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Hillman, Bessie "Bas Sheva" Abramowitz


HILLMAN, BESSIE "BAS SHEVA" ABRAMOWITZ (1889–1970), labor activist and executive board member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (acwa). The fourth daughter of 10 children born to Sarah (Rabinowitz) and Emanuel Abramowitz, Hillman spent the first 15 years of her life in Linoveh, a small town located near Grodno, Russia. Her family enjoyed modest economic success and employed a private tutor for their children. Learning of her pending arranged marriage, Hillman left home and immigrated to Chicago, where she worked briefly in a garment factory. Dismissed when she protested low wages, Hillman was placed on a hiring blacklist. Using an assumed name, she found new employment at Hart, Shaffner, and Marx, another garment factory. When a wage cut was announced, Hillman led a walkout of 16 female co-workers, the catalyst for a strike which eventually involved over 35,000 garment workers. During this time, she met Sidney *Hillman, a fellow garment worker and strike leader. Recognizing Bessie Hillman's leadership skills, the Women's Trade Union League (wtul) asked her to become an organizer. Over the next five years, she worked closely with Sidney on various labor efforts and supported his candidacy to become the president of an emerging labor union, which became the acwa in 1915. During this period, the couple fell in love and married in 1916. After marriage, Hillman chose to resign her paid position as a wtul organizer but remained an active union volunteer until Sidney's death in 1946. With the creation of the acwa, the Hillmans relocated to New York City, and it was there that their two daughters were born, Philoine in 1917 and Selma in 1921. In additional to her continued involvement in both the wtul and the acwa, Hillman also served as the educational director of the Laundry Workers Joint Board and tirelessly campaigned for worker organization, particularly in industries employing large numbers of women. At the end of World War ii, Hillman learned that most of her immediate family members in Europe, including three sisters, had perished in the Holocaust. Soon after, Sidney suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 59. Hillman remained active, accepting a paid position of secretary/treasurer of the acwa. In later years she also involved herself in many other organizations committed to labor and women's issues such as the Office of Price Administration, and upon President John F. Kennedy's appointment, the President's Commission on the Status of Women. Hillman dedicated herself to union recruitment and organization until her death at the age of 81.


"Bessie Hillman, Long Leader of Clothing Workers, Dies at 81," in: New York Times (Dec. 24, 1970), 24; K.G. Pastello, "A Power Among Them: Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America," dissertation, Binghamton University (2001); S. Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (1991), 98–99.

[Shira Kohn (2nd ed.)]

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