Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909

Brave Girl:  Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909

Book Information

Harper Collins/Balzer & Bray January 2013

 “And maybe what’s good gets a little bit better And maybe what’s bad gets gone” -- David Shire/Norman Gimbel (1979)

“A Wisconsin judge on Friday struck down a state law passed last year that ended most collective-bargaining rights for many public-employee unions, saying the law violates constitutional rights of freedom of speech and equal protection. “A spokesman for Republican Governor Scott Walker, who introduced the law as his signature initiative one week after taking office in January 2011, said he was confident the decision would be overturned. “The spokesman criticized Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, calling him ‘a liberal activist’ who ‘wants to go backwards and take away the law-making responsibilities of the legislature and the governor.’” -- The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012

Now, go back 100 years: “Companies are hiring thousands of immigrant girls to make blouses, coats, nightgowns, and other women’s clothing. They earn only a few dollars a month, but it helps pay for food and rent. So instead of carrying books to school, many girls carry sewing machines to work. Clara becomes a garment worker. “From dawn to dusk, she’s locked up in a factory. Rows and rows of young women bend over their tables, stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ the bosses yell. Ratatatatat, hisses Clara’s machine. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share.”

BRAVE GIRL is the story of young Clara Lemlich who immigrated with her parents to New York from Eastern Europe in 1903. While slaving elbow-to-elbow with young women in the garment factory all day and then studying English in school at night, Clara also became involved in organizing the other garment workers and, six years after arriving in New York, she instigated the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.

In the process, she was beaten (resulting in six broken ribs) and repeatedly arrested. It was, of course, because of the labor movement and the strikes that organized labor necessarily staged, that workers eventually swayed public sentiment, forcing government to enact laws requiring eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, workman’s compensation, overtime pay, and the many other substantive changes promoting worker health, safety, and economic justice that have come into being over the century since Clara was risking her life in order to improve conditions in those sweatshops.

“The next morning, New York City is stunned by the sight of thousands of young women streaming from the factories. “One newspaper calls it an army. Others call it a revolt. It’s a revolt of girls, for some are only twelve years old.”

I’m thinking that we can look at this great picture book for older readers in one of two ways: We can scratch the surface and see this as an upbeat story about a real-life spunky girl who is a great model for young women – a Women’s History Month precursor of Norma Rae/Fergie/Hillary. Or we can dig deeper and view this book as a good entry point to the complicated and ongoing tale of organized labor, an important topic for middle school kids who may well be on the cusp of their first taste of unions (when they get their first after-school or summer job), and who are soon enough going to become voters deciding upon the future of collective bargaining, worker safety, social security, and so many other issues that affect the day-to-day lives of millions and millions of Americans.

Since well before Clara Lemlich’s time, there has always been the constant tug of war between labor and management. (I was just reading online about a successful strike in Wisconsin way back in 1848.) Or we might view it as a pendulum where sentiment swings back and forth as labor and management seek to gain advantage by vilifying one another in the public’s eye. These issues are – or should be – a significant aspect of social studies. And BRAVE GIRL offers a great first step toward understanding what is at stake.  32 pages  978-0-06-180442-7

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA

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