FANNIA MARY COHN: AN EDUCATIONAL LEADER IN LABOR AND WORKERS' EDUCATION, HER LIFE AND TIMES
Huey B. Long and Constance Lawry
This research was supported by the Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional & Higher Education, College of Education, University of Oklahoma.
Workers' education in the United States has a rich, tumultuous and only partially reported history. Its heritage as an organized and institutionalized activity can be traced to evening schools for apprentices in colonial America and to the Mechanics Institutes of the early national period. Yet, the most enduring references to workers' education are located in the period from about 1890 to 1925 when workers in the garment union industries supplied leadership in labor activism. Therefore, it is not surprising that the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) produced one of the early leaders in workers' education: Fannia Mary Cohn. This paper is designed to place Miss Cohn's contributions within the historical context, provide a brief biographical sketch, conduct an analysis of her life and activities, identify her educational contributions, and draw conclusions.
Fannia Mary Cohn entered the United States in a stressful period. In many ways the nation was in the throes of change almost as wrenching as the change occurring in her native Russia. In contrast to the pogroms conducted against the Jews in Russia, the people of the United States were involved in a kind of ideological, philosophical, and economic class warfare. Weapons included ballots, books, and bullets. When Cohn was five years old the United States entered the last decade of the 19th century, years that Henry Commager (1970) described as ". . . the watershed of American history" (p. 42). Trauma associated with the changes continued as the "old" immigration from northern and western Europe shifted to the "new" (p. 46), including immigrants from the Volga and Tartar steppes who concentrated in the industrial cities (Nevins, & Commager, 1956) and changed the labor movement.
A new middle class also adopted new perspectives of life. Truth was relative rather than absolute, instrumental rather than abstract, and only partially revealed. Yet, they continued to think in terms of normal and abnormal:
Rationality and peace, decent living conditions and equal opportunity, they considered "natural"; passion and violence, slums and deprivation, were "unnatura1." Knowledge, they were convinced, was power, specifically the power to guide men into the future. (Weibe, 1967, p. 154)
The progressive new middle class championed education as a solution to many, if not most, of the problems of present and future. While the emphasis was frequently on public education, education for adults and education provided by nonschool agencies, organizations, and institutions received prominent attention. Simon Patten urged social workers to educate the poor. In turn, social worker Peter Roberts encouraged trade unions to educate the immigrants. Lester Ward expected the State to educate everyone. An uncritical faith in "education" almost matched the new middle-class devotion to "science" with which it was closely identified. Extraordinary expectations for an alert and informed citizenry were invested in education's promise.
Labor was not excluded from the prevailing interest in the efficacy of education, and the garment workers demonstrated an inordinate enthusiasm for the idea. Stolberg (1944) says:
The influence of organized labor and particularly the ILGWU, on adult education-university extension, evening classes in the public schools, courses offered by private institutions such as the YMCA--is comparable only to the influence of pre-Civil war labor in bringing about free compulsory education in their country. (p. 283)
There are many reasons for the garment workers' leadership in workers' education. About 5% of the new immigrants of the latter 19th century were individuals with' an intense urge for self-improvement. Furthermore, the garment workers were often "organized by intellectuals or semi-intellectuals who were exponents of some ideology or social faith" (Stolberg, 1944, p. 283). The unionization of the garment workers was not just an economic undertaking; it was also a romantic movement-based as are all romantic movements--on a panacea for social progress.
The fate of Fannia Mary Cohn and the history of the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) are closely related. The NWTUL was founded in the United States in 1903 by a group of "leisure-class and working-class women brought together by a shared concern for the plight of women workers" (Jacoby, 1984, p. 5). Begun with a three-part mission of unionization, legislation, and education, the NWTUL's dominant focus was education by 1913.
In 1914 the league opened a national Training School for Women Organizers, one of the earlier workers' education programs established in the United States. Located in Chicago, the school's year-long curriculum was to be a blend of academic work (labor history, industrial relations, labor legislation, theory and practice of trade agreements, English, public speaking, and parliamentary procedures) and field work, which would be divided between organizing and administrative activities (Jacoby, 1984). Cohn, then president of Local 41 of the Kimono, Wrappers, and Housedress Workers' Union in New York, was one of its first three students.
Cohn's involvement with the NWTUL is typical of her lifelong relations with the labor movement. She had not been selected by the New York league of the NWTUL, which resented her appointment as a student without their approval. Similarly, her relations with the Chicago-based organizers of the school seems to have been strained. Of the three students admitted to the first year's program, Fannia Mary received conspicuously brief mention in NWTUL documents. Jacoby (1984) hints at two problems that may have affected Cohn's relationship with the NWTUL leaders: she was a socialist and a ". . . slightly irritable woman" (p. 9) who may have been more aloof, more independent, and less grateful to the NWTUL for the opportunity than NWTUL leaders expected.
