The Gentle Warrior: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder.

Collection Number: 6036/027

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library


The Gentle Warrior: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder., 1985- 1985
Collection Number:
Leeder, Elaine
0.333333333333333 linear ft.
Forms of Material:
Articles, reprints, pamphlets, correspondence, photographs.
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 Pesotta.
Collection material in English


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 Employees (UNITE).


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 author.
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.

Pesotta, Rose, -- 1896-

Labor unions -- United States -- Officials and employees -- Biography.
Women anarchists -- United States -- Biography.
Labor movement -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union -- History.

Form and Genre Terms:


Access Restrictions:
Access to the collections in the Kheel Center is restricted. Please contact a reference archivist for access to these materials.
Restrictions on Use:
This collection must be used in keeping with the Kheel Center Information Sheet and Procedures for Document Use.
Cite As:
The Gentle Warrior: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder. #6036/027. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.


Related Collections:
5780: ILGWU records
5928: Pesotta, Rose. Papers. Elaine Leeder, Collector.


Box 1
Box 1 Folder 1 1985