The Triangle Factory Workers Killed 100 Years Ago Were No 'Innocent' Girls--They Were Tough, Brave Women

Ever hear of the Grover Shoe Factory fire of 1905 when an industrial explosion killed 58 and injured 150 in Brockton, Massachusetts? Or the Port Chicago disaster at a naval ammunition warehouse in California in 1944 that killed 320? How about the Monongah mining disaster that took place in 1907 and, with a death toll of 362, is the worst in US history? Probably not. 

These were all large-scale workplace tragedies that brought to light unsafe work conditions and led to labor reforms. But none of them has managed to capture even a fraction of the public’s attention or imagination given to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 garment workers died 100 years ago today. 

Why Triangle? Part of the interest has to do with the fact that it happened in daylight in the middle of New York City in front of hundreds of witnesses (including Francis Perkins, who would later become President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor) right at the time when the trade union movement was gaining steam. 

These factors certainly played into its quick canonization into American history, but I don’t think they’re it. The reason Triangle continues to fascinate is the girls, the innocent girls.

Nearly all the victims were young women, 129 out of the 146, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, many of whom  leapt from the 9th floor, their long skirts billowing out in an almost angelic fashion as they fell to the ground. 

Yes, it’s the innocent girls, as they are described in nearly every retelling of the day’s events, which make this story so absolute, so simple. The girls were innocent and the factory owners were guilty. Good and bad. White and black.

Now I hardly want to undermine the tragedy or question their victimhood, but I do think that the constant reference to their innocence is actually doing them a disservice.

Characterizing the girls this way implies purity and passivity. Virgins are innocent. Children are innocent. Women in need of the protection of men are innocent.  But the Triangle workers were none of this. 

These young women were well aware of their circumstances – working long hours in cramped quarters for meager pay – and prior to the fire fought hard against them. They participated in the New York Shirtwaist strike of 1909, also known as the Uprising of the 20,000, in which a struggle for better wages and working conditions brought them to the streets for months, where they endured verbal and physical abuse from company goons and the police. Over 700 girls were arrested. The improvements to worker safety laws that happened after Triangle were just as much a result of the work they did while alive, as in their horrible end.

I think maybe when Americans began to look back on Triangle -- when female participation in the workforce was starting to shrink -- these working women were seen as an anomaly; their mere presence in the workplace became part of the tragedy.  

But that wasn’t the case then. The majority of garment workers at the time, 70%, were immigrant women under twenty, many of whom brought experience with labor organizing with them from Europe. In fact, Triangle workers probably had more in common with young women today than ladies fifty years ago. These women were the adventurous ones; they crossed oceans, pursued careers in very demanding industries, and enjoyed spending their disposable income on things like pretty hats and nights out dancing with friends.

The perception of female innocence has certainly benefited women in violent or dangerous situations. This includes everything from the women-first strategy on the Titanic, to the Madres of the Plaza De Mayo, who were able to protest during Argentina’s Dirty War shielded by their status as innocent mothers, and to Femen, the topless protest movement in the Ukraine where a bare-chest provides a degree of political immunity. And even today, when a woman commits an atrocious crime, we search for a way to divert responsibility, reluctant to believe that a she could be innately violent.  But unfortunately this innocence tends to be bundled with a sense of passivity and inaction that, in the case of the Triangle workers, isn’t even historically accurate.

As a young Jewish woman whose grandparents worked in the shmatte business, it means a whole lot to me that the tragic fate of a group of young women is seen as a crucial moment in US history. Though I think it’s time to start remembering them for what they really were: brave and brassy young women, whose real legacy has nothing to do with their innocence.

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