© 2013 Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University
The Gentle Warrior: Rose Pesotta,
Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder., 1985-
0.333333333333333 linear ft.
Forms of Material:
Articles, reprints, pamphlets, correspondence,
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives,
Cornell University Library
The collection consists of Elaine Leeder's Ph.D. dissertation for
Cornell University, 1985, about anarchist, labor organizer, and ILGWU member Rose
Collection material in English
ILGWU ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY
Founded in 1900 by local union delegates representing about 2,000 members in cities in the
northeastern United States, the ILGWU grew in geographical scope, membership size, political
influence to become one of the most powerful forces in American organized labor by
mid-century. Representing workers in the women's garment industry, the ILGWU worked to
improve working and living conditions of its members through collective bargaining
agreements, training programs, health care facilities, cooperative housing, educational
opportunities, and other efforts. In 1995, the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing
and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile
Born Rachelle Peisoty on November 20, 1896, Rose Pesotta was the second oldest of ten
children. Pesotta grew up in the Ukraine where her parents owned and operated a small shop,
and the family lived comfortably in a Jewish orthodox household. Education was important,
and Pesotta was proficient in four languages. From 1909 to 1912, she attended Rosalia
Davidoff's private girls' school. While her father was a member of the Bund and
self-proclaimed political activist, he forbade any revolutionary and radical discussions in
the home out of fear of persecution, yet older sister Esther introduced Pesotta to radical
political ideas. After being betrothed without her knowledge to a neighborhood boy, Pesotta
decided she wanted to immigrate to the United States to join Esther and her husband. At the
age of seventeen and after many struggles with her family, she was finally allowed to leave
and Pesotta and her grandmother arrived in New York.
Pesotta stayed with Esther who was working in the needle trades. She soon joined her sister
as a seamstress making shirtwaists, while teaching herself English. The conditions in the
factories prompted Pesotta to join the Waistmakers Local 25 of the ILGWU in 1914. Pesotta
was active early in the union, picketing, attending the union's education classes, and
taking trips to Unity House. In 1917 with employment scarce in the garment industry, Pesotta
briefly trained to become a nurse. She resumed her work in a garment factory and became
fully invested in the Russian Revolution. In 1920, she became a member of the executive
board of Local 22 and was a dynamic spokesperson in her shop. Pesotta attended the Bryn Mawr
Institute for women workers during the summer of 1922 and subsequently attended other labor
colleges including the Brookwood Labor College and the Wisconsin Summer School, gaining
writing, speaking, and negotiating skills.
In 1920, her father was killed during an anti-Semitic raid in his village and during this
period she also suffered the loss of her fianc, Theodore Kushnarev, when he was deported.
Throughout the difficulties, Pesotta continued with her work for the ILGWU and began her
career of anarchist writing and organizing. While in Boston for a union meeting in 1922,
Pesotta became involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti
were Italian immigrants active in the anarchist movement who were arrested and convicted of
murder during an armed robbery in 1920. Pesotta met both Sacco and Vanzetti while they were
in jail and continued to correspond and visit them until the end. She was sympathetic to
their plight and volunteered at the defense offices and attended court proceedings.
By September 1933, Pesotta was now a paid staff member of the union and was sent to Los
Angeles to organize dressmakers. Her exceptional work on the west coast and the advancements
made through her organizing efforts led to her election of vice president of the ILGWU in
1934. She traveled to cities across the country to help with organizing efforts and strikes,
and Pesotta became involved with the UAW during the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937. In 1942
after some disagreements and opposition with a difficult to organize shop in Los Angeles,
and tensions with the board and David Dubinsky, Pesotta resigned and resumed sewing in a New
York dress shop. At the 25th convention in 1944, Pesotta resigned as vice president on the
executive board of the ILGWU.
It was when Pesotta returned to work as a sewing machine operator that she began to write
her autobiography, "Bread Upon the Waters," published in 1945. Though not endorsed by the
ILGWU, the book was successful and had multiple printings and was translated into different
languages. Her new found fame led to new opportunities, including a job with the
Anti-Defamation League. In 1946, Pesotta participated at a summer school for the Workers
Education Association in Norway at the invitation of the secretary of the Norwegian Labor
Party. During the trip, she also traveled to Sweden and Poland and was deeply affected by
the conditions of post- war Poland. She soon resigned from the ADL and in January 1949,
began a position with the American Trade Union Council for the Histadrut as Midwest regional
director. In between the various jobs or travels, Pesotta always returned to working in the
garment industry. During her time in the factories, she continued to write manuscripts,
including the 1957 self-published "Days of Our Lives" about her childhood in Russia. Pesotta
died on December 4, 1965.
"The Gentle Warrior: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer" is a dissertation
presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of Cornell University by Elaine Leeder in
partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy in June 1985.
Leeder later published the book now titled "The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and
Labor Organizer" in 1993.
The dissertation discusses the conditions in the small Jewish villages, shtetls, of Russia
in the late 19th century and provides background information on Pesotta's childhood, and the
early events and education that began her rebellion and radical thinking that led to her
eventual departure to the United States. Jewish life for new immigrants in New York City is
examined in relation to Pesotta, as well as an overview of the hierarchy of the workers in
the garment industry and the sexual discrimination in the shops where she now found herself
employed. Pesotta continued her quest for education, became active in the shops, and
asserted her interest in radicalism and anarchism. The author provides a detailed discussion
of anarchist ideology and an extensive history of the anarchist movement in the United
States in Chapter Two.
Pesotta became involved with the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case and Chapter
Three details her involvement with the case and the individuals she met on the defense
committee including Albert Martin (born Frank Lopez) whom she would later briefly marry.
Pesotta not only volunteered at the defense offices, but also visited Sacco and Vanzetti in
jail, attended court proceedings, and corresponded often, and the case and outcome had a
profound effect on her. The dissertation examines the shifting focus in labor to organizing
large numbers of women during the Depression, contradictory to continued workplace
discrimination and segregation and the absence of women from leadership roles in unions.
Pesotta continued her union activities, including, striking, picketing, and establishing
educational and recreational programs while making significant advancements in organizing
dress shops on the west coast. Recounted are her achievements and feelings towards her
election to office within the union, working with David Dubinsky, the organizing missions
that required travel from city to city and her work with other unions and industries. Also
detailed are the complications that arose and the opposition with Dubinsky and the executive
board that ultimately led to Pesotta's resignation.
In the chapter devoted to Pesotta's political work, related is her involvement with the
"Road to Freedom" (monthly anarchist journal), the International Anarchist Group that met in
New York City, and her friendship and work with Emma Goldman, who became her mentor and
inspirational leader. Pesotta became engaged in many political causes, anarchist work, and
civic organizations, and her philosophy and ideology regarding anarchism and her beliefs are
outlined. The remainder of the biography discusses Pesotta's family, friends and various
relationships, as well as the trajectory of her later career, her travels, and success as an
Additional material on Rose Pesotta including primary documents and personal collections
includes the Rose Pesotta Papers at the New York Public Library, the John Nicholas Beffel
Collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library, which contains Pesotta's reports, chapters and
manuscript drafts in which she collaborated with Beffel, and the Rose Pesotta Papers,
1919-1961 (5928) at the Kheel Center, Cornell University.