Document 19: "Girl Strikers Go To The City Hall," New York Times, 19 December 1909, Magazine section, p. 5.
Two weeks later the Times emphasized the participation of "college girls" in the strike picket line.
WTUL women advocated for the rights of workers by joining picket lines.
Elizabeth Anne Payne, Reform, Labor, and Feminism: Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 116.
Image reproduced by permission from the Chicago Historical Society (DN-0056264)
COLLEGE GIRLS AS PICKETS IN A STRIKE
How the Fair Graduates Organized the
Campaign for the Shirtwaist Makers
It was a sort of "you-a-girl-and-me-a-girl" spirit that started it. The factory girl makes shirtwaists and the college girl wears them, and when they first walked Broadway arm in arm as pickets in the big shirtwaist strike that is now on, they both wore the garment of contention. They still wear the shirtwaist, but in addition they are considering donning the boards of the sandwich man and, perhaps, they may yet be seen parading Fifth Avenue, clad in this manner. For once the factory girl and the college girl are making a fight together. Within the last two weeks some forty women have joined the fighting ranks of the shirtwaist girls, and they have never done more than wear shirtwaists. They are college graduates, most of them, suffragists some of them, all of them with independent incomes, some of them with millions.
When Miss Inez Milholland, a Vassar graduate, who is a suffrage enthusiast, went into the struggle, she carried with her a group of Vassar girls of similar interests. Miss Violet Pike[A] refuses to be called a college girl, because she says she has graduated, and has other marks of distinction. She has, too, for she is one of the leaders of the volunteer pickets and marshals her forty captains twice a day, sending them where the fighting is thickest.
The public does not know and cannot distinguish the college girl who is walking up and down the sidewalk with almost every group of pickets. But the police have discovered, and so have the bosses, that wherever there is a scrimmage there is certain now to be a girl "from the league" to see that the pickets have fair play. The little pickets are apt to lose their heads. When the Italian women who have taken their jobs come down at night the regular picket girls throw discretion to the winds and call "Scab!" at the top of their lungs. And the word "scab" is against the law. The term "strikebreaker" must be used instead. The boss is ready and waiting for that word. He orders the arrests, and the girls are loaded into the patrol wagon. Now the volunteer picket, who has had good training at college for this sort of thing, is craftier even than the boss. She controls the situation -- police and all. If there is trouble she jumps into the thick of it, holding the girls within the boundary of the law. If there are arrests she goes to the station with the girls and pleads for them. There are notably less arrests than there were a week ago, for she has a way of putting things which makes the man who "pulled her in" most uncomfortable.
Miss Elsie Cole[B], who is a Vassar graduate with decided oratorical ability, has been arrested on picket three times and has pleaded her case so effectively that the policemen on duty have no mind to interfere with her again. Even the bosses know her and are afraid of her. They call her "that woman that talks," because she can make a full-fledged argument and win her point while the boss is struggling for the words to form a single sentence. During the last two weeks she has been in front of all the big shops where trouble was brewing; she has addressed public meetings, not only of strikers, but of people who might be persuaded to lend their sympathy if not their time and money to the strikers' cause. Until this occasion Miss Cole had no public experience, certainly she had never ridden in a patrol wagon. Now she wants to vote because she disapproves of the Night Court and the patrol service. She has seen her perfectly honest little strikers loaded into a patrol wagon which was half full of street women who cursed, and smoked, and said things of which the little strikers had never dreamed before. And she has seen these same little girls -- they are all under twenty -- pushed and insulted by the rabble of the Night Court where the offscouring of the town jeers at the respectable. She has been through it all herself. So have many of the volunteer pickets, for although most of them are young girls, just out of college, they are protecting the striking girls who are much younger, the majority of them just beyond the limit of the child labor law.
When the strike of the shirtwaist makers first began there were but 200 girls in that branch of the Woman's Trades Union League. Within the few weeks that have passed more than 30,000 girls have asked the protection of the league. They came in by the thousand daily, until the offices of the league were swamped. Miss Mary Drier, the President, is of the college girl type herself and works without pay for the league because she has a sufficient income. When the situation overwhelmed her she called for volunteer officers. Naturally she asked first for help among her own friends, and many of them were college girls. Some of them were in other lines of work, some trained nurses, some lawyers, charity workers, settlementers, librarians, and teachers. They came from every profession, including society, until the volunteer committee could name forty women who were willing to do any kind of work to help the strike. They heard the girls' stories about the shops where the underboss still exists, where there is low pay, long hours, and filth indescribable. They organized the girls who work under good conditions to help the others. The girls who make the most money are naturally the cleverest, and they led the girls who have the real grievance. The volunteers lead them all.
