Women’s History Month Features: Clara Lemlich Shavelson

“When you don’t work, and you don’t work in the movement, you’re nothing.” - Clara Lemlich Shavelson

Image from "Jewish Women's Archive"

“When you don’t work, and you don’t work in the movement, you’re nothing.” – Clara Lemlich Shavelson

Boden Sumerlin, Staff Writer

Clara Lemlich Shavelson is the voice that set off the Uprising of the 20,000, which is the largest strike by women workers. 

In 1886 Gordok, Ukraine, Clara Lemlich was born to a religious family. Clara was taught Yiddish without any further Jewish schooling, and while her parents tried to send her to public school, the only school in Gordok excluded Jews. The Russian government’s anti-Semitism was what drove her parents to ban her from not only speaking Russian, but from bringing Russian literature into their home as well.

Clara wanted deeply to expand her education though, so in secret she traded/did odd jobs to be able to pay for books herself to read. Eventually her father had found her collection hidden in their kitchen and burned all of it, but Clara just got back to work on rebuilding her collection without letting that stop her.

In 1903, the Kishinev pogrom, anti-Jewish riot, was what convinced her parents to allow her to immigrate to the United States at seventeen years old. Many young immigrant women found work in a Lower East garment shop, and the work conditions were horrid. Clara’s response was to organize the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in 1905. The older men in charge of the union in the workplace tried very hard to exclude the women from strikes, but Clara made clear points that their goals weren’t going to work until they made an effort to have the women included. 

1909 was the year when Clara said, “I am one of those who suffer from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike.” With those words 30-40 thousand young women garment workers, most being Jewish immigrants, walked off their jobs following Clara’s words. While it was only partially successful it strengthened the beginning of the ILGWU. 

Clara had set off several strikes that occurred 1909-1915 spreading from New York to Michigan, Philadelphia, and even more. These strikes, sadly, had set the stage for the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where 146 workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, had died on March 25th, 1911. 

Clara was blacklisted from New York garment shops, and later fired from her paid job, organizer for a working-class suffrage group, for refusing to modify her radical politics to suit the reform vision of most middle-class suffragists. After marrying in 1913 to Joe Shavelson she moved to Brooklyn while having a family of her own, which consisted of her, Joe, and their three children. All while still organizing groups of wives and mothers to combat the issue of housing, food, and public education. 

Throughout her life she continued to be loud, direct, and blunt about the issues that concerned immigrant women and those who needed their voices to be heard. She organized/led several strikes and protests throughout the years that she lived. Her husband Joe died in 1951, and she retired from the ILGWU in 1954.

Later in the year 1960, she married and lived with an old labor maintenance worker, Abe Goldman, who died in 1967. Clara then moved into a Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles when she was 81, and during her years there she still kept up with boycotts and organizing unions. That was also the place where she passed away on July 12th, 1982.

Clara had great goals and even greater grit, for she never let any holdbacks hold her from accomplishing her desires.