Working Women’s Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Photo Credit: A cartoon referring to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire depicts a factory owner, his coat bedecked with the dollar signs, holding a door closed while workers shut inside struggle to escape amid flames and smoke, 1911, artist unknown (name illegible), International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

To say working women didn’t have it easy in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a gross understatement. They had to endure extremely low wages (more so than working men), long hours, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and harassment from all sides. Even with Progressive Era reforms, change came very slow.

Probably the most infamous example of the consequences of these injustices working women had to face during this time was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and this year marks the 110th anniversary of that tragedy. I became fascinated with this piece of women’s history when I saw a PBS special on it a long time ago. The story, in fact, was part of what inspired me to write historical fiction. I have somewhere in my files a story idea based on this event.

What intrigued me and continues to do so is the question “Who were the victims of the fire?” Out of the list of 146 workers who died in the fire, only 15 were men (I counted them — there’s a list on the Cornell University website of all of them here.) That means that 131 women died in the fire. They were immigrant women, mostly, of Italian and Eastern European origin. A quick scan of the list shows the majority of these women were between the age of sixteen to twenty-five. But what do we really know about them? The Cornell University list doesn’t give us much more than their name, age, nationality, how long they had lived in the United States, and their address. That’s it.

What was their life like? We can put ourselves in the place of these women, many of whom had been in America for less than five years. They came with their families and with hopes and dreams of a better life, some escaping persecution (like the pogroms of the time where Jews were killed in the riots and mobs of Russia and Eastern Europe). What they got was extreme poverty, misery, and exploitation. Their workweek was hardly the 9-to-5 schedule we know today. It was not uncommon for them to start their workday before the sun went up and end it well after the sun went down. They worked ten or eleven hours a day, every day (no weekends off here!) with only a tiny break for lunch. How much were they paid? An average of six dollars a week, roughly equivalent to $173 today (that’s less than $10,000 a year). To add insult to injury, these women oftentimes had to bring their own materials (like sewing needles) because their employers refused to provide them.

They not only worked long hours for little pay, they also experienced severe indignity and humiliation. In most cases, they were so heavily monitored they didn’t even have the freedom to go to the ladies’ room whenever they needed it. Doors were locked and kept locked, ostensibly because employers were afraid they would steal materials and smuggle them out during working hours or leave for a bathroom break and remain out for too long. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire turned into a tragedy of massive proportions. There was one entrance that would have offered an escape for the workers but to get to it, they had to open the doors, and the doors were locked and bolted. 

The fire escape leading from the upper floors where the fire hose water and ladders didn’t get to was in such bad shape that it collapsed when workers tried to use it as an escape route from the fire.

Photo Credit: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire escape after the fire, 1911, photographer unknown, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

These women also worked in appalling conditions. The floor was littered with dirt and debris from the work they did and never cleaned. Sanitation was a joke. For the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of these materials, like cotton and paper, were highly inflammable. Reports on the fire during the time lay blame on this waste lying around for allowing the fire to spread so quickly. How quickly? Everything was over in less than twenty minutes.

Working women appear in Book 3, Pathfinding Women, and Book 4, Dandelions, of my Waxwood Series, though in a different way. Nettie Grace, a Waxwoodian resident Vivian befriends in Book 3, introduces the Gilded Age belle to the life of working women. She owns a drug store and has dreams of setting up a women’s library and reading room for working-class women and helping poor women improve their reading and education. There is a scene in the novel where an argument ensues during a suffragist meeting between Nettie, whose passionate fight for working women’s rights, clashes with the more mild demands of the middle and upper-class women of the organization.

Things did begin to change in the latter part of the 1910s, partly as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. In New York, a commission set out to place safety and fire laws for employers as well as labor laws allowing for better working conditions overall. Most of the country followed suit.

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram

The Second Wave Women’s Movement (1960s-1980s)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

This is the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972. How many of those article headlines apply to us today in 2021?

Photo Credit: Preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Spring, 1972, Liberty Media for Women, LLC.: Missvain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Women’s Equality Day is today and we want to celebrate!

It’s been a slow-going process for us to gain equality and even more slow-going to define for ourselves what that really means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal” (not very helpful, is it?) The word “equal” is defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another”. So equality is about sameness, right? It’s no wonder why many women (including one of my favorite musical artists, Kate Bush) mistake feminism for “wanting to be just like men”.

But from the beginning of its roots, the women’s movement was never about being “the same as men”. Suffragists wanted the vote (which they got in 1920) not because they wanted to think and act just like men, but because they wanted a say in public policies that affected them specifically, such as property laws, sanitary childbirth methods, and respect for their womanly virtues. 

