Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I love Hamilton. I love it so much that I refused to listen to the soundtrack for months because I knew that I would love it too much and it would be a Problem. And it is. But here’s the thing about me: I’m like the subject of that Onion article “Graduate Student Deconstructs Takeout Menu,” and if I love something, you can bet that I’m going to deconstruct it. Even if I don’t want to. And Hamilton is no exception to that.


Cast of Hamilton. Left to right: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Christopher
Jackson (George Washington), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler Church),
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), and Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating and contradictory piece of theater. It takes a foundational American myth starring white men, and re-centers it on people of color while, at the same time, unquestioningly perpetuating that same myth while erasing women and slaves from the narrative. And that is powerful, because Hamilton, by virtue of its immense popularity and growing cultural status, is a space of memory construction.


Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.

Memory is an entity constructed by screenwriters, directors, journalists, the executives who control broadcast media, museum professionals, the politicians who set history curricula, the corporate bodies who decide what will be on standardized tests, novelists, Texas school boards, tv writers, and yes, playwrights and composers. History is the discipline which—through the science of reading, understanding, and questioning sources and the mastery of one or more historical fields—seeks to determine what happened, why it happened, how various groups interacted with the thing that happened, how the thing impacted groups, etc.

The institutions and individuals with the power to shape memory have very little interest in actual history; actual history is too complicated and too damning to fit neatly into a desirable, marketable narrative. And the characters of Hamilton, funnily enough, seem to be all too aware of that reality.

Aaron Burr laments that he will be remembered as a villain (there is an entire genre of sci-fi/historical fiction featuring Burr doing stuff like raising Aztec deities, stealing the Constitution from parallel worlds, and I think there’s something involving Napoleon and aliens but I refuse to research that one further without a drink in hand); Alexander Hamilton frets over his legacy; George Washington understands that he is at the mercy of memory; and one of Eliza’s recurring musical themes is centered on the concept of narrative.

In “That Would be Enough,” Eliza sings “oh let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write someday;” in “Burn” she sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Perhaps my favorite part is Eliza’s finale solo in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She sings “I put myself back in the narrative/…I interview every soldier who fought by your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings/…I rely on Angelica/While she’s alive/We tell your story/…I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument/…I speak out against slavery.” In all of these songs, and especially the finale solo, she is singing about her determination to exert her own agency over how she is remembered.

That solo (begins at :41), while it does, of course, have a strong narrative purpose, speaks to the long history of female labor performed to commemorate the actions and careers of American men. Whether it be raising funds for monuments, providing medical care to soldiers, starting historical societies, protesting for the rights of the men in their lives, or taking oral histories, American women have long been instrumental shaping American collective memory; the irony is that their labor is left out of that memory. In Eliza’s solo, this labor is re-centered.

This history of forgotten female labor isn’t the only larger historiographic reality Hamilton speaks to.

In Writing History in the Global Era, historian Lynn Hunt writes:

Historians have only recently discovered globalization. Their neglect of the topic hardly makes them unique, however, as interest in globalization, as shown by the increasing use of the word in titles of books, dates only to the 1990s. It hardly appears at all in titles before the late 1980s, but a sharp increase occurs during the 1990s and continues into the 2000s.

Before globalization became a force in historians’ interpretation of early American history, it was much more the trend to portray the New Nation as an isolated country hanging off the eastern coast of the New World.

Indeed, Hunt continues:

Historians of the early United States…always drew attention to the links between American and British history, but now they also link the United States to the Caribbean islands with their slave economies and to the role of the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who also colonized parts of the North American mainland.

Hamilton takes place in a highly globalized world, reflecting both the twenty-first century international environment and contemporary historiographic trends. From the very beginning, we see the links between the North American colonies and the Caribbean colonies as Hamilton travels from St. Croix to New York. Angelica makes regular trips between London and New York. Lafayette jumps on a ship to France in the middle of the Revolution to acquire guns and ships—and other sundry supplies—and makes a quick return.

