Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. Written by Michelle Markel. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Balzar and Bray, 2013. 32 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 4 to 8. ISBN: 9780061804427.
Clara Lemlich and her family arrived in this country in the early part of the 20th century. She came with a strong sense of right and wrong. Once here, she found that she’d need to go to work making women’s clothing in order to earn money to support her family. However, the conditions in the garment industry factories were poor. Clara knew it was wrong to treat people as the women in the garment industry were being treated. She actively encouraged her friends to strike. It soon became clear, however, that a strike here and strike there wasn’t going to make the garment industry take notice. It also became clear that the men involved in the garment industry weren’t going to call for a massive strike, so Clara called for one. It was the largest strike of female workers in United States history. By the time it was over many of the company owners had agreed to allow female workers to unionize, and had given into union demands for better working conditions.
This is a wonderful story about the power of collective action. It’s also a great story about the power of an individual, in this case Clara, to rally her fellow workers to take collective action. In this way, it’s about the politics of working in this country in the early 20th century. It’s also about taking nonviolent action to do what one thinks is right even if that action isn’t legal. Clara was arrested multiple times, and I think it must have been because the action she was taking wasn’t legal. By 1935 the National Labor Relations Act made it illegal to restrict collective bargaining rights in the private sector, but in 1909 there may have been laws against striking and marching as Clara and the other women were doing.
The illustrations are a beautiful addition to the story. They include elements of sewing in clever ways. There is a striking illustration of a factory floor, showing it crammed full of people and sewing machines.
The back of the book contains more information about garment industry, and also a nice bibliography.
Clara is a great inspiration to all kids who see injustice around them and want to rectify it.
Check out Nonfiction Monday 4/22/2013 at A Mom’s Spare Time.