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Triangle Fire Centennial: Celebrate and Commemorate - Remarks

On Sunday, March 13, 2011, the first annual JWA luncheon was held, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire. The following are transcripts of remarks made at the event by Nicki Newman Tanner, one of the Honorary Chairs; Ann F. Lewis, the chair of the Benefit Event Committee; the three women who received JWA's "Living the Legacy Award"; and Gail Twersky Reimer, JWA's Executive Director and Founder:

Nicki Newman Tanner, Welcome

It is a pleasure for me to welcome you today on behalf of the honorary chairs and committee, and on behalf of Gail Reimer, our visionary founder.

Gail was going to be here. Her surgery was behind her, her bag was packed, and then her Jewish mothers (and she has many more than most) said—the germs! The hugs! The trip! Stay home! So for today we have to make do with Gail’s spirit and her words (we will each be channeling her!) and next year when you return for the Second Annual JWA lunch, Gail will be here in full strength.

It was Gail’s idea that this first NY event commemorate the Triangle fire and honor Jewish women who continue the legacy of activism and pursuit of social justice.

She knew it would be a perfect coming together of theme and organization. After all, the whole purpose of the Jewish Women's Archive is to discover and make known the stories and achievements of Jewish women in North America.

It is no accident that the Archive, so conscious of history and so eager to “tell the story whole”, has chosen this historic site for our first NY event.

Nor is it an accident that this room is filled with advocates and activists, leaders in many fields. We honor all of you, and most particularly the three whose work has been and continues to be resonant of the Triangle themes. More will be said of these three great women later.

We hope you have a wonderful time today, and here is what we want you to take away from today’s event: That women’s stories deserve to be part of the “big picture,” that each of you should go forth and collect the stories of the Jewish women who amaze you and, of course, give them to us so we can distribute them.

Because the Archive knows that everyone loves stories, we want everyone here to have the satisfaction that comes from “telling the story whole.” At each table you will find cards on which are written segments of a life. Each card is numbered. We invite each table to have fun putting these cards in order. Then tell the story in sequence, and get to know each other a bit as you respond to the life whose story you have just told.

When you do this, you will be modeling the work of the archive—you will be engaged in the process of discovery, your consciousness will be raised and you will have fun in the process. Don’t have so much fun that you forget to eat your lunch! The program will in about thirty minutes. We’re delighted you are here—thanks for coming.

Ann F. Lewis, Remarks

I want to begin by thanking our Honorary Chairs: Founding Chair Barbara Dobkin, Nicki Newman Tanner, Michelle Rosen, and current chair Prudence Steiner. These four wonderful leaders and believers in JWA stepped forward at the very beginning of this process and made it possible for us to go forward.

And thank you to everyone who is here with us today, old friends and new.

As we began thinking at JWA of how to commemorate the Triangle Fire, we had two goals: First, to honor and mourn young lives cut tragically short—young women who came to America in search of a better life and were met with cruel indifference, negligence—and too early death.

But we also saw this day, not as single event, but as a landmark in the fight for social justice. The story of the Triangle Fire did not end with the funeral procession. It continued to move forward, with a growing effort to build a better world for workers—and for everyone.

This is a fight in which Jewish women over the years have been leaders and workers, too often unsung and unrecognized—women like Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman, fighters for better lives for working women; Lillian Wald who created the concept of public health nursing, just a few streets from here; Belle Moskowitz, wise advocate and effective strategist of the progressive era; and all the women whose stories you talked about at your tables today.

From the ashes of the Triangle, these women took up the battle—to see that such a tragedy would not happen again. In the spirit of tikkun olam, their work, their vision, and courage helped build the world we live in today.

This is the mission of the Jewish Women’s Archive: to tell the story of Jewish women in full. In fact, we are the only organization dedicated to telling the history of Jewish women. Their—our—contributions to community and country; raising families, from tenement apartments to trading posts on frontier settlements; starting businesses, schools and community institutions; leading movements for social justice and social change.

And because we know it’s important to tell the story to every generation—l’dor v’dor—JWA has been a pioneer in using new technology and social media. Like our creative, information-rich website, with on-line lesson plans for Jewish educators, and our twitter feed and JWA blog (which in this case, stands for Jewesses With Attitude).

