One week from today marks 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It’s often called “the fire that changed everything,” because the 146 deaths that it caused — its victims were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women — became a catalyst for much of the labor activism that helped bring about sweeping workplace safety reforms. If you haven’t already, check out the Forward’s website devoted to the fire’s legacy — complete with more than a dozen original pieces, multimedia, and 25 translated articles published in the Yiddish Forward in the fire’s immediate aftermath.
In the weeks leading up to this somber anniversary, our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Jewesses With Attitude blog put together an important series to honor the “Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History.” Among those who made the list are Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman, driving forces behind the “Uprising of 20,0000,” in which garment workers went on strike to protest workplace abuses, and Fannia Cohn and Lillian Wald, who helped provide educational opportunities for workers and their families. “From the ashes of the Triangle fire, these women took up the battle to make sure a tragedy like this would never happen again,” said Ann F. Lewis, who chaired the Jewish Women’s Archive’s inaugural luncheon last weekend.
The more than 200 people who came out for the event, held, fittingly, at the New York City Fire Museum, had a chance to learn about those labor leaders — information about their lives and work were placed on each table — as well as some contemporary Jewish women who are making a big difference: The afternoon’s honorees were Ruth J. Abram, a historian who co-founded New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Kate Frucher, a lawyer who spearheaded the New York Fire Department’s terrorism-preparedness efforts; and Lynn Sherr, an Emmy-winning journalist who has reported extensively on women’s issues over the course of her decades-long career.
After speeches by the honorees, musician Merri Lovinger Arian led the group in an energetic rendition of “Miriam’s Song” by the late, great Debbie Friedman. Lyrics include, “And the women dancing with their timbrels/followed Miriam as she sang her song/sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted/Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.” Many of those in attendance rose from their chairs, formed a human chain, and began dancing around the room. The luncheon was followed by a walking tour, featuring landmarks in labor history — including the old Forward building and the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, now an NYU laboratory.