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About the Book

Beyond the Book

400 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 41 illus.

Gender and American Culture

ISBN  978-0-8078-4511-0
Published: May 1995

Common Sense and a Little Fire

Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

By Annelise Orleck

Common Sense and a Little Fire traces the personal and public lives of four immigrant women activists who left a lasting imprint on American politics. Though they have rarely had more than cameo appearances in previous histories, Rose Schneiderman, Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and Pauline Newman played important roles in the emergence of organized labor, the New Deal welfare state, adult education, and the modern women's movement. Orleck takes her four subjects from turbulent, turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe to the radical ferment of New York's Lower East Side and the gaslit tenements where young workers studied together. Drawing from the women's writings and speeches, she paints a compelling picture of housewives' food and rent protests, of grim conditions in the garment shops, of factory-floor friendships that laid the basis for a mass uprising of young women garment workers, and of the impassioned rallies working women organized for suffrage. From that era of rebellion, Orleck charts the rise of a distinctly working-class feminism that fueled poor women's activism and shaped government labor, tenant, and consumer policies through the early 1950s.

About the Author

Annelise Orleck is associate professor of histoy and women's studies at Dartmouth College. She is author of Soviet Jewish Americans and editor of The Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Left to Right.


“Substantially expands our knowledge of twentieth-century working-class women’s political activity. Readers seeking an accessibly-written introductory work and scholars studying women’s labor, working-class feminism, public policy, consumer movements, or the connections between women’s (and men’s) personal and political choices will find it an interesting and important work.”New York History

"A major contribution to twentieth-century labor history. . . . Orleck's book is rich in detail and comprehensive in analysis."
--Reviews in American History

"Highly recommended. Two thumbs up. . . . Orleck's analyses revise the history of American women, labor, ethnicity, sexuality, and politics."
--International Labor and Working Class History

"Orleck's intelligent work reminds readers of a time when workers fought valiantly for the right to be represented by a union. Focusing on the lives of four remarkable women--Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman, and Rose Schneiderman--Orleck weaves a complex and compelling story of class and ethnic tensions, the struggles for workers' rights, internecine warfare, and above all, the extremely gendered nature of both politics and work. . . . Their stories, as related in this tightly written, fascinating work, reveal whole new layers to the history of women and the working-class struggle."

"An interesting and important study. Common Sense and a Little Fire is worth the read."
--Journal of American History

"A finely nuanced study of four extraordinary women who campaigned throughout their long lives to make room in the house of labor for working-class women and the activists who serve them."
--Industrial and Labor Relations Review

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