A fire blazes through a garment factory. The building has too few exits and not enough fire escapes. Fire equipment cannot reach the fire. More than 100 people—many of them young women—die. Bodies, burnt beyond recognition, line the floor of a government building, awaiting identification.
In 1909, Jewish women revolutionized the American labor movement. Before the huge garment industry strike known as the “Uprising of the 20,000,” union leaders saw women workers as irrelevant to the labor movement because they did not fit into the model of the traditional male union member. But these garment workers, many of them young Jewish women, proved that women could, in fact, organize effectively and challenge working conditions, and in doing so, they expanded the definition of worker and union member.
Physical places add an important dimension to our understanding of history. This was the impetus behind JWA's effort to put Jewish women "On the Map." This month, we have been commemorating the centennial of the Triangle factory fire, which took the lives of 146 garment workers. The history of the labor movement in the U.S. is inextricably linked with this watershed event.
Fannia Cohn, born in 1885, grew up in a well-to-do family in what was the western part of the Russian empire: Kletzk, now part of Belarus. She was educated at home, and by the time she was 15, she was involved in secret revolutionary activities.
Just before turning 20, she and her brother immigrated to the U.S. aided by wealthy relatives who were already here. Fannia’s first job in the U.S. was with the American Jewish Women’s Committee helping other Jewish women arriving at Ellis Island.