But what’s more ironic is second-wave feminists defined equality as anything but sameness. The movement was, in fact, a highly personal one. It’s no wonder the feminist slogan became “the personal is political”. It grew out of mid-century women’s realization they were not living in a vacuum. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (which I talk more about here), was inspired by personal stories of the women she interviewed for women’s magazines in the 1950s, suburban housewives who had every material comfort but had lost their voices and their souls in the bargain. Again and again, Friedan heard tales of discontentment, anger, oppression, and guilt from these women which mirrored her own feelings. When the book was published, other women gathered in consciousness-raising groups and shared stories with one another. It was their desire to seek change for themselves and their sisters that sparked the movement.

In essence, the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era women needed, a voice in the public sphere. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s took that voice to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. Issues such as affirmative action for women and abolishing segregated help wanted ads, which allowed employers to advertise jobs for women that they felt were suited to them based on gender, helped women get better jobs. This was a political stand, to be sure, but it was also a highly personal one that affected individual women’s lives.

Another issue of concern to women at this time was reproductive rights. The Pill was approved by the FDA in 1961, which was a major step forward for women. It gave many women the right to hold off having children until they (and not society) were ready for them. It also meant women who preferred to focus on a career and not have children could do so. They helped put the decision to “fulfill a woman’s role” (in conventional terms) in the hands of women and not men.

The second-wave women’s movement wasn’t all roses and chocolate, though. Within the movement, women didn’t always agree on what they should be fighting for. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later because she felt the increasing radical views coming from younger feminists didn’t gel with her own. NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women wasn’t as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.

In addition, women of color saw the movement dominated by middle-class white women and the issues most relevant to them neglected. They felt their experiences, especially with racism and classism, were overlooked and that separating discrimination by sex and by race was defeating the purpose of abolishing discrimination entirely. While there were many strong voices for women of color and their unique experiences (such as bell hooks and Angela Davis), they tended to be attached more to the civil rights movement than the feminist movement. Other women as well, such as working-class and LGBT women, pointed out the exclusion of issues more intimately related to them for those that affected their white, middle-class, educated sister more.

These omissions are, in fact, what the third-wave feminist movement (roughly, from the late 1980s to today) is about. That movement expands not only to all issues affecting all women personally but around the globe, which is why the movement has also been called “global feminism”.

How did the women who preceded the second-wave feminist movement feel in their lives? Read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to find out.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Do you think the “personal is political” approach still exists among the younger generation of women fighting for their rights in the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram

Is The Feminine Mystique Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Photo Credit: Book cover for The Feminine Mystique, 1984, Del/Laurel reissue edition: VCU CNS/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

“We don’t need feminism anymore.”

How many times have I heard that one? And usually by twenty-something young ladies who, bless them, have never experienced the kind of oppression older women have and whose mothers have never experienced it. 

I shouldn’t say “never” really because all women (regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity, etc) have experienced some kind of oppression. A writer friend recently posted a meme to Facebook on all the things women couldn’t do in the first half of the 20th century, including serving on a jury and own a credit card. When we look at history, that list of what women couldn’t achieve grows exponentially. Think how 19th-century women couldn’t even own property that was left to them. Henry James’ novella Washington Square is all about a young lady (considered “plain” and not very socially inept) who is wooed by a handsome, charming young man who wants to marry her — you guessed it — for her money. Her father threatens to leave his money to worthy charities. Notice he doesn’t say “I’ll leave the money to my daughter and only to my daughter.” Why? Because even if he did, the money would revert to her husband’s control because she wouldn’t be allowed to own it (money is, or was in the 19th century, property).

Last year, when I published my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, I wrote this blog post about Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique. I had read snippets of the book in grad school but it was only after reading the entire book that it made a huge impression on me. Friedan’s feminine mystique (that fairytale woman who was born to be a mother, wife, caretaker — in other words, whose entire being was defined in her relationships to others and how she could serve those others) resonated with me because these women were my mother’s generation. I saw so much of my mother’s life in the feminine mystique (hence the title of my collection) and the frustration and rage and guilt she experienced as a woman (as opposed to her role as mother, wife, nurse, and caretaker). Now, at the age of seventy-eight, my mom still struggles with being the perfect wife and mother. 

We might ask, is the younger generation right? Didn’t we put the feminine mystique to rest in the 1970s and 1980s during the second-wave feminist movement? Aren’t women doing more than ever now, no longer expected to devote all their lives to home and family if they don’t choose to? Aren’t women making great strides in all areas of life (politics, society, economics, etc.) and in all corners of the globe? 

