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Adored by socialist students and progressive politicians, Sylvia Pankhurst was also shocked by the dark underbelly of American society. Bringing her own experiences of imprisonment and misogyny from her political work in Britain, she found many parallels between the two countries.

A Suffragette in America collects these never-before-published writings and mark an important stage in the development of the suffragette’s thought. Here, Katherine Connelly reflects on Pankhurst’s experience of the Shirtwaist Factory militants and the uprising of working women in America. 

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Sylvia Pankhurst arrived in America in 1911 in the midst of a huge wave of working-class militancy that was led by working women. The movement had emerged in November 1909 from strikes of garment workers, most of whom were women from immigrant backgrounds, in two shirtwaist factories in New York City. Frustrated with the passive response from the trade union leadership, they called for a general strike of the city’s garment workers which captured the mood in the sweatshops and fundamentally changed the pace of the struggle: the ‘uprising of the 20,000’, as it became known, had begun. The uprising inspired a new movement, as low-paid women in city after city voted to strike, downed tools and picketed their sweatshops.

The strike wave erupted in the garment factories of Chicago on 23 September 1910, four months before Sylvia arrived in the city, at the Hart, Schaffner and Marx clothing factory after a cut in women workers’ piece rates was enforced. It was clear this was a final hardship that caused mounting tension to snap – the women objected to the way they were treated every day in the factory, from ‘the petty tyranny’ of the foreman who was paid extra if he could drive his workforce to produce over a certain amount; the ‘abusive and insulting language … frequently used by those in authority in the shops’, and the punitive system of fines, for such misdemeanours as a ‘liberal use of soap in washing hands’, which reduced their paltry wages still further. The strikers turned for help to the United Garment Workers Union but found this union uninterested in organising low-paid, immigrant women workers and pessimistic about their prospects of success, and so the women approached and won the support of the Chicago Federation of Labour and the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). By the time Sylvia arrived in Chicago, the strike was in its last, bitter stages. The United Garment Workers Union had negotiated over the heads of the strikers themselves for the workers at the Hart, Schaffner and Marx factory to return to work on 14 January, as arbitration had commenced. This, however, left 30,000 garment workers from other shops who had joined the strike and were still picketing. (Two weeks later, the United Garment Workers’ leader suddenly called off the strike, leaving these workers without an agreement and subject to victimisation by furious employers.)

sylvia pankhurst suffragette in america katherine connelly shirtwaist factory women working class labour strike

Women protesting the Shirtwaist Factory fire

On 21 January 1911, Zelie Emerson and Olive Sullivan, two women from the Chicago WTUL, took Pankhurst to visit the Harrison Street Gaol and police courts to convey just how difficult the garment workers’ struggle had been.149 Upton Sinclair’s sensational novel The Jungle, published five years earlier, had exposed the collusion in Chicago between police, politicians, employers and organised crime, which enabled an elite few to make huge profits out of sweating immigrant labourers. Any resistance to that was met with vicious and organised brutality, as the garment workers soon discovered. Male and female strikers were attacked and beaten on the picket lines by thugs hired by the employers as well as by the police. Pickets were arrested and imprisoned, and two strikers were shot dead by the police in the course of the strike. Harrison Street left Pankhurst with an enduring sense of horror. After seeing where the pickets had been incarcerated, Pankhurst wrote an impassioned denunciation of the Harrison Street cells, which was published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune:

‘I heard of some of the women and girls who had been picketing in the garment workers’ strike, as I am told in a perfectly legal way, who had been arrested and thrust either into these police court cells or into the annex, in both of which the risk of contamination at all times is exceedingly great. Happily, their trade union organizations have been able to come to their aid and bail them out within a short time, but it must be remembered that the people being on strike were practically penniless and had no money of their own, and therefore had others not come to their assistance they would have been obliged to continue suffering this terrible form of confinement.’

This article was considered significant enough for the Chicago WTUL’s official report into the strike to include thanks to Sylvia because her ‘telling description of the Harrison Police Station, where many of the young girl strikers were sent when arrested for picketing, was a challenge to the social conscience, as well as an indictment of the industrial conditions of Chicago.’

Sylvia’s article acknowledged the support that the striking garment workers received and Zelie Emerson was well-placed to describe the scale of the solidarity efforts. A member of the Chicago WTUL, Emerson had been in charge of a restaurant to feed strikers and their families on Noble Street, she was the ‘Chairman’ of the Rent Committee and, with another woman, the director of the relief work. As Colette A. Hyman’s work has shown, the Relief and Rent Committees were crucial in maintaining the strike and women’s participation within it, as families were fed and landlords persuaded to wait for rent. The scale of the task was daunting; at its height there were around 40,000 previously unorganised workers on strike, and the WTUL estimated that the number of strikers and their dependents who would need assistance over the bitterly cold winter months amounted to 100,000 individuals. Four months into the strike, the WTUL reported the ‘tramp of thousands of weary feet’ in their headquarters, the ‘stream of stories of hardship and privation’, and ‘more than 7,000 tiny toddlers wailing for milk’ – 1,250 babies were born during the strike. There was also the challenge of helping the strikers overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to organise together – between them the strikers spoke nine different languages. Instead of dismissing working-class women as weak, or speaking for them, Sylvia and some progressive middle-class women in Chicago, like Emerson, were striving to amplify working women’s experience so that they could effect change. It is easy to see why Sylvia and Emerson struck up a friendship; Emerson, originally from Michigan, was from a wealthy background, but was said to have ‘abandoned “society” for sociological investigation’, and took jobs as a hotel kitchen worker, scrub woman and salesgirl in a department store to study working conditions.

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A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change by E. Sylvia Pankhurst and edited by Katherine Connelly

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E. Sylvia Pankhurst was an English campaigner for the Suffragette movement, a prominent left communist and, later, an activist in the cause of anti-fascism.

Katherine Connelly is a writer, historian and an expert on Sylvia Pankhurst. She is the author of the biography Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto, 2013) and editor of A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change (Pluto, 2019).