by Esther Cohen
Lemlich Award photos by Emily Holzknecht
Every year, for one reason or another, I find myself at far too many events to count, to remember, or even to record. Many of these events are worthy. Most are not memorable. An exception, these last four years, is one of my favorite nights: The Clara Lemlich Awards, a ceremony to honor lifetime activist women who are strong, courageous, and still fighting.
The awards are named for Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish immigrant, heroine of the garment workers, Yiddish-speaking firebrand, deliverer of a famous speech at Cooper Union that began with the words, in Yiddish, I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. (The Jewish Currents Pushcart has a wonderful, prize-winning children’s book about her.) Clara was a leader of the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, the massive strike of shirtwaist workers in New York’s garment industry. Later blacklisted from the industry for her labor union activism, she became a member of the Communist Party USA and helped lead consumer boycotts, including an important meat boycott in 1935. In her last years as a nursing home resident, she helped to organize the staff. (You can read an interview with her in the year of her death at the Jewish Currents Sid Resnick Archive; scroll down to the letter “L”).
In honor of Clara’s life, vision, courage, strength, and fearlessness, a ceremony honoring lifelong women activists — incomparable women who don’t give up, who fight for what they believe and don’t stop fighting because they are 70 or 80 or 90 or even 100 — takes place every year (this is our fourth) around the time of the commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Activists and activist organizations suggest nominees to Labor Arts, an online gallery created to house and curate the visual artifacts of labor. Together with the Remember the Triangle Committee, the Puffin Activist Gallery at the Museum of the City of New York, and the Rubin Foundation, women are honored for their work. Several honorees have been nominated by Jewish Currents (for a complete list of honorees, and photos and videos about the women, click here).
At this year’s celebration, at the Museum of the City of New York in the beautiful foyer beneath a sculpture of light, six women spoke about their path. All of them were inspiring in their strength of character and their very deep convictions. The women included Agnes Wong, a modern-day Clara Lemlich who arrived from China in the 1970s, worked in the garment industry in New York, and took part as a leader in some of the union movement’s most significant battles; Joan Levine and Sarah Martin, two neighbors from, respectively, Morningside Gardens, a middle-class housing complex, and Grant Housing, a public housing project, who formed an alliance in the 1990s to bridge the differences between the buildings and begin recycling in earnest; Barbara Bailey, one of the founders of the New York City Labor Chorus, who brought the chorus to sing there in the Museum; Marilyn Frankenstein, a mathematician and social activist who spoke in an unexpected way about morality and numbers; and Judy Lerner, long-time Jewish Currents reader, who gave one of the most rousing Lemlich speeches ever, which you can read below.
To nominate a heroine for next year, write to me via email.
REMARKS BY JUDY LERNER
It warms my heart to be here tonight with five other extraordinary women being honored for our role as social activists. And what a week it has been for older women:
Gloria Steinem was plastered on the New York Times with a bold-type headline telling us that “This Is What 80 Looks Like.” Another article was headlined, “Why Older Often Means Wiser.” But we know that!
My bio in the program gives you all the significant information about me: married, three children, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren; teacher and for twelve years a union president of teachers for the Hastings-on-Hudson School District. So began my journey. Through it all, I found time to lobby, petition, march to Washington, D.C., and knock on neighbors’ doors.
How does that happen? Because I care! I want to say emphatically that I care. I want to leave this world knowing that I made a difference in my life, in the lives of my children, and in yours! All of us who have come together here today want to make sure that our legacy of peace and security, of women’s rights and equality, will forever endure. I have wanted to use my energy and my brains to be sure our kids have a world to grow up in free of nuclear weapons and committed to peace and justice for all.
Funny things happen on the way to peace. I lived for many years in a lovely tree-lined street in Westchester County. In early days of nuclear testing in the atmosphere, several neighbors bought into the idiocy of turning garages and basements into fallout shelters, while schools were hiding kids under desks. Incredible.
I got a sign from the Fellowship of Reconciliation that said, in large type, “This house has no shelter. Peace is our only shelter.” I stuck it on a tree at my driveway, which also happened to be where the schoolbus picked up my kids and all the neighbors.
My three young children begged me to remove the sign. They were endlessly teased. NEVER, I said. My sign stayed up until snow and rain did it in. My grown kids still talk about that sign.
My journey took me to Cuba in 1961, the tenth anniversary of the revolution, with thirteen other peace women urging negotiations, not war, with Cuba. Then to Vietnam in 1971, with an American soldier who had returned from the war. Like Jane Fonda who had come just before us, with bombs falling, we urged the USA to put an end to the killing.
My journey took me ten years ago to Afghanistan, to a women’s conference in Kabul. The women came from the rural areas as well as from Kabul. Once they came into the dark, damp, old unused movie house, they tossed off their burkas and scarves, eight hundred strong, and they came to talk and listen. They came to talk about their concerns. They did not want their daughters going through what they had endured. And today, a front-page article in the New York Times showed Afghan women support a woman for vice-president in the current election. Afghan women supporting a woman for vice president? WOW! Hooray for the Afghan women.
Then to Israel and Palestine, with eight other people trained in Compassionate Listening. ME, listen?? Well, I had to. It made me sad to see the barbed wire and the Wall separating the two peoples, and separating Palestinians from their olive groves and farms. I felt betrayed as a Jew. We met with Rabbis for Social Justice, with refuseniks, young kids from the army who refuse to fight the Palestinians, and I stood in a square in Tel Aviv with Women in Black. (It is easier to protest the occupation in Tel Aviv than in New York City.)
Now, at the United Nations, I serve as chair of the International Committee for Peace Action, an NGO (civil society) in UN-speak. We hold meetings, attend briefings with like-minded activists at the UN, and seek to put an end to war and nuclear weapons. Peace Action at the UN chaired the meeting in Mexico several years ago on peace and disarmament that was attended by 1,300 NGOs from all over the world. I was selected as the oldest and paired with the youngest, from Mexico, and asked to write a tweet on why we want peace and disarmament. I wrote one, while the UN Secretary General wrote 100; I wrote only one because: Who knows what a tweet is!!
As Gloria Steinem said, growing to 80 was stupendous, but now it is time to get seriously serious. I am 92 years old — will I make it to 100? — with your help, I might just make it, and with our help, so might our world.