Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shielding Us

Tomorrow you're going to hear a lot about a fire. Don't worry, I'm not about to lose the plot. This fire happened about 58 years before I was born. I had nothing to do with it.

In 1987 I began attending NYU. I was an actor (dahling!) so most of my time was spent rolling around on the floor, crying, jumping, singing, yelling, hiding and generally being a fool on purpose in small, dingy, unwindowed rehearsal rooms around Manhattan. Two days a week, though, I played the part of a regular college student, dutifully trudging into small, dingy, unwindowed classrooms within spitting distance of Washington Square Park. On the side of the building that contained the classrooms was a small, unobtrusive plaque which said something relatively noncommittal along the lines of, "Site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire." Like any self-respecting teenager I didn't delve any deeper into it.

Over the years, though, you put that kind of teaser on display amongst crowds of budding actors, writers and performance artists all desperate for content and someone is going to delve. At least a little. Bits of information trickled down to me. I knew that rescue attempts were thwarted. I knew that the victims were mostly women. I knew, of course, that women jumped to their deaths to avoid burning. I knew that they'd been trapped in the building and not by accident.

Here's what happened as I understand it now. The Triangle factory made shirtwaists, a lacy undergarment made popular by the Gibson Girls. Young women and girls, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, made up the majority of the workforce, women who couldn't have afforded a fancy shirtwaist even if they wanted one. 1911 was a time when unions were just organizing in the garment industry. Many manufacturers had entered into collective bargaining agreements but the owners of the Triangle factory remained staunchly opposed. To prevent infiltration by union organizers, though ostensibly to prevent workers stealing product, most of the exit doors were closed and locked. Near the end of the day a fire broke out on the upper floors. There weren't enough exits. The rescue ladders were only 6 stories tall and it was a 9 story building. The rescue nets, held on the ground by firefighters, weren't strong enough to catch women falling from such a great height. Some women burned inside. Some women worked to get their friends and colleagues safely out before dying inside the building. Some women jumped to their deaths. Some women were killed when the inadequate fire escapes collapsed. Some women got out alive. Over 140 people died and 129 of those were women.

The deaths of those women were used as an example of the importance of collective bargaining and made a great difference in the development of unions in the industry. But I didn't know that until the beginning of this month.

Frankly, I was a little ticked off to start hearing about the fire this year. I thought that dead women were being exploited because of the bullshit going down in the Wisconsin. Up until now few people were honoring a group of underpaid, overworked women who were brutally killed in the name of profit and now, suddenly, when it suited their purposes they brought these women into the spotlight. Then I breathed in long enough to hear that it was the 100th anniversary of the fire. We'd have been talking about this even if Governor Walker wasn't dipping his toe in the union busting waters. So now, clearly, I'm all about honoring these women and their contribution to the safety of America's workforce.

I think it's worth noting that Governor Walker started with a teachers' union, a profession whose members are mostly women. He didn't go after the Teamsters or anything. Nurses, I suspect, are fair game for him. Perhaps he'll start to feel nostalgic for days of yore and hit the garment workers. His tactics add fuel to my fire that our "great" nation is viciously disrespectful of people with vaginas.

I counter this egregious discrimination with news of the hardworking immigrants who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911. Thank you, ladies, for allowing us to stand behind the shield of your bodies during this 100 year fight. I hope you are resting in peace.


Here are the pieces that have educated me about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire this month.

Blogher honored Daphne Pinkerson, the director of Triangle: Remembering the Fire.

Also at Blogher Suzanne Reisman explores the workers' rights angle.

Feministing's Sharkfu remembers the women who died in the fire.

Nancy Goldstein is at the American Prospect outlining the lessons to be learned from this avoidable tragedy.

The New York Times shines a spotlight on Clare Lemlich Shavelson who led the workers in a strike at the tender age of 23.

US Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, wrote about what the Triangle fire means for workers today. The modern day examples she uses are especially interesting.

Lastly, the CBS Sunday morning piece on the fire.


  1. Some time, find a recording of Robert Pinsky reading his poem "Shirt." It makes me cry, every time.

  2. You give me goosebumps.

  3. Walker's certainly not going after firefighters and cops, two very male-dominated unions, particularly the former. Coincidentally, also the only two unions that supported his campaign.

  4. Miflohny10:34 PM

    Shirtwaists were actually shirts, not undergarments. Like most articles of clothing, there were fancy versions and not so fancy versions. The workers may have been able to afford them, but they didn't hardly any spare money or time, that's for sure.