Zewditu I – Empress of Ethiopia

Empress Zewditu (source)

Empress Zewditu (source)

Zewditu I, Empress of Ethiopia, was the first internationally recognized female head of state in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. She reigned from 1916 to 1930 and was the first Ethiopian Empress regnant since Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, as well as the last Empress regnant.

Born on April 29, 1876, Zewditu was given the name Askala Maryam at her baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. Her parents were Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and his consort Weyziro (Lady) Abechi, although, she was raised primarily by her father and his consort Baffana, because of her mother’s death when she was young. She had an excellent relationship with her father and also with the woman her father married, and who became Empress, Taytu Betul. Menelik had three acknowledged children, Zewditu, her older sister Shewa Regga, and a son who died in infancy.

Beginning in 1886 at the age of ten, Zewditu had three political marriages which were short lived, beginning with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, heir of Emperor Yohannes IV. This was an attempt to cement an alliance between the two rulers which didn’t last, but Araya Selassie died two years later without any children by Zewditu and she returned to her father’s home. In spite of the conflict, Yohannes had high regard for Zewditu and sent her home with a valuable gift of cattle. The next two marriages ended in death and divorce.

In 1900, Taytu arranged a fourth marriage, between her nephew, Gugsa Wale, and Zewditu. Gugsa Welle was a poet and book lover, and the marriage appears to have been happy. Zewditu had no surviving children, although she had a daughter by her second marriage who died in 1895 at age four.

Menelik II (source)

Menelik II (source)

In 1899, Yohannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma and Menelik took the Emperor’s throne as Menelik II, making Zewditu a possible fourth in the line of succession. The first two candidates were deemed unsuitable by Menelik, the third was Lij Iyasu, the son of Menelik’s oldest daughter, followed by Zewditu. After having a stroke in 1908, Menelik named Lij Iyasu as his heir, but because he was only 13 he also appointed Tessema Nadew as regent. However, Empress Taytu undermined his choice, hoping to substitute Zewditu or her husband Ras Gugsa Welle, Taytu’s nephew, as successor.

After a series of strokes, Menelik became paralyzed and Iyasu was acknowledged as heir, but he wasn’t considered the best choice for Emperor. He was impulsive, egocentric and prone to be cruel. After Tessema Nadew died in 1911, Iyasu refused another regent. During the next few years, there were several coup attempts as well as an attempt to poison Iyasu. Finally, in December of 1913 Menelik died, but when informed of the death, Iyasu continued playing a mock battle game. He also refused to allow any form of public mourning for the Emperor.

Empress Taytu and Zewditu were both immediately expelled from the palace, but it was a month before word of the death made its way to the aristocracy. Iyasu was uninterested in the day-to-day running of the government, which continued under his grandfather’s cabinet of ministers and Fitawrarri Hapte Giorgis Denagde, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and minister of war. Many of his activities were deemed dangerous to the future of the country, especially during WWI, and his frequent trips away from the capital gave the ministers time to plot his downfall. On September 27, 1916, Iyasu was deposed in favor of Zewditu and she was proclaimed Empress by the nobility and the church.

Although Zewditu was proclaimed “Empress, Queen of Kings, Elect of God, and Lion of Judah,” she initially wasn’t allowed to exercise power alone. Her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed heir to the throne and regent. Also, distrustful of the Empress Dowager Taytu and her relatives, the aristocracy forced Zewditu to separate from her husband. Gugsa was sent to the north and eventually given the governorship of Beghemidir, although he was denied the title of king.

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Iyasu escaped arrest and went into hiding. His father King Michael of Wollo raised an army and declared war, but was defeated quickly and made to pay homage to Zewditu. Iyasu was found a few months later, and imprisoned at Sellae. Zewditu made sure that both Iyasu and his father were treated with dignity and kept in luxury, although Iyasu always referred to her as his “poor naive aunt” for her kindness.

Zewditu’s reign was a constant struggle between the reforming impulses of Ras Tafari and the more conservative wishes of Zewditu, Fitawrarri,the cabinet and the Orthodox Church. In the face of the colonizing of the African continent, Ras Tafari believed that modernization was the key to remaining independent. The conservatives disagreed and took a more isolationist stance. In many ways Zewditu was caught between the two. She was racked with guilt from taking the throne. Devoted to her father, she saw Iyasu’s reign as his stated wish and felt she had gone against that.