We know that understanding history makes a difference: because young people will know that they have a history to be proud of—and all of us, knowing what women have done in the past, understand better what we can do.

Now, I am so proud to introduce our honorees, each of whom personifies aspects of JWA’s work.

Ann F. Lewis, Introduction for Ruth Abram

Ruth Abram founded the East Side Tenement Museum in 1988 in order to “honor American immigrants, to appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that make up American experience and to respect our common values.” As the Museum site says, thousands of immigrants who lived in these buildings, “faced challenges we understand today: making a new life, working for a better future, starting a family with limited means.”

Today the Tenement Museum tells the story of yesterday’s immigrants—many of them our grandparents and great-grandparents—to thousands of people every year. The Museum even reaches today’s immigrants by offering English classes to eager students who faced long waiting lists for the city’s ESL program. It serves every day as an example of how learning yesterday’s history makes us better able to understand and deal with today’s challenges.

The Jewish Women’s Archive is so pleased to present the first Living the Legacy Award to Ruth J. Abram.


Ruth J. Abram

Gail Reimer, Board of Trustees, Supporters, Friends, Family:

When I was a young girl growing up in Georgia in the 1950’s, 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 her thwarted professional ambitions, I tried to imagine myself as what was then called a “career woman.” But, looking around, I could see plainly that was impossible, for, so far as I knew, no woman in my family or its large circle of friends had ever had a career. No, it was obvious—I needed to follow my mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers in fashioning a life in which my sense of self and satisfaction would be derived solely from marriage and motherhood.

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 extended my hand and Jane Addams lifted me up into a wider world. History had come to my rescue, offering a role model and inspiration unavailable in my limited sphere.

In 1974, although the leaders of over 100 national women’s organizations of every stripe had personally signed on to a National Women’s Agenda, the organizing effort had ground to a mysterious halt. Believing an explanation lay in history, I asked Gerda Lerner, Chair of the nation’s first women’s history department at Sarah Lawrence College for a consultation. Expressing surprise that an activist would think of consulting an historian, Professor Lerner nevertheless agreed. From her I learned that all successful national women’s campaigns had been organized from the bottom up. Recalibrating the strategy toward winning support of the national organizations’ local chapters worked, and in 1975, from the steps of the US Capital, over 100 national women’s organizations announced the formation of a National Women’s Agenda. History had provided the strategy.

Shortly after, the Kettering Foundation invited me to speak on the history of American women to public school superintendents assembled in four regions of the country. At every stop, I was met with hostility. At one, after introducing me with a dirty joke, the MC held a wringing alarm clock up to my ear and then threw a book over my notes—all to the delight of the audience. At another, as I stepped up to the podium, I was showered with spit balls and cries of “Go home to your husband and children.” At a third, I was awakened by a man who sneered, “I just wanted to see how a feminist sleeps.” On the plane, on my way to the last engagement, overcome with exhaustion, fear and doubt, I opened a biography of the Grimke sisters. These 19th century abolitionists had persevered even as the building in which they were speaking had been torched. “My building has not been burned,” I thought to myself. “I can go on.” And I did. History had offered comfort and perspective as it has many times since.

The Jewish Women’s Archive is a unique source for role models, strategy, inspiration, comfort and perspective. And, according to Eileen Boison Nevitt, even more. Eileen’s grandmother Annie Sprinsock died twice – once at 34, when Ellen’s father was a boy, and again when, Eileen’s father refused to talk of his mother with her grandchildren. [Recently] Eileen learned that her grandmother had survived the Triangle Fire and indeed had hoisted a sister worker above her head in the elevator which carried them both to safety. Suddenly, the melancholy, secretive, passive ghost of a grandmother was transformed into a flesh and bones worker, a doer, a woman of great strength and character, a hero.

The history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is fraught with important lessons for today. For instance, there are Jews on all sides of the story: as workers, as union organizers, as financial backers of the strikers, as progressive reformers, and also as the factory owners and their lawyers, as strike busters and probably as hired thugs. History offers us role models for both how we do and do not want to act. Both are vital for our growth.

Second, reminded that immigrants, “alight with the spirit of progress,” writes Triangle historian David Von Drehle, “impatient with the weight of tradition, hungry for improvement in a new land and a new century …” founded our union movement, we are moved to ask: What improvements do contemporary immigrants imagine that we can’t yet see for ourselves?