By 1914 Cohn was already active in the ILGWU. In 1909 she was elected to the executive board of her newly organized local union, and she chaired the board from 1913 to 1914. She had begun work in 1905 as a sleeve maker in a garment factory, not out of economic necessity, but because, as she wrote in 1951, "I realized then that if I wanted to really understand the mind, the aspirations of the workers, I should experience the life of a worker in a shop" (as quoted by Wong, 1980, p. 154).
Born in Kletzk, Minsk, Russia, the fourth of five children of middle-class Jewish parents, Cohn's early life was confined to the land to which Catherine the Great had restricted Russia's Jews in 1791. Cohn's father managed a family-owned flour mill, and, as was the case with most Jewish families, the Cohns held education in high esteem. However, unlike most, the Cohns extended the privilege of education to their daughters. Stolberg (1944) describes Fannia Mary's education as "a good private education" (p. 288). Her private education was probably due to her mother's diligence; Cohn later reflected that "I was brought up by my mother on books" (Cohen, 1975, p. 9).
At the age of 16, Cohn joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party, a radical organization dedicated to transforming Russian society. However, as the Russian government stepped up its policy of restrictions and overt persecution of Jews, more and more Russian Jews sought refuge in radical organizations or in emigration from their native land. Over family objections, with steamship tickets from American cousins, she and her brother set sail for New York in 1904. Even so, Cohn later recalled: "One thing I promised my family was that I would continue my studies in the 'New World' as my mother wanted her children to be no less than professors" (Cohen, 1975, p. 9).
Cohn's assimilation into American life was assisted by the family members who welcomed her and her brother. She worked for a short time on Ellis Island as the representative of the American Jewish Women's Committee, assisting other immigrants on their arrival in this country. She resigned from this position because "it was too much of a charitable nature" (Cohen, 1975, p. 17). She rejected an offer of a partnership in the wholesale druggist supply house which her brother and brother-in-law owned in order to prepare for the Regents examinations to enter a college of pharmacy. However, in the midst of her studies she abruptly decided to go to work in the labor movement. She later conceded that "My family suggested that I complete my studies and then join the labor movement, but I rejected this as I did not want to come into it from 'without' but from 'within'" (Cohen, 1975, p. 17).
Fannia Mary's practical side was matched with an idealistic view. In commenting upon attracting working women to union membership she said, "I do not see how we can get girls to sacrifice themselves unless we discuss something besides trade matters. . . . There must be something more than the economic questions, there must be idealism" (Kessler-Harris, 1985, p. 119). She also reflected an idealistic view of social motherhood. She said "a woman is the mother; whether she has children or not her mission is to work for the good of the [human] race" (Payne, 1988, p. 124).
While in Chicago she was instrumental in organizing local unions. In August 1915 she led the workers in the first successful strike of Chicago's dress and white goods. When she returned to New York, her reputation as a successful union organizer had preceded her. She became the first woman elected to a vice presidency of the ILGWU, and she was the first female vice president of a major international union (Foner, 1980). Despite the fact that a large majority of the garment workers were women, a woman had not previously been elected to high union office, and the union leadership was not committed to organizing women, since their employment in the work force was considered temporary until they married and had children. Cohn was to spend her first years of national union leadership as an energetic and effective organizer of women's locals. However, as the ILGWU moved to establish its own Education Department, she was later able to merge her activism in the labor movement with her long-time commitments to education and to the transformation of society.
The originator of the Education Department of the ILGWU was Juliet Stuart Poyntz, a former history teacher at Barnard who became educational director of Local 25 in 1915. Poyntz is described by Stolberg (1944) as having a gifted and striking personality, "a woman with a rare combination of charm and force. She was by nature a zealot who later became a revolutionary extremist" (p. 286), and mysteriously disappeared from the ILGWU's leadership. Stolberg credits Poyntz with initiating many of the educational activities that Cohn later directed.
During the crucial years of the establishment and early, vigorous activity of the ILGWU's Education Department, Fannia Cohn was its foremost and most consistent leader. As Wong (1984) writes, "Until the late 1940s the ILGWU was more than the leader of the workers' education movement in the garment industry; it was the movement" (p. 40). With the establishment of the ILGWU's Education Committee in 1916 under Juliet Poyntz, and its continuation after 1918 under Fannia Cohn, the ILGWU was committed to providing for both the economic and "spiritual" needs of its members through a general and wide-ranging education, involving individual self-improvement, social and intellectual respectability, and recreation. Wong reports:
Cohn, in particular, believed that workers should not be deprived of the joys of a liberal education because of their age, their lack of formal schooling, or their class. Adult workers, as much as the sons and daughters of the upper class, deserved exposure to art, literature, music, drama, philosophy, and history. (p. 44)
However, in designing programs, both leaders "recognized that these women workers wanted their union to be more than a rallying point in the battle for economic justice; they wanted it to be a community in which they could learn, meet friends, and have fun" (Wong, 1984, p. 44). This recognition led to the establishment of a series of Unity Centers, organized first by Poyntz and continued by Cohn. Cohen (1975) reports that during this time the New York City Board of Education directed that only courses conducted in English would be permitted in public school buildings, and Cohn attempted to intercede on behalf of the garment workers. Even though many needle trades workers spoke only Yiddish, she was unsuccessful in convincing the Board to allow the Yiddish classes. By the end of 1918, there were five Unity Centers in New York City as well as a Workers' University for more advanced students that counted the eminent Charles Beard on its faculty.
