Women’s History Project Offers Hope

May Day Blog

A Note from Maya Friedler
Executive Director of Women’s Media Group

My parents Jenny and Hyman came to the US in the twenties as revolutionaries.
My mother was a couture dressmaker and my father was a carpenter. They saw May Day as a day to celebrate worker’s rights, and named me for the first of May. The connection between women’s rights and worker’s rights is elemental to our shared history. Who knew that in 2011 collective bargaining would be challenged, and powerful forces would attempt to erode these gains at such an alarming level?

This May Day, as we celebrate the strides women have made in the workplace in past hundred years, our rallying cry needs to sound loud and clear. Women’s rights are human rights!  Among them is to the right to speak freely, to name injustice, and demand our workplace rights, and access to safe and affordable healthcare.

Lucy Parsons

By Jamie O’Reilly

“Every Little Movement Has a Meaning”:
In the Face of Serious Challenges, A Women’s History Project Offers Hope

“On the floor a gong used to ring when the day was over. About five minutes before quitting time I sneaked into the dressing room. There were a few girls in the dressing room. I used to sing a lot in the shop, some of the girls asked me to sing a song while we were getting dressed.

They asked me to sing — I still remember the name of the song — “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning of Its Own”…As soon as I finished the song I heard the bell ring but it seemed to me that it was a little bit too soon…The smoke was also coming out of the staircase. I ran with some of the other girls to the front door. I put my hand on the knob and tried to open it and I stood there screaming that the door was locked.” (-Rose Teitel, interview with Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire, used with permission)

Several weeks ago I attended the Annual Gala of The Working Women’s History Project, (http://wwhpchicago.org), co-hosted by the Center for New Deal Studies at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

The tone of the evening, emceed by Union leader Katie Jordan (Workers United), was more no-nonsense than celebratory.

The event, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, featured a powerful reading of “The Ninth Floor Door”, a new work by award winning playwright, and WWHP member Mary Bonnett.

The tragic story is told in a series of monologues, by victims and survivors, and includes excerpts recorded in transcripts from the trial of the factory owners. Those factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were acquitted in a jury trial, and later, through judgments made at civil trials, paid only 75 dollars per life lost.

Though: “146 women died. 500 women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, some as young as ten years old, were working in the sweatshop that Saturday. The doors leading from the shop areas had been locked, presumably to keep the women at their sewing machines.”

(Quoted with permission from the Kheel Center, Cornell University http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/library/kheel/)

The Working Women’s History Project, “preserves and promotes the stories of historical and living Chicago women who have made significant contributions toward achieving justice and equality in the areas of labor, women’s, human and civil rights.”

Yolanda (Bobby) Hall founded WWHP, and was in attendance. Bobby, a real “Union Maid”, was the first woman to work in the tool room at Bendix Aviation Corporation during WWII.  Bobby’s spent a lifetime working for social justice. We became friends through the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


A panel discussion on workplace safety followed the play reading. The all female panel was made up of several authors and activists, and included Louise Carr, Compliance Officer of OSHA, who told the audience of about 100, that it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the thousands of workers marching in protest of the verdict that followed, that provoked the workplace safety laws in place today. But, maintenance of those laws and workplace standards, in the current–climate, the group concurred, is constantly in jeopardy.

“Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.” (-Cornell University site)

As it happened, the gala was taking place on the eve of the scheduled budget vote in Washington, while 11th hour, possibly grim, concessions were being made behind closed doors, a reality more than a few of us commented on.  Less than thirty-six hours later, a compromise-budget was drawn up in a climate of unprecedented ill will, with huge cuts to services to the poor in this country, and a woman’s right to safe reproductive healthcare was at serious risk.

Hope in Action

As the discussion ended that evening, someone called across the room. “What can we do?” People offered ideas: a rally, a job training website, a petition to sign, a May Day gathering commemorating the Haymarket martyrs…

I left there with a sense of hope.  Not in institutions. Not in government. But in people. And grateful to the Working Women’s History Project whose vision is “to have a society in which women’s contributions are known and valued and inspire young women to continue their work.”

Those women include the courageous nurses, teachers, garment workers, actors, writers, engineers and others, who represent over half of the work-force in the US today, and are willing to be in the line of fire, to challenge decisions that threaten their security and livelihood.

Women are doers.  We are problem solvers. And we don’t quit!

Happy May Day!

Please join me Sunday, May 1 as I host a May Day Soiree, featuring a program of international folk-songs and a fine line-up of poets and writers, including Women’s Media Group’s Marilyn Campbell and Maya Friedler, celebrating Worker’s Day & the May Day Spring Festival.
For more information go to jamieoreilly.com


For more information about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire see:

WHHP http://wwhpchicago.org/programs/triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire

Cornell University’s Site

Blogger Jason Cochran on the Fire & today’s political climate



Posted by on Friday, April 29, 2011