They have done all kinds of work since they began. If they come out in sandwich boards they will have been trained to it by two weeks with the pickets and the police. Miss Inez Milholland, who is a law student as well as a suffragist, has helped the lawyers who are giving their time to keeping the strikers out of jail. Miss Ida Rauh[C] and Miss B. Cassara work with Mrs. Frank Cothren on the serious cases, and, in spite of their being on duty day and night, there were so many arrests last week that in the scramble one girl was left in jail two days. The misery of that one girl and the tales she told her shopmates almost broke the strike in her district. It took hours of mollifying argument and personal support from the volunteer workers to keep the other girls in line. There were a few girls from her shop who deemed it part of the fight, and they announced their willingness to go to jail, too, if that would help to win the strike, but the others pictured the jail too vividly - they could feel the cold, the fright, the disgrace, it was all so real that for the moment the causes, the organization, and impersonal justice meant very little to them.
The lawyers have had many such cases, for some of the bosses have tried to frighten the girls knowing that it was about the only way to disrupt their organization. Wednesday a girl came into the league rooms on Twenty-Second Street with a new tale to tell. Her name was Sarah Karan, a Jewish girl, who in her year and a half in this country had learned little English with which to make herself heard. She was 17 when she first began to work in the shops on the east side. She was cheap help, of course, and as she could not seem to master the language, she remained cheap help. About six months ago her brother went to the country to work, leaving her entirely along among strangers. Naturally she came to know the girls in the shop in a sort of way. They called her Sarah, and were kind to her. She was not jolly enough to be very good company outside, but when the strike came and the girls explained to her what it all meant she was ready to go out with the first of them. She had less than a dollar to stand between her and starvation, her board money was due, but she was nothing daunted.
The boss knew about her, too -- knew that she was easily controlled, and had no one at home to fight for her, and this is the story the girl tells in Yiddish, with all the stoicism that comes from generations of martyrdom.
"One morning I lie in bed, asleep. The door open, I wake up, and the boss is there standing with two big men. He says they are policemen, that they have come to take me away. He snatches me by the arm. 'There she is, take her away with you.' he shouts.
"And I am frightened so my heart beats until I can hardly speak. I scream loud, and the lady where I live comes in to see what has happened. The boss is pulling me all the time by the arm. He pulls me out of bed entirely and I am screaming; I don't know what I do say. The lady I live with screams, too; together we make a great noise, which brings many people, and the boss goes away. He says he is coming for me yet, but I think that he is afraid now.
"There is no reason he should do that; I have done nothing but go down to strike, and I am not going back to him. I did go to a friend of mine who was staying on with the work, and I told her why it was she should not work when we were all out, and she came with us. That makes him very angry, and he thinks he can frighten me."
The girl stands with her scarf over her head, patiently waiting for the ladies of the league to say what they can to encourage her. She is looking for work every day in New York, and cannot stop for law cases or strike settlements. She needs the 5 cents carfare which a visit to the league entails.
And this is only one story of a dozen that the volunteer lawyers hear every day. There is another girl from the same shop who was dragged through the street by two burly strikebreakers. They tried to make her promise under threat that she would return to work. But the girl did not promise. She screamed, a crowd gathered, and the men ran away. It is not an elegant section of Brooklyn in which these cases occurred and the people who form the mob are more ready for a fight than the strikebreakers. No one was arrested in either case. The police ignored the girls' complaints, and, although the men threatened, they were in no position to cause the arrest of the strikers.
Often it is not that kind of a story, for many of the girls who get into trouble have themselves to blame. It is cold work, this walking up and down in front of a shop and with the boss out in his fur-lined overcoat to laugh at them it is not always pleasant. Then, too, the picket must not call "scab." The new girl may call any name she likes and does so with the greatest evident delight. There are men in the crowd, too, and they push until the picket is out in the middle of the street. If the picket pushes back, she is arrested. It sometimes takes more than a college education to endure and the girls rebel openly.
