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Activism: Unions

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Ray Alexander (Simons)

Ray Alexander has devoted her life to the struggle for human rights and equality in South Africa. Embedded in a Marxist tradition rooted in her Latvian origins, she sought justice for workers and liberty for the oppressed.

Mollie Steimer

Anarchists, American Jewish women

The first Jewish anarchist organization was formally set up as a result of the Haymarket bombing in 1886 and the subsequent trial of the accused anarchists. The inception and growth of the Jewish anarchist movement in the United States were inseparable from the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in 1881.

Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca

The New York Times described Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca as one of America’s foremost women labor leaders. An outstanding union organizer and a captivating speaker, she was born in Zemel, Latvia, on August 10, 1894.

Aline Bernstein by Carl Van Vechten, February 26, 1933

Aline Bernstein

In the world of theater, Aline Bernstein is remembered as one of the most important designers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Bund

Jewish women played leading roles in the formative years of the General Jewish Workers’ Bund, which was established in the Tsarist Empire in 1897, and initially participated in the movement in large numbers. However, the Bund seems to have had somewhat less success in mobilizing women in independent Poland between the two world wars than it had during the Tsarist era.

Rose Chernin

Ambivalent about Judaism, passionately Marxist, charismatic, courageous, Rose Chernin devoted a great deal of her life to securing the rights of disenfranchised citizens: the unemployed of the Depression, farm workers without a union, black home buyers thwarted by redlining, and other foreign-born leftists, like herself, who faced deportation in the 1950s.

Rose Gollup Cohen

Rose Gollup Cohen

In her short life, Rose Gollup Cohen was a unionized factory worker and a domestic servant, was helped through an illness by Lillian Wald, became educated, and wrote short stories. Her moving 1918 autobiography Out of the Shadow offers a vivid account of her life as an immigrant Jewish woman in the sweatshops of New York.
Cards Created for JWA's Commemoration of the Centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Fannia M. Cohn

In the first half of the twentieth century, Fannia M. Cohn was one of the leading Jewish women trade union activists in the United States. Drawing on her Russian Jewish cultural traditions, she pioneered in the development of educational programs within the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Ultimately, however, male opposition undermined her efforts and diminished her long-term significance. Her life offers evidence of the possibilities and limitations of women’s activism in the American labor movement.

Esther Dischereit

Esther Dischereit

Esther Dischereit's poetry, essays, operas, and radio plays incorporate her experiences as "other," growing up Jewish in post-war Germany. From 1994 to 2006, she served in the German Trade Union Federation, organizing special projects focused on human rights and intercultural dialogue.

Yiddish/English Poster

Eastern European Immigrants in the United States

Of all Jewish immigrants to the United States from 1886 to 1914, forty-four percent were women, far more than for other immigrants groups arriving during the heyday of mass immigration. The more than two million Jews from the Russian Empire, Romania, and Austria-Hungary who entered the United States in the years 1881 to 1924—when the American government imposed a restrictive quota system—came to stay. Only 7 percent chose to return to Europe, as opposed to about 30 percent of all immigrants. Jewish immigrants intended to raise American families. Ashkenazi (European) Jewish culture and American values as conveyed by social reformers as well as by advertising, and the economic realities of urban capitalist America, all influenced the position of women in immigrant Jewish society in America. Jewish immigrant women shared many of the attributes of immigrant women in general, but also displayed ethnic characteristics.

Sandra Feldman

Sandra Feldman

For Sandra Feldman, president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers from 1986 to 1998, and president of the national American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, these were fighting words.

Mary Fels

Mary Fels

Mary Fels, an ardent and philanthropic Zionist, promoted Jewish settlement in Palestine and Israel throughout her life.

Ruth Gay

With a few strokes of her pen, Ruth Glazer (later Gay) painted a vivid portrait of the culture of second-generation Jews in New York. As a free-lance writer and editor for over fifty years, she has explored the Jewish experience of both America and Germany.

Ida Espen Guggenheimer

Born on December 8, 1866, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ida Espen Guggenheimer was the oldest child of Jacob and Fannie (Bachman) Espen. She had one brother, Frank, and two sisters, Hannah and Sophie. Her father and his brother were importers of lace. She was educated at the Friends School in Philadelphia and attended school in Dresden, Germany, when her family traveled in Europe.

