On March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan, a fire blazed through the building, feeding off clothing scraps. The employees rushed to escape, but the owners had ignored safety regulations and calls for better fire exits. Workers on the ninth floor found themselves trapped on the building’s ledges and many jumped to the ground. In all, 146 employees, most of them women, died.
The event jolted New York City and became a rallying point for the women’s suffrage movement and the labor movement. A young woman, Frances Perkin, witnessed some of the workers leaping from the fire to their death. Perkins would go on to become the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet as labor secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The incident was also an early tragedy attended to by the Red Cross. The group provided $70,000 in aid (equal to more than $1 million dollars by today’s standards).
One suffragist, Mary Ware Dennett, wrote of the fire:
It is enough to silence forever the selfish addleheaded drivel of the anti-suffragists who say that working women can safely trust their welfare to their "natural protectors"!!? Trust the men who allow seven hundred women to sit wedged between the machines, in a ten-story building with no outside fire escapes, and the exits shuttered and locked? We claim in no uncertain voice that the time has come when women should have the one efficient tool with which to make for themselves decent and safe working conditions — the ballot.
While the conditions seem horrific by today standards, the science blog the Pump Handle points out these conditions still exist: “What people sometimes refer to as the global sweatshop is a vast archipelago of workplaces, in many of which young female workers toil long hours in dangerous conditions, very often without union representation or democratic rights. The problem of how to regulate the workplace and create a safe, decent life for working people is with us today, just as it was at the time of the Triangle Fire."