Clara Lemlich Shavelson (July 25, 1982), age 96. Labor leader, and political activist, Shavelson is best remembered for her role in touching off the historic 1909 shirtwaist makers’ strike, known as the “Revolt of the 20,000.”
At a now-famous meeting at New York’s Cooper Union on November 22, 1909, Shavelson, then a young woman of 20, declared in Yiddish, “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers for the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike!”
By the end of that long, hard winter, the strikers, most of whom were young, unmarried Jewish women, had achieved a closed shop, 52-hour week, substantial pay raise and abolition of many abuses. In the process, they proved that women could organize and strike successfully, and spurred dramatic increases in union membership throughout the industry.
Born in Gorodok, on the Austrian border of the Ukraine, Shavelson rebelled against her Orthodox father, a grocer, by reading Russian novels and revolutionary tracts. On immigrating to the U.S., she intended to study medicine, but instead entered a garment shop, and two years after her arrival, was among the founders of the influential I.L.G.W.U. Waist makers’ Local 25.
Following the 1909 strike, Shavelson, along with other strike leaders, was blacklisted within the industry and could only work temporarily, under assumed names. In 1909, she became a factory inspector for the union and, around the same time, was elected to the executive board of the Women’s Trade Union League, and began speaking out on behalf of women’s suffrage, particularly among working women.
As a Brooklyn housewife, she organized a strike to protest a rent increase which led to the family’s eviction from their home, and helped organize the United Council of Working Class Women, (later known as the Progressive Women’s Council), a housewives’ community organization that fought for just prices and rents, and also provided food and picket line support for strikers. In the early 1930’s, the Progressive Women’s Council (of which Shavelson later became president) spearheaded successful bread and meat strikes.
In 1934, she attended the first International Women’s Congress Against War and Fascism in Paris, and, in the early 1940’s, became New York City Secretary of the International Workers Order Women’s Division. In 1944, she returned to the shops as a hand-finisher on cloaks and active union member, until her retirement nine years later.