As time went on, the conservatives, who had put Ras Tafari in the position as regent, pressed him to consult Zewditu before instituting reforms. They also put pressure on her to resist him. Eventually, Ras Tafari had had enough, and with the support of the Mahil Safari military division, forced her to disband the cabinet of ministers and allow him to put his supporters in their places. He then was able to put reforms into place such as the abolition of slavery and entry into the League of Nations.

These reforms were of little interest to Zewditu who was a pious woman. She retreated into a life of prayer and penance. She was responsible for building several churches, hosted a visit by the Patriarch of Alexandria, and visited the Empress Dowager Taytu often. By 1928, there was little power left to the conservatives and a small uprising was unsuccessful. Zewditu was compelled to grant Tafari the title of Negus, and he was in effect the ruler of Ethiopia.

One final attempt was made when Ras Gugsa Welle raised an army against Negus Tafari and marched for Addis Ababa. Zewditu frantically tried to get him to back down, but he refused. Negus Tafari sent an army north and they met on the Anchiem plain on March 31, 1930. Tafari, now having access to modern military methods, flew planes over Ras Gugsa’s army, first to drop leaflets declaring Gugsa a rebel and promising excommunication from the church for those who participated, and second to drop a bomb. By the end of the day, Ras Gugsa’s army was defeated and he was dead.

Two days later, on April 2, Empress Zewditu also died. She suffered from diabetes and at the time was ill with typhoid, however, speculation about the cause of her death continues today. She was fasting for Lent which may have weakened her, then she was submerged in cold holy water to reduce her fever. Some say she died of shock from this treatment, others say that she died of grief when she was informed of the death of her husband. Still others say that she was poisoned as soon as victory was assured. However, there is no firm evidence to back up these theories and later her Swiss doctor gave her cause of death as diabetes.

Regardless of how she died, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Zewditu, was greatly mourned and remembered for her piety, generosity, and devotion to her father’s memory. She was also the only monarch in over a century to be given a state funeral after which she was laid to rest in the Masoleum Church of St. Mary Ba-eta with her father and Empress Taytu.

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

 

Resources
Empress Zewditu – Queen of Kings
Zewditu, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rita Levi-Montalcini: Nobel Prize Winning Neurobiologist

Rita Levi-Montalcini, 2009, Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009, Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

During World War II, Rita Levi-Montalcini, as a Jewish woman, was forced to leave her research position at the University of Turin. However, she didn’t leave her research behind. Using homemade instruments, a basic microscope, an incubator built by her brother, and chicken eggs, she spent the war years observing the growth of nerve cells. This clandestine work laid the foundation for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor which eventually led to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Rita Levi was born April 22, 1909 into a wealthy Jewish family in Turin, Italy. She and her twin, Paola, were the youngest of the four children of Adam Levi and Adele Montalcini Levi. The Levi family was well established in Turin, since the Roman empire, and with so many relatives of the same name, Rita, who never married, eventually added her mother’s maiden name to distinguish herself professionally.

Adam Levi was an electrical engineer and an authoritarian with a quick temper. He had definite ideas of what was appropriate for girls, which was training to be good wives and mothers, so after Rita and Paola completed the 4th grade, they were sent to finishing school. Two of Adam’s aunts had doctorate degrees, one in literature and the other in mathematics. They also had unhappy marriages, which Adam attributed to their advanced education.

Rita’s mother Adele, an accomplished artist, was reserved and submissive. Perhaps for this reason, Rita wasn’t interested in marriage. Or perhaps it was because she considered her classes at finishing school “mindless”. Regardless, she had no interest in “children or babies” and “never remotely accepted [her] role as wife or mother.” Ever since her beloved nurse, Giovanna, died of stomach cancer, she had wanted to be a doctor, but saw no hope of attending medical school.

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Finally at the age of 20, Rita had the courage to tell her father about her desire to be a physician. Although he disagreed, with her mother’s support she convinced him to hire tutors to help her prepare for the entrance exams to the university. Studying with her cousin Eugenia, they hired two tutors, one for mathematics and science, another for Latin and Greek. They studied subjects such as history and literature alone. After eight months of study, both Rita and Eugenia passed their exams and in 1930 Rita entered the University of Turin as a medical student.

