Illustration by Art Seiden

Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America

1900 to World War II:

Fania Mary Cohn: Labor Leader And Educator

by Seymour "Sy" Brody

Fania Mary Cohn was demanding, domineering and self- centered in her quest that women have a major role in the organized labor movement. She wrote in the Febru- ary, 1934 issue of the American Federalist, "While organization gives the workers power, purposeful, dynamic education gives them the ability to use that power intelligently and effectively."

Fania was the daughter of Anna and Hyman Cohn, who was the manager of the family owned flour mill. She was born on April 5, 1885, in Kletzk, Russia. In 1904, the family emigrated to New York City and she worked for a short while with the American Jewish Women's Committee on Ellis Island.

In 1905, she decided to get involved with the trade union movement so she took a job as a sleeve-maker in a garment factory. Fania felt that she needed the experience of life as a worker in a shop if she was to understand their minds and aspiration.

It didn't take long for her to be elected to the executive board of the Wrapper, Kimono and House Dress Makers' Local 41 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), in 1909. She became chairlady of the board for two years, 1913-14, when she left to attend the National Women's Trade Union League Training School for Women Organizers in Chicago.

She became an organizer for the ILGWU and she reached a high point when she led the first successful strike of Chicago's dress and white goods workers in 1915. Her fame spread throughout the union and she returned to New York in 1916. Fania was aware of the male dominance in the labor movement and she constantly fought for the greater organization of women.

In 1917, she was appointed to the ILGWU's General Education Committee. The following year, she became the executive secretary of the Education Department. Under her leadership, she expanded the program giving the ILGWU the largest union educational department in the country.

She believed that the education of workers was important for them to become labor leaders, to create a union loyalty and to instill in workers a "social conscience" which would lead to a world with social justice. She felt that the trade union movement was the only force to give the workers this education.

In 1925, she was defeated for her bid for the fifth term as vice- president. She attributed her loss to her non-involvement in an inner political struggle that was going on within the union. She continued as head of the Education Department of the ILGWU. David Dubinsky, president of the ILGWU felt that union needed younger people to present a favorable image to the younger American born workers. He considered the foreign born organizers and leaders, like Fania Cohn, a thing of the past. In 1935, he hired Mark Starr to be the education director. Fania retained her title as executive secretary. For the next twenty years, her duties and responsibilities were whittled away.

In December 1962, she died of a stroke, four months after she retired. In her life, Fania demonstrated through her activities the importance of educating workers socially, economically and culturally. Her tenacity and perseverance succeeded in having more women achieve leadership positions within the trade union movement. In her death, the trade union and women's movements lost a great ally and leader.

This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.

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