A Novel Goes from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to the Suffragists’ Fight for the Vote

New York City, 1911.  Helen Fox is a factory worker barely able to make ends meet and so reluctantly allows Abigail, her eldest daughter, to go to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; the family desperately needs the money.  When Abigail is killed in the devastating fire, Helen is paralyzed by grief and self-recrimination. But she is ultimately able to channel her sorrow into the suffragist cause, and to her surprise, becomes swept up in its idealistic fervor. 

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks with debut novelist Galia Gichon about The Accidental Suffragist (Wyatt-Mackenzie), and the ways in which emotion and activism intersect. 

YZM: What inspired you to write about women’s suffrage? Does the subject have a particular relevance now? 

GG: I’ve been fascinated by the Suffragists since I was a young girl. These women were fighting an uphill battle and I was so impressed by their dedication, especially since the odds were against them for so long.  The 100th anniversary of a woman’s right to vote was only last year, so the interest has definitely resurfaced as a result. Central Park erected a statue to honor three famous suffragists just in 2020!

YZM: Can you speak about the meaning of the title—why “accidental?” 

GG: Helen Fox, the protagonist never meant to get involved in the Suffragist movement. She lived in a tenement apartment. Although both she and her husband worked in the factories, they still barely had enough food to feed their family of six. All she was concerned about was the safety and well-being of her children. When the tragedy of her eldest daughter’s death occurred, she by chance met key suffragists who ended up helping her financially and with support. They offered her a job which she initially took because it paid, but she didn’t really care about the cause. But in no time, she was swept up in the Suffragist cause and became a rising leader in the organization. 

YZM: Lilith has long covered the women labor union organizers of that era who were Jewish; can you say more about them? 

GG:  There was Clara Lemlich Shavelson, an influential labor union leader who barely spoke English (she mostly spoke Yiddish) initially but then went on to help spark the historic “Uprising of the 20,000, which focused on improved factory conditions and fair wages. Pauline Newman worked in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She ended up organizing strikes across the country to benefit garment workers and more. Rose Schneiderman worked in the factories for the money.  An advocate of the working class, she became a union organizer and supporter of women’s suffrage. All these women became involved and activists despite societal pressures and their families’ wishes.  

YZM: You’ve talked about a convergence of “Judaism, women’s rights and gender equality.”

GG: The common thread here—which has been an integral part of my upbringing—is helping minorities achieve equal status free from persecution. I grew up wanting Jews to have religious freedom in Israel, Europe and the United States. As a teen I learned about women’s rights and wanted an equal footing in my education and workplace. This was especially important as I started my career on Wall Street and noticed the pay disparity between women and men.  With the advent of the #MeToo movement, gender equality is even more pertinent to women feeling comfortable in organizations, corporations and their communities.  

Religious freedom, women’s rights and gender equality can’t happen in a vacuum—they need each other to progress.