Matilda Rabinowitz

The 'Little Russian Beauty' fought for better working conditions for women. 

Matilda and her brother Herman

Matilda Rabinowitz was born in 1887 in Ukraine. She immigrated to the U.S. at 13 and settled with her family in Stamford, and later Bridgeport. She devoted her entire life to advocating for better working conditions for women and fought on their behalf until her death in 1963. 

As a factory worker at an early age, she immediately recognized that assembly line work was dehumanizing, particularly for women. She dedicated her life to ensuring that working conditions be safe and equitable. 

As a single mother, Matilda remained committed both to her daughter and to progressive politics, working throughout her life as a labor organizer, editor, and social worker. Though she ceased her work as an International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer in 1915, she continued to write for the IWW's paper and remained an activist until her death in 1963.

"I fought for the rights of unskilled working women."

 

 

Matilda Rabinowitz arrested for labor organizing in Detroit

GRIT

Matilda began working in shirtwaist and corset factories and observed working class girls laboring for long hours with low pay. The jobs were dangerous and gave women no opportunities to escape except through marriage. 

After breaking off an engagement at 22, she returned to work at a corset factory, where she became interested in socialism. She took a job with the Connecticut Industrial Commission in Hartford, interviewing factory workers about their conditions. 

Her growing desire for justice led her to organizations that cared about the plight of women. She found this by joining the IWW - the only union at the time to welcome women and immigrant workers on an equal basis. 

Matilda writing at her desk

INNOVATION

Matilda Joined the "Wobblies" (as members of the IWW were known) during the 1912 strike in Lawrence, MA. She was quickly sent to the small textile city of Little Falls, New York, where she became the central strike organizer. For the next three years, she traveled across the country from one strike to another as one of only two women organizers in the IWW. The press often called her "the girl organizer" or "the Russian beauty."

Matilda believed that women should have opportunities beyond the roles of wife and mother. She fought for access to economic independence, political power, and the right to sexual relationships without marriage. For more than ten years, she had a relationship with another activist, Ben Legere, with whom she had a daughter in 1919. 

Matilda in solidarity with workers at the McKeesport Steel Strike

NOT WITHOUT RISK

Choosing to fight for labor rights often came at a cost to Matilda. In November 1913, she organized a strike of 1,000 weavers and millworkers in Shelton, Connecticut. A private detective firm was hired by the factory to kidnap her to end the strike. The plot was thwarted when it was leaked to the press and the strike continued. But it demonstrated how much power the union and Matilda had and it showed how afraid the local authorities were of the young organizer.

Matilda's memoir - with original illustrations by her granddaughter Robbin Legere Henderson - is titled Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century. 

 

I could not stand idly by and watch as these women were taken advantage of.