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July 26, 2017 by

Dear Chelsea Clinton: Clara Lemlich was a Communist—and a Jew

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

This summer, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton released her new children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. In it, she profiles, among others, the Jewish labor organizer and Communist Party activist Clara Lemlich with these words: “After her family fled poverty and the threat of violence in Ukraine for a new home in New York City, Clara Lemlich got a new job working in a garment factory. She wrote that the factory’s conditions made women into machines, and so she persisted, organizing picket lines and strikes that ultimately helped win better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions for thousands of workers—both women and men.”

I wrote this open letter in response.


Dear Chelsea Clinton,

I write to inform you that Clara Lemlich—leader of the Uprising of 20,000 garment workers in 1909, queen of my heart, featured in your new children’s book—was a Communist and a Jew. 

She did not flee generic “poverty and the threat of violence in Ukraine,” as you write; she fled an anti-Semitic pogrom in which 47 Jews were killed, 592 were injured, and 700 Jewish families’ homes were destroyed. Later Clara would become a union leader of thousands of immigrant Jewish factory girls in New York City whose lives and work experiences were intimately defined by the same anti-Semitic violence that she had survived. Her famous speech rousing those young women to strike, quoted in your book, was delivered in Yiddish, not English. Little girls reading your book deserve to know this history, which you neglect to mention: Clara Lemlich was a Jew. 

Clara Lemlich also was very, very communist. She started sneaking copies of illicit anti-capitalist literature as a child in Ukraine and was already a dedicated Marxist revolutionary  by the time she came to the U.S. at age 17. As she led her factory co-workers in forming their own local of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), despite the objections of its conservative male leadership, she was arrested by the cops 17 times. She led three strikes in the lead-up to the famous Uprising that were, in her words, “broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses.” Hired thugs followed her home from a picket line in September 1909 to break her ribs and leave her bleeding in the street. After the famous strike, she was blacklisted from both the garment industry and the ILGWU for her radicalism. Later she went to work for a women’s suffrage organization to mobilize working-class women to win the vote… where she also got kicked out for being a Communist.

In fact, the only political organization from which Clara Lemlich was never banished was the Communist Party and its front groups, where she made her political home for the next several decades organizing working-class housewives. She protested the executions of the Rosenbergs in 1953 and the U.S. military intervention in Guatemala in 1954 against a popularly elected leftist leader who supported redistribution of land to poor peasants. (Some members of your family, Chelsea, might know something about this history of U.S.-backed coups in Central America.) Under McCarthy, she was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and her family was investigated and put under government surveillance for the rest of her life. 

Far from a warm-and-fuzzy story about a plucky, non-ideological girl who was spontaneously moved to strike to win better treatment for “both women and men,” Clara Lemlich’s story is about militant confrontation with the forces of state and capitalist power that sought to violently repress her efforts toward workers’ power at every turn. Movements to win things like “better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions”—along with civil rights and women’s freedom—have always counted radicals like her among their ranks. When history books describe the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts as a spontaneous outburst of worker frustration—not the product of years of deep organizing by members of the Industrial Workers of the World—and when children’s books in the same vein as yours depict Rosa Parks’s famous act of defiance as a product of tired feet, not a deliberate act of civil disobedience by a long-time organizer who faced economic repression and death threats for the rest of her life—these revisions matter.

In contrast to Clara Lemlich, you, Chelsea Clinton, have spent your life being paid to glide from one patronage job to the next. You have floated on a nepotistic cloud from consulting gigs to board positions at McKinsey, IAC, the Clinton Foundation, and Expedia. In 2011 you snagged a “special correspondent” position on NBC and were paid $600,000 for producing 23 minutes of aired content, a sweet $26,724 per minute. You live in an apartment that costs $10.5 million and your millionaire parents have tax-sheltered your inheritance. (Thanks to Matt Bruenig in Jacobin for compiling a lifetime of patronage here.) I don’t know if you knew that Clara Lemlich was a communist whose life was dedicated to the abolition of the owning class you represent when you chose her for the book, but it seems relevant that you should know. 

I hope that every girl in the world gets the chance to be inspired by Clara Lemlich. Her legacy might inspire young women to organize strikes in the garment sweatshops created by your parents’ free trade zones in Haiti, to work against U.S. empire through groups like the Stop the War Coalition that you protested against while at Oxford, or to become card-carrying communists committed to the end of class society. When we do, I can only imagine that we will be warned. We will be given an explanation. And nevertheless, we will persist. 

