Not From Without, But From Within
A fresh, personal, bottom-up approach to the women’s labor movement in the early 20th century
The article From the Russian Pale to Labor Organizing in New York City written by Annelise Orleck reveals how the working class immigrant community played a significant role in influencing women’s labor movements in the early twentieth century. Orleck maintains that as a result of their background, Jewish women had an experience in America different from most women. She posits that since they did not subscribe to the Victorian ideal of a traditional women’s role, Jewish immigrant women were able to form networks which transcended class, ethnicity, and even gender. Orleck’s book is a significant contribution to how labor history is understood and this significance lies in the way she presents her work. Orleck frames the story of the early labor movements of the twentieth century within the personal stories of four Jewish Immigrants: Schneiderman, Newman, Cohn, and Lemlich. These women formulated an “industrial feminism” which was heavily influenced by the class consciousness of socialism, and the unforgiving actuality of industrialized labor. Orleck asserts that their personal relationships and beliefs offer significant insight into the politics and economics which pervaded the women’s labor movement. To form the basis of her analysis, Orleck looks to the social world of eastern European women in the late nineteenth century. As young girls, Newman, Schneiderman, Cohn, and Lemlich, were exposed to Marxist ideas of socialism and a revolutionary spirit which touted a faith in progress and the belief that political commitment gave life meaning. The girls were also taught that gender, class, and ethnicity were fundamental social categories and are essential building blocks for social change. With this education, came the class-awareness which is inherent in socialist teachings, specifically Marxism. In addition, they were informed by the traditional Jewish culture, in which mothers were entrepreneurs. These matriarchs served to constantly reinforce “…the belief that women were innately suited to competition in the economic sphere”. Therefore, when many of these women immigrated to the US, they arrived with an education and an ideology which was severely lacking in the working class of New York City. Having had their eyes opened by their educations and their upbringing, it would be difficult for these girls to accept the drudgeries of harsh factory girl life. These virtual outsiders were destined to be reformers. The way in which Orleck shows us how these four women went about fomenting the women’s labor movement was not from “…without but within”. Orleck skillfully weaves the individual stories of the four women’s working experience to give the reader a very personal view of how they fed the development of the concept of “industrial feminism”. Essential to inception of this philosophy was the shop-floor culture which developed among working class women. As a result of working long hours with the same people, women developed strong relationships at the workplace. These bonds were strengthened by their common plight as well as the efforts they were making to learn English or to receive a basic education in the workplace. The sisterhood that they felt soon became, “…a complex political identity in which class, gender, and ethnicity overlapped” which would become the basis for industrial feminism and of female union organizing. The complex political identity which they formed would be crucial to the four women’s successes as labor organizers. Orleck demonstrated how this special bond came to be by sharing the story of how Rose Schneiderman became involved in her first union. Finding herself blocked from advancement by the unofficial gender hierarchy in her factory, Schneiderman confided in her fellow worker Bessie Braut who introduced her to the idea of unionism. Braut pointed out to Schneiderman...
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