Image via Trusted Clothes
Yet the plight of women garment workers has not seen the rise of a consumer movement with anything like the zeal of veganism or the plethora of products devoted to all things green.
A google search of feminist clothing does not pull up a discussion on women garment workers and their rights, but clothes branded with feminist slogans and little information as to how they were made.
It’s a story that has also echoed with alarming consistency throughout the vicissitudes of history. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed 146 women, many of them jumping from the flames to their deaths. They were mostly young Jewish and Italian women, migrant workers earning a paltry $15 a week.
What differed in 1911, was that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was understood immediately as a feminist issue of immense moral urgency.
Speaking at the Metropolitan Opera House 8 days after the fire, Rose Schneiderman, a Jewish-American feminist and prominent labour union leader, channeled her grief into a momentous speech, excoriating a society that had allowed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to happen.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city,” she said. “Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed.”
The following year, Schneiderman would utter one of the most famous phrases in the history of Western women’s movements:
“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
With these 23 words, Schneiderman called for a solidarity that at once recognised and defied class lines.
Her audience was made to understand working-class women as deserving of not just the most basic labour rights, but conditions that allowed for dignity and a meaningful life, like time to give to loved ones and leisure – those roses women of privilege enjoy so freely. It was a statement that drew a straight line connecting the conditions – and the humanity – of the working class and the wealthy.