"Look out, you!" called a girl to the boss who was pushing a girl in Broadway a few nights ago. "Don't you push that girl or I'll just slap you. It only cost me a dollar the last time I slapped a policeman and I could easily afford a dollar to slap you."
The unfortunate college girl who tries to keep the strikers doing effective work without rioting very soon finds herself in a quandary. The girls turn on her quickly enough to demand: "Well, what can we do anyway? They push us off the sidewalk and we can't push them! They holler names and we can't even call 'scab,' what can we do?"
And that is the question which has called night sessions of the volunteer picket committee, causing them in desperation to snatch at the methods of the English Suffragette and appear, if need be, as sandwich women and sidewalk chalkers. And Miss Annex Sumner, Miss Haskell, Miss Armstrong, all just out of Barnard, who have never made a speech in their lives, must learn to address women's clubs in order to arouse sympathy for the shirtwaist girl. She can speak for herself very well and does, but the volunteer must find her the audience. No group of women would listen if the factory girl herself asked to be heard, but the fact that Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont has given money and attended a strike meeting opens the way. The meeting at the Colony Club on Wednesday was given by Miss Anne Morgan[D] in order that the strikers might tell their own story to the club women. And other clubs have followed the example until the women who form the volunteer committee have more work in arranging meetings and furnishing speakers than they bargained for.
Although the girl who volunteered to help the shirtwaist girls is finding that running a strike is no work for a diletante. She is up early in the morning to reach the picket line by a quarter of eight. If she is out early enough she meets the policeman who is just rounding the corner to stand guard over her. He is very tolerant with her, which is exasperating enough when one has gotten up early with a propaganda to promote. Very few policemen have ideals at 7 o'clock in the morning.
When the boss appears he is cross or good natured, as the morning finds him. He knows her well enough -- she has already become one of the main factors in the fight, representing a power of outside interference which may win or lose the strike.
It is not a case of walking up and down aimlessly for her, or calling "Scab!" or crowding people off the sidewalk, and the person who tries these tactics upon her gains nothing, for she will not push back, and thus give cause for a charge of technical assault. She will argue in that trying conversational tone which is not arrestable. Many of the volunteers who rallied about Miss Elizabeth Dutcher[E] when she organized the "help pickets" were ignorant of the union arguments. And once they came to know them they had still to learn the art of making a good argument. They made their beginning with the girls who are strike breakers catching them at the street corner as they went to and from work. Then, one day, the little strikers pointed out the forelady, upon whom they had already wasted their persuasion. And it at once became the volunteer's duty to stop the forelady at the street corner and talk it all over with her.
The very first word from the forelady is to the point.
"What do you know about work?" she asks.
Now, as it happens, very few of the volunteer pickets have really worked. Almost none of them has worked year in and year out for a living as the forelady has. The forelady knows what her life experience has been, and she gives it straight out from the shoulder:
"I work for myself, and I work every time for myself. I have to do it, because I know how the world is. If you don't look out for yourself nobody looks out for you. And I am a poor girl, too. I support my mother, and here you are asking me to give up a good job. I can't afford to give up my job. What's my mother going to do?"
It is plain and hard enough to shake any one less enthusiastic than the volunteer picket.
"We want women to stand together and fight for each other, because you know you can do nothing alone." She replies.
The volunteer picket makes her best argument, and the forelady is quick enough to see it. She can give as good as she takes, and the volunteer picket needs every scrap of wit she has to keep even. If she should gain a bit in the argument the forelady has always in reserve that trying, "It's all very well for you to say that. You are well dressed and well fed. You have money enough to live on, you don't have to work. What do you know about my position?"
When it is all over -- and the forelady has gone off to tell her boss all about it -- the volunteer picket can hurry on to a hard day's work on the relief committee, or in the meeting halls among the girls. But at night, at 5:30, when she is back on the picket line again, she will find a still harder fight ahead of her, for the boss, perhaps out of more curiosity, is waiting to have his word with her. He is not a coward. He is not mean. Perhaps he has only been a boss two years and was a union man himself. At any rate, he has ideas, and he can express them. The volunteer picket must know her case to the letter, and be crafty at handling it, or she will have no weight with the boss. It is not every one of the volunteers can do this. There are perhaps a dozen who were leaders in college and have the ability to lead outside. You can catch them on Broadway at 6 o'clock any night, and, very likely, they are standing in the shop doorway. It is significantly not this man's shop alone, or this strike, which is the matter of contention -- it is the whole woman movement, or the labor movement, about which, as the boss puts it, "you women that ain't got anything to do think it's stylish to butt in."