Further, despite the prohibitive cost and availability of tickets, Hamilton is hosting New York City Public School classes, which are using Hamilton as an educational tool. The New York City Public Schools are 39.6% Hispanic, 31.6% black, and 14% Asian*. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, nearly half of all New York City Public School students speak a language other than English at home; while this figure does not necessarily imply that nearly half of all NYCPS students are immigrants, it does imply that they come from families which arrived in the United States within the last one or two generations.

Hamilton openly and passionately addresses xenophobia, and the positive impact of immigrants on the United States (“Immigrants, we get the job done”)—indeed, one of Hamilton’s defining traits in the eyes of his supporters and adversaries is his status as an immigrant—and features non-white actors in every role (except for that of King George III). Thus, Hamilton allows students to see themselves as the protagonists of a story they are typically tacked to the margins of, if included at all. Seeing themselves and reflected in this foundational story allows these students to become much more engaged in learning about this vital period of American History.

And indeed, the show’s stars have discussed the importance of this representation.

Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) said to New Yorker reporter Rebecca Mead that “It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”

Christopher Jackson (George Washington), said in the same piece that “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to. By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage.”

Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) said to Playbill writer Olivia Clement that “the best I’ve heard [at the stage door] is a lot of young Asian-American women coming up to me and saying thank you for representing Asian-American women.”

However, even as Hamilton reflects contemporary historiographic trends, illuminates female commemorative labor, and re-centers those typically left out of the narrative, it ironically excludes the groups Americans work the hardest to forget: enslaved men and women.

Now, Hamilton doesn’t ignore the issue; it arises in multiple songs, and many characters speak of their desire to abolish slavery—especially John Laurens and Eliza in her finale solo. But there are two central persons whose lives and experiences are largely erased within Miranda’s narrative: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave; and Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s slave.

In the Act 2 opener “What’d I Miss,” Thomas Jefferson has Sally Hemmings open a letter from George Washington (whose own status as a slave owner is barely alluded to), and sings “Sally dear be a lamb and open this.” Sally then performs a cheerfully choreographed spin and opens it.


Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, as portrayed in Hamilton. Gif courtesy of http://wholivesdiestellsyourstory.tumblr.com,

There is no mention—despite the fact that Hamilton calls Jefferson out on his status as slave-owner in “Cabinet Battle #1″—of the fact she is his slave, and no mention of that fact that Jefferson, as we can now understand in our present historical context, was her rapist.

Meanwhile, the spy work Hercules Mulligan so epically raps about (beginning at 1:49 below) in “Yorktown” (”A tailor spyin on the British government/I take their measurements, information then I smuggle it/To my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m runnin with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin it”) could not have been accomplished without the unpaid, dangerous labor performed by his slave, known to us only as Cato.

Cato acted as a courier for Mulligan’s spy work, smuggling intelligence through British territory. When the British took New York City in 1778, British Provost Marshal William Cunningham suspected Mulligan of spy activities. He arrested and interrogated Cato, who refused to divulge any information. In 1779, Cato delivered intelligence to Alexander Hamilton, alerting him of the British plan to kidnap or kill George Washington. And that is really all we know about Cato**.

Also excluded from the narrative are the wives of some of the central characters, with the exception, of course, of Eliza. John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette were all married when the action begins in 1776, yet their wives are never even alluded to.

John Laurens married Martha Manning in 1776. Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of a Royal Navy Admiral, in 1773. This union allowed him access to British officers, from whom he gathered valuable intelligence. The Marquis de Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francois in 1774.


Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. Image courtesy of Christie’s, by an unknown artist in the French School.

She supported his quest for the spread of liberty. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, he took command of the army at Metz. He was accused of treason upon his return to Paris, and fled to the Dutch Republic. On the way, the Prussians intercepted and arrested him. Adrienne, fresh from imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, traveled to Vienna to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to obtain permission to join her husband in prison. He allowed it, and they were released in 1797.

