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For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. During the busy season, the work was nearly non-stop. In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines.She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. The shirtwaist makers, as young as age 15, worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. The factories also were unsanitary, or as a young striker explained, “unsanitary—that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used.” At the Triangle factory, women had to leave the building to use the bathroom, so management began locking the steel exit doors to prevent the “interruption of work” and only the foreman had the key.Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion—from work to play—and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceded it, like corsets and hoops.
For these young women workers, the strike had become more than taking a stand for a pay raise and reduced work hours.
They wanted to create a union with real power and solidarity.
While a closed shop became standard practice in later decades, at the time, their insistence seemed radical.
The issue unraveled the alliance between the union and the wealthy progressive women.
Wealthy progressive women like Anne Morgan (daughter of J. Morgan) and Alva Belmont (whose first husband, William Vanderbilt, presented her with a home so lavish, it was worth $150 million in today’s dollars) believed that all women—rich and poor—would be treated better if women had the right to vote.
Alva saw the labor uprising as an opportunity to move the women strikers’ concerns into a broader feminist struggle.The “shirtwaist”—a woman’s blouse—was one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines.The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women.Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps.One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. ” The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of suffragists.Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths.In a half an hour, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.She arranged huge rallies, fund-raising events and even spent nights in court paying the fines for arrested strikers.The coalition of the wealthy suffragists and shirtwaist strikers quickly gained momentum and favorable publicity.In fall 1909, as factory owners pressed shirtwaist makers to work longer hours for less money, several hundred workers went on strike. 22, Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) convened a meeting to discuss a general strike. Nineteen-year-old Clara Lemlich was sitting in the crowd listening to the speakers—mostly men—caution against striking.Clara was one of the founders of Local 25, whose membership numbered only a few hundred, mostly female, shirtwaist and dressmakers.