Third, when the most vulnerable take action, leaders follow. Two years before the Triangle fire, the Cooper Union stage was dripping with stars of the union and socialist movements—all advising caution when Clara Lemlich, a young unknown immigrant seamstress, pushed her way through. “I have,” she said, “no further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike now.” The resulting strike won higher wages, a shorter work week, recognition of the union as a bargaining agent, clear rules, and overtime pay. It did not result in safer working environments, for that had not been requested.

Which brings us to another lesson: like life, history is not clear cut. The stories are complex and often contradictory. Our heroes and heroines are flawed, our villains often loveable at some level. Having started as workers in dark and filthy tenement sweatshops, like that depicted at the Tenement Museum, Triangle Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were rightfully proud of their gleaming factory with its huge windows, light filled rooms, and electrically supplied machines. They knew of what they spoke when they asserted that the workers never had it so good. Had they thought the factory unsafe, the owners would not have placed their offices there, and on the day of the fire, Max Blanck would not have invited his two young daughters to visit him at his office. It wasn’t as if the factory was in violation of safety laws; there were no laws to speak of. Those would come as a response to the fire. As the fire progressed, Harris, who with Blanck had financed and organized physical attacks on the women involved in union campaigns, personally led many workers out of the building. Only by admitting and plumbing history’s complexities, can we find solutions for current problems.

We need our history to advance. Certainly, while important progress has been made, we’ve a long way to go to bring equity to the organized Jewish community which continues to lag in developing and maintaining female leaders. “Unless we change our beliefs about what a leader looks like and behaves and about how work is structured and care giving commitments are met,” writes Shifra Bronznick, “We will not create equity in leadership.”

However, to effect these changes, we need our history. We need to know how earlier women and men structured their lives to be as Bronznick describes both “fiercely ambitious” and “deeply caring” and so that together we can “co-author our future.” Gathering that history is a task well suited to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

We can all participate in the process of historical recovery. We can and should record our own history for our children and grandchildren, providing them the role models, strategies, comfort, perspective, inspiration, sense of whom we should and should not emulate that only history can offer and that family history can offer particularly well. We can support writing and recording and organizing of history, and of course, we can and should support the Jewish Women’s Archive. I am deeply gratified by this honor. Thank you.

Ann F. Lewis, Introduction for Kate Frucher

Clara Lemlich was just 23 years old when she went on the stage at Cooper Union to call for a strike of the city’s garment workers. We knew we wanted to include voices of young women in our commemoration. I am so pleased to introduce our next honoree, Kate Frucher, an example of young women dedicated to making change.

Kate describes herself as an attorney-turned entrepreneur. She was one of the key team members who developed Americorps, our national service program. She also founded the Family Court Education Project, to protect court-involved children. After the attacks of 9/11, Kate worked as a Senior Aide to New York City’s Fire Commissioner. She established the FDNY’s Terrorism Preparedness Taskforce, was a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and is on the founding board of Reboot, addressing issues of the Jewish community in the next generation.

JWA is proud to present our Living the Legacy Award to activist and voice for social change, Kate Frucher.

Kate Frucher

Let us remember them:

  • Celia Eisenberg, 17, born in Russia, lived in the US for 5 years, union member.
  • Lena Goldstein, 22, and Mary, her sister, 18, both living at 161 East Second St; born in Russia, lived in the US for less than 4 years, union members.
  • Molly Gerstein, 17, born in Russia, lived in the US for 4 months.
  • Pauline Horowitz, 19, born in Russia, lived in the US for 5 years.

Five young women—with the same last names as young Jewish women I went to school with in New York City—out of 146 who died in Triangle the fire. To paint a picture of who they were, 17 year old Sadie Frowne wrote in "The Story of a Sweatshop Girl" that she loved clothes, dancing at Coney Island, picnics, theater, and her boyfriend (just like the girls I went to high school with!).

But she went to school at night, and generally got to work at 6am. Young women like Sadie were not aware of their strength—creating vibrant lives and communities in circumstances that many of us, today, would find crippling. They were just living their lives. They weren’t trying to leave a legacy.

But greatness is rarely found by people who are looking for it.

The fire was gruesome. In the words of William G. Shepherd, a UPS reporter who happened to be walking by when the Triangle Fire broke out: “I learned a new sound—a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk...Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant.”

