Theresa Serber Malkiel

Lived:May 1, 1874—November 17, 1949 (aged 75)

Theresa Serber Malkiel was an influential Jewish labor activist and suffragist in the early twentieth century.

Born on May 1, 1874 in the town of Bar, Theresa Serber escaped anti-Semitic persecution in Russia to seek refuge in the United States with her family in 1891. Though she had been part of a Jewish middle class in Russia and was fairly well-educated, Serber was forced to work in sweatshops in New York City. Serber discovered her interest in workers’ rights quickly and joined the Russian Workingmen’s Club. After finding work in a garment factory, Serber founded the Woman’s Infant Cloak Makers’ Union no more than three years after her arrival to the U.S. By the age of 20, Serber had founded her own labor union and became one of the earliest women to organize for worker’s rights in America

Through the labor movement, Serber joined the Socialist Labor Party (S.L.P), attending the founding convention of the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance as a delegate in 1896. In 1899, Serber left the S.L.P and joined the Socialist Party of American (S.P.A). In 1900, she married fellow socialist, Leon Malkiel, and moved to Yonkers, New York. Though she was a new mother to a baby girl, Henrietta, Theresa Malkiel couldn’t give up on her commitment to working-class women and the labor movement that had become a central part of her life. Malkiel founded the Women’s Progressive Society of Yonkers, later known as Branch One of the Socialist Women’s Society of Greater New York. Though she was still a member of the S.P.A., Malkiel and other socialist women came to realize that they would have to work outside of the party to reach other working women and attain their own goals for women’s rights.

Repeatedly, Malkiel’s hopes for a feminist socialist revolution were dashed. However, she still worked tirelessly as a member of the Women’s National Committee to involve more women in Socialism. In 1910, Malkiel wrote her most famous work, Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, a novel praising the courage of garment workers and women strikers. A year later, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire horrified the nation and Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker became a best-seller, helping drive labor reform in New York.

After World War I and the Russian Revolution helped cool Socialist fervor in the United States, Malkiel shifted her focus to run for New York State Assembly in 1920 and narrowly lost. Following her defeat, she worked for adult education and the betterment of immigrant women. By her death on November 17, 1949, at the age of 75, Malkiel’s reputation as an activist had faded into obscurity. However, her work for women’s rights and labor reform is forever a part of American history.

Miller, Sally M. “From Sweatshop Worker to Labor Leader: Theresa Malkiel, a Case Study.” American Jewish History, Vol. 68, No. 2 (December 1978), 189-205.

Taitz, Emily. “Theresa Serber Malkiel.” Jewish Women's Archive. Jewish Women's Archive, February 27, 2009.