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Bread and Roses: Women Workers and the Struggle for Dignity and Respect


  • Robert J. S. Ross


When workers walked out of the Lawrence, Massachusetts mills on January 12, 1912, calling “short pay, all out,” their strike was later called the Bread and Roses strike. Though Congressional Committee investigated food budgets of the strikers and found that the 32 cents the owners had docked their pay (because of legislation reducing hours) was about two weeks of bread, the memory of the strike has been more iconic: “The strikers wanted not only decent pay, but a chance to enjoy the good things of life. They carried signs saying, ‘We want bread and roses too!' ” Thus, states one of the 252,000 entries that Google reports using the phrase “bread and roses strike.” Many sources repeat the inspiring observation. The workers, the legend goes, usually identifying the women, asserted their aspiration for what the poet James Oppenheim called “art and love and beauty” that their “drudging spirits” lacked. Some versions refer to the slogan on picket signs and some to banners. That this is probably legend and not something that actually happened tells us much about the importance of dignity and respect in working class struggles—and the role of women workers in them.