Through the Fire: A Century Later, Lessons Of Women Leaders From Triangle Factory

The author and her daughter preapring for the Women's March in part ot honor her grandmother's legacy of leadership.As I headed out at 4:30 a.m. with my 13-year-old daughter, Zoe, recently for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I could not help but think about my grandmother, Sarah Dubow Sorenson.I hear her voice, Yiddish words mixing in with English: “All the groups got together and marched through the streets.  There were 120,000 of us marching.  Although it was a rainy day in New York, the wetness on the streets was mostly from the tears of the marchers.”It was April 5th, 1911, 11 days after the Triangle Factory Fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history.  To honor the victims, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union organized a massive funeral procession which drew from many communities in much in the same way that the current resistance has become intersectional.  The fire was seen as an affront to all workers.[bctt tweet=“A funeral procession after the Triangle Factory Fire reflects today’s intersectional #resistance” username=“takeleadwomen”]Eleven days earlier, on March 25th, 1911, my Grandmother was 22 years old and employed as a thread cutter, working at the Triangle Factory.  That particular day she was looking after her father’s shop because it was the Sabbath and he had to go to the synagogue.Around 4 p.m. she headed out to meet her aunt who was picking up her check since she couldn’t be there.“I heard the fire engines and I started to run to where the fire was. Two blocks away, the police and fire department stopped traffic from getting near the building, I was in a place where I could see the building, and I saw the flames and the people jumping out,” she said.The blaze ripped through the congested loft as mostly young immigrant women tried to make their way out of the building.  By the time the fire burned itself out, 146 people were dead, including 123 women and  23 men. The youngest was 14.“I remained there until midnight. At 10:00 a.m. the next day we went to the morgue to identify my aunt.  Some people were recognized by their rings or shoes. We were not able to identify my aunt. ”Sarah Dubow Sorenson four years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.This fire with its anniversary this week, followed by the march that cold April day 106 years ago, irrevocably changed my grandmother’s life.  From that day on, my grandmother became a fighter, an active suffragist and huge proponent of social justice and reform.In 1920 she voted for the first time and cast her ballot to elect Eugene Debs for the socialist party.She wrote, “I held the ballot in my hands for 20 minutes with tears in my eyes.”My grandmother was feisty and demanding, hard on people, especially my Dad, her only son.  She was tough and warm. She often met with city officials, speaking her mind, arguing her points.In her 80’s she helped pave the way to create city busing for the elderly in Albuquerque, N.M. where she lived.  She urged the mayor to open community centers for senior citizens, which he did.As a young girl, I remember holding her hand, always warm to the touch, and so strong.  She would often say to me, “The work is not done; once you stop trying, it’s the end of everything.”  She lived to be 103 and never stopped trying.Now in Women’s History Month, it feels appropriate to honor the work of women leaders like her who have marched before us.[bctt tweet=“In Women’s History Month, it feels appropriate to honor #womenleaders who have marched before us “ username=“takeleadwomen”]At the Women’s March In January, Zoe and I talked about why we protest, why we take to the streets, why we organize. And I tell her stories about my grandmother.  We march as women leaders because we hope, because we believe we can make a difference.  Somehow marching makes the unbearable bearable.There is so much work yet to be done.  The issue of worker safety is of particular concern for immigrants and undocumented workers’, the men and women who still work in deplorable sweatshop conditions around the world, and around whom we must still organize.