Very few of the actual volunteers have the gift of oratory which is requisite to a combat with the boss. But the others are learning rapidly, and their maiden speeches are for the most part made in the east side meeting halls, where the girls of the various shops rally for the fight. The strikers are young, and this is their first organized effort. If someone does not come from the league headquarters to bring them a word of encouragement they begin to wonder why they went out at all. If one girl cries out of sheer discouragement she spreads a perfect veil of tears over the meeting. The volunteer worker has to carry them the news about the thousands of other girls who are fighting with them.
When the volunteer starts forth from the league house in Twenty-second Street, she has need of every scrap of enthusiasm she can carry. Before she has reached Houston Street it will have ebbed away before the oft repeated cry, "Her mother won't let her," or, "Her father says she's got to go to work." She may work in a dirty shop under a sub-boss, who underpays her; she may work nights and Sundays during the rush, and then have no work at all for weeks together. But the father and the mother do not see the need for the strike; they are not used to this new independence; no one ever heard of such a thing in the old country. And it is all very well to bolster up the girl, who speaks English, but the father and mother, who speak Yiddish or Italian perhaps, have what the girls call "old-fashioned notions."
And there is that always unanswerable argument, the rent, which is bound to come due. No amount of argument can change that. The girls are proud on the subject of their finances. The majority of them refuse to ask help even when they need it and some of them have already endured privation rather than "break strike." But, every day, through other girls the stories of their need come in to the headquarters and these have to be met in some way.
In an organization which has just been established there is no fund for strike benefits. The treasury is empty and the volunteer must fill it. That is one more of the small side issues in the work of the volunteer. The money she herself can give is but a drop in the bucket, so she has converted herself into a sort of animated collection box, which does not fail to name its needs whenever it meets a friend.
She hears stories of the striking girls and she tells some of them which, for very pluck and endurance, are worth a hundred repetitions. There was the Forsyth Street girl who had two little brothers to constitute her family. The boys went to school during the day; when she came home from work she picked them up from their play in the street and hurried in to build the fire and cook supper. She was only making eight dollars a week and that was not all the year round either. Still, she kept the two little rooms at the back of a tenement very neat and clean. She did the washing and ironing at night, and got up before daylight to cook breakfast and have the boys ready for school. Everything had to be done that she might be at the shop before eight o'clock. If she should be five minutes late the boss cut her out for half a day and, as she was working on piece work, she could not afford that.
When the strike was called, of course she went out -- with thirty cents in her pocket and a will to help the girls who were not earning as much as she was. She did not consider herself one of the unfortunate ones by any means. Of course, the thirty cents did not last long and she borrowed some money. That gave out too, and, one day, she whispered it to the other girls -- she would have to give up. She was not asking for help, she had no thought of that and did not want to take it when it was offered. She had no time for self-sympathy, but she did feel ashamed to go back on the girls. Of course, she had no intention of going into the shop again, but she felt she was being loyal for deserting the fight. It was explained to her that she could have some help from the organization. The girls from her shop had made up a purse of eight dollars to help pay her rent. She took that gratefully enough because it was from one girl to another, but the money the organization could give her was different, and it was several days before she could make up her mind that it was not charity and might be honorably received.
Then, there is the story of a woman, a widow, who raised six children on her factory wages. She was making twenty-five dollars a week when the strike came and she went down with the rest. One of her boys is in college, one is in a technical school and the others are in High School. It took every cent that could be saved to accomplish this feat of education, and there was no money left for the rainy day. She went on strike from conviction, because as she says, she "believes in the cause of the working people." But it took her a long time to go home that night. She says it was hard to tell the boys that the money was stopped and there was nothing to live on. She went to the shop girls next day and wept as she told them how the children had scolde her. They scolded every day for a week; they begged and quarreled, but the mother was unshaken in her determination to stand by her principles. She did not ask for help and she is not receiving it, but she is still out on strike.