At the university, Rita studied under another quick-tempered man, Giuseppe Levi, a leading histologist. Along with Rita, two other students of Levi went on to receive Nobel Prizes, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. Rita finished her degrees in 1936 and began to specialize in neurology, now working as Levi’s assistant, but in 1938 that changed when a new law forced Jews out of the university and professional jobs. Rather than emigrate from Italy, Rita’s family chose to remain.

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

For a time, Rita practiced medicine among the poor, but she couldn’t write prescriptions. Then one day she read a journal article written by Victor Hamburger, one of the founders of developmental neurobiology, who happened to do research using chick embryos. This gave Rita the idea to start her own home laboratory. When Giuseppe Levi joined Rita in her work, her family’s home also became a meeting place for his other students.

In spite of her brother Gino’s name being on a most-wanted list for resistance activities, she was able to keep her activities hidden. But, when bombing began in Turin in 1941, the Levi family moved to the country and Rita had to rebuild her lab there. Supplies were more difficult to get, so she often rode her bicycle through the countryside asking farmers for eggs for “her babies.” When the country was invaded in 1943, the family moved again and using forged documents, found a place to hide in Florence, where they remained until Italy was liberated in August 1944.

Rita was unable to publish her research in Italy during the war because her name was Jewish, so she published in Belgian and Swiss journals. This time it was Rita who came to the attention of Victor Hamburger. In 1947, Hamburger was the director of the zoology department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and after reading about her experiments asked Rita to visit for a semester. Some of her results contradicted his, and he wanted to know which was accurate. When she was able to duplicate her results in the laboratory, Hamburger offered her a research position. Rita accepted and remained there for almost three decades.

Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger were a good match. He recognized that she brought expertise in neurology that he didn’t have, and he supplied experimental embryology expertise. By 1953, Rita’s research had convinced her of the existence of some substance which caused nerve fibers to grow and that without it they would die. She now needed the help of a biochemist, so she began working with Stanley Cohen, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University.

Stanley Cohen (source)

Stanley Cohen (source)

Once again, Rita had a good working partner in both style and substance. Together she and Cohen isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) first by using mouse tumors, then snake venom, and finally the salivary glands of male mice. They were successful, but ultimately, Hamburger couldn’t justify keeping a full-time biochemist on staff in a zoology department, so in 1959 Cohen moved on to Vanderbilt University, where he was able to isolate Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology for their results, discovering NGF and EGF, respectively.

Without Cohen, Rita felt at loose ends. She was also homesick, especially for Paola. In 1961, she received a National Science Foundation grant which allowed her to open the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome. From 1961 to 1969, she alternated spending six months in Rome with six months in St. Louis. In 1969, with the help of a friend, she was able to open the Laboratory of Cellular Biology which allowed her to return to Italy full time.

Although Rita Levi-Montalcini officially retired from the Laboratory of Cellular Biology in 1979, she continued to guest lecture. She also stayed active in science and politics. In 2001 she was appointed  Senator for Life by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and in 2002, she founded the European Brain Research Institute. After a long and very full life, Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012 at the age of 103.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Paola Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 23, 2015

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, March 8, is celebrated as International Women’s Day across the world. As with many other holidays, it has evolved over time in its meaning and means of celebration. Initially, the day had a political purpose promoting the rights of women, particularly working women, demanding suffrage, and celebrating accomplishments. This is still true in many countries, although in some places the focus is simply an occasion to express love and appreciation of the women in our lives.

Maasai women rally for International Women's Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

Maasai women rally for International Women’s Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

The earliest observance was in the United States on 28 February 1909 in remembrance of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike of 1908. The next year, at a women’s conference in Denmark, a proposal for an International Woman’s Day was put forth and agreed upon. Although no official date was decided at the time, on 19 March 1911 over a million people demonstrated across Europe promoting equal rights and suffrage for women.

The date for International Women’s Day wasn’t uniformly fixed as March 8 until 1914. That year in Germany, the marches were focused on women’s suffrage, which they finally won in 1918. This poster urges women to join the fight. It’s English translation is as follows: “Give Us Women’s Suffrage. Women’s Day, March 8, 1914. Until now, prejudice and reactionary attitudes have denied full civic rights to women, who as workers, mothers, and citizens wholly fulfill their duty, who must pay their taxes to the state as well as the municipality. Fighting for this natural human right must be the firm, unwavering intention of every woman, every female worker. In this, no pause for rest, no respite is allowed. Come all, you women and girls, to the 9th public women’s assembly on Sunday, March 8, 1914, at 3pm.”

