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Elizabeth Warren and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

When the Democratic presidential candidate told a crowd in Washington Square Park about a ‘very persistent woman’ named Frances Perkins, it was inspiring to see women front-and-center in the narrative

Marjorie Ingall
September 17, 2019
Photo: Andrew Ingall
Photo: Andrew Ingall
Photo: Andrew Ingall
Photo: Andrew Ingall

I hate crowds. But I’d heard that Elizabeth Warren’s speech in Washington Square Park last night would discuss the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and as your resident Triangle Shirtwaist Fire history obsessive, I was morally obligated to go.

Warren had announced her candidacy at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where in 1912 a group of women workers led a strike for better working conditions. Invoking “radical” leadership by women who were condescended to by powerful men—as well as by male activists—is clearly on-brand.

I had a press pass, but ran into my friends Gayle and Libba—along with Gayle’s exuberant, politically savvy young daughters, who were just two of the many children among the 20,000 attendees—and decided to hang with them instead of entering the joyless press pit.

The crowd was warmed up by Maria Martinez, a young Southwest organizer for Warren. She told the story of her parents’ deportation to Mexico by Donald Trump; her father, who’d been in fragile health and was receiving medical care in the U.S., died seven months later. Her mother is barred from entering the United States for the next 10 years. She wept. We wept.

Warren opened her speech, as promised, with the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. “I wanted to give this speech right here,” she said, “not because of the arch behind me or the president this square is named for. We are not here because of arches or famous men.” She paused as the crowd bellowed its approval. “We are here because of some hard-working women, women who over 100 years ago worked long hours in a 10-story building a block that-a-way.”

She told the story Tablet readers know: One Saturday afternoon in 1911, over 100 women—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, some as young as 14—died in a sweatshop, in an era of sweatshops. They were burned alive or leaped to their deaths because the doors to the workroom had been locked to prevent them from stealing scraps of fabric, because the flimsy fire escapes couldn’t hold them, because the fire departments’ ladders and hoses only reached to the building’s sixth floor. “People walking through this park looked up and saw black smoke billowing into the sky,” she said, setting the scene. At the foot of the factory building, on Washington Place and Greene Street, onlookers stood in shocked silence. “A woman jumped,” Warren said, “and then another, and then another. They hit the ground with a sickening thud. They died on impact. So many, so fast. The women’s bodies piled up. Their blood ran into the gutters.”

The crowd was rapt. I’d never heard such a big group of people be so quiet.

Warren tied the women’s deaths to unchecked greed, using the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a jumping-off point to discuss how corporate rapacity, bribery, and political double-dealing have hurt working people. She talked about mass deaths by forest fires and gun violence. She checked off the systemic inequities and laws that disproportionately affect women, poor people, students, people of color. She repeated her tagline: “I have a plan for that.” (Also, “Big Structural Change,” a perhaps less catchy but more positive three-word refrain than “Lock Her Up.”) Not for her the gorgeous, spiraling, Barackian speechifying. She’s plainspoken. But she conveys an absolute, believable, matter-of-fact air of get-it-doneness.

And, in the spirit of those young women marchers and union organizers, she encouraged her audience to think big. “Now, I know what some of you are thinking,” she said. (“No we’re not!” the crowd yelled. “Well, not those of you here,” Warren amended, “But out there!”) “Too much. Too big. Too hard. Over and over throughout our history Americans have been told that big structural change just wasn’t possible: They should just give up. The abolitionists were told it was just too hard. The suffragettes were told it was just too hard. Union organizers were told it is just too hard. Give up now. They did not give up. They organized. They created a grassroots movement. They persisted. And they changed the course of history.”

Her only (mild) knock at a Democratic rival came when she warned against settling for less: “There’s a lot at stake in this election,” she said. “I know people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re afraid to do anything else.” I was reminded of a girlfriend telling another girlfriend not to settle.

Warren concluded by name-checking Frances Perkins, who lived in one of the big townhouses facing the arch, directly behind where Warren stood. She watched the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burn. And she became an activist, then an adviser to FDR when he was governor of New York, then the first woman in a presidential cabinet and the behind-the-scenes architect of the New Deal. She crossed class and age boundaries to build bridges with other women. “So what did one woman—one very persistent woman—backed by millions of people across the country, get done?” Warren asked. “Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big. Structural. Change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.”

As it turned out, Warren didn’t just invoke Perkins rhetorically, but also physically. The podium she stood on was made of wood from Perkins’ homestead, donated by Perkins’ grandson. It was crafted by Peg Woodworking, a small all-female business in Brooklyn whose owner was an early donor (she gave Warren $25). The base was designed to look like a soapbox (perhaps a Clara Lemlich allusion? the Yiddish-speaking labor organizer was only 5 feet tall) and the stand was 46 inches tall … for the 46th president. This level of Hermione-esque nerdery speaks to me.

What also spoke to me: Men made up a big chunk of that Washington Square Park audience. Yes, they were outnumbered by women, but they were there. A handful of men also died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But they weren’t the heroes of this story or the focus of this speech, and it was inspiring to see so many men willing to put women front-and-center in a narrative. You can’t separate this speech—or indeed, Warren herself—from gender, from the fury and frustration of women.

Afterward, Warren stayed for four hours, taking selfies with a long line of patiently waiting audience members who danced in place and sang along to loudspeakers blaring Lizzo and Dolly Parton. Gayle wasn’t going to let her kids—who were salivating for selfies—stay. It was a school night. But then, an announcement: “Everyone, please let families with children go to the front of the line.”

Everyone did.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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