Lillian Herstein

Lillian Herstein

The history of Jewish women in the American labor movement tends to focus on those whose careers unfolded in the needle trades. Such was not the case with Lillian Herstein, who was a teacher and a nationally known labor leader. Ethel Lillian Herstein, the youngest of six children, was born on April 12, 1886, in Chicago. Her parents, Wolf and Cipe Belle, emigrated from Vilkovishk, Lithuania, shortly after the U.S. Civil War, not only for economic reasons but because of Wolf’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln and his ideals.

Bessie, Sidney, Selma, and Philoine Hillman, 1922

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman

Bas Sheva Abramowitz (“Bessie” was created by an Ellis Island immigration officer) was born on May 15, 1889, in Linoveh, a village near Grodno in Russia. She was one of ten children born to Emanuel Abramowitz, a commission agent, and Sarah Rabinowitz. In 1905, Bessie, who spoke only Yiddish and some Russian, joined an older cousin in immigrating to America. Most 1905 immigrants fled czarist oppression and anti-Jewish violence, but Bessie reported that her aim in leaving home was to escape the services of the local marriage broker.

Triangle Fire in Der Groyser Kundes

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was founded in 1900. The eleven Jewish men who founded the union represented seven local unions from East Coast cities with heavy Jewish immigrant populations. This all-male convention was made up exclusively of cloak makers and one skirt maker, highly skilled Old World tailors who had been trying to organize in a well-established industry for a couple of decades. White goods workers, including skilled corset makers, were not invited to the first meeting. Nor were they or the largely young immigrant Jewish workers in the newly developing shirtwaist industry recruited for the union in the early years of its existence. But these women workers still tried to organize.

Labor Demonstration, 1915

Labor Movement in the United States

Jewish American women have played a central role in the American labor movement since the beginning of the twentieth century. As women, they brought to trade unions their sensibilities about the organizing process and encouraged labor to support government regulation to protect women in the workforce. As Jews who emerged from a left-wing cultural tradition, they nurtured a commitment to social justice, which would develop into what is often called “social unionism.” From their position as an ethnic and religious minority, as well as from their position as women, they helped to shape the direction of the mainstream labor movement.

Anne Frank

Modern Netherlands

Dutch Jews acquired full citizenship rights in 1796. Overnight the “Jewish Nation” as a legal corporation was transformed into a community of individual “Jewish Netherlanders.” In the nineteenth and twentieth century they had to secure a place for themselves in a society which sometimes welcomed them but which was nevertheless permeated with anti-Jewish sentiments and prejudices. Consequently, even fully integrated, “modern” Jews retained an ambivalent relationship with mainstream Dutch-Christian culture.

Pauline Newman Attending a Labor Conference in 1947

Pauline Newman

Pauline Newman was a labor pioneer and a die-hard union loyalist once described by a colleague as “capable of smoking a cigar with the best of them.” The first woman ever appointed general organizer by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Newman continued to work for the ILGWU for more than seventy years—first as an organizer, then as a labor journalist, a health educator, and a liaison between the union and government officials.

Rose Pesotta, 1965

Rose Pesotta

Known primarily as one of the first female vice presidents of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Pesotta saw her union organizing as an opportunity to fulfill the anarchist mandate “to be among the people and teach them our ideal in practice.”

Marion Phillips

Marion Phillips, who, as Chief Women’s Officer of the Labour Party was one of the most important figures in the campaign to free women from domestic drudgery at the beginning of the twentieth century and whose campaigning work brought a quarter of a million women into the Labour Party.

Hortense Powdermaker

Hortense Powdermaker explored the balance of involvement and detachment necessary for participant-observer fieldwork in cultural anthropology, stressing the ability to “step in and out of society.” Her secular Jewish identity was apparently a factor in learning this skill, exemplified in an academic career that included thirty years of college teaching and the writing of five major books based on widely diverse fieldwork studies.

Eva Gabriele Reichmann

Judaism and the social history of German Jewry are the major topics of Eva Gabriele Reichmann's scholarly work and publications, as evidenced by the numerous essays and lectures she devoted to those subjects. She was a member and co-worker in various organizations dedicated to Christian and Jewish relations and in other Jewish organizations, as well as a board member and research fellow of the Leo Baeck Institute.

Ethel Rosenberg with Husband Julius

Ethel Rosenberg

Few Jewish American women evoke as varied and passionate a response as Ethel Rosenberg. Convicted and executed on June 19, 1953, with her husband Julius Rosenberg, for conspiracy to divulge atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, Rosenberg was only the second woman in the United States to be executed by the federal government.

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