International Women's Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

International Women’s Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

In 1917, International Women’ Day demonstrations were particularly effective in Russia. Held on the last Sunday in February (March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) women marched in St. Petersburg calling for an end to food shortages, czarism, and World War I. The slogan was “Bread and Peace” and touched off the February Revolution. Although it lasted less than a week, it resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and paved the way for the October Revolution later in the year.

In many countries, particularly in the east, the day is an official holiday including time off from work. In others women receive flowers and gifts similar to Mother’s Day. In 1975, the United Nations began sponsoring the day, and since 1996, they have proposed a theme for each year. This year, 2015, the UN theme is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity. Picture it!”, highlighting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995.

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women's Day in 2002 (source)

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women’s Day in 2002 (source)

The overall theme for 2015 for International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen” – for greater awareness of women’s equality, for more women in senior leadership roles, for fairer recognition of women in sport, for equal recognition of women in the arts, for growth of women owned businesses, for increased financial independence of women, and for more women in science, engineering, and technology. You can follow on twitter @womensday and use the hashtag #MakeItHappen to join in the discussion.

Commemorating International Women's Day in Cameroon, 2006

Commemorating International Women’s Day in Cameroon, 2006 (source)

What are your plans? Will you join in the celebration? Let us know in the comments.

 

Harriet Boyd Hawes – On the Dig at Kavousi

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting.

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting before she began her search for a site.

In 1965, the journal Archaeology published two articles from the memoirs and letters of Harriet Boyd Hawes. The materials were provided by her daughter, Mrs. Mary N. Allsebrook, who also wrote a biography of her mother. I enjoyed reading them and I thought I’d share a little with you about Harriet’s first excavation at Kavousi. Links to both articles are below.

Background

Crete had been under Ottoman rule since the seventeenth century, but there were a number of uprisings in the late 19th century. In August 1898, hundreds of Cretan Greeks were massacred along with the British Consul and 17 British soldiers. As a result, Turkish forces were expelled from the island and an autonomous Cretan State was established under the protection of an international force with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner.

This change in the political landscape opened the door for archaeologists and “England, Italy and France applied for sites on which to excavate.” The American school at Athens that Harriet attended had all of its funds tied up in excavations at Corinth, so Harriet “believing that Americans ought, if possible, to have a share in the exploration of Crete,” decided to use what money was left from her fellowship and explore.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving on Crete

On April 10, 1900, Harriet set sail with a Miss Patten of Boston who wanted to study plant life, their foreman Aristides Pappadias and his mother. They were “much tossed about” in a dingy little boat before they spied the walls of the fort guarding the harbor of Candia. Their luggage was tossed on another boat and Harriet says, “I was lifted and swung from steamer to boat by a huge Soudanese, black as Egypt’s darkness, who seemed to enjoy immensely the exercise of his strength. It must have been a funny site – the boat plunging up and down, for the waves were high, and I wriggling in the big black man’s arms, in mid air.”

They were met by a man from Arthur Evans staff and made welcome at the British School house and the excavation at Knossos. They soon rented a little house of their own for $4/month where their lives were simple. They had “a table, two chairs, our two cot-beds, a few cupboards and boxes – plates etc. enough to serve with very frequent washing.” Aristides did the shopping and Manna, his mother, did the cooking and housekeeping.

Finding Their Site

Game table found at the chief's house at Kavousi. (source)

Game table found at the chief’s house at Kavousi. (source)

When they set out to explore, they had no roads to follow, only mule tracks. Manna stayed behind in charge of the house, and Harriet, Jean (I assume this is Miss Patten) and Aristides took off on their mules with a guide. They encountered numerous villages which had suffered during the conflicts which ended just a couple of years before. They encountered “villages, many of which we found utterly ruined, about an equal number of Mohammedan villages burned by Christians, and of Christian villages burned by Mohammedans.”

Although Harriet had visited many excavation sites in Greece, she was unsure of her ability to see and select her own site. She talked to the locals, asking about items they had found in the fields, but said that “it is not easy to discriminate between worthless gossip and valuable evidence.”

