"Something Rotten in America"
"For the first time in American economic life, the people are disturbed and frightened … There is something rotten in America; it is your job to lead the way out," Theresa Wolfson told the students of the Barnard College Summer School for Women Workers in Industry at the opening exercises on June 27, 1931. The school, then in its fifth year, offered six weeks of free classes in history, economics, and English literature to New York's laboring women. In 1931, 38 women representing seven nationalities and eight trades were admitted from 100 applicants. In addition to academic instruction, the students were to be offered chances to swim, play tennis, and take part in dramatics.
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, just three years after her parents had emigrated from Russia, Theresa Wolfson earned her bachelor's degree at Adelphi College (1917). During college, she spent a summer investigating wage standards in the New York garment industry; it was the beginning of a long career in labor relations. After her graduation from Adelphi, Wolfson took a position as a health worker in New York City, then worked for the National Child Labor Committee, investigating child labor across parts of the South and Midwest. Then, from 1920 to 1922, Wolfson served as executive secretary of the New York State Consumers League, where she lobbied for minimum wage and maximum hour legislation.
For her M.A. degree (1924) at Columbia University, Wolfson conducted a study of posture, lighting, and fatigue in New York's garment factories. After Columbia, Wolfson became director of education at the Union Health Center of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. At the same time, she conducted research on the barriers to organizing women workers; this research, published in 1926, brought Wolfson her Ph.D. from the Brookings Institution.
Wolfson joined the faculty of the Brooklyn branch of Hunter College in 1928. When this branch became Brooklyn College soon thereafter, Wolfson helped to develop the curricular and organizational design of the new institution. Her scholarly work also took her into public life. She served on the public panel of the War Labor Board (1942 to 1945), was involved in the New York State Board of Mediation (1946-1953) and the Kings Country Council Against Discrimination (1949-1953), and served as president of the New York chapter of the Industrial Relations Research Association. She won the John Dewey Award from the League for Industrial Democracy in 1957 for her work in mediating labor disputes.
Throughout her career, Wolfson combined academic expertise with a concrete approach to the workings and status of labor unions and to the dynamics of gender in labor and labor organizing. Combining research and social action, her focus on worker education was designed to break down barriers to the advancement of women in the workplace and gender inequality within trade unions. Wolfson believed that a worker's ability to deal effectively with society depended on a sound education. Thus, in addition to her scholarly teaching and writing, she also taught in non-academic settings, including classes for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Summer School for Office Workers, and, after her retirement, for a continuing education program at Sarah Lawrence College. Theresa Wolfson died on May 14, 1972 at the age of 74. A scholarship in her name allows a Brooklyn College student to pursue graduate studies in labor economics each year.
To learn more about Theresa Wolfson, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: Labor Movement in the United States.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1487-1488; New York Times, June 27, 1931, June 28, 1931, May 15, 1972.
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