The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day
BY CHRIS MAHIN
There were no fire extinguishers. Flammable materials were stored throughout the factory. The building was illuminated by open gas lighting. The ninth floor of the 10-story building had only two doors leading out. By the time the seamstresses there realized the building was on fire, one stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames. The other door had been locked, supposedly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks. The single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the many desperate people trying to use it. The elevator stopped working.
Realizing that there was no other way to escape, some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the ground nine stories below. Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the elevator shaft. (Few survived.) The rest waited until smoke and fire defeated their desperate efforts to save themselves.
The fire department arrived quickly, but the firefighters were unable to stop the flames. (There were no ladders available that could extend beyond the sixth floor.) The tragedy claimed 146 lives; 91 people died in the fire itself, and 54 died in the falls.
Most of the dead were young. The average age of the victims was 21. Workers as young as 14 perished that day. Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women.
Every executive of the company got out alive.
The deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on the afternoon of March 25, 1911 stunned people across the United States. The fire played an important role in changing the public’s perception of union workers and union organizers. The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this tragedy, including the silent funeral march which brought together over 100,000 people.
The tragedy also intensified the effort – which had begun before the fire – to observe March 8 each year as International Women’s Day.
For decades before the Triangle fire, rallies, marches, and protests by women workers had taken place in early spring, often in March.
On March 8, 1857, the New York City police attacked and dispersed a demonstration of women garment workers protesting terrible working conditions and low wages. Two years later, again in March, those women garment workers formed their first trade union to protect themselves on the job.
On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter hours, better pay, an end to child labor – and the right to vote for women.
In 1910, an international conference of socialist organizations was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, Clara Zetkin, a distinguished member of the German Socialist Party, proposed that an International Women’s Day be recognized by all the organizations present at that conference as a way to mark the strike of the garment workers in the United States. Zetkin’s proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries (including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland.)
The decision of the Socialist International’s meeting had an effect. One year later — in 1911 – International Women’s Day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Over a million women and men took part in rallies. These events took place on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the flames poured out of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York.
The Triangle fire spurred on those who were determined to expose the conditions facing women workers, and gave tremendous impetus to International Women’s Day events. In speeches, newspaper articles, books, and publicity material promoting International Women’s Day events, the terrible conditions which led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would be cited again and again as vivid examples of the horrors women workers have to endure in an unjust economic order.
After many decades in which people around the world commemorated March 8 as International Women’s Day, in 1978, school officials in northern California began an effort to observe Women’s History Week. This caught on. By 1987, the governors of 14 states in the United States had declared March to be Women’s History Month. That same year, the federal government also declared March to be National Women’s History Month.
This year’s commemorations of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month are especially important because the issues which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought into public view – such as the existence of sweatshops and the exploitation of immigrant workers – still exist. In fact, globalization under the control of a few billionaires has made these problems even worse for the majority of the world’s workers than they were for the workers of New York City in 1911.
There is much we can learn from the attitude conveyed by Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, who spoke to a memorial meeting for the Triangle fire’s victims, held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911. Here are her words, directed to an audience made up largely of well-to-do members of the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization that had provided moral and financial support for some of the first protests at the Triangle factory:
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
“We have tried you, citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
“Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
Indeed, too much blood has been spilt. Today, as in 1911, it is up to our class to save itself.