I understand that Hamilton is a work of historical fiction and, as such, must take creative liberty with fact in order to craft a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Further, I understand that it is a problem to assume that a production which re-centers people of color within a foundational narrative shaped by white supremacy is obligated to discuss slavery. However, historical fiction is a powerful vehicle of memory construction, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda did, indeed, set out to confront that memory, then I cannot ignore the exclusions detailed above.

Historical fiction allows complex human beings to be shaped into the protagonist or antagonist of ahistorical narrative; allows creators to construct historical figures into characters with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one; it puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure or their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

And I have all of these concerns about Hamilton; specifically, about how it contributes to what I refer to as the “cult of the Founding Fathers.” Americans hold these eighteenth century men…well it’s beyond a pedestal, some politicians and legal authorities base their decisions—decisions which directly affect the lives, health, and freedom of millions of people–on what those eighteenth century guys may have thought.

Hamilton doesn’t question the mythic aura surrounding these guys. It humanizes them, sure, and it certainly does something very powerful in casting them as men of color (as discussed above), but it doesn’t question the fundamentals of the mythos surrounding them, or the impact of that mythos on contemporary American politics and political rhetoric.

In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore. In this book, Chernow describes how Hamilton wrote a poem about his dead-end life as an impoverished orphan in St. Croix. The poem caught the attention of some very wealthy people who helped Alexander to get ahead in life and leave for New York.

In this part of Alexander Hamilton’s life, Lin-Manuel Miranda saw the ethos of hip-hop.“To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are,” said Miranda to Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, “I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.“

In April 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to perform in a series of live performances centered on the “American Experience.” He performed the song telling the story of a young, orphaned, illegitimate boy who built himself up from nothing through sheer intelligence, writing skill, and determination.

That song is now the opening number of Hamilton.

The “American Experience” Miranda saw in the story of Alexander Hamilton was that of the American Dream. The American Dream is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history behind it. That idea is built on the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and functions as an unquestioned ideology used to silence and shame those who cannot—for any number of reasons I can’t tackle within the confines of this post—access the middle class lifestyle promised by that fantasy of meritocracy.

It is powerful that Miranda expressed the American Dream through a musical genre which is frequently marginalized, appropriated, and held to a content-driven double standard via actors who are part of the populations historically excluded from accessing that dream. However, Hamilton uncritically elevates the myth of the American Dream just as it does that of the Founding Fathers; it doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dream, it just skews the audience’s perception of who embodies that dream

Hamilton presents a vision of America which has no interest in overhauling the narrative, but is instead concerned with creating a space within that narrative where everyone, not just those who look like King George III, can succeed. It’s only a shame that Miranda couldn’t open that narrative up just a tiny bit further.

*These figures courtesy of the Hunter College School of Education.
**In 1785, Mulligan became one of the founding members of the New York Manumission Society. Thus, we can assume that he recognized Cato’s humanity and freed him from slavery, but even that is just a guess.

Beulah Sanders: She Occupied Before You Were Born


“Everybody from President Nixon on down is talking about us. Everyone has their own plan on what to do with welfare recipients. Well the only thing you can really do is get up off your 17th century attitudes, give poor people enough money to live decently, and let us decide how to live our lives.” (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Beulah Sanders, a working class black woman with strong ties to labor, tenants unions, and the anti-war movement, was instrumental in the welfare rights movement of the middle 1960s through the early 1970s. As white middle class women fought for the right to leave the home and enter the workforce, predominately black and Puerto Rican women, in the words of historian Felicia Kornbluh “fought for a privilege that had traditionally been granted to respectable white women—to remove themselves from the workforce while raising children if they so chose.“

In other words, these women demanded that the predominately white male power brokers extend to them the form of citizenship to which white middle-class women were entitled.

