Today in Feminist History: NYC Shirtwaist Factory Workers are Striking for Better Working Conditions

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 2, 1910: A huge, enthusiastic, and colorful rally in support of the women striking against New York City’s shirtwaist manufacturers has just ended in Carnegie Hall.

Though 251 employers have now come to terms with their union since the citywide walkout began six weeks ago, 6,000 of the city’s 30,000 shirtwaist workers are still on strike until their employers agree to recognize their union and its demand for decent wages, improved working conditions, and a shorter, 52-hour week.

The principal difficulty the pickets encounter was graphically illustrated as 350 women crowded on stage, each with a wide strip of paper pinned to her clothing that said “ARRESTED.” There were many more in the audience similarly labeled. In the front rank of those on stage were about 20 who carried placards that said “WORKHOUSE,” indicating that they had served time there.

The meeting adopted a resolution declaring:

A large number of police officers and several Magistrates have dealt with the strikers in a spirit of revolting partisanship, unfairness and cruelty. The police on many occasions have utterly failed to protect the legal rights of the strikers or to interfere in their behalf when they have been insulted or even assaulted; they have refused to arrest the offenders when strikers have been maltreated in their presence, and in many cases have arrested and assaulted the victims instead.

Before the Magistrates’ courts the strikers and their pickets have in many instances been convicted upon insufficient evidence, and even against the preponderance of evidence; upon conviction harsh sentences have in some cases, notably those coming before Messrs. Cornell and Barlow, been imposed upon them; these sentences have been accompanied by injudicial denunciation, exhibiting a prejudiced and vindictive mind …. The office of Magistrate has thus been perverted into an instrument of persecution and oppression.

The resolution concluded by saying: “We bring thus openly and publicly these abuses to the attention of all constituted authorities, demanding that the lawful rights of the strikers be as efficiently protected as the rights of the employers and strike breakers.”

Attorney Morris Hillquit was typical of those who praised the courage and dedication of the strikers:

Often the prison pen to which martyrs in a great cause are sent does not turn out to be a place of disgrace, but rather a place of glory. So tonight we honor these sisters over there for what they have done for the cause. These girls were the most ill-paid of all unskilled workers in the city. The shops were, for the most part, filthy and depressing. The employers treated the girls rudely, and often cruelly. The conditions finally became so unbearable that a long-suffering sex, the daughters of a long-suffering race, rose up together and adopted for their defense the only weapon they saw at hand. It has been one of the most wonderful demonstrations that I know of in recent industrial history. Be of good cheer, sisters. You are not alone in your fight. Your victory will be glorious.

This was just the kind of evening the strikers needed to boost their spirits as the worst of the shirtwaist companies continue to dig in their heels and refuse to negotiate, while police, Magistrates, and the employers’ hired bullies make the lives of the women on the picket line as miserable as possible.

But this unprecedented uprising of New York’s women workers has already unionized most of the city’s shirtwaist companies, generated a good deal of publicity about the plight of working women, solidified the bond between labor and the suffrage movement, and brought out many of the city’s most powerful citizens in support of the city’s least powerful.

Though total victory has not yet been achieved in even this single industry in just this one city, the events of the past six weeks certainly show how much can be done to advance the rights of women, and all workers, if they are willing to unite and fight for them.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.