Nearly half of the girls jumped from windows. The rest were burned behind the locked doors on the factory’s ninth floor.

At trial, the owners, charged with a single count of manslaughter for violating code, were found not guilty.

We are here today to celebrate as we commemorate because the tragedy of the fire sparked action. And the great people, like Rose Schneiderman, who responded to the tragedy, ensuring that others would not have the same fates, must also be remembered. What they did has given us workplace protections so essential that today they are like pillars in our offices—part of the architecture, and completely taken for granted.

I’m sure the protections today would have seemed impossible to the Triangle workers. The factory owners were so powerful; poor immigrant women so powerless. Striving for improvement, despite seemingly impossible odds, is the story of human progress.

Until the weeks leading up to this event, I knew very little about these women’s story. But 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 Celia, Lena, Molly, Mary, and Pauline 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 Addams, 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.

I’ve had a few such seized moments. The observations of the UPS reporter touched a nerve for me. Like him, I happened to be walking by the World Trade Center when it was attacked. And after witnessing people jump from windows 109 stories up to escape the fire, I felt I had no choice but to change my life.

I stopped practicing law and started working with the Fire Department, which had lost 343 firefighters who’d run into the Towers to try to save people. I helped conduct the first detailed assessment of what had happened that day and helped implement reforms that will hopefully prevent that scale of loss from happening again.

It was simply my way of coming to terms with what I had witnessed—to practice tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) in my own small way—as part of repairing myself.

There have been many important moments in the years before and since 9/11 that I haven’t seized. And even my work with the FDNY has never felt particularly noteworthy—in fact, it would have felt noteworthy, in a negative sense, if I’d witnessed what I had and not acted in some meaningful way.

For that is the lens of the world I grew up with—as the daughter of socially active Jewish parents, and as a member of New York’s secular Jewish community that not only values but expects engagement with the tough social issues one encounters, and with the challenges of our time. Of course many members of this community bear the last names of the women we’re commemorating today. This culture I grew up in and now choose to live in was profoundly shaped by them; our values of social responsibility are their legacy.

So I receive this honor today with deep humility, but also deep gratitude to the JWA and the community it’s part of. It’s been a gift to be pushed to reflect on what I’ve done, what I’ve been given, and on what I haven’t done yet. It’s an inspiration that’s helped focus me back on seizing my moments.

Let’s continue to be inspired by the example of the women we’re remembering today, and let’s ensure that their spark continues to drive us to action. Our actions—no matter how big or small or visible—do matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.

Ann F. Lewis, Introduction for Lynn Sherr

Now I get to someone who literally needs no introduction. Lynn Sherr is a multi-media taskforce. As an award winning television correspondent, producer, editor and anchor, Lynn has covered investigative reports, politics and elections, space flights, and a range of issues impacting women’s lives.

She’s also a regular radio co-host and the author of books we should all have on our shelves: Susan B. Anthony Slept Here and Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. She is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast website and a contributing editor to More magazine. No wonder she titled her memoir Outside the Box.

Throughout her career, Lynn has been a trailblazer and a role model, leading the way in opening new roles for women, setting an example of grace and determination. Lynn Sherr doesn’t just report history; she makes it.

JWA is proud to present our Living the Legacy Award to Lynn Sherr.

Lynn Sherr

Thank you. I am especially grateful at this very special commemoration. The Triangle fire is a symbol of the way women were invisible—until something horrific happened to them and catapulted an ordinary life into the national pantheon. I think we should make Francis Perkins an honorary Jew.

When I wrote my first book about landmarks in women’s history, my co-author and I wrote letters and made telephone calls (it was the Dark Ages: 1975) to historical sites around the country. “Do you have any monuments or memorials to women?” we asked. The answers were all the same: “Why would we do that?” I am not making this up.

I first learned about—and wrote about—the Triangle Shirtwaist fire back then, and to be honest, had a hard time finding the site of the building. It was only 1961 that the plaque was put there by the ILGWU. And it was only designated a NYC Landmark in 2002. Now it’s a National Historic Landmark. It, of course, is not only in our history but in our hearts.

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.

We are living in a time of breathtaking change. The texture of our lives has been shorthanded mercilessly. Novels have been reduced to Tweets, relationships to speed dating, tragedy to brief headlines on the evening news. But real stories take time to tell, and they need an archive to preserve them: whether online or between hard covers or even just burned onto a disc.

