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Background Essay on Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl

This essay explains the significance of young female immigrants in the labor upheavals that helped define the Progressive Era.

By 1900 America’s industrial growth had transformed the U.S. into a world power. The nation’s wealth and population were growing rapidly. Yet poverty, corruption and economic instability were widespread. Responding to these problems, Americans created a new and more active form of government that would shape American life for the next 100 years.

The importance of reform efforts from the 1890s through the 1910s has led historians to call this period “the Progressive Era.” History texts often focus on Presidents and exceptional individuals who sought to “clean up” the cities and modernize government. Immigrants are usually shown only as passive recipients of – or even obstacles to – reform and change, but recent research suggests that immigrants also played active roles in reform campaigns. Collective action between immigrants and middle-class activists created new solutions to social problems, and thereby changed the way in which the government related to society.

Framed by the 1909 New York shirtwaist strike, the documentary Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl presents a panoramic portrait of immigrant working women in the turn-of-the-century city. A series of vignettes explores the experiences of young Jewish and Italian working women, and addresses issues of immigration, intergenerational conflict, courtship, ethnic tension, racial discrimination, industrial conflict, and the creation of a new consumer and entertainment culture.

Ida and Angelica, the film’s fictional co-stars, are representative of the millions of immigrants who flooded U.S. cities in the early 20th century. In New York, where the garment industry dominated the local economy, 70% of the workforce was female, and about half of those women were under the age of 20. Jewish and Italian women comprised 90% of the workers.

In 1909, immigrant shirtwaist workers like Ida and Angelica led a major strike – the “Uprising of the 20,000” – that revealed to the public the low pay, harsh supervision, and unsafe conditions that plagued garment workers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the largest employers of garment workers in New York City. In 1911, a fire at the Company claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly young women, and brought renewed attention to unsafe industrial working conditions. Thus, through strikes and tragedy in the early 1900s, women laid the groundwork for further reform movements that would continue to change the workplace, and a woman’s place in it, during the course of the 20th century.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2381.

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