March, in January

I’ve been thinking a lot about women who march, as I ready my own pack of carry-along essentials for tomorrow’s Women’s Boston March for America: water, granola bars, ID, MBTA pass, cell phone, hand warmers. (My eighteen-year-old daughter has planned for the march so well as to be able to carry all her essentials in her sports bra. But then, she’s always been a more efficient packer than me.)

And as I study the route of the march and figure out the logistics, my mind travels back to the Uprising of the 20,000, when so many women—young, poor, immigrant garment workers in New York City—took to the streets to march in protest of unsafe working conditions in their factories. The Uprising began on November 23, 1909, and the strike led by the women lasted for eleven weeks.

It’s not that these women were the first to march. Or the first to strike. But they turned out in greater numbers than had ever been seen, and they hung in there. For eleven weeks.

Strikes in those days were ugly affairs. “From the outset, the young strikers faced three-way opposition from the manufacturers, the police, and the courts. [Manufacturers] hired thugs and prostitutes to abuse strikers, often with aid from policemen who then arrested strikers on trumped-up charges of assault. In court, strikers faced hostile magistrates who upbraided the young women (“You are striking against God and nature,” scolded one enraged judge), fined them, and, in some cases, sentenced them to the workhouse.”1

But they continued to march.

In addition, lost wages were an incredible hardship for young women who helped support their families with their meager earnings. Missing even one week’s wages for these workers often meant the difference between eating and starving. Eleven weeks? That’s a long time to go without a meal.

But they continued to march.

And it was winter. November to February in New York City. When you look at photographs of the marchers, you can spot the well-heeled “reform ladies” who lent a vital hand to their poor working sisters. The wealthy reformers have warm winter coats. The rank-and-file factory women are often without coats. They didn’t own them.

But they continued to march.

Eleven weeks. Their endurance stunned and shamed the nation. These young women, many of them the age of my daughter, maintained the strike longer than their male counterparts who had led strikes in industries with predominantly male workforces. In fact, it had been a young woman who had defied the timid male leaders of the various garment workers’ unions to launch the Uprising. “In November, there was a mass meeting of workers from many different companies. Male union leaders dithered on the stage, debating what to do. Like many men in their position, they did not believe that women could be trusted with a strike. From the audience, a 23-year-old Ukraine-born Jewish woman stood up and demanded, in Yiddish, that workers take control and go on a general strike. Leading the gathered workers in a traditional Jewish oath of solidarity, Clara Lemlich started what became the Uprising of the 20,000.”2

Women, in my experience, excel at endurance. And walking. A child on our hip. A bucket of water on our heads. Bringing in the harvest. Rocking the cradle through the night. Slow and steady. We are the tortoise. We are the endless drip of water that carves out canyons. We are the tectonic shift that cannot be stopped.

And so we continue to march.