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February 20, 1917

February 21, 2017

 

Who is that woman in the wide-brimmed hat?

 

 

In 2008 and 2009, when we were researching the events of the 1917 food riots on the Lower East Side, photographs were scant.  This was not surprising, considering the time and also the subject material. Yet, since then, new photographs have surfaced online - this photograph included, largely in thanks to the Library of Congress.

 

This photograph - potentially from 100 years to this date - was likely taken at Rutgers Square (now Straus Square), a small triangle of open space across from the Forward Building, located on East Broadway and Rutgers Street. 

 

It was on February 20, 1917 that fifty women gathered at the Forward Building and then moved to the Square for public speeches.  The day had already been marked by unrest, starting with an altercation over food prices between a woman and an onion peddler on Orchard Street and spreading to Rivington Street. Eventually, the crowd here would grow to 1,000 women.

 

(Let's pause for a moment and consider that this is a time before the power and immediacy of social media, before texting, before telephones. This rallying happened in part through word-of-mouth - women knocking on doors or shouting up to windows, "ordinary housewives" encouraging each other to meet up to demand a solution. I find that so inspiring!)

 

Eventually, someone suggests that they march to City Hall. Quite possibly that person may have been Marie Ganz, a Jewish woman known for her participation in the anarchist community.  Above all, she was a fierce defender of the rights of the people. Having grown up as an immigrant in the Lower East Side, she was well aware of how much these women had to do with so little. She was outraged that speculators were taking advantage of vulnerable families in order to make a profit.  

 

Was Marie that woman in the hat, whom the other women are watching so intently? It could have been her or perhaps it was Mrs. Ida Harris - together they led between 300 and 400 women to the steps of City Hall.  When they arrived they began to shout in Yiddish and English, "We want food! Give us bread!" hoping to capture the Mayor's attention. (He was not there). There is confusion (thanks to the Yiddish) and frenzy (thanks to the police) and soon, Marie is arrested for disorderly conduct - by some reports its for inciting the crowd with shouts of "Stay here until you're heard!"

 

The crowd is eventually dispersed. Mrs. Harris then holds a mass meeting at P.S. 62 across from Seward Park. The Socialist Party calls for a meeting at the Forward's Hall and the room is packed by 2,000 -5,000 people or more, mostly women. It is at that meeting that Jacob Panken, a lawyer, is allowed to speak.  He asks that violence not be used (the previous two days had seen pushcarts toppled, followed by rioting), that precious food not be wasted and that there be a mass demonstration of half a million women and children the following Saturday.

 

The Mother's Anti-High Price League (MAHPL) is formed that night.

 

In the course of a day, in the face of hunger and starvation, a community has come together to fight for better living conditions. They are harnessing the power of the collective voice. Women of various backgrounds and ethnicities are fighting not only for themselves, but for the public good.

 

Sources:

 

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