May our foremothers’ memory be a blessing that inspires us to rise towards revolution, 
–Haley, Portrayer of Clara Lemlich in the Boston Workers’ Circle Purim Spiel, year 5777

Haley Kossek, center, as Clara Lemlich. Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumijan

Haley Kossek, center, as Clara Lemlich. Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumijan

 


Haley Kossek is a labor organizer and member of the Workers’ Circle for Jewish Culture and Social Justice in Boston, Massachusetts.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.  

 


  • Mari Jo Buhle

    My thanks to Haley Kossek for this wonderful piece on the “real” Clara Lemlich. It’s a beautifully written, well-research response to Clinton’s misuse of history. –Mari Jo Buhle, Brown University emerita.

  • http://www.katlover.com/ kgarry

    Beautiful rebuttal! Thank you!

  • Miles Stern

    Thank you for writing this. It shows just how heroic, courageous, generous, and hard-working our foremothers like Clara Lemlich were. Clinton’s gloss over Lemlich’s ideology, ancestry, and her organizing are a disservice to both Lemlich’s memory and the organized movements for progress that she helped lead.

  • norag60

    Haley Kossek I salute you hemana!!!

  • elenadeoro

    Thank you so much!! So often Jewish people’s contributions when seen as positive are stripped of their jewishness, de-racinated, if you will. Thank you for restoring her fully to herself.

  • Bonagogo

    progressives – eating their own….

    • Peter Russell

      News flash: the Clintons are not progressive; they are center-right opportunists, and always have been.

    • Jeff Wolf Zinn

      Yep. I would add, she was INCLUDED in the book. That in itself is huge and worthy of praise, not nitpicking.

  • loberry

    Thank you for this. Clara is one of my heroines. Her speeches inspired and she spoke even when people like Gompers wanted her to be quiet. We need more modern-day Lemlichs.

  • Tim Groves

    So basically you are attacking a book written for 4 year olds who don’t actually understand anti-semitism and communism. After reading your article it seems you have a real hangup with the Clintons in general and so choose to attack Chelsea. You also fail to mention the other women in the book, I guess you don’t have an issue with them. I’m wondering what else you think 4 year olds should be exposed to?

    • Michael Varian Daly

      Then they should be taught.

    • Dottie Averbach

      I am certain that even 4 year olds can be introduced to anti semitism. Four year olds are on the receiving end of it every day. It is never to early to start teaching empathy. While they might not understand what communism is (most Americans don’t) they can understand she was different and was wrongly persecuted for it. To omit those facts, is rewriting jistory. For a book review, it was too focused on the Clintons money though.

      • Kitty

        Yes at least for myself, I knew I was a Jew by 4 years old. I knew by 4 years old my grandfather had come to the US in the late 1800′s to avoid conscription in the Czar’s army. I don’t know today if that is true, but that is what I knew as a child. I would have loved a story about a young Jewish girl who escaped programs and came to the US and played such a role in helping people to organize.

  • Ellen Rifkin

    We also should not forget the large contingent of young women from Italian immigrant families who also joined in the strike, raising their hands to the Yiddish oath uttered by Lemlich in her Cooper Union speech.

  • Meriwether Falk

    Thanks for the illuminating history about Clara Lemlich, but I disagree that all this information belongs in a children’s picture book. Chelsea Clinton’s book is meant for really young children and is meant to just introduce historical figures. I’m sure her book has raised awareness about Clara Lemlich. Some will be inspired to do further research and discover these other important aspects of her life that you brought up. If you think children deserve a more complete biography of her then perhaps you could write one.

    • SweetT

      I agree for the most part. While initially valid criticism (though at the same time taking into account the audience of the book), it devolves into a criticism of “THE CLINTONS.” Which is how I came to read this article, as it was posted by a Bernie Die-Hard. I am glad to know more about Clara Lemlich, and being 40, can comprehend this article well. A little kid, maybe not so much?

    • http://www.orartswatch.org/roots-on-the-rails-review-secular-hymns-backroads-ballads-and-blues/ Mitchito

      Meriwether Falk, I up-vote you for the sensible context of this foyst-poyson essay that you offer. Yet, any political (activist-organizer as opposed to henchman or thug) animal worth their blood and salt would use the illustration of Chelsea Clinton’s life and fortunes to illuminate the House of Clinton record in office. That record was shockingly absent from Madame Clinton’s surprising (some called it betrayal by Barry of his base in ’08) appointment to Secretary of State after her tenure as Jr Senator from Wall Street.

      Why has the House of Clinton record in office(s) and out been out of public scrutiny? With the Koch Brothers along with that vast Right Wing Conspiracy and Tea Party ground game jamming the corporate-captured news media with memes that few followers bother to look into before becoming repetitive trolls and rhetorical drones fit for sound-bite political coverage lacking context, coupled with the Leftie exclusion from the Golden Rolodex of Network TVRadio Experts of the insightful substantive critics of the House of Clinton and Obama-Biden Crony Cabinet Continuity from the House of Bush to Trump Swamp the most tactical of victories was claimed by the Vast Right Wing Corporate Caliphate and their DNCDLC Viziers.

