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Clara Lemlich sparks "Uprising of the 20,000"

November 22, 1909
Uprising of the 20,000
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Two women strikers on picket line during the "Uprising of the 20,000", garment workers strike, New York City. This is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948.

“I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike.” Thus, in Yiddish, 23-year-old Clara Lemlich addressed a crowd of thousands of restless laborers at New York City’s Cooper Union on November 22, 1909. They had been listening for hours as numerous labor leaders decried current working conditions in New York’s garment industry but who nonetheless advocated caution when considering a strike.

Lemlich’s words and passion stirred the crowd. The chairman of the event came to her side and called out “Will you take the old Hebrew oath?” Although not an exclusively Jewish gathering, most in the crowd raised their right arms and pledged with him in Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise.” And so began the "Uprising of the 20,000"; a critical turning point in American labor activism.

In the months that followed, thousands of garment workers, mainly young Jewish and Italian women, walked picket lines and confronted police brutality. A strong corps of Jewish women, led by figures like Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, and Pauline Newman, worked tirelessly to organize and sustain the strike effort. They insisted that their concerns extended beyond wages and hours as they fought for dignity in working conditions and for women’s right to union recognition. While the strike was only partially successful, it set off a wave of general strikes from 1909-1915 in cities across the United States. As a result, U.S. labor leaders who had long dismissed the needs of women workers and ignored the work of female activists had to accept the centrality of women’s needs within the American labor movement.

To learn more about Clara Lemlich, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia.

See also: The Uprising of the 20,000; This Week in History for April 22, 1912, May 27, 1935 and July 12, 1982; Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women's Clubs,Cooper Union, and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union office; 10 Things You Should Know About Clara Lemlich and Remembering the Uprising of the 20,000, Jewesses with Attitude; Clara Lemlich Shavelson in the Virtual Archive.

Sources: Jewish Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 772-773; Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 (Chapel Hill, 1995), pp. 48-59; Jacob Rader Marcus, ed., The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (Cincinnati, 1981), pp. 568-570.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Clara Lemlich sparks "Uprising of the 20,000"." (Viewed on April 16, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/nov/22/1909/clara-lemlich>.