union leaders or ignored by employers, after the turn of the century immigrant women labor leaders began to seek political solutions to their plight. Polish capmaker turned labor union organizer, Rose Schneiderman did not hesitate to assert her belief that “if women were given the ballot they would be able to pass laws that would protect them from insult while they were earning their living in New York City.”[3] Already active in the Women’s Trade Union League and Socialist Party, Schneiderman joined the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (renamed the Women’s Political Union in 1910) an organization founded by Elizabeth Cady’s Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch. The suffragist hoped to attract working women into a cross-class suffrage movement. Frustrated by Blatch’s condescending attitude toward working women and activism that only occasionally moved beyond appealing directly to legislators, by 1911 Schneiderman and fellow Women’s Trade Union League organizer and immigrant daughter Leonora O’Reilly founded the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League to steer working women along their own path to the vote. Labor and feminist demands converged under the leadership of a militant bloc of working women including Schneiderman and O’Reilly. Wage Earner’s Suffrage League organizers envisioned their organization acting as the labor wing of the suffrage movement. After controversial discussions concerning the role that middle-class reformers should play within the nascent organization, league leaders decided to affiliate with mainstream suffragists in the New York State Woman Suffrage Association.

On March 25, 1911, a mere three days after the founding of the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire transformed what Americans (especially in rural areas) knew and how they thought about factory work. When the fire broke out on the upper floors of the Asch Building at closing time on Saturday March 25, 1911, panicked workers instinctively ran for the nearest exits only to discover that the doors had been locked ostensibly to prevent employee thefts. Trapped in the inferno on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the building too high up for ladders and hoses to reach, desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The fire claimed the lives of 146 immigrant workers, mostly Jewish and Italian women. Front-page banner headlines in newspapers across the country bore news of the tragedy and immediately heightened public awareness about the dangers of the industrial workplace. The time had come for state intervention. New York convened a factory investigating commission that would eventually pass more than thirty workplace fire, safety, and health laws. In 1914, the Smith Bill went as far as limiting the number of hours that women and children would be allowed to work.

Rose Schneiderman

Rose Schneiderman

Rose Schneiderman and Leonora O’Reilly had worked in the garment industry for years and the laws did not compensate for the grief they endured from losing friends in the fire. In the aftermath of the devastating event, both women dedicated their activism to the memory of the fire victims. Leonora O’Reilly intensified her activism, helping to organize protests following the Triangle fire and acting as a voluntary factory investigator. In 1912 she confronted legislators on the floor of Congress in testifying before the Judiciary Committee explaining that although “women burned alive,” in the fire, the courts offered no relief.

Schneiderman and O’Reilly traversed the state under the auspices of the New York State Woman’s Suffrage Association advocating for suffrage, asserting that the vote would give working-class women one more weapon to fight the miserable conditions of the workplace. In an article entitled “Industrial Democracy,” for the Woman Voter, O’Reilly expounded on the promise of “Votes for Women.” In her mind, woman suffrage had the potential to help “abolish war, to make a Universal Child Labor Law, to wipe out the White Slave Trade, to make appropriations for schools instead of armories, to secure time for children to spend in playgrounds instead of in factories and mills, to establish recreation centres for youths of both sexes, and... to secure full fruit of their labors” for all those who work for a living. O’Reilly and others had long since concluded that the ballot was “a matter of necessity” for working women.[4] She carried her message to political equality clubs and suffrage-related events throughout New York.

Leonora O’Reilly

Leonora O’Reilly

Noted for her dynamic speaking ability, Rose Schneiderman’s work went a long way toward alleviating class tensions between workers and middle-class reformers. She served as a consultant for the New York State Factory Investigating Commission following the Triangle fire. Her years as an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union helped her gain the respect of progressive middle-class reformers. She tactfully represented both groups in April 1911 at a Metropolitan Opera House gathering of reformers and workers. When the middle class reformers who initially organized the meeting disagreed over the steps that should be taken to prevent future workplace tragedies Schneiderman took center stage. In an emotional appeal that harkened back to her own experiences in the shops she spoke as a worker and demanded that the proposed reforms encompass more than mere legislation. She directed her words to the middle-class reformers in attendance who viewed the fire as an isolated event. Schneiderman proclaimed, “the life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.”[5] She hoped to move past the limits of legislation and to build a movement centered on social justice that included meaningful political rights and economic reforms for all workers. According to Schneiderman, “political democracy will not do us much good” unless accompanied by worker-driven industrial democracy necessary to address workplace injustices.[6] Schneiderman credited suffragists for recognizing the economic value of women but she knew that without political freedom backed by economic organization, working women remained at the mercy of their employers.

In the years immediately following the Triangle fire, the suffrage referendum advanced through the New York State Legislature for the first time. O’Reilly’s vision of middle-class suffrage ideology fused with the interests of trade union women. Joined by another feminist labor activist, Pauline Newman, in 1914 O’Reilly and Schneiderman founded the Industrial Section of the New York Woman Suffrage Party. The following year New York voters cast their ballots for or against woman suffrage. Although the measure was defeated, New York labor activists including Schneiderman and O’Reilly would not stop until the vote until the referendum to enfranchise New York women passed. A decade earlier when reporting on the 1907 New York State suffrage convention where Schneiderman and O’Reilly emerged as star speakers, the NAWSA newsletter editor predicted that it would not be “the educated workers, the college women, the men’s association for equal suffrage, but the people who are fighting for industrial freedom who will be our vital force at the finish.”[7] Schneiderman concurred, articulating her perspective in a number of speeches and articles. She believed that “the general woman movement cannot advance until the great body of working women are enrolled in it, pledged to work not only for enfranchisement but for complete organization, both economic and political.”[8] New York State became the first state east of the Mississippi to pass full suffrage for women in 1917.

Undoubtedly the victorious coalition built by suffragists counted working women in its ranks and helps to explain the success of the suffrage movement. Many of them persuaded their male relatives and friends to support the suffrage cause. In the years following the suffrage victory, feminist labor leaders continued their activism. Rose Schneiderman ran for a United States Senate seat under the Farmer Labor Party ticket but lost. Leonora O’Reilly turned her attention to the cause of peace but curtailed most of her activities by 1927 because of ill health. Many activists like Schneiderman would befriend New Dealers. In 1937 New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman appointed Rose Schneiderman to the position of New York Secretary of Labor where she inspired others to push for social justice, particularly for women. She set her standards high seeking equal pay, government-funded childcare, maternity insurance, and a bill of rights for women. Women workers in the United States are still pursuing these workplace rights today.

Karen Pastorello is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Tompkins Cortland Community College (SUNY) where she directs the Honors Program. She is the author of A Power Among Them: Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and the Making of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (2008) and Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State(2017), co-authored by Susan Goodier.


[1] “Suffragists Getting in Line,” Sun, November 10, 1912.

[2] Richard A. Greenwald, The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 32-34.

[3] “Suffrage Field Day,” February 6. 1907 Miller Scrapbooks 1,816. Library of Congress.

[4] “Industrial Democracy,” Woman Voter (June 1915), 11.

[5] Quoted in Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995), 131.

[6] Quoted in “Rose Schneiderman and the Limits of Women’s Trade Unionism.” In Labor Leaders in America, eds. Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1987), 168-69.

[7] “Program of the New York State Woman Suffrage Convention 1907,” quoted in Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 99.

[8] Rose Schneiderman, “The Woman Movement and Working Women,” Woman Voter (June 1915), 11.