      Regrettably, that has often been the role of Jews throughout history. Selling their services like Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman’s University of Chicago CIA contracts to devise E-CON content for the Cold War’s MIGHTY WURLITZER and the Blowback of it via the duopoly’s loyalty to Neo-Liberal E-CON Absolutism coupled with Neo-Con Daddy Warbucks socialist military industrial budgets. Jewish Conservative loyalty to the Feudal Lord or government with the means and willing to pay for such guidance behind the levers of power. Nothing unique in Judaism’s Rabbinic hierarchy community dynamics as the truly organized religions always mute their Prophets and Mystics in the long-term goal and service of, as Max Weber observed, the “Routinization of Charisma.”
      https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-cold-war-led-the-cia-to-promote-human-capital-theory

      The Consultanocracy. Within Jewish History serving the Islamic Caliphate (see the career of most influential of all Halachik Codifiers in Jewish history, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon or the RAMBAM) conquest of the Muddle East and North Africa brought the Moroccan Mellah and access of wealthy Jews to the Royal Courts as the go-betweens to the world beyond the Caliphate.

      There’s more than enough complexity to kvetch about glosses that are ideologically serviceable to one side or another in ideological debates that lamentably overlook how the human condition and human nature almost always results in rank OPPORTUNISM and GREED trumping IDEOLOGY every time. Including through both of Obama’s terms when the GOPTEA PARTYBREITBART axis was obstructionist of every Obama initiative, except for the 2012 KORUS, FTA (Free Trade Agreement) and all those PRIVATIZATION schemes from each of Obama’s carefully picked Cabinet appointments.
      https://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2015/05/05/third-year-korea-fta-data-released-show-failure-obamas-last-more-exports-more

      The South Koreans and their work force is actually now trying their former SAMSUNG grafting Madame President as the Brazilians will be getting around to doing with Madame Roussef (impeccable Labor Activist youth and history only to find her way into the nationalized PETROBRAS pockets) and President Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party who were both ideological and opportunistic and like most humans, feathered their nests after risking their lives to the Brazilian Generals and Captains of Industry while improving the lives of tens of millions who’d been hopeless.
      https://nnn.com.ng/guardian/i-didnt-make-decisions-samsung-heir-tells-corruption-trial/

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  • Agrelou

    Love the Workman’s Circle, or as my grandmother used to call it the Voikmans Soykel

  • migwar

    This is a wonderful letter. My mother’s best friend was hauled up before the McCarthy Commission and lost her teaching job after she invoked the Fifth Amendment. Her granddaughter is named Emma, presumably named after Emma Goldman. My only criticism of your letter is grammatical. “In fact, the only political organization that Clara Lemlich was never banished was the Communist Party and its front groups, where she made her political home for the next several decades organizing working-class housewives.” I suggest the addition of the words “from which” after “organization.” Then, your letter will be letter-perfect!

  • migwar

    Okay, I’ll persist. This letter would be a perfect response, but for one grammatical error, to wit:

    “”In fact, the only political organization that Clara Lemlich was never banished was the Communist Party and its front groups, where she made her political home for the next several decades organizing working-class housewives.”

    Just substitute “from which” for the word “that” after “organization” and the grammatical problem is solved.

    My original comment also contained some personal family history, but I’ll just skip that and hope this comment “makes the cut.”

  • David Barkin

    ¡Fabuloso! An elocuent, well-documented essay that deserves VERY wide circulation. I hope you find a way to circulate it widely.

  • Andrew Deutsch

    it’s regrettable Lemlich did not reject communism as the horrors of Stalin became apparent event to the ardent communist. The extreme cruelty of communism, its forced collectivizations, mass arrests, the gulag archipelago, murders of millions, starvation and disease became well known….i understand why clinton would not wish to engage in these topics in a children’s book.

    • AuntieColonial

      And nazi Germany despite the words ‘National Socialist’ had a capitalist economy- as did Pinochet’s Chile, & etc etc etc. (And Chile had a democratically elected communist govt which of course Pinochet over threw w the aid of the US, another capitalist economy). The USSR was undoubtedly a vile authoritarian communist regime (though it did have some features such as health care & full employment etc which Russians are nostalgic for).

    • Cheri

      Stalin’s regime was not real communism. It was fascism.

