Rosa Pesotta

She arrived at the United States of America in 1913, seventeen years old. She got a job, as so many other Ukrainian-Jewish girls, at a shirtwaist factory in New York City. She became one of the most effective labor organizers ever, spending her life working for working people, especially women.

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She was also a woman of style — photographs of her have that whiff of stylish, gentlewomanly persistence. She had already learned a lot about anarchist philosophy before she came to the U.S., and she left her parents in the Ukraine partly (according to her memoirs) because they had arranged a marriage for her. These tripled strains of activism braid her life together: labor, anarchist beliefs in the wisdom and power of people, and feminism.

pesotta obit nytimes dec 9 1965

Her obituary from the New York Times (December 9, 1965) tells her life story from the point of the view of the union she devoted her work to: ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — David Dubinsky, the man listed as President, was also a Russian Jewish emigre, from Belarus. His labor activist career began in his horror in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (read my blog entry Game, Blouses (part 3) for more about this).

Pesotta joined ILGWU almost as soon as she was employed in a shirtwaist factory, and by 1920, at age 24, was elected to the labor union’s board of her local chapter and in the 1930s, she went to Los Angeles to organize Hispanic workers for ILGWU. In 1934, partly because she was super-successful at this work, she was elected Vice President of the entire union. In ’44, she quit the executive board, because while the membership was 85% female, she remained the only board member.

After that, she bounced around, working as a seamstress, working for Jewish liberation groups, marrying in 1955 to a man she didn’t get along with, and dying in Florida.

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To her style choices: We’re going to assume that, as a skilled and lifelong seamstress, Pesotta made her own clothes. And her clothing styles are very consistent over time. She loved waisted dresses (what are known today as shirtwaist dresses), with a button or flat-fronted “blouse” top attached to a loose, lightly gathered or gored skirt, and with a narrow to wide belt. She also adhered to a neckline accent. This image above, from the cover of Elaine Leeder’s thorough account of Rose’s life, is an earlier image from the mid-to-late 1930s of Rose in a collared blouse with a scarf tied into a bow shape.

This was a woman expecting to be looked at. So here she is, dressed to the nines in a crushed velvet dress with gathered shoulders and puffed and gathered sleeves, narrow self-fabric belt at the waistline, and an ornate necklace craftily echoing the shape and color of her face. And in a very different setting what looks like the same necklace, now pulled down by its own weight. And yes, I know she’s being hauled off by the policeman, but look at that diva outfit of hers! First, the necklace glittering against the matte sheen of her crepe dress. Then, the plackets of her peplum (the material below her waist) and the upward v-shape — echoed in the upward v-shape of her stylish shoes. And that white purse clutched under one arm — and even the white hanky clutched in the other hand — perfect accents in a black-and-white news photo.

She was very consistent in her awareness of the press photograph, almost always appearing in an outfit with accents framing her face. Black contrasting collar in a oh-so-carefully exaggerated size and shape, placed against a light-toned floral dress? Great, and let’s add matching black cuffs and a big ole’ bow at the waist. Or, a few years later, let’s wear a black dress with white collar — but not a regular collar. Nope. Let’s do an elongated collar with a bit of horizontal lines under the jaw, and let’s make it a deep, elaborate lace. And let’s top that with a hilarious hat. Those accent pieces under her chin do something counter-intuitive: by drawing attention to the area just below her jaw, she manages to make her very strong jawline into an accent mark itself — taking what many guidebooks would have labeled her “flaw” and making it the point, the memorable aspect of her presence.

Here’s that second dress through the day she wore it, with a slightly different angle on the hat. Again, this is a woman knowing camera will be there, and who is using the craft of style to make her self known and her ideas clear. These are surprisingly simple clothing, tweaked up with stylish touches. There’s nothing especially fancy about her outfits — her shoes, for example, are sensible and eminently practical. But her use of accents and lines is masterful.

Here she is in lineups of men as a member of IGLWU — the sole female. In the image to the left her strategy of visually representing herself is clear: that v-shape of white looks a wee bit like the men’s slash of white shirt under their faces, but it is also distinguished by its broader lines reaching out towards her shoulders. In the second photo, you can see they ways using that white space below her face mimics the men’s suited looks without imitation.

Does this remind you of… of course, you are right. We’ve seen this visual strategy adopted by women who enter an arena dominated by men. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is perhaps the best known strategist.

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I think Rose Pesotta was so disciplined that if a photographer came up she made sure to have a field of white under her face — this seemingly unposed image of Pesotta with bread for Flint, Michigan autoworker strikers, uses the same preplanned visual grammar as her posed photograph to the left. Even in a Bohemian studio, there she is with a bit of scarf tied just so at her neck.

And she does in fact appear to have thought through the message she was sending in the style of her clothing. In this image from the 1940s, we see her behind Eleanor. Echoing the military uniforms of the women to the right, and the emphatic patriotism of that very large flag, there stands Rose, a Ukrainian-Jewish (albeit secular Jew) woman, an immigrant, a seamstress and labor leader, a woman naturalized in 1922, and possibly, as Leeder argues in her biography of Pesotta, the anarchist who rose to the highest levels of power in the union movement — and Rose wears a military-inspired jacket, with lovely braided trim. In many ways, Rose’s outfit strikes a middle note between the military uniforms to the right and Eleanor’s embroidered crepe jacket and fanciful hat. speeches-women-5874510-o

And my favorite image of Rose is probably one she herself disliked (I suspect). She does look older, close to her final year. But that dress is so lovely. The careful piecing of the striping, pulled diagonal, for the bodice. Those wide arms to accommodate a woman in her 60s, the neat striping of the fabric, and the cunning split neckline of the dress. She’s kept up with the times; this is a dress right on target for the early 1960s. She’s adopted the look she fixed upon back in the 1930s, now with the tweaking of the times: self-fabric belt (very very popular in the 1960s), the more casual fabric, the split neck instead of a scarf or elaborate necklace And she’s still at work, looking as determined as she did being arrested back twenty years earlier. Rose_Pesotta_addresses_the_floor_at_the_1965_ILGWU_convention,_December_15,_1965._(5278921605)

Elaine Leeder’s book, The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Leader, is available on Amazon, and portions of the book are posted on Google Books. Rose Pesotta’s papers, non-digitized, are at Carnegie-Mellon University.

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