What a great book for Women’s History Month! This is the true story of Clara Lemlich (later Shavelson), whose family came to America from the Ukraine in 1905 to escape the anti-Jewish massacres that were increasing in regularity. In America, Clara’s father could not find work, but as a young girl Clara was much more exploitable, and she was able to join the legions of young girls hired as seamstresses in the garment district.
Clara was outraged by the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, unsanitary conditions, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. Seamstresses worked six and seven days a week for weekly wages of about $5, jammed into dim lofts and the backs of stores. Almost immediately, Clara began organizing her co-workers into strikes to protest the working conditions.
In 1909, Clara, 23 and barely five feet tall, led 20,000 women in a general strike of shirtwaist workers in the New York garment district. It was the largest strike by women workers in the United States to that time.
During the strike, Clara was arrested 17 times, and had her ribs broken by gangsters hired by the employers. But she would not be intimidated and returned as soon as she was able.
The general strike ran from November 1909 to February 1910, resulting in improved wages, and better working conditions and hours for many shops, albeit not at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Sadly, the following year, there was a fire at Triangle Shirtwaist, leading to the deaths of almost 150 garment workers, who either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames.
Clara was blacklisted from the industry after the strike, but she did not give up her fight for the rights of women and workers generally, as well as for consumers. In fact, at the end of her life, she helped organized the nursing home staff where she was residing!
She died in 1982 at the age of ninety-six. You can read more about the life of this remarkable woman here.
Markel’s book is geared toward young readers, and uses simple straightforward prose to convey the essence of Clara’s story:
“When Clara Lemlich arrived in America, she couldn’t speak English. She didn’t know that young women had to go to work, that they traded an education for long hours of labor, that she was expected to grow up fast.
But that did not stop Clara.”
The stirring history of Lemlich’s life as a young girl is illustrated with beautiful pictures by Melissa Sweet. Sweet imparts message into the medium with her artwork, which consists of colorful collages in watercolors and gouache accented with dress-pattern paper, fabric pieces, and stitching as borders. Her expressive pictures of Clara show a girl who looks as brave and feisty as the real Clara.
Evaluation: Readers of all ages will be inspired by this story of the little girl that fought back against injustice and intimidation, and changed the consciousness of the nation.
Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York, 2013
Note: Additional information about the garment industry between 1880 and 1920 and a select bibliography can be found at the end of the book.
Personal Note: My maternal grandmother used to be one of the garment district sweatshop girls. When a needle pierced her finger, she was fired, and as she sat home bandaged up in her parents’ boarding house, a young man came to inquire about a room. That man became my grandfather.