Can Clara Lemlich's Amazing Story Inspire a New Generation of Activists? That's One Big Reason Why I Wrote 'Audacity'

Reading this at your desk right now, I'm sure it's hard for you to imagine working at a sweatshop. But at the turn of the 20th century, that was reality for Clara Lemlich, who, within two weeks of her arrival in New York City, was working long hours for pitiful pay with the women beside her in shops with overflowing toilets, locked exit doors, broken fire escapes. Foremen harassed them without any repercussions.

She needed the money, but it wasn’t in Clara to keep her head down and her mouth shut. She went on strike even though she was fired. She handed out leaflets and spoke from street corner soapboxes even though she was arrested. She became a voice for the movement even though she was severely beaten. Her passion inspired more than 20,000 women to walk out on strike together. Their voices were heard, and laws were changed.

Some of the greatest moments in history have come when a brave few used nonviolent forms of protest to challenge discrimination. I’m thinking of the Seneca Falls Declaration, the Longest Walk, the march from Selma to Birmingham, the United Farm Workers’ strike, or the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. You may not have heard of all these, but each one is a time when ordinary people with strong convictions banded together for serious change. Although books speak less about them, women have often been at the front of those picket lines and behind the strategies that take a set of ideals and an impassioned crowd and make a lasting movement out of them.

(That's Clara, above!)

Just because an individual engages in nonviolent protest, however, that doesn’t mean she's protected. When a person stands out from the crowd and steps forward to be a voice for a movement, violence often finds her. It’s tragic: Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious and hospitalized on Bloody Sunday of the March from Selma. Alice Paul was sent to the Occoquan workhouse for picketing for votes for women in front of Wilson’s White House; she was force-fed and threatened with commitment to an insane asylum if she didn’t end her hunger strike. Dolores Huerta’s ribs were broken and her spleen shattered by baton-wielding San Francisco police officers.

Then there is Clara Lemlich’s story, which I’ve reimagined in my newest book, Audacity. The novel is inspired by Clara’s young adult years, and the events that shaped her into a lifelong activist. People like her give up so much of themselves to make the world better for the rest of us. Their activism takes a toll on family relationships and friendships. It often gets in the way of their professions, their abilities to earn money, and their chances to collect a pension in retirement. If that isn’t enough — they put their bodies on the line, too.

Not all of us are brave enough to lift the megaphone or to step to the front of the picket line, sure — and that makes people like Clara and Amelia, Dolores and Alice all the more remarkable. But a more just society doesn’t simply happen — we all have to do something to set it into motion. My hope for Audacity is that readers will feel a spark ignited by Clara’s story, and get inspired to work for change in their own communities, wherever they are.

After all, the young people are often the ones to hold up a needed mirror to society. They’re the ones who energize movements, and make us look at the opposition through a more compassionate lens. Young activists are all around us, you just have to look — take Neha Gupta, whose organization Empower Orphans has used basic education and healthcare to meet the needs of over 25,000 children in the USA and other countries worldwide. Or Katie Stagliano, whose organization Katie’s Krops has grown and donated thousands of pounds of produce to help feed people in need. Need more? Try Veronika Scott, whose organization The Empowerment Plan employs homeless single parents to construct coats that double as sleeping bags for other homeless people. Or the legion of DREAMers who have risked their own deportation to bring about immigration and education reform. Or the host of young people right now rallying under the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. There are so many inspiring young people making a real difference right now.

David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Recently in Colorado, my home state, an effort was made by public school board members to alter the AP History curriculum to downplay civil disorder and to promote patriotism. Why? Because high school students should be sheltered from the difficult truths of our country’s past? Because patriotism and criticism can’t occupy space in the same mind?

Students at the schools in question staged walk-outs, petitioned district leadership, spoke with news outlets and lined the streets to make their opposition to the proposal known. They asked again and again that they be presented with the facts and allowed to think for themselves, to draw their own informed conclusions about the history and trajectory of the country they live in. Like so many young people before them, those students were stepping into their roles as activists and making their voices heard. Young people have so much to offer — not least of which is a unique perspective on the injustices they have inherited. I think we owe it to them to offer more portraits of injustice, and of the brave individuals who have worked for change, don't you?

So, that brings me back to Audacity. More than a hundred years ago, Clara Lemlich risked everything so that you and I could have respect and safety in our places of work. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. I wrote Audacity because I was inspired by Clara, and I hoped readers would be, too — inspired enough to speak up about the issues they care about. To find their own voices, and their own ways to change our world for the better.

Images: Getty Images (2); Wikimedia Commons; Philomel