And no story is less important than another. Decades from now, or centuries, whether in this galaxy or another, the stories that JWA is preserving will form the basis of another generation’s—or another species’—understanding of who and what we were. Are. How much better does it get than that?

A number of years ago, at the beginning of my journalism career, I was invited to speak at the synagogue outside Philadelphia where I grew up. Someone in the audience asked whether my background had had any influence on my career, since Jews are always asking questions—and answering questions with another question. I asked him if he was serious. In fact I became a reporter for a very corny reason: to tell the truth. To go behind the curtain and expose the wizardry, to find out why and when and where, to help make sense and thus bring order to a distinctly disorderly world. I don’t know for sure that there’s a wonder gene, but I am convinced that I have it because curiosity is the prime prerequisite for a journalist. And I am forever grateful to my parents for giving me that gene.

Although I make no apologies for the occasional lapses that I ran into in the world of television journalism. A year or so into my first TV job, at WCBS-TV in New York, I was in the newsroom one afternoon, a quiet Saturday, having a lively discussion with some of my colleagues. We were talking about the most recent Arab-Israeli conflict, the one known as the Yom Kippur War. At one point, a Channel 2 executive wandered over and joined our conversation. I don’t remember anything we discussed, except that as we started drifting apart to return to work, he punctuated our chat with a cheery “Todah rabah!” Instinctively, I responded, “B’vakasha.”

The guy in the suit stopped in his tracks, shook his head, and looked at me accusingly. “What did you just say?”

B’vakasha,” I repeated patiently.

“Why did you say that?” he asked, looking dumbstruck.

“Because you said, ‘Todah rabah,’ which means ‘thank you’ in Hebrew,” I explained, pointing out the obvious to this man who clearly spoke the language. “So I responded with the Hebrew word for ‘you’re welcome.’”

“But how did you know that?” he fairly sputtered.

“A lot of years of Hebrew school,” I said, shrugging.

Hebrew school?” he repeated. “But you’re a blonde. You went to Wellesley. You’re from Philadelphia, on the Main Line. You can’t be Jewish.”

Maybe now you understand television news a little better. Or at least how it used to be. Yes everything has changed. No, not always for the better. But preserving those changes—without bias—is what good journalists do. And now, what JWA is doing to remind the next generations of the wonder that is our world.

So thanks to JWA. Thanks to all of you. And one more story, in the spirit of this energized room:

It’s a synagogue, during the end of Shabbat services, when the rabbi said from the pulpit, “How many of you have forgiven your enemies?”

Everyone held up their hands except for one small elderly lady.

“Mrs. Goldberg,” said the rabbi, “are you not willing to forgive your enemies?”

“I don’t have any,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

“Mrs. Goldberg, that is very unusual,” the rabbi said. “How old are you?”

“Ninety-eight,” she answered.

“Oh, Mrs. Goldberg, won’t you please come up to the pulpit and tell us all how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?”

Well, the little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation and said in a steady, steely voice:

“I outlived the bitches.”

Outlive them all. Out do them all. And keep those stories forever.

Gail Twersky Reimer, Remarks, as Read by Prudence L. Steiner

Let me start by saying how sorry I am to not be with you today—not able to greet old friends, or meet those of you I haven’t met before; not able to join you in celebrating our three inspiring honorees.

Between their moving words and the quality of the company and conversations at your tables, I feel certain that today’s event will be one you are not likely to forget, and that I will long regret having missed.

In a few minutes, our luncheon will draw to a close, appropriately, I believe, with everyone joining Merri Arian in song. The closing song, one of the late Debbie Friedman’s best known, recalls the spirit with which, following the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, Miriam the prophet led the Israelite women in celebration.

We close with this song in memory of Debbie, a dear friend of the Jewish Women’s Archive and of many in this room, whose early and sudden death just two months ago robbed the Jewish world of one of the great musical composers and educators of our time.

Miriam’s song beautifully mirrors the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive – bringing women like Miriam, for centuries relegated to the margins of history, to the center; giving voice to the silenced women, making invisible women visible. Miriam’s song also extends the legacy of Jewish women’s activism and leadership—which we’ve been celebrating today—a legacy that goes all the way back to biblical times.

