Clara Lemlich: The Woman Behind the Uprising of 20,000

Table of Contents

Photograph of Clara Lemlich

Who was Clara Lemlich?

Clara Lemlich was a firebrand who sparked the 1909 Uprising of 20,000, one of the largest strikes by women workers in U.S. history. A Ukranian immigrant, she dedicated her life to improving conditions for American women. If there was a strike, it seemed like you would always find Lemlich there, right at the front of the picket line. 

The Zero Theft Movement, along with our community, is striving to eliminate the rigged parts of the U.S. economy. In this article, we will take a look at Clara Lemlich’s great life and see how women workers were exploited. 

Clara Lemlich’s Early Years

Clara Lemlich was born in 1886, in the small Ukranian town called Gordok. Devout Jews, her parents tried to have their daughter educated in the only school in town. They, however, found that the school completely excluded Jews due to laws established by the Russian monarchy. The blatant antisemitism enraged the parents, and they forbade her from learning the Russian language and reading Russian literature.

Showing her rebellious streak, Lemlich continued studying Russian in secret. She particularly loved reading so much that she was sewing buttonholes on shirts for extra book money before she’d even become a teenager. Lemlich leveraged her fluency in Yiddish to further boost her book fund by writing letters for illiterate mothers to mail to their children in America.

In the early 20th century, antisemitism ratcheted up along with growing civil unrest. Many Jews demonstrated at civil rights rallies in Russia. Local authorities used this as an excuse to begin pogroms (organized massacres of particular ethnic groups) against Jews. After the horrific 1903 Kishiniev pogrom, the family fled to New York City when Clara was 16.

Wage stagnation appears to have been an issue since the 70s, with the end of the Bretton-Woods Agreement. Do you think workers are receiving less than they perhaps should?

Introduction to the Garment Factories

Clara Lemlich, along with millions of other Jewish immigrants who’d escaped violence and oppression, found work in a Lower East Side garment shop. She found the work environment suboptimal, to say the least. Employees worked in squalor for around sixty hours every week for poverty wages. Women experienced sexual harassment and received even less pay than the men did.

They worked in sweatshops, essentially.

Pant Manufacturer in 1937

source: Robert F. Wagner Archives, New York University via the Smithsonian

Industrialization and technological progress had come with extreme growing pains, particularly on the worker rights front. The new industrial sewing machine enabled employers to demand double the production from their employees. Owning a machine also became a prerequisite for employment—meaning, prospective employees had to purchase their own out of pocket to work in a garment factory.

According to PBS, at the Gotham shirtwaist factory where Lemlich toiled, “women worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week–conditions that reduced workers ‘to the status of machines’…” The humans working the machines were being treated as if they were actual machines. Lemlich and many of her colleagues, both male and female, recognized conditions would not get any better if they continued to work submissively.

Advocacy with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union

In 1906, Clara Lemlich started to work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The older, skilled male workers who led the union generally rejected help from their female colleagues. They often tried to strike without telling the women. But Lemlich remained persistent, warning them that their union would not succeed without the help of women. 

She championed workers’ rights on street corners, organized ILGWU meetings, and spearheaded strikes in a number of factories. Her activism often got her fired, but she would easily find another job and continue her advocacy. According to accounts of one particular strike, Clara was arrested seventeen times. The police broke six of her ribs, but she returned to the picket line within days.

Lemlich was soon elected to the executive board of Local 25 of the ILGWU and would leave her lasting mark in 1909, when she led the ‘Uprising of 20,000.’ 

The Uprising of 20,000

On September 26, 1909, workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and Leiserson Company decided to start an unplanned walkout. They unwittingly set the stage for a massive strike, led by Clara Lemlich and Local 25. 

Two months later, Samuel Gompers and other leaders of the labor movement organized a mass meeting at Cooper Union to generate support for the strikers. For two hours, many prominent figures delivered speeches about the virtues of unity and proper preparation. They failed to galvanize the crowd. 

Lemlich, now just 23, could sense that the speeches were failing to capture the attention of the crowd and demanded she get time to speak. She decided to speak in Yiddish, tapping into the many of the workers’ Jewish roots.

“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

The crowd finally erupted. They voted for a general strike by taking an adapted version of the ancient Jewish oath of fidelity to Israel: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” Around 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade abandoned their employers in the next two days.

Group of mainly female shirtwaist workers on strike, January 1910

Group of mainly female shirtwaist workers on strike, January 1910

source: Library of Congress

The Uprising of 20,000 continued on for 14 weeks, until February 10, 1910. Over the grueling weeks, strikers demanded better hours, pay, and working conditions. Lemlich led the charge by getting workers out to the picket lines. Their employers did not surrender so easily. 

According to Swarthmore University’s Global Nonviolent Action Database, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company “attempted to stymie the workers by hiring prostitutes to fight with the women on the picket lines. Blanck and Harris hired ex-prize fighters to pick fights with the picketers. Bribed policemen arrested any who fought back and dragged them off to court bandaged and bloodied. Bribed judges found workers guilty.” 

The ILGWU eventually stood down when they managed to negotiate union contracts at almost every shop, but not at Triangle Shirtwaist. Almost as proof of the ILGWU’s claims, the Triangle shop burned to the ground in early 1911, taking 146 lives primarily due to poor safety regulations. 

