Rose Schneiderman was born on April 6, 1882. A fiery labor orator, feminist and socialist, she served as president of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). “It is up to the working people to save themselves,” she declared in a famous eulogy to the victims of the 1911 Triangle Fire.
A pioneer in the battle to increase wages and improve working conditions for women, she was born in Saven, Poland. She and her family came to the U.S. six years later. At age 16 she began factory work in New York City’s garment district and quickly became a union organizer. Opposed to the open shop policy, which permitted non-union members to work in a unionized shop, Schneiderman organized a 1913 strike of 25,000 women shirtwaist workers. She worked as an organizer for the ILGWU, and WTUL, serving as its president for more than 20 years. During the Great Depression President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to his Labor Advisory Board, the only woman member.
Schneiderman campaigned for women’s suffrage as a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She saw the vote as part and parcel of the fight for economic rights. A state legislator warned in 1912: “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests – the delicacy is gone, the charm is gone, and you emasculize women.” Schneiderman replied:
“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that.”
Rose Schneiderman is also credited with coining one of the most memorable phrases of the women’s movement and the labor movement of her era:
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
Her phrase “Bread and Roses” became associated with a 1912 textile strike of largely immigrant, largely women workers in Lawrence, Mass. It was later used as the title of a poem by James Oppenheim, and was set to music by Mimi Fariña and sung by many solo artists and labor choruses.
In 1949, Schneiderman retired from public life, making occasional radio speeches and appearances for various labor unions, devoting her time to writing her memoirs, which she published under the title “All for One” in 1967.
Schneiderman never married, but had a long-term relationship with Maud O’Farrell Swartz, another working-class woman active in the WTUL, until Swartz’ death in 1937. Schneiderman died in New York City on August 11, 1972, at age ninety.
Adapted from Jewish Currents, Chase’s Calendar of Events and Wikipedia