Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian Jew, came to the United States when she was 17. When she arrived in New York, she found a job in the garment industry. She was not happy with the low pay, unsafe conditions and chauvinist mistreatment on the job, and was not shy about showing it. She soon became involved in ILGWU (the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) and was elected to the executive board of the local chapter. Her shining moment came during the mass meeting held at Cooper Union in 1909 in support of the striking shirtwaist workers. The keynote speakers were leading figures of the labor movement, and the event was promising to be grand and inspiring. However, there was one slight snag – the speeches were all being given in English, which the predominantly Eastern European Jewish attendees did not speak very well. Finally, Clara Lemlich burst forth from the crowd, took the stage and gave a fiery speech of her own in Yiddish calling for a general strike. The crowd went wild. Over the next two days, about 20,000 shirtwaist workers walked out on their jobs, an event that would come to be known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Lemlich led the workers out, speaking out until she lost her voice. Later, she became involved in the suffrage movement and then in the protests of ridiculous urban food prices in the 1930s. In all of her activist work, she held her own as a strong, tough, sassy broad. No one could pull wool over the eyes of Clara Lemlich.
Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 by Annalise Orleck