Newman, Pauline

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


NEWMAN, PAULINE (1889–1986), U.S. labor activist and advocate for workers rights. Newman was the first woman organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ilgwu). She worked for that organization most of her adult life, also serving the union as a journalist, educator, and government liaison. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, to a traditional Jewish family, Newman was literate in Hebrew and learned Talmud from her father. Her discomfort at a young age with gender segregation in worship was a source of her commitment to fighting sex discrimination in her adult life. Newman emigrated to the United States in 1901 with her mother and two sisters after her father's sudden death, joining her brother, who had already settled in New York City. Newman, who began to work in a hairbrush factory at age nine, taught herself English. By age 16 she was writing commentaries for the Jewish Daily Forward about bad conditions for factory workers. In 1907 she organized a rent strike in lower Manhattan; although unsuccessful in its immediate goals, the strike galvanized the tenant movement.

Newman's activism gained the attention of labor leaders. From 1909 to 1913 she traveled around the United States organizing garment worker strikes in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston. She spoke out for women's suffrage and supported electoral efforts of the Socialist Party. From 1913 to 1917 Newman served the New York State Board of Sanitary Control as a factory inspector and lobbyist for safety legislation for women workers. In 1917 she became an organizer for the Women's Trade Union League (wtul), an organization that brought together upper-class and working-class women in support of the workers' movement, creating a chapter in Philadelphia. It was there that Newman met Frieda Miller, a research assistant in the Economics Department at Bryn Mawr College. Miller and Newman began a relationship that lasted until Miller's death in 1974. The women shared an apartment in Greenwich Village beginning in 1923 and raised a daughter together. Although lesbian relationships were not generally public at that time, Newman's relationship with Miller was known and accepted by her Jewish socialist union organizer colleagues.

From 1923 to 1983, Newman served as the educational director for the ilgwu's Health Center. She was relied upon as an expert consultant by the New York State Legislature, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the United Nations, and was part of the circle of women who advised Eleanor Roosevelt on worker rights. After World War ii, Newman and Miller were sent by the Departments of State and Labor to investigate factory conditions in Germany. When the women's movement was revitalized in the 1970s, Newman was recognized by feminist historians as an important figure in the struggle for women's rights in the earlier part of the century. She died in 1986 at the home of her daughter, Elisabeth Burger Owen. Her papers are in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


A. Kessler-Harris. "Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union," in: Labor History (Winter 1976), 5–23; A. Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics, 19001965 (1995); R. Alpert, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (1997).

[Rebecca Alpert (2nd ed.)]

More From