Perhaps herein lies the problem. There is no question we’re making strides everywhere and we are showing our strength in so many different ways. But we are also still expected to take on the feminine mystique and prioritize it above everything else. As Hanna Rosin points out in this article, if the goal of the women’s movement was to redefine women’s roles and women’s identity, we’ve really only added to them.

This is essential to understanding how the feminine mystique has surfaced during the COVID pandemic, more so than perhaps in the past few decades. This article talks about the social safety net (the place where family care happens) and how the pandemic has only increased the expectations for women (the article refers mostly to mothers, but I expand this to all women because we’ve been expected to be the caregivers to everyone, not just our kids) to create that place of shelter so many of us have needed during this time. Stay-at-home orders increased the burden on many women to create that safe space for children, husbands, parents, and others. Many women also lost their jobs during the pandemic, leaving the part of them that pursued financial stability and (hopefully) professional success empty. 

We can’t quite say we’re in the same spot with the feminine mystique in the 2020s as we were in the 1950s. Many women discovered their creativity during the pandemic with the slew of creative courses and Zoom videos (paid and free) offered through social media groups and on the internet. As a writer, I saw a huge increase in writing-related online events (including “writing sprints” where people get together on Zoom and just write). These are quite different from the feminist consciousness-raising groups that saw many women through their frustrations and rage in the 1960s and 1970s but perhaps they are also more positive because women had the opportunity to strengthen their identities and get support for their artistic passions through these events.

I sincerely hope one day we will be able to say “we don’t need feminism anymore” and “the feminine mystique doesn’t exist”. But for now, I think it’s safe to say we still have far to go when it comes to opening up our hearts and souls to all that we can do as women and how we define ourselves as women and as human beings.

If you want to read stories about suburban women in the 1950s escaping the feminine mystique, read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life here.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

How would you answer someone who told you, “The feminine mystique doesn’t exist in 2021?” Tell me in the comments!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram

🎁Lessons From My Mother’s Life (Updated and Revised Edition) Giveaway!!!🎁

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram

The Great Rebellion: The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Although this photo is from a later period in history, it nonetheless depicts one of the objections to women’s rights — that the “natural order of things” in terms of gender roles would be reversed and men would have to do the housework while women went out into the political arena.

Photo Credit: A woman wearing knickers (“pants”) and smoking a cigarette while her husband does the washing, 1901, Underwood & Underwood: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Underwood

Today marks the anniversary of the start of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the greatest rebellion of the 19th century: The Seneca Falls Convention. 

The convention grew out of a moment of oppression. The World Anti-Slavery Convention took place in London in 1840, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, met there for the first time. Both were denied entry into the convention because organizers decided to bar all women from attending. From this was born the idea in Cady Stanton and Mott’s minds to organize a convention closer to home to discuss women’s rights.

This event took place in Seneca Falls, New York on the weekend of July 19th and 20th in 1848 and became the first organized political gathering for women. You may recall I wrote here about the idea of suffragism (the right to vote). But was the convention really focused on women’s suffragism? Yes and no. Certainly, the right to vote was on the agenda, but as I mentioned in my blog post above, it wasn’t considered of the utmost importance, though it would be later on in the movement. What was high on the agenda was the idea that women were equal to men. You might recall from my discussion of the separate spheres that it was generally thought women were weaker than men emotionally and mentally, and therefore, their confinement to the private sphere was justified. So the idea that women were equal in every way was, as Cady Stanton declared, revolutionary indeed. 

To this end, the attendees of the convention (there were 300 of them) came up with a Declaration of Sentiments. The name, of course, suggests the Declaration of Independence, and this is no surprise, as the wording stems directly from that document. You can read the entire Declaration of Sentiments and see the names of some of the movers and shakers of the suffragist and abolitionist movements (including Frederick Douglass) who signed the declaration here.

Reactions to the convention were mixed. Some reporters and editors considered the idea of women meeting to talk about their rights as nothing short of lunacy. Others were afraid it would lead to a gender role reversal (as the cartoon above shows). Still others, like the famous Horace Greenly of the New York Tribune, begrudgingly admitted suffragists might be on to something when they insist women were created equal to men in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although the convention wasn’t perfect (it was haphazardly organized and attended mainly by locals,) it gave rise to the idea that women’s rights were worth putting on the political agenda of the 19th century. Also, like the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique nearly 120 years later (which I talk about here,) the convention triggered a movement that followed into the 20th century, creating not just one but several waves and generations of fighters for women’s rights. 

I talk about women’s rights in the late 19th century a lot in my Waxwood Series, and it also will come up in my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, Pathfinding Women is especially focused on the suffragist movement and some of the conflicts within that movement (though more in a personal than political sense).        

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram