100 Years: Commemorating the Triangle fire
As regular readers of Jewesses with Attitude (and the New York Times) know, today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory fire. On Sunday, March 13th, 230 people joined the Jewish Women's Archive in New York City for the first Living the Legacy awards luncheon held to commemorate the centennial of the fire and celebrate the contributions of Jewish women activists.
The honorees were Ruth J. Abram, co-founder of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Kate Frucher, attorney, entrepreneur, and activist, and journalist Lynn Sherr. The full text of their inspiring remarks are online. (You can also watch the speeches on Youtube.) Here are a few highlights:
When I was a young girl growing up in Georgia, I dreamed of marrying a prince whom I would love as much as I loved my daddy. Later, disturbed by my mother’s sadness and believing it was related to the thwarting of her professional dreams, I thought of being what was then called a “career woman.” But, looking around, I could see plainly that was impossible, for no woman in my family or its large circle of friends had a career. So, I resigned to follow my mother, grandmothers, and great grandmothers examples and derive all life’s pleasures from the rewards of being a wife and mother.
Then someone gave me the autobiography of Jane Addams, the founder of America’s first settlement house. Here was a woman from a background similar to mine. Yet, over a century before, Addams had charted a course unbridled by community expectation. And, she had made a difference. I reached up my hand and Jane Addams lifted me into a wider world. History had come to my rescue, offering a role model and inspiration unavailable in my limited sphere.
When it comes to the movements that have forced progress - through history, to what’s happening in Egypt today - you rarely know much about the millions of people whose quiet acts of courage and compassion, tenacity and sacrifice change history. That’s particularly the case of movements in which women, poor people, and other marginalized groups have played starring roles.
Sometimes people don’t even know they’re doing it - like [the women] at the Triangle Factory. But, still, their lives light a spark for others… who then grab the spark and use it to build a fire. Jane Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, a young protestor today, who peacefully marches up to armed police to expose the brutality of her government.
Our best selves strive to do what these people do. Our imperfect selves often can’t. But we all do find ourselves in moments where we are called. And there is a brief moment in which we either choose to be conscious of that opportunity... or not… and then seize it...or don’t. It’s actually a deeply hopeful thought. Because it says that we all have moments to seize. And there are always going to be more of those moments ahead of us if we’ve missed them in the past.
That JWA would commemorate Triangle is, simply, justice. I say this not only because the women who died there might – might – have been my ancestors, but because they stand as a reminder of the deaths that had to take place before real reform came into being. Triangle is just one story. There are so many more, stories I’ve tried to tell in my books and my reporting. What makes me happy about JWA is that so many more stories will now be told about the women who were marginalized as they lived but inspire us now that we know the facts. What makes me sad is that I never got the full stories of my own forebears: two extraordinary grandmothers who did something I now find unimaginable: as children, or teenagers, they left the only homes they’d ever known to travel to a new land to start a new life. Lucky for me, and my sister, they did it well. But under what circumstances? And with what sacrifices? We’ll never know. If only JWA had been around then.
And as if the inspiring words of the honorees weren't enough, the event ended on a joyous note with a performance by Merri Lovinger Arian of Debbie Friedman's "Miriam's Song. "Halfway through the song, guests rose and, forming a human chain, danced around the room.
For other accounts of the event, see Roslyn Bernstein's post in Jewesses with Attitude, Gabrielle Birkner's in The Forward's blog, The Sisterhood, and Claire Michaels' in Pursue.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "100 Years: Commemorating the Triangle fire." 25 March 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/100-years-commemorating-the-triangle-fire>.