In a World of Women-Centered Politics

To Do & To Be: Portraits of Four Women Activists, 1893-1986: Gertrude Barnum, Mary Dreier, Pauline Newman, Rose Pesotta by Ann Schofield Northeastern University Press, $15.95

The 1911 Triangle Fire was never far from Pauline Newman’s mind. By the time of the tragedy she’d become a union organizer, socialist and suffragist. But Newman had spent eight years at Triangle— years when children under the legal working age hid from health inspectors and women worked 12-hour days in the factory. Among the 146 young women who died in the fire, Newman counted many friends. For the rest of her life, she measured labor’s progress by asking whether it could happen again.

In To Do and To Be, historian Ann Schofield tells the stories of four women, including Newman, who shaped independent lives as labor activists earlier in this century. Schofield shows how each of the four navigated the rough political waters of her day, charting her unique course between broader social concerns and those specific to women. Her narratives are nearly seamless in blending sophisticated political analysis with the compelling stories of women who lived outside traditional marriage.

Schooled in the Lower East Side’s radical politics, Newman spent most of her career with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), an institution with a strong Yiddish accent and equally strong male domination. She balanced this loyalty with participation in a new world of women-centered politics, anchored by the ‘Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). This coalition of wage-earning and middle-class women fought for the eight-hour day, decent wages, women’s suffrage and protective workplace laws.

The WTUL introduced radical Jewish working class women like Newman to women like Gertrude Barnum, Mary Dreier, and the young Eleanor Roosevelt—women born into comfort, even riches. Newman’s collaboration with wealthier women began as a tactical necessity, a response to organized labor’s indifference to women workers. Newman’s appraisals of them reveal some of the coalition’s fault lines. Barnum worked in settlement houses, organized strikes, became a leading suffragist, and wrote fiction that defined wage work as a feminine pursuit. But Newman considered Barnum blind to the realities of class. When Barnum expressed amazement that middle-class women failed to support striking garment workers, Newman sneered that “G.B. is no more able to do this job than I am to be a dancing master.”

Yet Newman recalled warmly that “there was no more devoted unionist than Mary Dreier.” Dreier’s willingness to picket and go to jail won her the love of young women hungry not only for a living wage, but for the respectability Dreier lent their cause.

Despite their differences, Dreier and Newman both found community—and life partners—within the women’s labor reform movement. For decades, Newman shared a home with economist Frieda Miller, together raising Miller’s child. “A Jewish social tradition shaped [Newman’s] politics and her activism,” Schofield writes, “but American society allowed her a personal life that would have been unheard of in the shtetl.”

Newman’s passion for socialism waned over the years as the New Deal—influenced by the WTUL agenda—brought greater security to workers’ lives. But government programs were not Rose Pesotta’s preferred tools. An anarchist, she believed workers’ unions should meet their needs. The leading female labor leader of the 1930s, Pesotta crisscrossed the country to organize women in the dressmaking industry. A fellow ILGWU official called her “a torch that ignited whatever she touched.”

Leaving her Ukrainian village at 16, Pesotta joined the substantial contingent of Jewish anarchists in New York’s needle trades. Her anarchist fiance was among those deported in 1919 with Pesotta’s friend, Emma Goldman. In the years that followed, Pesotta’s affairs were many, reflecting her commitment to sexual freedom. The lack of a long term relationship haunted her, but she found a community in her union, in the anarchist movement, and among her shop-floor companions.”

Pesotta excelled at organizing across ethnic lines, running successful drives among Chicana, French-Canadian, and American-born women. Frustrated that her union refused to bring more women into leadership, she gave up her vice presidency. “A one-woman vice president could not adequately represent the women who now make up 85% of the International’s membership,” she told the 1944 ILGWU convention.

A post-war visit to Europe “powerfully reinforced Pesotta’s Jewishness,” Schofield writes, drawing her into the Jewish Labor Committee’s refugee work. Viewing the new Israeli state as a great social experiment, she worked briefly for the American Trade Union Council for Histradrut.

Pesotta lived life without a script,” Schofield observes. So did Barnum, Dreier, and Newman. Their complexity and courage shine through this fascinating narrative, and their stories challenge us today. Sweatshops persist from Chinatown to China, coercive workfare prepares people for nonexistent jobs, and the vision of decent health care and child care has yet to be realized. How would Newman rate our progress?

Mimi Bluestone, of New York, is working on a young adult book about Rose Pesotta