Housewives and Consumer Organizing: Introductory Essay
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 5
When we think about labor and labor activism, we tend to think of wage-work outside of the home and of formal worker institutions such as unions. Though Jews played important roles in those traditional avenues of labor activism, immigrant Jewish women also helped broaden the conversation to include housewives, women’s roles as consumers and domestic managers, and the power of informal neighborhood networks.
In May of 1902, Jewish immigrant housewives in New York City—concerned and angry about a sharp rise in the price of kosher meat from 12 cents to 18 cents per pound—launched a kosher meat boycott that lasted nearly a month, spread to several other boroughs of New York, and attracted much attention from both Jewish and general press. Though women had historically been involved in popular protests around issues like food prices, the boycott of 1902 stands out as a pioneering example of women’s strategic political organizing and effective use of local networks.
In early May, small butchers had responded to the skyrocketing price of kosher meat by boycotting the wholesalers (known as the Meat Trust and made up primarily of well-to-do German Jews) in an attempt to lower prices. But on May 14, they settled with the Meat Trust without achieving a price reduction. In doing so, butchers agreed to raise the price of the meat they sold in order to pay the wholesalers at a higher price, thus passing the burden of paying more for meat to the individuals and families who bought their products.
Housewives of the Lower East Side decided to take matters into their own hands. Canvassing their neighborhoods to drum up support, they succeeded in bringing thousands of women into the streets on May 15 to protest and declare a boycott. The protesters broke into butcher shops, confiscated meat from customers, and engaged in violent clashes with police. Approximately 70 women and 15 men were arrested.
Following this riot, the committee of women leading the boycott held a mass meeting to gather support and to strategize. On May 16, they went from house to house to organize their fellow housewives and to collect funds to pay arrest fines and reimburse customers whose meat had been taken in the riot. They also set up pickets in front of each butcher shop. Rioting continued that day, and more than 100 people were arrested. The boycott spread to the Bronx and to Harlem, where local women took up the organizing of their own neighborhoods.
On Saturday, May 17, the boycott leaders did not rest but rather went from synagogue to synagogue to plead their cause. Some used the traditional communal tactic of interrupting the Torah reading, asking men to encourage their wives to uphold the boycott and requesting a rabbinic endorsement.
By the following day, most of the kosher butcher shops had succumbed to the boycott and closed. The boycott had also spread to Brooklyn. That night, more than 500 women met to organize and strategize further, now under the name of the Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association. They established similar committees in Brooklyn, East New York, and the Bronx. The Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association organized house-to-house patrols and surveillance of butcher shops. They assigned committees to visit labor union meetings and mutual aid societies and to plan cooperative kosher meat stores (which would allow a group of families to purchase meat in larger quantity and at the wholesale price). They also sent a delegation to the Mayor’s office to seek formal permission for a rally.
On May 21, male communal leaders decided it was time to assert their own direction over the boycott. They held a conference of 300 people representing synagogues, mutual aid societies, unions, and other organizations, and formed the Allied Conference for Cheap Kosher Meat, telling women to leave the fighting to the men. Nevertheless, women continued to be active in their local neighborhoods.
The boycott continued to attract supporters. On May 22, the Retail Butchers Association affiliated itself with the boycott, and on May 27, the Orthodox leaders joined in. Overall, the boycott met widespread support throughout the community. Rabbis spoke about the boycott from their pulpits; crowds came to the courthouse to support the arrested women. Jewish newspapers—both the socialist Forward and the Orthodox Yiddishes Tageblat —covered the boycott sympathetically. Labor unions lent their support, too. Though some expressed concern about the prominence of women’s leadership and some men tried to take control of the boycott, women were not harshly criticized for their actions nor entirely displaced.
The strike officially ended on June 5, 1902, and retail meat prices returned to 14 cents per pound. The kosher meat cooperatives that had been established during the boycott continued to operate. The boycott had been a success, though its impact was not permanent—meat prices eventually began to rise again.
But the success of the boycott should be assessed not only in terms of kosher meat prices but also in terms of its innovative model. Unlike the other Jewish immigrant activists of the period, the leaders of the boycott were not young workers—they were housewives with children. Their average age was 39, and most had four or more children at home. These women were not angry, spontaneous rioters—they were political actors making strategic, planned calculations. Drawing on their female neighborhood networks, they pioneered tactics of community organizing. Acting in their roles as consumers and housewives, they saw themselves as partners with their wage-earning husbands, who were involved in more public, formal labor struggles. These women understood how the market worked and how to achieve their goal of lowering meat prices, using a boycott to manipulate supply and demand. They also used explicitly political language in their fight: they referred to themselves as strikers, called those who broke the boycott scabs, and referred to freedom of speech when protesting police disruption of their gatherings. Despite difficult conditions, they sustained their activism and grew their organization over the course of several weeks.
The Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association disbanded when the boycott ended. Although it didn’t continue as a neighborhood force, it modeled an approach to neighborhood organizing that was used effectively again in the rent strikes of 1904 and 1907. The important lessons it taught about women’s political potential also likely shaped the housewives’ daughters, many of whom were working in the garment industry during the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 and 1910. As historian Paula Hyman argued, “the kosher meat boycott should be seen not as an isolated incident but as a prelude to the explosion of women activists in the great garment industry strikes at the end of the decade.”
Paula Hyman, “Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902,” American Jewish History 70 (September 1980): 105.