When, in 1970, Senator Abraham Ribicoff proposed that the mayor of New York City cut the welfare rolls by putting women to work cleaning the streets of New York, Sanders said “I would be the first welfare recipient to volunteer to clean up New York’s streets if your mother and your wife were beside me.”

Though Sanders (and the Welfare Rights Movement) accomplished much more than I discuss here, I focus on her fight against the imposition mandatory work programs—“workfare”—in the place of traditional welfare. Workfare programs funnel public assistance recipients into low-paid menial labor and work “training programs,” severely curtailing their abilities to arrange for the care of their children. Sanders and her associates viewed workfare as an oppressive restriction on their right to self-determination.

Sanders began to organize welfare recipients in 1964. By 1966 she led the largest welfare coalition in the nation. In 1967 she was appointed as vice-chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization (the NWRO), a body formed by George Wiley two years earlier which focused on such daily concerns as, in Sander’s words, “How do you get the money to live next week? How do you get clothing to send your kids back to school? How do you get them into a school lunch program? How do you get back on welfare if your check is cut off?”

Sanders testified before Congress as a leader of the NWRO for the first time in 1967 as Congress tried to push through a series of amendments to the Social Security Act which would institute rapid workfare provisions. Sanders expressed to the committee (after forcing them to listen to her via an impromptu sit-in) that “one of the things we are concerned about is being forced into these non-existing positions which might be going out and cleaning Mrs. A’s kitchen. I am not going to do that because I feel I am more valuable and can do something else.” The amendments passed, but it wasn’t the last Congress would hear of Sanders.

In 1968, she was included in the US delegation to the Paris peace talks, she ran for the New York State senate in the Freedom and Peace Party, was a frequent speaker in the anti-war circuit, and was the only black speaker at the first national rally following the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. For Sanders, her anti-war action was directly tied to her welfare activism: how could a country spend so much money on—in her eyes—unjust wars overseas when American people were living in poverty?

Her real triumph came during the campaign against President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP). This legislation continued the imposition of mandatory workfare—with few exemptions—onto poor women. It also set a national minimum income of $1600 for a four person family with children; a minimum which the NWRO worried would become the new maximum. Sanders, who viewed the FAP as the work of predatory capitalists, expressed that “This country is too rich for…saying rather than give [welfare recipients] more money they should be going and get a job when you know for a fact that this country has failed to provide the jobs that poor people need.” To build on this, she called out the Department of Agriculture for granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the enhancement of Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s cotton crop, and the national government on the money it put towards its interventions in Cambodia and Vietnam while remaining unwilling to put significant amounts of money towards helping its poor.

FAP was approved in April, 1970, and two weeks later Sanders scolded the nation’s power brokers as she testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee. She warned that the poor would “disrupt this state, this country, this capital” if they were not given a share of the nation’s wealth, and a voice in the political process. “We are saying that we want to participate. Are you prepared to let us sit down and help make some laws? The last time we tried to present our views to Congress, some people told us that we were wasting our time, that we should go home and kill the rats and roaches we were complaining about or, instead of coming here, we should take jobs even if it was just picking up dead dogs off the streets.” As Democrats and Republicans rose to condemn Sanders for threatening the committee with violence, she cut them off. “The poor have brains,” she said, “they’re not all dumb like you think they are. This country has failed to provide the jobs. That’s the trouble.”

As the Senate Finance Committee remained in talks about proposed changes to the FAP, Sanders made good on her threat. On May 13, 1970, she and 150 women—nearly all black female welfare recipients—occupied the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education).


NWRO women occupying the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders took her seat at the desk of the Department Secretary, Robert Finch. The women occupied the building for nine hours before being carried out by the police; Sanders described this as “two cops to every woman.”


Sanders and her colleague (and force to be reckoned with in her own right) Johnnie Tillmon during the takeover of the HEW. Secretary Finch may be seen in the background. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders was appointed to the position of vice-president of the NWRO after the sit-in, and was elected Chair at its 1971 convention. The organization continued to demonstrate and testify against FAP, until it was defeated.

