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by William H. Benson

March 22, 2007

     A fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s factory just off Washington Square in New York City at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911. It was a beautiful spring day, and the employees—mostly Italian and East European Jewish girls, nineteen to twenty—were anxious for the weekend. They had worked six days that week, and normally they sent all the money they earned back to their homes in Europe to pay for others to cross the Atlantic. This was an opportunity, and only America offered it.

     The fire lasted eighteen minutes, but it was long enough for 146 women to die that day while those strolling around downtown New York City watched from below.

     A series of mistakes contributed to the tragedy. For five minutes, the owner of the factory tried to put out the fire, rather than sound the alarm. When he finally did, the workers rushed to the fire escape, but then it collapsed. One of the doors out of the 9th floor had been locked intentionally to prevent theft, and the 250 workers on that floor could not escape quickly enough by the one open door. When the fire engine arrived and cranked up the ladder, the girls watched in horror as it extended only up to the sixth floor.

     Of the 146 girls who would die that day, 54 chose to jump to their deaths.

     This tragedy underscored the suffrage movement. Women were coming off the farms in America and going to work in the cities. Women found the popular shirtwaist or blouse when worn in combination with a skirt liberating, replacing the dress with its hoops, bustles, and corsets.

     Women in the workplace are today an accepted part of American life, but in 1911 it was a recent phenomenon. We sometimes forget the social progress made in this country.

      Sixty-three years before the Triangle factory fire, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had stated her Declaration of Sentiments at the Women’s Convention at Seneca Falls, New York:

     “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. . . . The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. . . .He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. . .  As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known. . . . He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry.”

     More shocking were Stanton’s resolutions in the final section of the Sentiments:

     “Resolved, that woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such. Resolved, that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.”

     The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, granted women the right to vote.   

     Then, on March 22, 1972 the Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment, the 27th, which read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of gender.” Thirty-five states would ratify it, but that was still three short of the required 38, or ¾’s of the 50. Twelve states would not ever ratify it, and so in 1982 it failed ratification. This demonstrated that some Americans wanted an Equal Rights Amendment, but not quite enough to see it ratified.

     The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire brought into sharp focus the divisions between the American people: between immigrants and current residents, between different races, between employers and employees, and between men and women. As long as there are people, there will be differences, and those will contribute to divisions in the workplace.

     Women do belong in the workplace, and they have achieved many of the goals that came out of the Seneca Falls Convention, but women, as well as men, need instant fire alarms, solid fire escapes, and ladders that reach to the 9th floor.