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August 10: The Amalgamated’s First Woman Organizer

August 9, 2015

74Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca, who in 1917 became the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America’s (ACWA) first full-time woman organizer, was born in Latvia on this date in 1894. She came to the U.S. at 6 and became a garment worker at 13. Bellanca was the organizer of her fellow women button-makers into Local 170 of the United Garment Workers of America, which she later led into the more progressive ACWA. “Bellanca promoted class solidarity, but took particular interest in organizing women,” writes Susan L. Tananbaum at the Jewish Women’s Archive. “She worked to convince men that unionizing women, a majority of the industry, benefited all workers.... She was one of five women (of 175 delegates) who attended the founding convention of the ACWA, where she promoted the need for a woman organizer.” In 1915, “at age 21, became the only woman vice president of a major trade union.” In the 1930s, Bellanca helped to found the American Labor Party, ran for Congress from Brooklyn, and organized labor and political support for federal housing, national health care, progressive labor laws, and civil rights legislation. She died at only 52 in 1946.

“By the 1920s, probably 40 percent of all unionized women in the country were garment workers — most of them Jews in the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The garment industry remained the only place where Jewish women were organized in large numbers. Yet the male leadership persistently discouraged women’s efforts to expand their voices within unions. Women were recruited, sometimes reluctantly, as dues-paying members, tolerated as shop-level leaders, and occasionally advanced to become business agents and local officers. Only rarely did women of exceptional promise, like Fannia Cohn, Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca, and Rose Pesotta, reach the status of international officers. Where they could have fostered harmony, cooperation, and a sense of belonging, the garment unions instead mistrusted their female members, creating friction, resentment, and defensiveness among them, reducing their value, and undermining their ability to do good work.” —Alice Kessler-Harris