Aristides was evidently an impressive man , dressed in traditional Greek clothes associated with patriotic heroes. He rode ahead of the ladies and ordered coffee, treating others and laying the groundwork. When the ladies arrived it was assumed that they were very important since they accompanied someone like Aristides. Soon people began to bring them items that they had found and offer to show them the locations.

Everywhere they went they were treated exceptionally well. It was Holy Week, but they were offered wonderful food even though most people were eating sparsely for Lent. They were also offered shelter every night. Harriet thought there were three main reasons for the hospitality: 1) the Cretans were hospitable people, 2) the village they excavated at would benefit financially, and 3) the fact that ladies could travel without fear was evidence that the land was safe again.

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

They couldn’t dig without official authorization, so they had to make their selection based on what they found above ground, but were surprised how much there was to choose from. But Kavousi had been recommended by Arthur Evans, so they wanted to wait until they had seen it.

When they reached Kavousi, the people welcomed them warmly and as usual began to show them pieces they had found. Harriet saw several locations where she believed tombs existed, but she made up her mind when an “old, old man” brought her “three fine early bronzes.” At the site where he found them, she found a “small acropolis and many early walls” and what she thought would be a temple.

Harriet made up her mind to excavate at Kavousi and wasted no time obtaining permission. They “made sixty miles from Kavousi in two days – quite fast for mules and wooden saddles.” She submitted her petition at Herakleion and waited. She wrote home, “I hope within five days to have permission to excavate ‘in the neighborhood of Kavousi and Episcope,’ and within ten days I hope to be at work with thirty men.”

On the dig

Harriet and Miss Patten rented a small house to live in and for their headquarters at Kavousi. It had a wooden gate that led into a courtyard surrounded by “storerooms, stables and kitchen.” The room where they slept was reached from the roof of one of the storerooms and was one of only two rooms in the village with a wooden floor. They placed tables and chairs on one of the roofs where they had a spectacular view. They were pleased with the available food: sheep’s milk, eggs, bread, lamb, chicken, artichokes and beans, with olive oil and spices. Canned food was used only for lunch at the site.

On the first day after they were settled, Aristides asked the men of the village who wanted to dig to come to the courtyard. Harriet was familiar with the language because of her nursing activities during the war, so together they chose ten men who became “Firsts.” These men took on supervisory roles as more workers were added and nine of them stayed with Harriet throughout all of her excavations on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

At times the digging was boring and seemed unfruitful, but finally an exciting find was made on the Kastro, a 2000 foot peak. They transferred the workmen and “daily made the difficult ascent on mules as far as the Ridge, an hour’s climb, whence we reached the top by a hand and foot scramble.” There they excavated what Harriet called the “home of a Highland Chief of Homer’s time.”

Another exciting find occurred near the end of the season when she allowed two boys to dig at a place that didn’t seem promising at all. She gave them permission because she didn’t want to discourage their enthusiasm, but when they yelled “Lady, Lady” she knew they had found something exciting. It turned out to be a bee-hive tomb that was undisturbed from 3000 years earlier. In this tomb they found skeletons, vases, a large pithos and many small metal objects.

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (source).

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

Overall, Harriet was very pleased and so were the villagers. “They would have much to discuss through the winter, much to tell passing travelers, and could claim for Kavousi an importance it had never before enjoyed among the villages of Eastern Crete.”

Although the digging was over for the season, Harriet’s work wasn’t done. She headed back to Candia where she spent time writing her report to the American School at Athens and cataloging her finds. Harriet’s excavation at Kavousi was the first on Crete led by an American and she undertook it purely on her own initiative. The next time she returned it would be to excavate for the American Exploration Society of Philadelphia.

Read more about Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Resources
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Clara Lemlich – A Lifetime of Organizing

Clara Lemlich in 1910

Clara Lemlich in 1910

I first heard of Clara Lemlich on the American Experience special “Triangle Fire” about the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  Prior to the fire, in the fall of 1909, garment workers in New York City went out on  a massive strike referred to as the Uprising of 20.000.  Clara Lemlich’s words prompted the final decision to strike.

Clara Lemlich was born in Gorodok, Ukraine on March 28, 1886. Her family was Jewish and primarily spoke Yiddish, but against her parent’s wishes Clara learned to read Russian and devoured as many books as she could get. She did sewing and wrote letters for illiterate neighbors in order to raise money for books. It was during this time that a neighbor introduced her to revolutionary literature and she became a socialist.

