Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

A photo of a book cover. The cover says "Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909" and features a drawing of a woman dressed in a green coat with one fist in the air and holding a picket sign that says "strike." In the background are women marching through the city and holding picket signs.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel

In honor of International Women’s Day, here’s the true story of a woman with immense courage and strength named Clara Lemlich. A young immigrant in New York at the turn of the 20th century, Clara was hired as a garment worker to help her family make ends meet. The conditions in the factory were inhumane and unsafe, and the garment workers were underpaid, overworked, and being taken advantage of by their bosses. Clara sought to improve the working conditions in the garment industry by organizing and leading strikes. Despite being fired, arrested, and beaten, she continued to fight, and led the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history, which had a domino effect among factory workers throughout the country.

While this story takes place over 100 years ago, the struggle for fair pay, safe working conditions, and other issues such as health care and family leave continues today. Recently, teachers unions across the country have been organizing strikes for various reasons (mostly to reduce class size, hire additional support staff, and increase salaries) so this might be a topic that your child has already heard something about.

After reading, ask the following questions:

  1. What was it like for the factory workers where Clara worked? (There weren’t enough bathrooms, the workers were locked inside, the rooms had no windows, they were underpaid and lost wages if they were a few minutes late)
  2. What did Clara decide to do to improve working conditions? (She organized the women in her factory to strike)
  3. Why do you think Clara continued to strike even though she was arrested and beaten? (She knew that if she gave up, the working conditions would not improve, and she strongly believed in her cause)
  4. Did the strikes work? Why did some bosses finally agree to better conditions for workers? (Yes, when so many women went on strike, the bosses lost money because they didn’t have people working in their factories, so they agreed to better conditions so that their workers would come back.)

To read about another fearless female in history, and for other stories that feature characters who defy gender stereotypes, check out:

Mary Wears What She Wants

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