Women's Walkout: Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel
...JUST FIVE FEET TALL, AND HARDLY SPEAKS A WORD OF ENGLISH.
HER NAME IS CLARA LEMLICH.
CLARA KNOWS IN HER BONES WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG.
There comes a time and place where someone has to stand up and say, THIS IS NOT FAIR.
That time once was the early decades of the twentieth century and the place was the garment district of New York City.
The someone was Clara Lemlich.
To call the place where young girls, some no older than twelve, worked a twelve-hour day a sweat shop is almost a euphemism. Freezing in winter, steamy when the summer sun heated the tall brick buildings with little ventilation, the mostly teenaged seamstresses labored on piece rates, stitching cuffs and collars twelve hours a day, six days a week, for a few dollars pay.
THERE ARE TWO FILTHY TOILETS, ONE SINK, AND THREE TOWELS FOR THREE HUNDRED GIRLS TO SHARE.
IF YOU ARRIVE A FEW MINUTES LATE, YOU LOSE HALF A DAY'S PAY.
IF YOU PRICK OUR FINGER AND BLEED ON THE CLOTH, YOU'RE FINED. IF IT HAPPENS A SECOND TIME, YOU'RE FIRED.
THE DOORS ARE LOCKED, AND YOU'RE INSPECTED EVERY NIGHT TO BE SURE YOU HAVEN'T STOLEN ANYTHING FROM THE FACTORY.
THIS WAS NOT THE AMERICA THAT CLARA HAD IMAGINED.
It is an America that today no one wants to imagine, but that is so because Clara and other garment workers knew that their working conditions were not fair. They got together and went to their bosses with their suggestions for making conditions better, but the only answer they got was to keep working or be replaced with other poor girls who who would be glad to take their jobs. Clara understood that individuals had no power to change wages and conditions. Their only choice was for everyone to walk out together, leaving the sweat shop sewing machines in silence.
WHEN THEY ARE PUNISHED FOR SPEAKING UP, CLARA CRIES, "STRIKE!"
The owners hired men to beat up the girls. With six ribs broken, arrested seventeen times, Clara still refused to give up. But gradually people took notice, and her fiery speeches on street corners got the attention of many people: workers in other factories, ordinary bystanders, newspaper writers, rich ladies in elegant clothes, all joined their marches, and they all agreed: This is not fair.
Michelle Markel's new picture book biography, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 (Balzer & Bray, 2013), tells the story of the feisty and fearless Clara Lemlich, courageous early organizer of the International Ladies' Garment Workers, whose citywide walkout achieved improved conditions for seamstresses in every factory in New York save one--ironically and tragically the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where a horrific fire in 1911 killed 146 girls who burned to death behind its locked doors. Changes came fast after that, thanks to Clara and her other brave girls...
PROVING THAT IN AMERICA
WRONGS CAN BE RIGHTED,
WARRIORS CAN WEAR SKIRTS AND BLOUSES,
AND THE BRAVEST HEARTS MAY BEAT IN GIRLS
ONLY FIVE FEET TALL.
Markel's simple but searing prose is engagingly extended by the art of Caldecott winner Melissa Sweet, who gives this potentially grim story a brave and jaunty air with the bright colors of the stitchery and fabrics which she incorporates into the book's page design. Markel appends a brief recounting of the garment industry of Lemlich's day and a bibliography which chronicles the changes brought about by this courageous leader whose work helped win modern workers a minimum wage, the forty-hour week, and a say in the conditions under which they work.
Book reviewers and her modern sisters have just the right words for Clara Lemlich. You go, girl!