Though their action helped to defeat FAP, they could not defeat the manner in which politicians insisted upon viewing impoverished women and children on public aid. By the early 70s, the organization could not ignore the anti-welfare mood of the nation as punitive workfare policies were passed in a majority of states. As the Civil Rights Movement fell into disarray, and as the US government lost the War on Poverty to Vietnam spending, the NWRO lost its foothold in the national conversation, and closed its headquarters in 1974 as it ran out of funding (though local affiliates carried on).

Ultimately, Sanders lost the battle against workfare. It became the de facto mode of public assistance in 1996 with the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act. However, at its peak the NWRO was the largest organization of poor people in the history of the United States, and Sanders was instrumental in bringing these people together. The NWRO attracted thousands of black women, along with Puerto Rican women, white women, Native American women, and low-income men. It dramatically unsettled the power relationships between gender, class, race, and citizenship, in the United States, and it and changed the national discourse forever. We are still experiencing the repercussions of the power relationships Sanders sought to disrupt as the US is once again embroiled in a national debate and divide over military and domestic spending.

Jews, Food, and Socialism

January 11, 2019: This post was a bit of a thought experiment to see if this theory could go anywhere after taking some intensive courses. I still think some of these ideas are interesting, but much more work is needed before I could defend any of this.

In traditional Eastern European Jewish society, and specifically within the Russian Pale of Settlement for the purposes of this post, communities were bound together by food: everyone followed the kosher laws, from the richest person to the poorest. Because of this, all members of these Jewish communities felt entitled to eat well regardless of class. Since the consumption of kosher food was divinely commanded, no one had the right to deny it to another. The poor felt as though that the wealthy owed them food, and the wealthy felt obliged to supply it.

That said, this society was hardly egalitarian; on the contrary, it was heavily stratified and class lines were rigidly upheld—one of the primary purposes of arranged marriages was to uphold these class lines. However, the attitudes towards food created a communal consciousness in which the idea that the poor somehow deserved to have a harder time in life by virtue of their poverty was not present.

This society also had a very rigid concept of proper gender roles. Men were expected to be Talmudic scholars and dedicate their lives to the study of the holy texts. Certainly not all men were or could be scholars, and not all families had the funds to allow their sons to dedicate themselves to this study, but the figure of the Talmudic scholar was the masculine ideal.

Women, on the other hand, were not allowed access to the holy texts. They were expected to venture out into the public sphere to earn a living for their families while their husbands were at home studying. Thus, young women were given a secular education to prepare them for their role as breadwinners. Some families sent their daughters to public schools, if there were any available, while others paid for a private education, or private tutors.

Because secular education was prized for women, and because nineteenth century Russia was a multi-lingual society, many of these girls were fluent in both Russian and Yiddish, and sometimes French and German as well. Over the course of their secular educations, they encountered modern and revolutionary literature written in these European languages which their male peers were not encountering in the cheder (pre-yeshiva Jewish elementary schools for boys). It was in this literature that these young girls and women, raised in communities which rejected the notion that the poor deserved to be punished for their poverty, encountered socialism. This socialism did not inform, but rather cemented the world view of these women.

Between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Pale to America, and most settled in New York City. The vast majority of the young women who came to America with their parents found work in the factories and workshops of the garment industry.

These young women became rapidly dissatisfied with the unsafe and unregulated conditions in which they had to work. Because of the views on class which they had learned in Russia, it never would have occurred to these women to think that they deserved to work in awful conditions by virtue of their low socio-economic status. When the management was unresponsive to their concerns, they went on strike. As these women went on to marry and become housewives, they channeled this conception of class into protests against unaffordable grocery prices, exploitative renting practices, and other such working class concerns.

