Our Radical, Activist Foremothers

The historic legacy of radical Jewish women activists in the United States serves as an inspiration to many of us in the progressive movement to this day. For me, personally, the activism of Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich — two immigrant radical Jewish women — are a daily inspiration for my social justice work. I think of Clara Lemlich’s rallying cry, spoken in Yiddish, “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike!” These words sparked the 1909 “Uprising of 20,000,” the largest women-led strike of women workers in the U.S. I am inspired and motivated to follow in her footsteps as an organizer, impassioned speaker, and activist. However, it is the thousands of radical Jewish women whose names we will never know, the women who collectively walked off their jobs in 1909 and in the years that followed, that should inform our activism today.

The labor movement is driven by great leaders and great members. It is the members who drove those strikes between 1909 and 1915 that resulted in critical safety regulations, workplace protections, benefits, and ultimately, the National Labor Relations Act. And today, we must look to the example of the tens of thousands of largely immigrant women workers of the last century who fiercely stood up for their right to organize and work in a union.

Ann Toback in an interview with Amelia Dornbush on the Lilith Blog.