On December 26, 1907, Pauline Newman, a Jewish immigrant still in her teens, led hundreds of her neighbors from New York’s Lower East Side in a strike against the high rents charged by the owners of their tenement apartments.
It was the largest such action yet seen in New York. When it ended after two weeks, on January 9, 1908, approximately 2,000 families indeed saw their rents reduced.
Two years later, Newman organized a labor strike in New York of some 40,000 women working in the garment industry, an action that elicited sympathy and support from some of New York society’s wealthiest and most influential women. A short time later, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union selected Newman to become its first female general organizer.
It was the beginning of a career as a labor organizer and activist that continued nearly until Newman’s death, in 1986.
Trouble from early on
Pauline Newman had only arrived in the United States a few years earlier. She was born around 1890 in Kovno (today Kaunas,) Lithuania (her birth record was lost with her departure for the U.S. in 1901,) the youngest of four children. Newman’s father was a Talmud teacher and her mother sold produce in the Kovno market.
Already as a young child, Pauline was making trouble. The local public school in Kovno wouldn’t accept poor Jewish students and the Jewish heder wouldn’t take girls, so Pauline pushed her father until he allowed her sit in on his classes, where she learned Hebrew and Yiddish.
After the father’s death, in 1901, his widow and her three daughters left Lithuania for New York, where an older son had moved some time earlier. There, Pauline spent two years working in a hairbrush factory, following which she took a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. That plant achieved notoriety in 1911, when it was the site of a fire that killed 146 of its employees, many of them friends of Pauline’s. She herself was spared only because she was out working on union business at the time.
Sweatshops and literature
Newman’s work in sweatshops and her voracious appetite for reading led her interest in socialism; at age 15, she joined the Socialist Literary Society and began organizing after-work study groups at the Triangle.
In the summer of 1907, Newman took a group of women to a camp north of New York, where they began planning the rent strike. The day following the start of the action, The New York Times ran a piece headlined “New Joan of Arc Leads Rent Strike” about Newman’s success in gathering 400 women around her, and their intention to force the landlords to lower rents by 18-20 percent.
Newman served the ILGWU for 60 years, most of that time as the director of its women’s health center. She also spent several decades associated with the Women’s Trade Union League.
It was while opening a branch of the WTUL in Philadelphia in 1917, that Newman met Frieda Miller, an economics instructor at Bryn Mawr College. Under Newman’s influence, Miller left academia to begin working as a labor specialist in government. The two also became companions, remaining together until Miller’s death in 1974.
Newman and Miller became members of a circle of progressive women centered around Eleanor Roosevelt and they were regular visitors at the White House during Roosevelt’s time as First Lady of the U.S.
In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Newman was involved in setting minimum wages and safety codes in New York, served on the labor advisory board of the U.S. Women’s Bureau, and participated in several international bodies dealing with the status of women. She appeared at every annual commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire up until the one held several weeks before her death, on April 8, 1986.