Pauline Newman, 1890 – 1986
Pauline Newman was first and foremost a labor organizer whose childhood spent in the sweatshops of lower Manhattan showed her first-hand the need for working women to organize and lobby for higher wages, better working conditions and restrictions on child labor. But she was also a suffragist, who believed the vote was the only way to affect political and social change.
Pauline Newman was born to a poor Jewish family in the small Lithuanian town of Kovno, in October around 1890. (Reports of her birth date vary.) Her father was a teacher, her mother a skilled businesswoman who sold fruit in the town market. As a child she despaired of her lack of education, so while her father did not approve of formally educating girls he did allow her to sit in on some of his classes, thus whetting her appetite for further study. But these dreams died with her father in 1901. The family immigrated to the United States, settling on the lower east side of Manhattan where, at the age of 10 Pauline found work in one of the hundreds of factories that were crammed into that area, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Greene Street.
Conditions in the Triangle factory were similar to those in others – mostly young immigrant women labored over 50 to 60 hours a week in overcrowded, poorly ventilated workrooms. The staff was locked in to prevent theft; bathroom breaks were limited; talking or singing prohibited. The youngest workers spent 56 hours a week snipping threads from the blouses, earning $1.50 for their efforts. Wages for the seamstresses were not much better.
Nine years working in these conditions engendered in Pauline a spirit of activism; she was convinced of the need for change, and in 1909 she helped organize a strike. Forty thousand garment workers walked off their jobs in protest against low wages and poor working conditions. While results of the strike were varied, its effect on Pauline’s life was immense. She was offered a job as an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the first woman to hold such a position. She often credited the ILGWU with saving her life; she was travelling for the Union in Ohio when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames March 25, 1911, killing 146 of her friends and co-workers.
The tragedy strengthened her resolve to work even harder to improve working conditions in factories, but also began her career as a suffragist. The woman suffrage movement had tried for years to engage the women’s labor movement in the battle for the vote, with mixed results. While working women understood the vote could help them see laws passed that would benefit them, they were often so overwhelmed with working and raising families that suffrage had taken a back seat. Now, with the encouragement of such activists as Pauline, Clara Lemlich, and Rose Schneiderman they began to realize that the vote could help them to enact a wide range of social and political change.
In 1914 Pauline helped form the Industrial Section of the New York Woman Suffrage Party, where her skills as a negotiator helped bridge the gap between the two vital organizations to the benefit of both. Organized women labor leaders understood the value of rallies, parades and demonstrations, and brought those skills to the suffrage movement. Wealthy suffragists, such as Alva Belmont and Harriot Stanton Blatch offered monetary support. And both groups could celebrate together the success of New York State when women won the vote in 1917, and the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.
Pauline Newman continued to work for the ILGWU for over seventy years as an activist, educator and liaison between the union and government officials, as well as a mentor for young feminists. She died in 1986 at the age of 96.
Happy Birthday, Pauline Newman!