These women were distinctive. They weren’t revolutionary socialists, and they weren’t American capitalists. While these women were eager to Americanize and showed great enthusiasm for consumer culture, they rejected the tenet of American capitalism which dictated that poverty was a result of personal failings. They combined the socialist class conceptions of their lives in Europe with consumerist aspects of working class America to form their own distinct reality.

Thus, I would argue that the class consciousness instigated by the necessity of observing the kosher laws in the tightly knit Jewish communities of the Pale allowed these women to take the socialism they encountered in Russian revolutionary literature, and make it their own. This socialist consciousness traveled with them across the Atlantic to America where they used that consciousness to create their own working class experience.

I do not argue that the American Jewish experience was informed by the kosher laws—in the face of Americanization, many once Orthodox families became far less zealous about their upkeep, sometimes leaving them by the wayside entirely—but that the kosher laws informed the consciousness from which the distinctive experience of pre-WWII American Jewry rose.

“A pint of trouble for the bosses”: Clara Lemlich Shavelson

January 11, 2019: This post does not do Clara justice. I am planning on a full rewrite.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982) never backed down. She never gave up. No obstacle, from the czarist regime to the House Committee on Un-American Activities could stand in her way. I can only hope to scratch the surface of her massive contributions to American society over the course of the twentieth century in this post, and I have left out many of her contributions in the interest of brevity.

Early Years and Union Involvement

Clara was born in the Pale of Settlement, the geographic area—encompassing most of modern day Western Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine—to which Russian Jews were confined under the czarist government. Specifically, she was born in the Ukrainian village of Gorodok. The primary language spoken in the Pale was Yiddish.

Lemlich was forbidden from learning Russian by her parents. In her first act of rebellion, she studied the Russian language behind their backs, and built up a library of Russian revolutionary literature in similar secrecy. Her exposure to this socialist, revolutionary literature would determine her lifelong political trajectory.

In 1903, after a pogrom swept through a nearby village, Clara and her family emigrated to the United States—in the period between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews from the Pale would make the same journey. Clara and her family, like the vast majority of Jewish émigrés, settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There Clara and her Jewish female peers found work in the garment industry; so many female Jewish and Italian immigrants took jobs in the garment industry said industry was based in New York, and the factories needed workers.

These female workers had to work long, unregulated hours in unsafe, unhealthy conditions. They had no rights as workers, and their salaries changed at the whims of their employers. Lemlich, observing her surroundings, and unwilling to simply accept them, joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A contemporary referred to her as “a pint of trouble for the bosses.”

Once in the union, she bacame frustrated at the sexist attitudes and general complacency of the male leadership. When they would not listen to her or take her seriously, she went over their heads to actively court female membership and involvement. She did not merely coax other women into action; she was there with them in the front lines. During a strike in 1909, she returned to a picket line after her employer’s hired goons broke several of her ribs.


“Come at me, bro.” (Image courtesy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University)

In November of 1909 at a meeting at Cooper Union, after listening to inconsequential male speech after speech, Lemlich became fed up. She demanded to be allowed to speak, took the podium, and said “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Over the next weeks, between 30 and 40 thousand young, female, and predominantly Jewish garment workers walked out of their jobs (this has come to be rather romantically known as the Uprising of the 20,000). The strikes were partially successful in that many Union contracts were produced as a result. However its limitations were thrown into tragic relief when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on March 25, 1911.

Suffrage and Working-Class Advocacy

Finding herself blacklisted within the garment industry after calling the industry to strike, Lemlich could no longer work effectively within the union. In its absence, she turned to the fight for female suffrage. In her eyes, the fight for the rights of working women and the fight for the female vote were one and the same.

Rejecting the middle and upper class gentile perspective of many of the female suffragists, Clara helped to found the Wage Earners League for Woman’s Suffrage, a group concerned with the situation of working class women. The tension between herself and the upper class suffragists came to a head when she was fired from her position as organizer in 1911, when her radical politics clashed with the more moderate views of her employers.

