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Women in UNITE

The following women were leaders within the unions of the needletrades industries. Although they are a divergent group, many similarities stand out in their lives and careers of service to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union. Many of them became politicized at a young age, frequently in a major strike, and remained active throughout long and productive lives. Most of them, some as recent immigrants, were working class women. However, Fannia Cohn left her middle-class life and pharmaceutical studies to become a sleevemaker and labor education leader. A significant proportion of the women spent some time in service to the international labor community, working with Japanese women workers, post-W.W.II British workers, with Swedish women workers, and developing labor education programs for African workers, to name a few.

If many were the first women in certain positions of union leadership, a few were also the first African-Americans to assume such roles. Most of them viewed education as the way to improve the lives of working women. Two of the women worked for both the Amalgamated and the ILGWU. Many were appointed to presidential or state commissions. At least three of them ran for public office. In addition to tireless years of service to these unions, the women found time for many other causes and organizations (women's and work-related) that corresponded with their world views. In short, these were ordinary women doing extraordinary things for the cause in which they all firmly believed, that of labor.

Gladys Dickason


Gladys Dickason was an organizer, Research Director, and finally, Vice President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. As a long time advocate for minimum wage standards, she testified before the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee in support of the 75-cent minimum wage bill.

Esther Peterson


Esther Peterson worked for ILGWU, ACWA, and the American Federation of Teachers, as a union organizer and educator. She was also a consumer advocate, lobbied for child care in federal agencies and departments, and lobbied for equal pay for women. She taught at several of the labor schools, and held appointments under Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Carter. Peterson went on to become legislative representative for the AFL-CIO.
Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca

Dorothy Bellanca, a co-founder of the ACWA, was the first full-time woman organizer for her union and the only female vice-president for many years. She was a long-time advocate for Amalgamated's women staff members and worked on behalf of unemployed clothing workers during the Depression. Along with several presidential appointments, she worked on the New York City Mayor's Commission on Unity, on several wartime New York State commissions on racial discrimination, and in 1936, helped organize that state's American Labor Party.

Pauline Newman


In the ILGWU's counterpart to Dorothy Bellanca, Pauline Newman became the first full-time woman organizer. She had her initiation into the labor movement as a speaker in the 1909 Shirtwaist Makers Strike and went on to become an organizer in the northeast and midwest, playing a role in numerous major strikes. She founded the ILGWU's health Center and was Director of Health Education, 1918-1980. Newman's other positions over the years include advisor to the United States Department of Labor in the 1930s and 40s, Board of Directors for the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, and with the WTUL. As a socialist, she worked on Eugene V. Debs campaign.
Rose Pesotta


Rose Pesotta was the only woman on the General Executive Board of the ILGWU from 1933-1944, but returned to organizing, her real passion. A powerful communicator, she had a remarkable ability to work within many ethnic groups and to bridge the all-to-frequent gaps that existed between the groups. Her national reputation was earned during the Los Angeles organizing drives of the 1930s. She had a genuine love for labor and a respect for people. She helped organize Local 25's first education department, and was elected to its executive board. Pesotta was active in the defense of Sacco and Venzetti.
Fannia Cohn


Fannia Cohn ascribes her beginnings in labor to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. She and her friends spent hours discussing the fire, the losses, and the corresponding problems and issues in their own places of work. Her early dream utilize education to liberate workers and integrate immigrants into the labor movement, was realized when she became executive secretary of ILGWU's Education Department in 1917. She was a pioneer in labor education, helping to set up a vast network of programs through universities, night and summer schools, discussion groups, and lecture series. Among other things, she also worked with the United Nations' Labor Department, UNESCO, and the New York Housing Commission.
Angela Bambace


Angela Bambace worked for both the ACWA and the ILGWU. She propelled herself into her life with labor when she played a leading role in and was arrested during the 1919 Dressmakers and Waistmakers Strike. She founded the first women's local in 1936. After organizing for Amalgamated for several years in the 1930s, she went to Baltimore as an organizer for the ILGWU, where she eventually became manager of what later became the Upper South Department. In 1956, she became Vice President on the General Executive Board. Here she enters the convention during her years as Vice President.
Dollie M. Lowther Robinson


Within ten years of joining the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in 1938, Dollie Lowther became Education Director of the Amalgamated's Laundry Worker's Joint Board. She served on several race relations committees, consumer and adult education councils, worked with the CIO, and with the Industrial Committee of the Urban League.
Clara Lemlich Shavelson


