Vassar Yesterday

The Fight for Workers’ Rights

By Debbie Swartz

The March 25, 1911, fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City lives in infamy. The workers were trapped on the ninth floor of the factory, leaving 146 workers—mostly immigrant women—to fall to their deaths or succumb to fire and smoke. The tragedy fueled the collective anger, sorrow, and outrage that helped to advance a controversial issue of the time—the protection of laborers.

Even before that day, Vassar students had been playing a role in the larger labor movement, including the fight of the shirtwaist (women’s blouse) workers in the factories of New York City.

Inez Milholland (Class of 1909)—a suffragist who helped found the Vassar Votes for Women Club—was well known to many of the shirtwaist workers whose strike demanding better wages, shorter working hours, and safer worksites began the year she graduated. Milholland picketed with the workers and was beaten, arrested, and sent to jail on more than one occasion, according to Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland, by Linda J. Lumsden. Milholland also bailed out jailed strikers, hosted fund-raisers, and spoke at meetings of the Women’s Trade Union League.

According to the PBS American Experience documentary Triangle Fire, other Vassar women participated, too, joining the picket lines with such progressive reformers as Anne Morgan—daughter to financier John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan. They hoped their presence would deter the beatings, arrests, and fines faced by many of the striking women.

“If you have someone in the social register walking a picket line, police are going to be a bit more careful—even private police are going to be a bit more careful—about who they club,” said historian Annelise Orleck in Triangle Fire.

In March 1, 1910, the Miscellany published a letter by Elsie Cole (Phillips), a 1901 graduate, in which she explained why Vassar students were so drawn to the picket lines—they thought it deeply unfair that workers should be beaten and jailed merely for seeking better working conditions.

Cole had become involved with the women’s trade union movement as an organizer of girls’ clubs for the National Association of Women Workers before becoming a placement secretary at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in 1908, according to The Social Welfare History Project. The project website notes that she had been actively involved in the Triangle shirtwaist strike since its inception.

In January 1910, a newspaper clipping mentioning Cole arrived in the mail for Vassar President James Monroe Taylor. The name of the publication was indiscernible, but the headline read: “Vassar on firing line in shirtwaist warfare.” Between the subheads—“Meeting in the College Today to Help Finance the Campaign,” “Strikers Maul 4 Detectives,” and “Almost a Riot when Police Interrupt Meeting to Arrest Girls”—the piece stated that Vassar women were to hold a union meeting on campus to map out a strategy to aid the striking shirtwaist “girls,” and that alumnae/i support would soon be enlisted in the fight.

Accompanying the clipping was a 15-page letter from an F. Thurston, who argued that the workers’ wages were fair, and reports of mistreatment false. He called the involvement of the college “scandalous,” adding that it would be a sad day were Vassar to support the “agitators,” who stand for “anarchy, violence, and mob rule.”

In a reply, found in Vassar’s archives, Taylor said the article was one of “a series of sensational and lying reports which are constantly sent out by somebody in regard to this college.” He insisted that no union meetings had been held on campus and upheld the right of individual students not to be policed by the college.

The March 1, 1910, Miscellany included a letter to the editor signed “D.G. 1911.” It described the on-campus lecture “The Shirt-Waist and the Union Label,” which offered a brief history on the shirtwaist strike, details of the concessions sought by union workers, and a call for consumers to purchase union label shirtwaists.

D.G. 1911’s conclusions are remarkably similar to those used today by Fair Trade USA and similar organizations: “By this demand, the consumer will obtain for herself the best made articles and at the same time will give valuable assistance in maintaining for the producers a decent standard of living, upon which the health and efficiency of the present and future generations depend.”

—Debbie Swartz