In 1913 Clara married Joe Shavelson. The two moved to Brooklyn and had three children together. Once settled, Clara continued who fight for equality, this time with the women of her working class neighborhood. This period of her life was spent fighting to better the conditions of the working class—specifically working class women—across racial, religious, and ethnic lines.

She was active throughout the teens and the twenties, and in 1926 she both joined the Communist Party and founded the United Council of Working-Class Housewives. In 1929 she co-founded the United Council of Working-Class Women—an organization which led rent strikes, anti-eviction demonstrations, price boycotts, and sit-ins and marches on Washington; and in 1935 the UCWCW’s name was changed to the Progressive Women’s Councils.

The PWC formed a coalition with other women’s organizations to alleviate issues faced by the female, working class community. This coalition organized a boycott on the high price setting of the meat industry which was so effective that it shut down 4,500 butcher shops in New York City alone. It was also instrumental in passing rent control laws. These are only two examples, but they are indicative of the PWC’s effectiveness and influence, much of which, in my opinion, may be attributed to the very force of Lemlich’s will.

The PWC was effective in alleviating some of the worst effects of the Great Depression on working class communities. The attention Clara and her coalition of housewife activists paid to the concerns of working class women laid the groundwork for the focus on the concerns of women working within the home in the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Communist Involvement and the Later Years

After the Second World War, Clara’s activism changed yet again. This time, her work was much more directly influenced by her Communist beliefs than it had been during her PWC years. She served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and was an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism while remaining a visible member of the Communist Party.

She came to the attention of the American government after her 1951 visit to the Soviet Union with the American Committee. This resulted in the revocation of her passport. Later that year she was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Her entire family was investigated and would remain under surveillance for the next 20 years.

But that didn’t stop her. In 1953 she loudly and publicly protested the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1954 she protested the US intervention in Guatemala. She spoke out against nuclear proliferation, worked with civil rights organizations, and was active in early anti-Vietnam organizing. All while living under the watch of federal surveillance.

Her husband died in 1951, the same year that she was called before the House Committee. She re-married an old union acquaintance, Abe Goldman, in 1960, and lived with him until his death in 1967. After his death she moved to California to be closer to her children.

She lived in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. There she harangued the management into joining the United Farm Worker’s Boycott of grapes and lettuce, and helped the orderlies organize a union.

She died at the age of 96.

Judith Sargent Murray: Colonial Advocate for Women’s Education

“We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”

Not only is Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) one in a long line of women throughout history who have spoken out against the gender-based double standards in their respective societies, but she used these women in her writings to support the argument that women had the same intellectual capabilities as men.

Murray grew up in Gloucester Massachusetts to a family wealthy enough to be able to provide an education to their children. She was taught to read and write and had a passable understanding of French, but she was denied the opportunity to study beyond those subjects. When her brother Winthrop, who was two years her junior, was given the opportunity to study the Classics, she became aware of how society cut off the potential of women through denying them access to a full education.

In response, Murray became self-taught. She specialized in history, and devoted herself to writing on the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and that education was the key to female empowerment and success. She put forth these ideas in her 1790 essay, On the Equality of the Sexes.

Her first essays regarding gender equality were published under a male pseudonym (typically “Mr. Vigilius”) so that her words would be taken seriously by male readers. However, her landmark 1798 three volume work, The Gleaner, was published under her own name; this work dealt with such issues as philanthropy, pacifism, and gender equality, and was purchased by such people as George Washington and John Adams.

She also made vast inroads for freedom of religion in the new American republic, and for the role of women within Universalist Christianity. Her name was included in documents used to expel the Gloucester Universalists for refusing to pay taxes to the Congregational church, and that expulsion led to the first freedom of religion ruling (by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in this instance) in the United States of America.

