Visible Women

The story of the suffragist who inspired this year’s Women’s March on London

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Moya Crockett
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Born in Poland in 1882, feminist and socialist Rose Schneiderman is credited with coining the phrase ‘Bread and Roses’.

On 21 January 2017, millions of women took to the streets around the world. The inaugural Women’s Marches took place on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, in protest at the fact that a flagrant misogynist – one who is credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women – had been elected to the most powerful office in the land.

Since then, two more Women’s Marches have taken place in London. In January 2018, the rally had a Time’s Up theme – and last July, thousands of people joined a “carnival of resistance” to protest Trump’s visit to the UK.

But the Women’s Marches aren’t just about taking a stand against the US president. Instead, they represent an explicit rejection of the many forms of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that his administration represents – including misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, class prejudice, homophobia and climate change denial.

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The fact the Women’s March on London is about more than Trump will be made abundantly clear at this year’s demonstration. Dubbed the ‘Bread and Roses’ Rally, it will protest austerity in Britain – something the organisers describe as “the common denominator” in the rise of economic oppression, violence against women, the gender pay gap, racism, fascism, institutional sexual harassment, the government’s hostile environment towards immigrants and Brexit.

Rose Schneiderman, pictured in the early 20th century 

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“What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art,” she said.

Schneiderman then appealed directly to middle-class women, many of whom were active in the fight for the vote at the time. It was imperative that wealthier women pushed for their working class sisters to be enfranchised too, she said.

“You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

Protesters at the Women’s March London in January 2018

Schneiderman had first-hand experience of life as a working immigrant woman in the US. She and her family first arrived in New York City from Poland in 1890, when Schneiderman was just eight years old. When her father died two years later, the family was left destitute, and Schneiderman and her siblings were put in a Jewish orphanage while her mother struggled to save enough money to support her children.

After leaving school aged 11, Schneiderman began working in shops and factories on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her interest in radical left-wing politics blossomed in her late teens, and by the time she was 21 she had secured union membership for women in the cap-making factory where she worked. 

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By her mid-20s, Schneiderman had made a name for herself as someone dedicated to securing rights for women – especially working women. She resigned from her job at the factory to work for the New York Women’s Trade Union League, and in 1909 took part in the Uprising of the 20,000, a massive strike predominantly made up of Jewish women working in shirtwaist factories in New York.

The largest strike by female workers in US history, it resulted in improved wages, better working conditions and less gruelling hours. Clearly, when women banded together, real change was possible. 

Rose Schneiderman with a colleague from the New York Department of Labour

A powerful public speaker, Schneiderman was also active in the campaign for women’s suffrage, arguing that it would benefit the labour movement if working class women were allowed to vote. However, she was sceptical that middle class suffragists could be trusted to prioritise the interests of poorer women.

When 146 garment workers – mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant women – died in the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, Schneiderman was furious with wealthy liberals who failed to do anything to help the working classes. Addressing an audience at the Metropolitan Opera House, she raged: “We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting… I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here.” Eighteen months on from the Grenfell Tower fire in London, it’s a sentiment that still feels sharply relevant.

Thanks to her lifelong commitment to creating a better world for working women, and her belief that everyone has the right to joy and pleasure as well as the basic necessities for survival, Schneiderman is the perfect inspiration for the anti-austerity Women’s March on London. Stylist will be marching on 19 January – we hope to see you there.

Images: Getty Images