  • disqus_qZ6DCvpsy9

    Just so happens that there IS a children’s book about Clara Lemlich: “Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909,” by Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet

  • sotiredofthis

    That she remained a committed communist until the end, even after the horrors under Stalin were well known, including the starvation of millions of people in Ukraine, where food and grain was taken from the starving and sold abroad — it discredits her completely in my eyes.

  • David Goldstein

    I intend to travel to Ukraine next month to pay my respects to the shtetl home regions of my ancestors who were also driven out by the pogroms of the early 20th century, particularly the ones in the Kishinev region. My maternal grandparents were Communists in the U.S. but disavowed Stalin as soon as he made his non-aggression pact with Hitler.

    • Arsan Lupin

      Sorry for being a little nit-picky, but Kishinev isn’t in Ukraine – it’s the capital of the Republic of Moldova, and also goes by the name Chișinău in the country’s native Romanian language. Moldova was formed when a petulant Stalin tore off the Bessarabian region of Romania and decreed it an independent country – then absorbed it into the USSR.

      Worse, there is a separatist splinter of land between Moldova and Ukraine that fought a bloody civil war to break away from Moldova, and they maintain peacekeeping troops within to prevent another flareup of hostilities. A Westerner trying to pass from Ukraine to Moldova will find that passing through this “Transnistria” breakaway region (the self-proclaimed “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”) is NOT a simple process, and can get very tense. I was lucky – when I traveled there, I had a retired Soviet naval officer escorting me. I advise extreme caution.

    • Arsan Lupin

      Kishinev isn’t in Ukraine – it’s the capital of Moldova. Beware of land travel between the two – the eastern sliver of Moldova known as Transnistria is in between, and they are extremely hostile to Westerners in general and Americans in particular. Good luck and safe travels!

  • Barbie Alsop

    I don’t know if Ms Clinton’s book also discusses Rosa Parks, but the “tired feet” meme has been used for decades to obscure the fact of her intense personal involvement in the movement. It would be a shame if Clara Lemlich’s story is also whitewashed in the same manner to make her life somehow “acceptable” for little girls. Little girls are already experiencing misogyny and sexualization at an early age. They need tools as soon as they are able to get them to start seeing there is another way forward.

    I thoroughly applaud the chastising of the Clintons in this piece. Speaking truth to what they stand for is the only way we will get out of the morass they created with their triangulation and selling of the Democratic party to Wall Street. And the commenters who cite Stalin as a reason to oppose communism clearly don’t understand that the USSR was not a communist country but a totalitarian state that declared itself “communist” because it was sick of trying to actually become communist and so simply declared success when they weren’t even halfway there.

    • Arsan Lupin

      So many of you missed the crucial detais that make this so-called review so awful:
      1. It’s a CHILDREN’S book – hardly the place to get into serious arguments on geopolitics and macroeconomics. It has to be kept at a grade school level of education, with the more controversial and/or brutal details edited out, and left to adult books.
      2. The author has a serious attitude against the Clinton family in general and Chelsea in particular. Her egregious personal bias against the author renders her incompetent and unfit to review anything any of them ever wrote.
      3. The reviewer ignores the horrors the Bolsheviks inflicted on the Soviet people from the beginning, rendering her defense of communism tainted by the blood of over 40 million victims of Lenin and Stalin.
      4. It’s a CHILDREN’S BOOK, for God’s sake!

  • Allison

    Wow Haley. It’s a book for toddlers…. What do you want from her? This sounds more like you have a personal problem with Chelsea. To me this reeks of internalized misogyny and outright cattiness. Get a grip.

  • Annie P Hall

    I find this insulting.

  • Arsan Lupin

    So many of you missed the crucial detais that make this so-called review so awful:
    1. It’s a CHILDREN’S book – hardly the place to get into serious arguments on geopolitics and macroeconomics. It has to be kept at a grade school level of education, with the more controversial and/or brutal details edited out, and left to adult books.
    2. The author has a serious attitude against the Clinton family in general and Chelsea in particular. Her egregious personal bias against the author renders her unfit to review anything any of them ever wrote.
    3. The reviewer ignores the horrors the Bolsheviks inflicted on the Soviet people from the beginning, rendering her defense of communism tainted by the blood of over 40 million victims of Lenin and Stalin.
    4. It’s a CHILDREN’S BOOK, for goodness sake!

    P.S.: It also seems the Lilith team are uncomfortable with civil discourse that includes criticism of the review’s author. Bias much?

  • Arsan Lupin

    It’s a CHILDREN’S book!

  • Erik

    Wow. Look at those brainwashed kids with their fists in the air.

    The one on the left will be a doctor, the one in the middle will be in finance, and the one on the right will be in tech. They will make huge salaries, live in a beautiful home in the city or suburbs.

    In other words, lives that Schneiderman, Lemlich and Goldman would have confiscated if they could.