Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) played a leading role in labor organizing and in the improvement of working conditions for women.
Rose Schneiderman was born in a Polish village on April 6, 1882. Her Orthodox Jewish parents both worked to support the family, her father as a tailor, her mother as a seamstress. In 1890 the family immigrated to the United States, settling in the lower East Side of New York City. When her father died two years later, her mother tried to make ends meet by taking in boarders and sewing, but she was forced to place her children in orphanages for more than a year.
At the age of 13 Schneiderman left school, where she had completed the ninth grade, to work as cash girl in a department store. Three years later she moved to a higher paying job manufacturing caps, even though her mother protested that factory work was not "genteel." Schneiderman was introduced to socialism and trade unionism during a visit to Montreal in 1902. When she returned to New York the next year she organized a women's local in her shop for the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers' Union. She quickly demonstrated her leadership abilities, and in 1904 she was elected to the general executive board of the national union, which sent her to organize women cap makers in New York and New Jersey.
In 1905 Schneiderman joined the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), a recently formed coalition of workers and middle-and upper-class reformers whose purpose was to organize women into unions and to promote legislation protecting women in the workplace. She soon became vice-president of the New York league and its paid organizer of Jewish women employed in East Side garment factories. Her impressive contributions to the organizing campaigns and strikes in the women's garment industry from 1909 to 1914 led to her election as an officer in two New York locals and to her employment as national organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in 1915 and 1916. Frustrated by the male union leaders' refusal to entrust her with full responsibility, she resigned in 1917.
In 1908 Schneiderman had joined the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, organized by Harriet Stanton Blatch to mobilize employed women in the woman suffrage campaign. As Schneiderman grew disillusioned with the male-dominated labor movement and with the difficulties of organizing women workers she increasingly saw the ballot as the essential pre-condition to obtaining protective legislation and to unionizing women workers. In 1913 the National American Woman Suffrage Association hired her to organize and speak for the Ohio referendum, and she worked in the New York campaigns in 1915 and 1917.
Schneiderman had begun her political life as a member of the Socialist Party. In 1919 she helped found the Labor Party in New York, and she ran on its ticket for the United States Senate in 1920. But shortly thereafter she became an active Democrat, in part through her growing association with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt had joined the WTUL in the early 1920s, and Schneiderman was among the individuals who instructed both Roosevelts about industrial work and labor unions. Their friendship grew, and Schneiderman was a frequent visitor at the Roosevelt homes in New York City and Hyde Park.
Schneiderman had become president of the New York WTUL in 1917 and in 1926 was elected to the national presidency. Throughout the 1920s the league focused its energies on the passage of protective labor legislation, an orientation in conflict with the National Woman's Party (NWP) and other feminists promoting an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Because such an amendment would invalidate protective labor laws which applied only to women, Schneiderman and the WTUL vigorously opposed the amendment. At the same time, they found their efforts to pass minimum wage laws for women obstructed by the NWP. In the 1930s, however, Schneiderman enjoyed the fruits of her campaign when New York passed minimum wage and maximum hours laws.
Appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 as the only woman on the labor advisory board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Schneiderman endeavored to see that workers were treated fairly in the codes written to standardize practices within industries. She described her work in the New Deal as "exhilarating and inspiring," yet she was not able to eliminate the provisions in some of the codes which established lower wages for women doing essentially the same work as men.
When the NRA was declared unconstitutional in 1935, Schneiderman returned to New York and was appointed secretary of that state's Department of Labor. Finding little to challenge her in this administrative job, she resigned in 1943. She remained president of the WTUL until it disbanded in 1950, and she continued to be active in the New York league. Its demise in 1955 marked the end of her public career. During retirement she wrote her autobiography, and she died in 1972 at the age of 90.
The most complete story of Schneiderman's life is her autobiography, All for One (1967). Her career as labor activist is discussed in Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement; from the First Trade Unions to the Present (1982), and in Nancy Schrom Dye, As Equals and as Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women's Trade Union League of New York (1980). □