Have you heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? Maybe you don’t know the name but you may have heard of what was the deadliest industrial disaster in the United States. It happened in 1911, and one of the former workers there went on to help change the role of women in the workplace and fight for workers’ rights.
Pauline M. Newman was born on October 18, between 1887 and 1890 (the information was lost when her family migrated), in Kaunas, Russia, in what is now Lithuania. Her family was Jewish, so public education was out of the question in the bigoted region. Jews had their own school but denied women access. What was a curious determined child to do? She convinced her father to let her sit in on his classes when he taught and thus partly learned to read and write.
Upon her father’s death in 1901, she, her mother, and her sisters moved across the world to New York City, where their brother lived. The children had no time for education, because the economy was starting to decay in the city, so Newman went to work first in a brush factory and then at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The conditions at the factory were horrific, yet the teen found hope in the Socialist Party, and she was soon organizing reading groups for factory workers.
By 1907, the city was in a deep economic depression, and Newman left the factory to focus on organizing working women. On New Year’s Day in 1908, 10,000 apartment tenants went on strike, refused to pay their rent, and demanded changes. This was the beginning of decades of activism that resulted in rent controls and other housing regulations in the city.
Newman continued her work with the Socialist Party and was their nominee for New York Secretary of State in 1908. Women did not yet have the right to vote, so Newman spoke out about that issue on the campaign trail. Even though she didn’t win the election, she was able to organize working class women and revive the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which had been created in 1900. From 1909 to 1913 she got over 40,000 women to go on strike for better conditions. However, within the Party and unions, Newman faced sexism and token action on issues particularly important to women.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 could have ended Newman’s activism; she confessed it drove her into a deep depression. However, the state created the Factory Investigation Commission (FIC) and offered Newman a position as one of their inspectors. The job gave her hope and focus again. She worked with Frances Perkins, future Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the FIC.
In 1917, Newman went to Philadelphia on behalf of the Women’s Trade Union League to establish a branch there. It was here that she met her future partner, Frieda S. Miller, a professor at Bryn Mawr. Their relationship was not a secret; they adopted a child together (outside of the country), and lived together until Miller’s death in 1974. By 1923 the couple had moved to New York City, where Newman became the Health Center Education Director of ILGWU.
Newman became part of the circle of women who helped Eleanor Roosevelt understand the issues of the average American. Newman also worked with other city, state, national, and international organizations on women’s and workers’ rights. She tried to integrate the primarily white unions by recruiting African-American and Mexican-American women. After WWII, she also consulted on issues of child labor and hygiene in the workplace.
She remained active throughout her later life until her death on April 8, 1986. When a younger generation of women revived feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, they turned to her as one of their foremothers. She toured the country to talk with groups of women, reporters, and historians sharing her experiences and urging on the fight for equality. Her own biography was never published (a copy can be found at Cornell University), but her legacy lives on whenever someone stands up for equal rights and protections regardless of age, ethnicity, race, religion, or sex.