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Shavelson, Clara Lemlich


SHAVELSON, CLARA LEMLICH (1886–1982), U.S. labor organizer, suffragist, communist, and consumer activist. Born to religiously observant parents in Gorodok, Ukraine, Lemlich was already a committed revolutionary when her family came to the United States in 1903. At 17, she supported her family by working in a Lower East Side shirtwaist (blouse) manufacturing shop.

In 1905, Lemlich began organizing waistmakers into the nascent *International Ladies Garment Workers Union and was a co-founder of ilgwu Local 25. At a time when most of the union consisted of skilled male workers, Lemlich's recruits were largely young immigrant women. She emerged as a leader of a strike at the Leiserson shop in the fall of 1909. Company guards and policemen singled Lemlich out on the picket line, breaking six of her ribs and arresting her 17 times. In November, 1909, Lemlich interrupted a mass meeting called by the ilgwu. Wresting the podium from a roster of speakers that did not include any working women, she called for a general strike. Her oration in Yiddish ignited what became known as the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand." In subsequent weeks, 30 to 40 thousand garment workers, mostly young Jewish women, walked out of their workplaces.

Following the strike settlement, garment shops in New York would not hire Lemlich. After working part time as a union organizer, she accepted a full time job as a suffrage advocate. Her relationship with the middle-class women who hired her quickly soured, and she was fired within the year. Soon after, Lemlich married Joe Shavelson and moved to Brooklyn. Now a housewife with children, she began mobilizing other women in her own position, insisting that housewives, as the prime consumers for working class families, were as important to the class struggle as wage-earners.

Under the rubric of the Communist Party, which she joined in 1926, Shavelson co-founded the United Council of Working Women. Initially supporting striking workers with food and childcare, the group expanded its scope by leading food boycotts, rent strikes, and demonstrations. In 1935, the group changed its name to the Progressive Women's Councils and continued its consumer protests with other New York women's organizations. Their alliance started the successful meat boycott of 1935 which spread from New York to major urban areas across the nation and reduced the price of meat in hundreds of American cities.

Shavelson remained politically active until the end of her life. Through the 1950s, despite fbi monitoring, she protested the nuclear arms race and the Rosenberg executions. She continued her political work through the 1960s and 1970s, where, at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, she helped the orderlies organize a union.


A. Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 19001965 (1995); idem, "Shavelson, Clara Lemlich," P.E. Hyman and D.D. Moore (ed.), in: Jewish Women in America (1998), 2:1238–41; M. Tax, The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 18801917 (1980).

[Rachel Kranson (2nd ed.)]

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