For the last five years, a trio of my friends, including two sisters, treat me to dinner for my birthday. For women, an opportunity to unpack the stories of our pasts in a loving and supportive environment, made even more comfortable with food we didn’t have to cook, dishes we don’t have to wash and wine, (occasionally brought by cutie-pie waiters) is time well-spent. Last April our conversation travelled to our mothers and their work, we soon discovered all our moms were factory girls.
Today, high school diplomas are tow ropes out of poverty, but in 1939’s National Depression, long before EBT cards, dropping out of school and showing up at the factory meant putting food on your table. Since it was easier for girls to find sweatshop work, Grandma’s first born son and his 14-year old brother were allowed to finish school. Their younger sisters, an 8-year old and a newborn were saved by age making my 16-year-old mother the perfect choice for Grandma’s master plan to feed all her children
Mom, in a worn and patched cotton house-dress, entered the work-force at a bloomer (women’s panties) factory. The air was hot and dirty from machines spitting out cotton lint that settled on the sewing machines, cutters’ tables and in the lungs of the teen-aged laborers. My mother hated the work as soon as she started.
The owner, a man with children of his own, worked upstairs, but often traversed the factory floor with his secretary who wrote his commandments in shorthand as she followed his steps. Mom barely lifted her gaze to see her boss. For those readers who think shop workers put up with inhumane conditions because they were unschooled immigrants who couldn’t speak English-you’re only partly right. Poverty is its own foreign homeland. My American-born mother was poor and unpowerful. Getting fired meant going hungry. Having a New York City birth certificate wouldn’t save her.
But, even with her head down, she could admire the Angelica heels worn by the secretary. Allowing herself a longer look, she coveted the silky butterfly sleeved blouse and tailored skirt on the woman behind the boss. “That’s how I want to look. That’s what I want to be.” Mom said under her breath. With only a month as a factory-girl, she knew a better life could be hers with a secretarial diploma. She convinced Grandma and returned to school.
I often teased my mother about her career move. “Why didn’t you look at the boss and say, that’s what I want to be?” Her answer taught me the bonds of poverty and gender. “How could I be? We were nobodies.”
Nearly 40 years later, Chung Ying Yim, a married woman with children, worked as a factory girl in Chinatown. Her daughter, Jo came to help. Sweatshops were and still are afterschool programs for poor children; places to do homework, help your mom get out on time and a reminder of what life is without an education. Under the weight of her heavy book-bag, Jo walked alone on Elizabeth Street. Inside the old building that housed factories since the 1800’s, she hurried down a dark hall-way to an equally dark commercial lift. Jo, frightened the creaking elevator would stop dead mid-ride, stood watchful as the floors passed before her. Slowly, her mom’s shoes, legs, body, and finally smile greeted her.
Jo’s goal was to get her mother to leave by dinnertime, but packing is never-ending. As soon as one box is filled, another empty one takes its place. Even with the extra pair of hands, mother and daughter finished their work long after the winter sun set.
Mabel and Doreen’s mother, Lan Ching Look, an accountant in Hong Kong, emigrated with her husband and two young daughters. With no English skills, Mrs. Look knew she had to transition from a prestigious position to laborer to feed her growing family. (She would give birth to her son two years later.) The Look daughters’ excitement of seeing, feeling and tasting their first snowfall was short-lived as an aunt quickly secured a Chinatown sweat shop job for their mom. It was the golden year of Super Bowl X, the U.S. Bicentennial, and Nasa’s landing on Mars, but for food on the table, as thousands of women before her, Lan Ching Look entered America’s job force as a factory girl. Mabel, the eldest joined her one summer for extra money. She left after two weeks. The costly dresses by NY designer, Ann Taylor were made for a fraction of their price tag numbers. Mabel’s meager pay only intensified the vision of how hard her mother worked.
Wearing designer clothes and eating out with friends are easy for my friends and me. We are educated and by most standards we’re successful, but while we pass the basket of rolls to one another, we are momentarily silenced by our realization; our lovely homes, our happy, healthy children and even our respected fields cannot be credited by us alone. We are the daughters of factory girls who paved our way.
This Labor Day, give thanks for the sacrifices of the factory girls in your history, who like Jeanne, Chung Ying and Lan Ching sweated for your future.