On Labor Day, we should take time to remember the individuals who stood up for workers’ rights. These brave individuals would not tolerate deplorable work conditions or unfair wages. They approached their employers and let their voices be heard. Even though their actions are noteworthy and exemplify what it means to be an American, their stories are rarely shared with children.
One recently published picture book, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel and Illustrated by Melissa Sweet (2013), brings this important part of US history to a young audience. The book takes the reader back to the beginning of the 20th century when the American population was rapidly increasing due to mass immigration. Immigrants oftentimes worked long hours for meager pay.
Clara Lemlich (1886-1982), a Ukrainian Jew immigrated with her family to the US after a Kishinev pogrom in 1903. Instead of continuing her education during the day, Clara’s salary was needed for her family’s rent and food. After working her long shift as a garment worker, Clara spent additional hours taking classes. In the US, she observed the injustices that her fellow immigrants endured as workers in sweatshops. As a result, Clara sought ways to constructively change their situation.
She effectively corralled her fellow female workers to stand up for their rights. Clara led walkout and strikes. She was arrested and physically abused, but continued to persevere. Her efforts caused the largest walkout of women workers in US history (1909).
Each Labor Day, activists like Clara should be remembered. After the 1909 strike, many employers allowed unions to be organized. In many instances, employees’ work conditions were dramatically improved. The work hours per week were reduced significantly and workers were given fairer wages.
Despite the fact that Clara lived in an age when women could not vote and had limited legal rights, she was able to change the course of history by standing up for her beliefs. She is a notable American Jewish woman that should maintain a place in history.
This book received starred reviews in Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist and Publishers Weekly. It was a Junior Library Guild Selection.