As a teenager, Clara Lemlich inadvertently became a leader in the 1909 Triangle Shirtwaist Strike. "A mere wisp of a girl," she asked for, and was granted a chance to speak at the meeting in Cooper Union. Her short speech in which she called for an immediate strike, roused the passion of the crowd, leading to a bitter, thirteen-week struggle, ending with 312 shops under full union contract. Blacklisted by the Garment Manufacturers, she began to organize. She spent the 1920s to 1940s bringing housewives together to fight for better housing, education, and rent control.
Maida Springer Kemp


Born in Panama, Maida Springer's family moved to the United States where she became a sewing machine operator and, in the 1930s, joined the ILGWU. She became the first Black business agent in the ILGWU, the first African-American woman to represent the AFL internationally, and one of the first women of color to achieve a high position in the AFL-CIO. She worked in education and organizing, as an ILG Local union director, and with African-American labor union affairs. She represented American labor on a post-war Great Britain tour, and developed programs for labor education in African nations.
Bessie Abramowitz Hillman

The young woman who sewed buttons on coats led 15 of her friends and co-workers in walking off their jobs to protest a piece-rate pay cut and thus began the 1910 strike at Hart, Schaffner & Marx in Chicago. The woman was Bessie Abramowitz who went on to organize and educate workers, and to occupy positions of appointment under Governor Lehman of New York and President Kennedy. In a moving eulogy, Dollie Lowther Robinson (from photo #8), recalled working as an assistant to Hillman in the education department of the Laundry Workers Joint Board. "[Bessie] lived and fought the [civil rights] fight. On trips to Washington in the 1940s--the restaurants were not serving blacks in those days--she would sit on a park bench with me and eat a sandwich for lunch." Here Hillman converses with Esther Peterson and Gladys Dickason.

Jennie Matyas

Jennie Matyas was an organizer for the ILGWU, particularly known for her work with ethnic groups. She organized the first group of African American workers in New York in 1915, and helped organize the Chinese local in San Francisco. In 1944, Matyas became a vice-president of the ILGWU. She is shown here at a meeting of Chinese workers in San Francisco.

In this early sweatshop scene, the light bulbs in the room have been removed by the owner in order to save money. These women and men worked long hours with poor lighting, fire hazards, low pay, and at the mercy of the owners of the factories. It was for these women and men that the ILGWU and the Amalgamated struggled for many long years, through conflicts, strikes, arrests, against the powerful and for the powerless, combating both the insensitivity of the owners and the fears of the workers.

The caption says it all for this group of women. They were "going out for better conditions." It took a lot of courage for these women, many of them young, recent immigrants who were dependent on the meager pay to help support their families. Together, however, they found the courage and together they marched, finding strength in each other and in the unions that came to represent them. It was these strikes that mobilized and politicized the young women who often spent their lives in service to other women workers, other newly-arrived immigrants who had no voice against the oppression that bound them.


In this early sweatshop scene, the workers are crowded in the room, elbow-to-elbow. The factory owners would crowd as many people into the room as possible, the more workers, the more money they could make. Of course, they did not need much room. Frequently, they were not allowed to move around, talk, go to the bathroom, or take breaks. The unions came to help these people to gain some very basic freedoms for they needed far more than better pay. They needed employers that treated them like human beings.

During World War II, when the young men were sent to military duty, the women moved into many new positions in the production centers across the country. This woman sews silk parachutes to be used in wartime endeavors in Europe.

Over the years, some sweatshop conditions changed for the better. The hours and pay, due to union diligence, were improved. The need for a union, however, did not go away. As the issues evolved and the companies moved to new locales to evade the union, the unions continued to organize and educate workers in the needle trades industry.

Throughout the twentieth century, new issues arose for the union to address. Voter registration became one of those issues, particularly with minority and women workers. Here, union staff members enter a workplace to educate workers on their voting rights.


Edith Ransom (front row, center) ILGWU, Local 22 Business Agent Staff 1937-1939

The above images are taken from the 240,000 photographs in the Unite Archives. They are part of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Records and International Ladies' Garment Workers' Archives housed at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University. For further information on the audio-visual materials in the Unite Archives, contact Barbara Morley, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853-3901, e-mail: For information regarding the manuscript and printed portions of these collections, contact Patrizia Sione, Reference Archivist, also at the above address and e-mail. Both may be reached by telephone at 607-255-3183.


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