GA Voice

The ‘Red Rose of Anarchy’: Rose Schneiderm­an,


- María Helena Dolan

This charging Aries with flaming red hair was born in Poland and grew until she reached 4'9” tall. Her tailor father and seamstress mother, unlike many Orthodox Jews, prioritize­d education for daughters. Precocious, Rose eventually learned to speak and write in four languages (English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian). The family immigrated to the gritty tenements of the Lower East Side when she was five, joining the eventual two million Jews, Italians, etc. who landed there, largely to enter the garment manufactur­ing industries.

Her father died when she was 10 and the four children went into an orphanage for over a year. Reunited, Rose — as the eldest at age 13 — had to enter the workforce. Her factory burned down and the employees had to buy their own sewing machines to work again at this sweatshop. She witnessed girls getting their fingers, hands, and scalps maimed and saw workers with entire limbs torn off. Plus, she noted that the women workers were paid much less than the men.

Infuriated by the unfairness of it, more seasoned women workers schooled her in the important trifecta: socialism, trade unionism, and feminism.

In 1905, Rose co-organized a citywide strike that resulted in raises for women hat-makers. “Each boss does the best he can to squeeze the workers to get the last penny out,” PBS's “American Masters” quotes her as saying. “We must stand together.”

She caught the eye of the mostly Christian, middle-class women who'd formed the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). They pushed for worker legislatio­n, such as the eighthour day. The wealthier WTUL members, dubbed “the Mink Brigade,” marveled at this natural-born leader and orator.

Rose manically organized 1909's “Uprising of the 20,000,” when women garment workers struck. The Mink Brigade picketed alongside them as a buffer against the police, who physically attacked any strikers anywhere.

The 11-week strike, with newspaper accounts of police brutality and horrific working conditions, resulted in most garment factories signing protocols about wages, safety, and working conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory didn't sign, and on March 25, 1911, its fire killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women.

At a commemorat­ive meeting for the victims, which WTUL women and sympathize­rs attended, Rose exclaimed, “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you … and we have found you wanting … The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.”

Mourning and organizing, Rose helped New York State in 1914 usher in the most progressiv­e labor legislatio­n of that time. And then there was suffrage. Clearly, women must have the vote!

Rose lectured on suffrage and labor and at a 1912 rally she met Maud O'Farrell Swartz, Irish-born printer and activist. Their “close friendship” was ended by Maud's death in 1937. Today, we assume theirs was a lesbian relationsh­ip.

In 1926, Rose was elected president of the National WTUL. This brought her to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, which led to visits at Hyde Park and with Franklin. Rose so impressed him that she served on the National Labor Advisory Board, the sole woman to do so.

This working class, probably lesbian, Polish-Jewish immigrant who quit school at 13 to support her family wrote National Recovery Administra­tion labor codes “for every industry with a predominan­tly female workforce. She also helped to shape Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” according to the Jewish Women's Archive.

Rose is best known for her speeches featuring “Bread and Roses” as things female workers deserved. Bread: sustenance, roses: art, schools, recreation, fresh air.

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist ... the right to life, and the sun and music and art ... The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too,” she said.

In 1949, after almost 50 years of public life, Rose retired so she could write her memoirs and make the odd labor rally or radio speech. This first-wave feminist lived long enough to see the bubbling up of a new women's movement, which also led to queer liberation. I think she would approve of all we've accomplish­ed since.

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