Friday, January 15, 2010

January 16, 1910 - Inez Milholland arrested with Shirtwaist Strikers

Inez Milholland was a woman who was dedicated to social equity regardless of class or gender. She was a suffragist, labor lawyer war correspondent, and public speaker who greatly influenced the women's movement in America. Inez was the well to do daughter of John Milholland who in the later part of the 19th century had developed a pneumatic tube system for transporting messages throughout the cities of New York and Philadelphia. It made him a millionaire.

Like many young women of the day who had been born into wealth, she had a conscience sensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised. She would be romantically linked to Guglielmo Marconi, socialist orator Max Eastman and would eventually marry Eugen Jan Boissevain an Dutch importer, but in early January 1910 she was seeing a Lieutenant Henry W. Torney of the United States army. One can only imagine what would attract the young socialist who went on to lead protests against World War 1 to an army lieutenant.

On the evening January 16, 1910 Milholland and Torney found themselves walking past a group of Female "Shirtwaist" strikers in from of a waist factory on Waverley Place just west of Washington Square Park. Inez, by now had graduated from Vassar and was studying law at New York University. It is unclear if she and Torney were on their way to a date or if the meeting of the strikers was the date. As the picketing strikers passed a few of the women stopped to speak to Milholland and that is when the trouble started.

The picketers were part of what would be known as the Uprising of the 20,000. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) had begun a general strike in November 1909 to protest the horrid working conditions in the sweatshops of the garment industry. It was essentially a female strike as 80 % of the shirtwaist and dressmaker were teenage immigrant women. Some worked as many as 13 hours per day, 6 days a week and since they were paid on a piece work basis sometimes made as little as $9.00 per week. Fines and dismissals enforced labor discipline.

Work that had been previously done by immigrant women in tenement apartments was now being done in modern factories such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on Washington Place. Triangle owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck had capitalized on the "Shirtwaist" craze of the early 20th century driven by Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl". But by 1909 they had become increasingly fearful of labour unrest. Exit doors were kept locked to keep out union organizers and workers were forbidden to speak with one another while working. But through meetings at Cooper Union and Carnegie Hall the Union gained momentum and called a general strike on November 22, 1909.

From November 24-the first day of picketing-the strikers were met with resistance from both the police as well as organized gangs working in concert with the Tammany Hall machine to break the strikers. Picketers were arrested by police under the premise of being "street walkers" and many were beaten by the gang members from the lower east side who Tammany had hired in return for kickback from the wealthy factory owners. The women persisted and many of the smaller factories settled in December of 1909.

Still, in early 1910 many of the larger factories held out. And it was into this scenario that Inez Milholland and Lieut. Torney found themselves on January 16. As picketers stopped to chat with Inez , police from the nearby Mercer Street station started to arrest strikers for disorderly conduct. She and Torney followed to the arraignment and were also arrested at that time. John Milholland bailed out Inez and Torney put up as bond 4,000 acres of land in Essex County worth about $200,000. The charges against the two were later dropped but some of the strikers were fined and other sentenced to 3-5 days in the jails on Blackwell's Island.

The "Uprising of the 20,000" would eventually be settled in early February 1910 as the larger shops such as the Triangle took back their workers at higher pay and shorter hours. Harris and Blanck, the Triangle owners "recognized the union but only in the sense that they no longer prohibited membership. They had successfully resisted the "closed shop".

Inez Millholland would go on to become one of the main social activists of the early 20th century championing suffrage and anti-war movements. In spite of suffering from pernicious anemia she continued to campaign for the causes she believed in despite her doctors warnings. On 22nd October, 1916, she collapsed in the middle of a speech in Los Angeles and passed away a month later at the age of 30.

The great strike of 1909-1910 -the first real women's strike-was only moderately successful, but it did bring nation-wide attention to the plight of the workers. Ultimately the Uprising bettered the lives of hundreds and thousands of workers. It would lead, in turn, to other strikes over working hours and pave the way for better planned and more successful strikes such as the "Great Revolt of 1910 where 60,000 cloak makers forced employers to sign a "Protocol of Peace" calling for a 50 hour work week, the elimination of homework and the recognition of the union.

No comments:

Post a Comment