Lemlich Pivots

The uprising effectively ended Lemlich’s career as a garment worker. While she was forced out of the clothing industry, she also found herself butting heads with the conservative leadership of the ILGWU. Lemlich instead devoted herself to a new, though related cause: women’s suffrage.


For a complete history of women’s battle for the right to vote, check out our women’s suffrage timeline.

In a magazine article for Good Housekeeping, she discussed how working women could only end workplace inequality by gaining the right to vote: 

“The manufacturer has a vote; the bosses have votes; the foremen have votes; the inspectors have votes. The working girl has no vote. When she asks to have the building in which she must work made clean and safe, the officials do not have to listen. When she asks not to work such long hours, they do not have to listen. The bosses can say to the officials: ‘Our votes put you in office. To do what these girls want would reduce our profits. Never mind what they say. They don’t know what they are talking about. Anyway, it doesn’t matter; they can’t do anything.’That is true. For until the men in the Legislature at Albany represent her as well as the bosses and the foremen, she will not get justice; she will not get fair conditions. That is why the working-woman now says that she must have the vote.”

The 1910s

In 1911, Lemlich founded the short-lived Wage Earner’s Suffrage League, an exclusively working-class alternative to many of the predominantly middle-class suffrage groups. Due to the members lack of economic means, the League depended on middle and upper class women for financial support. 

The financial dependency eventually became something of a sore point, as donors started to make various requests that Lemlich perhaps disliked. Just a year after its formation, the League disbanded after organizing a successful rally at Cooper Union. 

In 1913, Clara wedded printer Joe Shavelson and started a family in Brooklyn. They had three children—Irving, Martha, and Rita. Clara Lemlich Shavelson never ceased organizing wives and mothers around such issues as housing, food, and public education. She not only led the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 after rapid price increases but also the rent strike movement of 1919.

Scholars have debated whether the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) acts as a cartel. The organization reported that it held nearly 80% of all oil reserves in the world. 

See whether the ZT community has found strong evidence that U.S. oil prices are ripping off citizens…

Lemlich Leads the Housewives

Throughout the 20s, Clara Lemlich continued to work on forwarding the labor movement and women’s suffrage. She formed and served as the president of the United Council of Working-Class Women, which later changed to the Progressive Women’s Council in 1935. 

She also played a pivotal role in forming the housewives’ coalition with a myriad of women’s groups. The coalition protested the rising costs of staple foods and housing. Lemlich famously led a meat boycott that first closed 4,500 New York City butcher shops and eventually sparked strikes across the nation. 

Perhaps the coalition’s most significant contributions came with their efforts to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression on working-class communities. It worked to bring down costs for food, rent, and utilities, as well as advocated for the development of public housing, schools, and parks. The housewives’ movement actually compelled the federal government to establish some of the food and housing price controls we see today, and to properly examine profiteering on essential goods. 

A History of Inequality

As bad as male workers had it, female workers had it worse. They received even less wages than their male counterparts. For the same duties, the same hours, and so on. Between 1950 and 1960, women with full time jobs earned about 59-64 cents for every dollar men made for the exact same job. 

Women, in general, could not even vote until 1920! 

Clara Lemlich understood how the big bad employers thought: “To do what these girls want would reduce our profits. Never mind what they say. They don’t know what they are talking about. Anyway, it doesn’t matter; they can’t do anything.”

Profits, that was their bottom line. And little else mattered. 

The truth is, things might not be so different now. According to the Pew Research Center, women have earned about 85% of what men do for the past 15 years. This disparity cannot be attributed to gender discrimination alone, but it definitely has at least some influence. The issue does ultimately point to a larger one, involving workers of all genders, from all sides of the political spectrum.

Industries across the U.S. economy could be rigged against average Americans. We’re talking about potential foul play in the trillions. But before we can confidently claim that an area of the economy is rigged, we must first properly research and debate it. That’s where the Zero Theft Movement comes into play. 

Fight the Rigged Economy with the Zero Theft Movement

We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to achieve economic justice by holding Congress accountable with facts and evidence. On our independent voting platform, our community collaborates to calculate the best estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the U.S. Our power rests in our numbers, as the ILGWU proved repeatedly. 

Citizens investigators research potential cases of ‘theft’ (unethical, not necessarily illegal, actions that have ripped off the public) and author proposals. The community votes on  whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Many ethical businesses and corporate executives exist. The Zero Theft Movement just wants to eliminate the ill-gotten gains that should be going directly to citizens or indirectly to them through proper, high-quality government services.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you

Explore the Problem Hierarchy

We have primers on potential problem areas of the economy. Before you start voting, it’s important you get a basic understanding of the issues at hand, so you can be as helpful as possible to other community members. Take a few minutes and come prepared.

Serve your fellow citizens as a citizen investigator

The success of our movement rests in your hands, the leaders willing to dedicate time to conduct investigations into potentially rigged areas of the economy. Lead the movement and help create an ethical economy.

Heroism made easy

Twenty minutes! That’s all the time you need to contribute to our effort. Just review a proposal and vote. Our reports will only gain legitimacy and power with your contributions.

Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we wish to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

Beyond Clara Lemlich…

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on, just like this one on Clara Lemlich. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.