In 1903, after the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, a riot began against the Jews in Kishinev the capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire (now the capital of Moldova.) The pogrom continued without intervention of the police or military until the third day resulting in approximately 50 deaths, 600 wounded, and 700 houses and businesses looted and destroyed. After this pogrom and a second one in 1905, tens of thousands of Jews left the Russian Empire for the west. The Lemlich family was among them.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

Clara immigrated with her family in 1903 to New York City and quickly found work in the garment industry. The conditions in the factories were terrible with low pay, long hours, lack of advancement, and often humiliating treatment from supervisors. The introduction of the sewing machine, rather than making the work easier, served to increase the required output for each day. Workers were often subcontracted and paid even less than those hired directly. Lemlich along with others rebelled against these conditions and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. She quickly became a leader, organizing strikes and even returning to the picket line after being injured.

On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting was held at Cooper Union to rally support for striking workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the Leiserson Company. (Clara had been arrested 17 times while picketing outside the Leiserson factory, been beaten, and left bloody on the sidewalk with broken ribs in September.) Leaders in the labor movement and socialist movement spoke for a couple of hours and Clara grew impatient. Finally, she asked to be heard and was raised to the platform. I’ve read a couple of different versions of what Clara said that night. It could be because she spoke in Yiddish and the differences are in the translation, but basically she said that she was tired of talk. She had listened patiently to generalities, but they were there to make a decision, so she moved that they make the decision to strike. The crowd responded and voted for a general strike beginning the next day. Approximately 20,000 workers went out on strike the next day. It lasted until February 10, 1910, with union contracts at most shops. Sadly, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory held out and refused to make changes or allow the Union into their shop. Then on March 25, 1911, it became the site of a fire that took the lives of 146 people, mostly women and girls.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn't reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn’t reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

After the Uprising, Lemlich was blacklisted from the garment industry and at odds with the more conservative leadership in the Union. She then took up the cause of women’s suffrage. She believed that suffrage was necessary to improve working women’s lives. Everyone around them in the workplace, the bosses, foremen, inspectors, and owners, were almost all men and they had a vote, but the working women had no vote. The primary suffrage organization, The National American Woman Suffrage Association, was oriented toward middle and upper class women, so she founded the Wage Earners League as a working woman’s alternative. The Wage Earners League, an alternative to the NAWSA was however, dependent on non-working class women for support. It soon passed out of existence and Clara continued her work for suffrage through the Women’s Trade Union League.

Her life took a different direction when Clara married Joe Shavelson in 1913. They moved to a working-class neighborhood and eventually to Brighten Beach. Clara had 3 children, Irving Charles Velson, Martha Shavelson Schaffer and Rita Shavelson Margules and didn’t return to work full-time for the next 30 years. She didn’t give up organizing however. While she devoted herself to raising her family she joined with other Jewish housewives to protest high prices and fight evictions through rent strikes. With Kate Gitlow, she organized the United Council of Working Class Housewives for this purpose and to raise money for relief for strikers.

Striking Garment Workers

Striking Garment Workers

During this time Clara had become a member of the Communist Party, from which she launched the United Council of Working Class Women. This organization was very successful for a time with over 50 branches in NYC and branches in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit. Although the Council recruited among Communist Party members, it didn’t identify with the Party or press members to join. It eventually was renamed the Progressive Women’s Councils which prompted the Party to withdraw support. Nevertheless in the early 1950s, the PWC was forced to shut down because of Communist Party affiliations.

Clara finally retired from garment work in 1954 and had to fight to get a pension. Over the following years, she was involved in various activities through the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, which she helped to found. She protested nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and campaigned for ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide and Civil Rights reform.

After her second husband, Abe Goldman, died in 1967, Clara moved to California to be near her children. She moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, and even there she organized. She convinced the management to join with the United Farm Worker’s boycott of grapes and lettuce, and organized the workers at the Home. I think it’s safe to say that Clara Lemlich agitated and organized as long as she was physically able. She died on July 25, 1982 at the age of 96

Clara Lemlich 2

Resources
“One Woman Who Changed the Rules”, Dwyer, Jim (March 22, 2011) New York Times  (From this article you can click through to see a series of articles published about the Triangle Fire.)
Clara Lemlich” – Wikipedia
The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire – Cornell University website
“Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike, 1909” (pdf)
The Labor Wars by Sidney Lens
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn