Beyond Awareness Month: Lessons from the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909

What follows is an account of the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909 as it might relate to Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Garment workers on strike in 1909.
Garment workers on strike in 1909. In what was known as the Shirtwaist Strike.

In late September 1909 some brave women, seamstresses actually, organized a general strike that pulled in over 20,000 garment workers.  They were fighting for safer working conditions, a fair wage, regular working hours, and the option to organize themselves into unions. This was nearly eleven years before women gained the vote in 1920. They were by in large young immigrant women, mostly Jewish, they spoke a variety of languages, they were poor, they were overworked and they had many disadvantages. Ultimately roughly 500 workshops were involved in the strike.

The strike went on for months, it was supported by thousands more.  It was known as the Uprising of 20,000 or the Shirtwaist Strike. Slowly through their solidarity the workers made progress, and reached agreements to better their situation.  Most of the smaller shops eventually allowed for unionization, improved wages and workplace safety.  (With one notable and tragic exception, which we will discuss in a second post.) Their actions changed the face of labor. It is due in no small part to these women that a 8 hour work day is now in common practice.

I bring up the Shirtwaist Strike because it offers many useful lessons in regards to the situation facing women in regards to breast cancer.  As we tumble into the dread Pinktober I wish to look back at what awareness can accomplish, but how thinking outside the box, and organizing together can free us even more.  I see that for people today, living under the threat of a cancer diagnosis, there are things we can learn from these long dead working women about how to affect change.

Young workers from the Shirtwaist Strike.
Young workers from the Shirtwaist Strike.

 Lesson One: There is a simultaneously a Personal Story & a bigger Societal Story.

When we see some of the statistics that the Shirtwaist workers faced we can take heart at what the human spirit can overcome. Statistics that the workers themselves more than likely did not have any knowledge of. (Because really, who would have been keeping track back then?) Looking at their statistics can help us to imagine what their life was like, helping to paint a picture of their daily experience of horrid work conditions and violence.¹ They however did not need the statistics to Know what they were facing. They each owned their personal experience, and simultaneously found solidarity with each other. Together they were able to see that their collective problems were part of a greater societal problem facing many workers.

From the perspective of the individual knowing that only such and such percentage of women will have this or that outcome does not predict the experience that an individual will have.  Reciting the statistics of breast cancer, how many get it, how many will die, how many will live with lymphedema as a direct result of their treatments… is far less informative of the experience than the personal stories of those who are living with it. And those stories are mostly useful only after you know which this or that outcome you yourself have.

My experience contributes to the statistics if and only if I happen to be in a study. However, my experience is of upmost importance to me regardless of whether I am tabulated or not. Just as the shirtwaist workers did not need statistics to inform them that their situation sucked, someone with cancer knows what they are experiencing.  What statistics can do for us, is to help us see that our personal experience is not singular. That our cancer is in fact a symptom of a greater societal problem.  What statistics can do is highlight the fact that Cancer is not only a personal problem.

Women Organizing in 1909
Women Organizing in the early 1900’s faced staggering challenges.

Lesson Two: Someday My Cure will come…Right?

When we think of the statistics for breast cancer, and cancering in general, we might feel a bit hopeless.  It is easy in these times in which we have ready access to statistics, to consider them necessary to making decisions, or as needed prerequisites to motivate us to take action. Sometimes however I think that all the number crunching only serves to demoralize us. Numbers from experts make it appear that we can not do anything about our “dread” circumstances. They paint a picture that says we need someone official, or more qualified to take action to fix the situation. Pushing awareness using statistics sometimes functions as a source of fright rather than as a motivator for self care.

Even the American Cancer Society has stopped promoting breast self exams, even though over half of breast cancers are found by women themselves.² This from their site“Research does not show a clear benefit of physical breast exams done by either a health professional or by yourself for breast cancer screening. Due to this lack of evidence, regular clinical breast exam and breast self-exam are not recommended. Still, all women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.” WTF? After years of trying to get gals to check themselves in the shower, they are now announcing that it isn’t going to do any good???   As a woman who found my own breast cancer I can say that discouraging anyone from paying attention to their body seems criminal to me.

The women in 1909 did not wait for the largess of male unions to save them, or the questionable good will of the factory owners to improve their lot. Instead they got really clear on what they needed and then stood together to ask for it. By striking, they refused to participate in the system which endangered them until the system would meet with them at the negotiation table. Similarly, waiting for the War on Cancer, Cancer Moonshot,  Susan G. Komen Foundation or The American Cancer Society to “Find a Cure” may be very long wait. I mean clearly.

As long as we look for the “cure” solely under the microscopes of the profit driven pharmaceutical industry we are left with very few avenues to take action personally. We don’t even ask how we can contribute to our health and wellbeing, when we buy into the story of experts telling us they have it all covered. “Just make sure you come in for a yearly mammogram and everything will be fine.”  Really? Believing that is like the shirtwaist workers waiting for their bosses to improve working conditions out of the goodness of their hearts.

By turning over  all of our power to experts, we are left with little else to do. Especially as most research is aimed at shrinking tumors rather than on prevention. We feel stymied, we think that only the authorities who fund research can make a difference in outcomes. We may be asking ourselves “What can I possibly do to end breast cancer?”

Ann Morgan
Ann Morgan used her wealth and position to better women’s lives.

Lesson Three: You say Awareness, I say Market Leverage…

Don’t get me wrong, there is a role for strictly raising awareness. I am grateful that pretty much everyone knows about breast cancer these days. That it is no longer a hidden disease. This has come about through both grassroots efforts, and the influence of philanthropists. Likewise during the Shirtwaist strike,  Ann Morgan, daughter of banker J.P. Morgan, became aware of the appalling working conditions of the striking workers in December 1909. She helped to organize privileged upperclass women into what was known as the Mink Brigade to bring attention to the worker’s plight.  Through the Mink Brigade’s efforts to raise awareness, the media covered the strike, and within 48 hours the first of the workshops became unionized. Without illumination all kinds of nasty things can flourish.

The difference between the Mink Brigade and the Pink Campaign is that the ladies in mink were not leveraging their efforts as a public relations tool towards their own benefit.  At this point Pink is by in large an advertising campaign to portray corporations as caring entities.  Their “caring” would be more believable if their contributions to breast cancer did not depend on consumer purchases. The Pink campaign has been going for decades, and what may at first have been something with pure motives, has definitely morphed into something quite different.

For sure at this point discretion is needed when making financial contributions, some foundations are contributing much more to their “administrative costs”(i.e. CEO salaries.) than to any research or to benefits to people with cancer. Contributing to the “cure” by buying pink is at times likely to contribute nothing. In fact it may be more analogous to sending money to the shirtwaist factory owners than to the striking workers. (See more on Think before you Pink.)

So while there is a place for awareness, it isn’t the end goal. Addressing suffering is the end goal. I say there are things we can do.  Awareness has been accomplished, if only as a shallow reflective pool. It is time to ask what are the practical steps that we can take to question more deeply the issues surrounding breast cancer rates. How can we best help those with cancer?

Women from the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909- they risked much to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
Women from the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909- they risked much to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

Lesson Four: Looking for The Bigger Picture…

Just as a single garment worker asking for a higher wage, or to have the window near her station cracked open to improve air quality, would have done little to address the overall problem of the other 30,000 garment workers in 1909, assuming that cancer is solely the result of some flaw within each individual body will not resolve the problem. Cancer-ing is a symptom of a planet wildly out of balance. Our awareness needs to shift towards this bigger picture. As long as Cancer is seen as an individual “problem” rather than as a symptom of broader environmental and societal problems we may be asking the wrong questions about how to prevent it.

The Pink Campaign calls for more mammograms and more pharmaceutical research on genes reinforces the “Cancer is a personal problem” perspective.  As long as we are able to imagine that cancer is something that happens to other people, or to believe that cancer happened to us randomly, or solely as a result of something we have done, or thought or been personally exposed to – we miss the enormity of the situation.

Though the microscope approach has created amazing advancements, such as Herceptin and Perjeta, that have helped many people, including myself – they are advancements irrevocably connected to a multi billion dollar industry. I am not saying that looking under the microscope is not worth doing, I am saying that it isn’t the only thing worth doing.

Not to mention by focusing solely on individual genetic risk, almost to the exclusion of other things, we fail to address the very real environmental causes of all cancers. Looking at toxins as the instigator for cancer has been suspiciously under researched. If I was exposed to toxins in my air, water or food, than my neighbors and children were as well. And if I developed cancer, perhaps that means I am the canary in the coal mine, not that I have a personal problem.  Figuring out the mechanisms for how canaries are more reactive to certain toxins, does not address the toxins we are all being exposed to.

Solidarity: Garment workers in Cincinnati sold newspapers to support the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union during its New York City shirtwaist strike of 1909 to 1910.
Solidarity: Garment workers in Cincinnati sold newspapers to support the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union during its New York City shirtwaist strike of 1909 to 1910.

Lesson five: Does Running for a cure help?

When word got out in 1909 about the 20,000 women garment workers on strike in New York, other workers from around the country rallied to support them. Workers in Philadelphia joined the strike, garment workers in Cincinnati sold newspapers, the Mink Brigade paid legal fees. The call to action was heard, and people contributed as they could. It was very much a grass roots response.

I propose that our response to breast cancering as a nation could be inspired by the show of solidarity other workers around the country showed in support of the Shirtwaist Strikers. They supported them however they could.  This same energy of solidarity can be seen in cancering circles in the many races and walks for the cure. For many it can be very emotionally healing to take part in these solidarity events, and these feel good events do have a place in the big picture. But is it the best way to support our loved ones with cancer?

Like the Shirtwaist workers were motivated to take action by their own experience, for those motivated to “do” something about breast cancer, the personal is usually the greatest motivator. By which I mean people are participating in walks and other fund raisers because they themselves, or someone they love has been diagnosed, not because of any statistics.  The corporate powers are leveraging those emotions in order to promote there own agenda. At best this is in tandem with some sincere desire to help. At worst their profit agenda is served better than the cause, and their promotion is purely just a tool for manipulating public opinion.

I do not think we ought to shame or blame those who participate in the walks and relays. Because let’s face it, all of the pink ribbons and cries for early detection and awareness do not offer much of an opportunity for people to take meaningful action to prevent cancer-ing in any other way. What I am saying is that by limiting our efforts to participating in events organized by corporations and large foundations we are being more passive than active.

We are more powerful than we know. For instance, while seeing NFL Players dressed in pink might make me feel cared for, it could not possibly be nearly as beneficial as when my neighbor brought me a hot meal while I was sick from Chemo. That small individual action was much more impactful than all the machinations that created pink accents for football players.

We can cut out the middle man when we reach out to show support directly to each other. I would propose that perhaps individual crowd funding, or local fundraisers are more directly beneficial to folks going through cancer than buying a pink grocery bag at Safeway. Our community feeding us had great positive impact on my entire family.  The local fundraiser that was held for us paid for a year of my integrative Chinese medicine treatments. People rallied around us, and showered us with love and prayers. Knowing that my wellbeing mattered to so many others gave me the motivation to face difficult treatments. No corporate effort could ever compare to that. There are many ways we can offer support or succor to those who are sick that have nothing to do with corporations.

I  benefited from help from on high as well. I qualified for publicly funded health insurance through Obama Care, it significantly limited my debt from western medicine treatments. We received $1,000 from the American Cancer Society in prepaid credit cards to purchase gas for travel to Portland for my treatments. I received Herceptin which was initially funded by Revlon. Again there is a place for large philanthropic efforts, but we must be wary if these powerful forces prescribe, or worse prevent, individual efforts.

Clara Limlech - stood up ss
Clara Limlech – stood up at a Cooper Union Meeting after listening for two hours and spoke of the intolerable conditions of shirtwaist workers and called for a general strike. She was 19.

Lesson Six: The power of showing up.

Nineteen year old garment worker Clara Limlech was the first to stand up at a meeting of the Coopers Union, and called the workers to a vote for a general strike. She had already been arrested, and beaten by thugs hired by the owners of her workplace for trying to organize the workers. She spoke up after listening for over two hours to the male unionists speaking out for restraint, and patience. Clara took individual action that inspired collective action. Because she stood up, the conditions for all workers was improved.

I choose to not use a prosthetic breast in part because I wish to represent the reality of breast cancer. It helps me feel more authentically myself. I was helped in that decision by two other women who shared with me their experience with their mastectomy, and going prosthetic free. It is a small thing, because truly for the most part most people do not even notice my uniboob status.  My choice is not nearly so courageous as Clara Limlech’s speech. But I have in turn been able to help ease the experience of a few other women who are walking one breasted. My example has helped them recognize that they can choose to use or not use their prosthetic. And that is something. I hope someday that no woman will ever feel like she has to wear a prosthetic breast that she hates.

If we understand that what we think and what we do matters to the whole, we have the motivation to make changes big and small.  The cure is not just in the hands of the few, it is in our hands too.  We need to ask ourselves what changes we want to see. We need to dream about how things could be different. We do not need any corporation to define our needs for us. There are infinite ways we can contribute to the wellbeing of each other, and to address the root causes of cancer.

We  can start by taking steps to acknowledge that we are all intimately bound to each other and to the health of our ecosystems.  If we take a minute to appreciate the scope of this, perhaps we can be inspired to find ways to take action where we can.  Anyone can change their thoughts. Anyone can consider where their food comes from.  Anyone can write to their city or county to oppose the use of pesticides on public lands.  It is these sorts of actions that everyone of us can take to address breast cancer in very real ways. Because it is all connected.  Even small shifts in how we think are cumulative- the hundredth monkey effect.  If we each choose to change what we can it will make it easier for others to make changes too. Which will lead to larger and larger changes.

There are organizations which are working to bring light not just to mammograms, but in support of effective alternative treatments, patient advocacy at policy meetings, and broadening the perimeters for research beyond the mutated gene theories of cancer.  By supporting these organizations and efforts we can collectively leverage for change. But this requires us to use our discretion, and investigative powers to make sure that the organizations that we support are actually in alignment with our needs, values and goals.

If we start within, on getting clear about what we need, we set ourselves up to take actions large or small. We might choose to join bigger organizations, or even to start our own organization for collective action.  Without seeking within for clarity, we risk being used as pawns in the profit games of corporations. With clarity we may embody the courage of young Clara Limlech and create a movement which will change the face of cancer as much as the Shirtwaist strike changed the face of labor.

Voting to strike - the strike is dependent upon individuals showing up to take action.
Voting to strike – change is dependent upon individuals showing up to take action.


¹The Life of a Shirtwaist Maker

“The shirtwaist makers, as young as age 15, worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break. During the busy season, the work was nearly non-stop. They were paid about $6 per week. In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines. The factories also were unsanitary, or as a young striker explained, “unsanitary—that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used.” At the Triangle factory, women had to leave the building to use the bathroom, so management began locking the steel exit doors to prevent the “interruption of work” and only the foreman had the key.

The “shirtwaist”—a woman’s blouse—was one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines. The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women. Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion—from work to play—and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceded it, like corsets and hoops.”
From the AFL-CIO website.

More on the History of the Shirtwaist Strike and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

From the Non-violent Database:

From the Labor Arts, an organization that: “Presents powerful images to further understanding of the past and present lives of working people.”

Many photos are from the excellent Cornell University site:

Some pictures were obtained from this site, for the book Triangle, the Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle.

More Labor History Perspectives:

Harvard’s take on the Shirtwaist strike:

An excellent account from a Philadelphia archive:

All things Pink…

More about the history of the pink ribbon on  Think before you Pink. org.

New York Times article on disenchantment with the Pink.

Ms Magazine Article about Barbara Brenner, founder of Breast Cancer Action, early articulator of the term Pinkwashing:

²National institute of Health on self exam’s role in detection:

Activist/ Advocate Avenues

The Annie Appleseed Project is a patient based activist group:

METavivor is an organization geared towards bringing awareness and funding to research for metastatic breast cancer:

Breast Cancer Action has been working to illuminate the link between environmental toxins and cancer for decades:

7 Comments Add yours

  1. YAPCaB says:

    Very powerful and well written!

    1. Iridacea says:

      Thanks! Writing this kind of took over my life for a few days:)

      1. YAPCaB says:

        I believe it. It’s a very thoughtful, well researched post.

  2. daisyeo says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful piece. I couldn’t agree more. I also struggle with the “fuck cancer” or “stand up to cancer” sentiments because it portrays cancer like an “other” outside of ourselves instead of a macro human situation playing out on a micro level. Cancer is mutation. It is cells overdoing what they naturally do. There are personal preventive measures that may or may not help, but as you stated there are much bigger issues that we as a whole have created contributing to the problem. Xo

  3. peaceof8 says:

    This was fantastic writing and deeply thought provoking. I will be coming back to this one . ❤

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