As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day, let us go back into time to the year 1909 when it all started. The Socialist Party of America honoured this day in recognition of the women garment workers protesting against the working conditions.
The Russian origin Theresa was raised in a middle-class Jewish family and migrated to the United States in 1891. Malkiel introduced the idea of a ‘National Women’s Day’ in the US, which was soon enough picked up by the European countries. She made several similar contributions to make the women’s movement more robust and went on to giving the movement a powerful voice for women’s right to vote.
Working in the unregulated garment industry as a cloak-maker, Malkiel organized the Women’s Infant Cloak Makers’ Union. This was one of the first organizations that brought the needs of working women to the fore. Historian Sally M. Miller, in her detailed research on this power-woman, said the 1890s witnessed the rise and development of several self-help groups. Miller said this comprehensive institutionalized network was geared to the needs of the families of the ghetto and those of employable men.
She noted that institutions to meet the needs of single working women hardly existed. Malkiel became of the first women in the USA to draw attention to the plight of immigrant working women. And soon enough, she realized the importance of political mobilization.
Miller wrote, for Malkiel, socialism became the path to independence to a cooperative commonwealth of workers which would liberate men and women and establish equality for all. In 1896, Malkiel was appointed delegate to the initial convention of the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance. Later, she joined the Socialist Party of America.
However, the Socialist Party of America did very little to ensure equality for men and women. Realizing this, Malkiel started a parallel movement of socialist women. She is believed to have said “women are tired of their positions as official cake-bakers and money collectors” as she justified her stance of forming the separate organization. The Socialist Party responded by forming a women’s department and a Women’s National Committee. Malkiel was elected to the committee and went on to become the party’s ‘leading immigrant woman activist’. In 1909, she actively backed the Shirtwaist Strike in New York.
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Among other issues, Malkiel carried the women’s right to vote in her heart. In 1914, she headed the Socialist suffrage campaign in New York and two years later, she became one of the three women sent by the National Executive Committee on a cross-country suffrage campaign. Miller says Malkiel’s commitment was principled and tactical. She was also very much aware about her party’s stand. In 1912, Malkiel put forth her argument that if the party did not support women’s suffrage, it would be ousted in ballots by enfranchised women. Then the First World War happened and her interests shifted to other causes. She promoted education of immigrant women and assisting in their naturalization.
Malkiel passed away in 1949. Her role as a reformer, activist and campaigner had touched many lives and brought about the much needed difference.