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1972: Leading Union Organizer and Women’s Rights Advocate Dies

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Rose Schneiderman.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On August 11, 1972, labor leader and political activist Rose Schneiderman died, at the age of 90. In an editorial appearing shortly after her death, The New York Times described her as a “tiny, red-haired bundle of social dynamite [who] did more to upgrade the dignity and living standards of working women than any other American.”

Rose Schneiderman was born on April 6, 1882, in Sawin, near Chelm, in Russian Poland, the oldest of what would be the four children of Samuel Schneiderman and the former Deborah Rothman. Her mother was a seamstress, her father a tailor, although both also did whatever other work was available in order to support the family. At the age of 4, at her mother’s insistence, Rose began heder (Hebrew school), which was far from typical for girls at the time. Two years later, the family moved to Chelm, so that she could attend public school as well.

In 1890, the family joined Samuel, who had already immigrated to New York, taking up residence on the Lower East Side. When Samuel died of meningitis, two years later, Deborah was pregnant with their fourth child. She worked as a seamstress and took in the occasional boarder, but at different points was so desperate financially that she had to put her children into orphanages.

Rose left school at the age of 13, when she was in sixth grade. Her mother got a job for her as a cashier in a department store, which she saw as more respectable than higher-paying factory work, but after three years the need for money led Rose to take a job as a lining stitcher in a cap factory.

Schneiderman was first exposed to socialism and trade unionism during her family’s brief sojourn in Montreal, in 1902. When she returned to New York, she began organizing workers into the city’s first local of the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union.

She soon began her long but ambivalent relationship with the New York Women’s Trade Union League. The WTUL was established and run by middle- and upper-class women, and initially was more focused on a social-reform agenda than on labor activism. Schneiderman was the league’s first Yiddish-speaker, and, beginning in 1908, she worked to organize women in the garment industry. In 1909-10, it was the “Uprising of the 20,000,” in the shirtmakers trade, and in 1913, she organized a strike of 35,000 women in Brooklyn and New York who worked in lingerie and underwear production, an action that received national attention.

It was widely agreed that Schneiderman was a stirring public speaker, although she herself was quite insecure about her lack of education. When she began to sense the genteel anti-Semitism of other WTUL leaders, she went over to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, but returned to the WTUL as its New York president, in 1917, and was elected national president in 1926, a position she held until the union disbanded in 1950.

Schneiderman’s political activity also included the fight for women’s suffrage, and she even ran, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1920, on a platform that included planks on public housing, education and state-funded health and unemployment insurance. (Later in life, she opposed an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution, because it would have outlawed any special protections for women on the basis of their gender.)

She became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who introduced her to her husband. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, in 1933, he appointed her to the Labor Advisory Board (its only female member), and she also served him as a close advisor, helping with the design of much of the New Deal social and economic legislation.

Following her departure from Washington, Schneiderman served as New York State’s secretary of labor. She also campaigned hard, although with minimal success, to help Jews escape from occupied Europe, as well as raising money for establishment of what became Kibbutz Kfar Blum, in honor of Leon Blum.

Schneiderman, who never married, had a long-term relationship with Maud O’Farrell Swartz, another WTUL activist, who died in 1937. With no family of her own, when Schneiderman died at age 90, in New York, fewer than a dozen people attended her funeral.

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