Add Melanie Crowder's 'Audacity,' Based on a True Story, to Your Jam-Packed Feminist Bookshelf
Even ardent feminists may not know the story of Clara Lemlich, but once you're done with Melanie Crowder's Audacity (Philomel), not only will you get a unique perspective of her life, but you'll also be hungry for all the information you can possibly Google. I say "unique perspective" because Audacity isn't your standard biography, nor is it really even nonfiction. It's a novel, told entirely in verse poetry, based not only Lemlich's life, but also on what Crowder imagines is going on in her brain, her thoughts and her feelings.
So why should we feminists be paying attention to Lemlich? Because she got us the rights many of us hard-working women enjoy today. Ever heard of the Uprising of 20,000, the massive labor strike of shirtwaist workers in New York City in 1909 that was essentially a monumental turning point for basic rights of the workers? That was in a large part because of the strike's leader, Lemlich.
Thorough the poetry in Audacity, Crowder tells the story of Lemlich's life up until this milestone strike. Lemlich was born in a Yiddish-speaking village in Ukraine to Jewish parents in 1886. From the start, it seemed, she was consumed with earning the same rights that the men in her life had, even if she didn't know anything about the cause of feminism or civil rights. Her brothers and her father spent the days studying the Torah while she and her mother were tasked with housework and chores, performing most of the manual labor. But she took her education seriously, sneaking around to learn Russian, which was forbidden of women.
It has taken yearsof stolen momentswhispered conversations borrowed booksstashed like contraband ―years of lies but I am nearly fluent in Russian.When life offers me somethingbeyondthis I am ready.
Crowder firmly adds, in Lemlich's voice:
I may be unschooledbut I will notbe ignorant.
Following an anti-Jewish riot (a pogrom) in her village, Clara and the rest of the Lemlich family immigrated to the United States in New York City, where the living conditions were ghastly and Clara and her mother were immediately sent out to work while the boys could study at school and at home. Clara soon learned that she was up against similar obstacles here as in her old country. She was allowed, technically, to go to school, yes, but she had to work 7 days a week for 10 hours each to bring home money to support the family ― barely. She took English classes anyway, and came home every night, exhausted.
In fact, even finding a shop to take her in as a seamstress proves to be difficult, as she's fired time and again.
The shops prefer to hire girls who will worklonger days for less pay.Have we not been told all our livesthat a good girlis obedientbiddablemeek?
The conditions in these "jobs" (i.e. sweatshops) are just as we have learned from our history textbooks: deplorable. There are only two bathroom breaks permitted per day. There is no talking. Foremen, as a standard, change the clocks to trick the women into working longer, because they aren't allowed watches. But for women, as Lemlich finds out, the situation goes even further.
The foremanpinches ustouches us.Today he grabbed Nadia's backside when bothher hands were full carrying her finished waiststo the presser's table.He laughedat her protests,at her red face.
Then, the word "union" creeps into Lemlich's consciousness, and Crowder picks up the pace of her verse to portray Lemlich's quickening thoughts and full-throttle mission into the future. She organizes a union, despite the backlash, the male worker's disinterest, and finally, the routine beatings she receives at the hands of the police for picketing in front of these sweatshops. And Crowder doesn't shy away from describing the battered, bruised, but fully determined Lemlich.
If I have one wish for the new year, it is onlythat I will study harder,that I will be strongerthat the fight will never leave me, no matterhow hard it gets.
Because the history books (well, the good ones) tell us about Lemlich, her powerful speech in the Great Hall at Cooper Union where she incited the strike, and the Uprising of 20,000, we know that never does lose that fight, and Audacity pushes to that powerful closing scene that will have you jumping up out of your seat to fist pump the air.
But as we women know, this isn't all about history. Crowder imbues her poetry with a sense of the today, the current as well. While we don't (hopefully) work in sweatshops, and while we (hopefully) are allowed an education, we should all feel these feelings on behalf of women everywhere. This is particularly apparent in how Crowder describes what the men think of the fighting, strong, ambitious women.
[If a woman is disobedient she must be aprostitute.If a woman wants an education she must be aprostitute.If a woman walks out on strike of course,she must be a prostitute.]
And we've all probably thought this in our lifetime ― ring any bells, twenty- and thirty-somethings?
If I ever find the time to fall in loveI will surely choose a man who wants athinking wife.
And there's something every marginalized or beaten down group feels in there, too:
I have only been in this country two years butquickly, I learnedyou have to fight for what you want you have totake what you need.
Crowder's fictional-but-nonfictional tale of Clara Lemlich is one of the most unique young adult novels I have read in a long while, and it's both inspirational and aspirational for the writer behind the book and the protagonist in its pages. If you consider yourself a feminist or even a loving student of history, this is one that should be on your bookshelves.
Images: Melanie Crowder/Facebook; Wikimedia Commons