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April 5: Fannia Cohn

Lawrence Bush
April 5, 2010

5780pb4f10iLabor organizer Fannia Mary Cohn was born on this date in 1885 in Russia. She emigrated with her family to New York at age 19 and worked with the American Jewish Women’s Committee on Ellis Island before making up her mind to become a labor organizer and taking a job in a garment factory. From 1913-14 Cohn attended the National Women’s Trade Union League’s training school for women organizers in Chicago, and in 1915 she led the first successful strike of Chicago’s dress and underwear (“white goods”) workers. Three years later, she became executive secretary of the ILGWU’s national education department, which she turned into the largest union education department in the country. Cohn was cofounder of Brookwood Labor College and the Manumit School, and a pioneer in the building of international networks within the labor movement. Ultimately, however, she was sidelined by male opposition to her leadership, to her stress on broad worker education, to her refusal to take sides in the sectarian struggles within labor, and to her emphasis on empowering women as organizers.

“She remains a tragic figure amidst her own fellow workers. . . . Were she a man it would have been entirely different.” —Rose Pesotta, ILGWU vice-president

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.