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.