After her first husband died in the West Indies, Judith married John Murray, a celebrated Universalist theologian and preacher, and the first Universalist preacher in the United States. She helped him edit and publish his books, and she is considered by historians of Universalist Christianity to be the reason why women of that denomination have always had access to leadership roles.

Most fascinating about Murray, however, is her awareness of her place within history. At the age of 23, she began to create copies of all of her letters, essays, and books in order to create a historical record of herself for future researchers and historians. These copies—comprising 20 volumes in all—were discovered in 1984. They are currently held in the collections of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and are available for researchers in microfilm form. This collection of her works is one of the few surviving collections of female writings from the Early Republic period of American history.

Because of the relative newness of the discovery of her work, scholars have only recently begun to study her impact, legacy, and contributions.

Portrait (ca. 1770-1772 by John Singleton Copley) courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Sojourner Truth: Needs Subtitle

“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.” (spoken to young, male hecklers at the 1853 Mob Convention)

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) spent her life campaigning for equality, and successfully fought against the brutal system which had taken her son away from her.

Born into slavery in 1797 with the name Isabella Baumfree, Truth and her parents—James and Elizabeth Baumfree—were the property of Colonel Johannes Hardenburgh, who owned on estate in the modern day town of Esopus. In 1806, Truth was sold for $100 with a pack of sheep to a man in Kingston, NY.

After two years in the ownership of a man who would regularly beat and rape her, she was sold for $105 to a man in Port Ewan, and then again 18 months later to John Dumont of West Park, NY. All things considered, he was a step up from her previous owners.

Truth spent the first 30 or so years of her life as a slave, and then as a free-woman, in the mid-Hudson Valley region of New York

It was during this time that, in 1815, at the age of 18, Truth fell in love with a man named Robert who was a slave at a neighboring estate. Robert’s owner, however, did not want him in a relationship with a slave he did not own, so he forbade the relationship, and beat Robert. Robert died shortly thereafter of injuries from the beating. One child, a girl named Diana, came of her relationship with Robert.

Two years after this occurrence, she was forced by her owner into marriage with a slave named Thomas. With him she had four more children, although only three of them survived to adulthood.

Truth’s early years took place against the backdrop of the slow implementation of the abolition of slavery in New York State. Though the process began in 1799, it was not legalized until 1827, and the provisions put in place by the laws which abolished slavery had enough loopholes to ensure that many would remained enslaved into the 1840’s.

Truth’s owner had promised to free her in 1826, a year before state emancipation was legalized. But when he went back on his word, she escaped with her infant daughter Sophia; she had to leave her other children behind as they would not be legally free until they reached their 20’s. Of her escape, she said “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

Isaac and Maria Van Wagener took her in for a year until the New York State Emancipation Act was legalized; it was during this period that she became a devout Christian. It was also during this period that she learned that her five year old son Peter had been illegally sold south to Alabama.

With the help of the Van Wageners, Truth took the issue to court at the Kingston courthouse, and filed a suit to have Peter returned to her. After months and months, she won her case, and her son—who had suffered abuse at the hands of his southern owner—was returned to her. She was one of the first black women to take a white man to court and win the case. In 1839, Peter took position on a whaling ship, and he most likely perished during the subsequent voyage.

In 1843, a year after Peter’s disappearance was confirmed, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told her friends that “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.”

And she did. She spent the rest of her life speaking across the North about the abolition of slavery, and working towards the goals of abolition, women’s suffrage, pacifism, and religious tolerance. She delivered her first speech in 1850 at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In May of 1951, she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It was here that she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.

Though she was a pacifist, she worked as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War. It was during this time that she spoke of women’s rights with the most fervor because she feared that, once black people had attained their freedom from slavery, people would stop caring about the rights of black women.

Beginning in 1870, she spent seven years working to secure land grants for former slaves; she even met with President Ulysses S. Grant. However, she was unsuccessful in this endeavor.

After a lifetime of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, and fighting to gain a voice for the voiceless, Truth died in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883.