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Immigrant Women

In May, 1902, scores of outraged Jewish housewives took to the streets chanting slogans, dousing the meat in butcher store windows with petroleum and setting it afire. Some 15 years later, the young female members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union established a social and educational center to overcome the tedium of sweatshops.

These phenomena of Jewish women’s history were explored by speakers on “Immigrant Women,” at a Conference on Culture and Community Among New York Jews, at Columbia University in January. A related paper, on Yiddish women writers and poets, was presented in an earlier session by Dr. Norma Fain Pratt of Mt. San Antonio College, who is writing a book on the subject. The conference, sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, was open to the public.

Dr. Paula Hyman, Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish History at Columbia, focused upon the Jewish women who organized the well-known “Kosher Meat Riots” of 1902. They subsequently formed a committee—The Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association —to coordinate widespread boycotts of kosher butchers. The women who led the boycott had both a clear economic objective and a highly developed political strategy. They referred to themselves as “strikers.”

It has generally been assumed that only the young, single Jewish women involved in labor unions and political parties in the early years of the century were political activists. Yet, Hyman concluded, many married Jewish women, representing the entire spectrum of religious and political views, displayed equally sophisticated political sensibilities through consumer protest such as the Kosher Meat Riots and the rent strikes of 1904.

It was to the struggles and achievements of the wage-earning women involved in labor unions that the next panelist, Dr. Alice Kessler-Harris, of Hofstra University, turned her attention. The great majority of women employed in garment shops in the early 20th Century were young, single and the daughters of immigrant families. East European Jewish women demonstrated remarkable interest in labor unions and joined them in large numbers. Their strength and perseverance in the shirtwaist makers’ strike of 1909-10 won the sympathy of New Yorkers of all walks of life, and Jewish women remained active in the garment unions well into the 1930s and 1940s.

A significant factor in the rapid and effective organization of Jewish women workers in the garment trades was the dedication and hard work of female Jewish organizers such as Fannia Cohen, Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta and Rose Schneiderman, said Kessler-Harris. Such women led difficult lives.

“To do good in the world meant to forego family and friends,” the speaker said. Because many of them never married, they were often scorned as “old maids” within the Jewish community. At the same time, they struggled to overcome resistance and antagonism on the part of male leaders within the garment unions.

Single women often became objects of pity or derision within the immigrant Jewish community. The plight of the unmarried aunt, a member of many first and second generation Jewish families, was sensitively portrayed by the third speaker, Grace Paley, who read her popular short story, “Goodbye and Good Luck.”