One girl of fifteen went hungry for two days before she whispered her trouble to one of the other girls. She had three children to support, a sick mother and a blind father. She ate very little from the first, because she knew that her money would not last long and she wanted to stay out two weeks, at least. But, when the two weeks were up, and the time stretched drearily ahead, her courage began to fail. She was eating less and less every day, because she knew the family would complain all too soon. It was not their cause she was espousing. It was in a moment of weakness that she told the leader of her shop strike just how she was situated. The leader could get but $3 that week from the union, so the girls clubbed together and made up the amount to finance her for another week.
There are hundreds of girls just like this. Most of them have someone at home to care for; some of them support entire families, and when they are out of work the family starves. Yet it is hard for the girl who has collected money for just this emergency to make them see that taking the money is not taking charity. There is a stigma to the word charity which horrifies even the little errand girl who is working for much less then the regular rate per week. They pay their own car fares to and from the picket, buy their own lunches, if they have any, or go without them cheerfully for the sake of keeping the picket line. They may be up in the police court until midnight and have to be out by 7 next morning, but the boss will come downtown to find them waiting for him with the same fixed determination which kept them tramping in the cold the night before.
The volunteer picket is ashamed to be any less courageous. Even if she were tempted she could not give up in despair with the eyes of the little strikers lookingly trustingly toward her for help. When she reaches the shop she is to picket every night and morning the girls rush up to receive her with open arms. She is the friend with the capital F who has come to help, who believes in the cause and is certain of victory. She has to be certain of victory because the girls expect her to be. And, after all, it is the moral support which has helped things along. When Miss Dutcher told the girls who were discouraged how the Colony Club ladies were interested, and how they had given more than a thousand dollars to the fund, the girls were impressed. And it was noticeably not the money which impressed them, but the fact that the ladies were interested and wanted to help.
One little girl expressed what they all thought when she said: "I guess we got friends all right -- the bosses ain't the only thing. They got to see that yet! I guess when they hear about real ladies giving us money and this theatre uptown letting us have a half of what they make a whole week, I guess then they'll think us girls amount to something!"
The members of the volunteer committee are of this same opinion, and it is almost entirely because they think the girls amount to something that they are keeping up the fight. The fact that the committee is growing in numbers daily is sufficient proof that other people are of the same opinion, and the slow but steady growth of the treasury bears out the argument.
A list of the members of the volunteers include the following names: Miss Inez Milholland, Miss Frances Goodwin, Miss Betta Ager, Miss Spink, Miss Walker, Miss Mary Dunlap, Miss Lavinia Dock, Miss Elizabeth Dutcher, Mrs. Frank Cothren, Miss Schloss, Miss Anna Sumner, Miss Cassara, Miss Belle Martin, Miss Hilda Stevenson, Miss Alice Bean, Miss Amelia Briganti, Miss Civaletti, Miss Jessie [illegible], Miss Elsie Cole, Miss Susanne Haskell, Miss Adams, Miss Caralin Pratt, Miss Harriet Forbes, Miss Harriet Johnson, Miss Elliott , Miss Sheppard[F], Miss Neland, Miss Roemer, Dr. Gertrude [illegible], Mrs. Rose Pastor Stokes[G], Mrs. Leory Scott, Miss Ida Rauh, Miss Austen, Miss Goodwin, Miss Charlotte Gannet, Miss Violet Pike, Miss B. Armstrong.
A. Violet Pike was not a Socialist Party member nor a shirtwaist maker. Yet she involved herself in the working woman's movement and, specifically, this strike as a sympathizer.
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B. Elsie Cole was a Socialist who worked for the Women's Trade Union League. She was responsible for the production of the special New York Call edition that the strikers sold and raised money for their funds.
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C. Ida Rauh, just like Violet Pike, was neither a Socialist Party member nor a shirtwaist maker. However, she did involve herself in the shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910 helping the strikers.
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D. Suffragists' Alva Belmont and Anne Morgan were the leaders of the wealthy women who aided the shirtwaist maker's in their strike.
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E. Elizabeth Dutcher was a Socialist who worked for the WTUL. She was the producer of the special edition of the New York Call that shirtwaist makers sold to raise money for the strikers fund.
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F. This is probably referring to Miss Miriam Shepperd who was the financial officer of the WTUL in 1924.
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G. Rose Pastor Stokes was a cigar maker before she married millionaire J. G. Phelps Stokes. She was a leader for the Socialist party's women's groups. Stokes aided the shirtwaist strikers by opening lunchrooms around the city so strikers could a free lunch and speaking to audiences of garment workers.
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