Ruth Abram, Kate Frucher, and Lynn Sherr—these are the Miriams of our generation.

As the founder of a new kind of museum—a museum with a social conscience and a progressive agenda—Ruth Abram has not only built an impressive and influential institution, but she has also inspired others (I count myself among them) to follow her, timbrel in hand, and create organizations that harness the power of history to create social change.

Kate Frucher’s response to the devastation of 9/11—becoming a senior aide to the NYC Fire Commissioner and playing a vital role in the department at a critical moment—brings to mind the youthful, resourceful, and wise-beyond-her-years Miriam. In the early chapters of the Exodus story, Miriam conspires to protect the infant Moses, secretly standing watch as he floats down the Nile. Then, when Pharoah’s daughter discovers the “abandoned” child, Miriam suggests that her own mother (who was also Moses’ mother) become his nursemaid.

Lynn Sherr has been a courageous trailblazer for women in journalism, all the while maintaining a deep concern for women’s issues and a fierce commitment to truth—not unlike the Miriam we encounter in the Exodus story, who dared to criticize her brother Moses’ all consuming leadership and neglect of his family.

Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, Rose Pesotta, and the other women you’ve learned about today were the Miriams of an earlier era—an era when 146 workers at the Triangle Waist Co. factory died horrible, preventable deaths on March 25, 1911, an era marked by the courageous leadership of these women and others in the fight for labor reform and workplace safety.

As the centennial of the fire was approaching, we knew that the Jewish Women’s Archive must join in the commemoration and pay tribute to the many Jewish women who lost their lives in the tragedy. As Lynn Sherr said earlier, “the women who died stand as a reminder of the deaths that had to take place before real reform came into being.” They also represent the thousands of anonymous working women who have been—and continue to be—important participants in American social justice movements.

We also knew that, as we remembered the dead, we needed to celebrate and broadcast the stories of the women who both before the fire and after it courageously fought to improve the conditions of workers and of the factories in which they worked.

There were those who wondered about the conjoining of celebration with commemoration and questioned the propriety of speaking of the Triangle Fire and celebration in one breath. We, however, recognized that this is precisely what the Jewish Women’s Archive must do.

  • We must tell the stories that inspire and empower young women to respond creatively and effectively to the challenges of this generation’s struggles for social justice.
  • We must tell the stories that remind us of the gains won by women in the movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights—gains they struggled long and hard for, frequently against overwhelming odds.
  • We must tell the stories that remind us that citizens like Rose Schneiderman, like Ruth Abram, like YOU, can and do organize and lead movements for social change.
  • We must tell these women’s stories so that we have access to that spark which, as Kate Frucher so beautifully put it, “continues to drive us all to action”—because our actions “do matter and can bend history in the direction of justice.”

As you know events like this do not happen without much preparation. I am delighted to be the one who gets to do the thank you’s, albeit in absentia, as they are so deserving.

First I’d like to express my deep gratitude to the members of JWA's Board of Directors, all but two of whom are here today. Enthusiastic about this idea when it first came up last May, they have become ever more engaged and invested in its success as the months have gone by. The Event Committee, with Ann Lewis as its chair, was especially supportive. Although relatively new to the JWA Board, Sue Bricker Dorn did a fantastic job chairing the Development Subcommittee.

We owe a large debt to Julia Rhodes Davis and her colleagues at Production Collective, who are as passionate about women’s history and social justice as we are, and as committed to excellence and attention to detail. Their patience and professionalism has made working with them a great pleasure.

It's impossible to overestimate how hard the JWA staff worked to ensure that the day would be enjoyable and, when you weren't looking, educational, too. Every staff member significantly contributed to the day’s success, and all of them were guided and motivated by our wonderfully talented deputy director, Ellen Rothman. Thank you, Ellen, for carrying the torch with such grace and dedication. At Ellen’s side throughout was our delightful, hardworking new director of development, Nancy Gunn, who hit the ground not just running but sprinting.

Lastly, let me thank all of you who have joined us for this commemoration and celebration. Your support today and throughout the years has helped make the dream of a Jewish Women's Archive into a reality.

Merri Lovinger Arian sings "Miriam's Song" by Debbie Friedman


How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Triangle Fire Centennial: Celebrate and Commemorate - Remarks ." (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <>.


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