In an effort to interest members by combining educational activities with leisure-time pursuits, Cohn took advantage of the Jewish immigrants' fondness for the theatre by initiating
lectures on the trends of modem drama and a course which combined attending selected English and Yiddish plays with classroom analysis. The ILGWU obtained these theatre tickets at discounted prices. This marked the Education Department's adoption of a long-standing East Side custom whereby guilds, clubs, and labor organizations purchased theatre tickets at reduced rates for their members. (Cohen, 1975, p. 134)
The ILGWU's Education Department worked primarily through the union locals, and Cohn traveled extensively up and down the East Coast as well as to such points in the Midwest as Chicago and Cincinnati to help the locals organize their own Unity Centers, workers' universities, and other educational programs. Local programs were dependent on local money; the union-wide Education Department had only modest sums at its disposal-$5,000 was appropriated for it at its founding in 1916, with its appropriation growing to $15,000 in 1920 and $17,000 in 1922.
Educational activities by Local 25 in 1919 illustrate how the idea had progressed from 1915. The local had 30,000 members, of which 10,000 were involved in classes and 7,000 in concerts and plays during the year. Unfortunately, the local, known as "the girls' local" (Kessler-Harris, 1985, p. 126) became a focal point in the struggle between men and women and radicals and was split into three locals in 1920.
In December 1920, Cohn convened a meeting in New York City to formulate plans for a national Workers' Education Bureau (WEB), in an attempt to expand workers' education throughout the entire labor movement. The Workers' Education Bureau
would serve as a clearing house for information and publicity as well as a registration bureau for labor teachers and schools which required their services. The WEB would also formulate educational standards for labor schools and evaluate textbooks and other classroom materials. (Cohen, 1975, p. 141)
A. Epstein, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, secretary-treasurer of the Bureau said of the organizing efforts:
We are meeting to organize a permanent bureau. Attempts are being .made with more or less success by American workers in different parts of the country to create new educational agencies aiming to satisfy their own particular needs. The Workers' Educational Bureau is planned to coordinate such attempts and to stimulate additional experience in workers' education. (New York Times, 1921, April 3, p. 21:3)
The WEB was supported initially with contributions from Cohn's family and later with contributions from her friend, Evelyn Preston. She labored tirelessly to convince Samuel Gompers that the American' Federation of Labor (AFL) should subsidize the Workers' Education Bureau, obtaining a formal, cooperative relationship between the AFL and the WEB in 1922; an acknowledgement that the AFL formed "an integral and organic part of the WEB in 1923; and finally, a recommendation from the AFL in 1924 that its unions affiliate with the WEB on a per capita basis of one-half cent per annum" (Cohen, 1975, p. 143). Cohn served the WEB in a variety of capacities, including that of vice president.
Cohn was also instrumental in founding Brookwood Labor College in 1921, the first residential college for workers in the United States. Both the AFL and the ILGWU had passed convention resolutions urging the creation of a national university for the entire labor movement, modeled on Ruskin College in England.
Cohn and other labor leaders steadfastly maintained that only the trade unions could be entrusted with closely coordinating workers' education with the labor movement's interest. They argued that middle and upper class control of the institutions of higher education allowed them to preserve their social status. (Cohen, 1975, p. 142)
As a vice president of the General Executive Board for the ILGWU, Cohn battled opposition to the union's educational programs from her fellow vice presidents and others within the union. In describing Cohn's battles on behalf of the Education Department, Cohen (1975) notes "The vice presidents duly agreed on the abstract importance of labor education while they reiterated that students did not appear to be more active or intelligent unionists" (p. 146). Low attendance figures at the union's educational programs were an early reality which Cohn spent a great deal of time trying to remedy. Even as she sought to make the curriculum more relevant to prospective students, she acknowledged that, "the mass of workers simply could not be attracted to the study of serous subjects" (p. 144). She defended workers' education by arguing that even if it "trained only a small minority to lead their fellows to a, ‘. . . land of industrial democracy. . . it will have fulfilled its highest duty’" (p. 144). Had Cohn not occupied a seat on the General Executive Board, it is not clear that she would have been successful in obtaining the appropriations she did for the Education Department in the face of the opposition at the vice presidential level. Cohn's battles were further complicated by general labor attitudes toward organizing women and the leadership of women in the labor movement. Rather than fight the union leadership from an external position she chose to work within. As a result she was often isolated from the more radical female leaders and ultimately lost power within the union.
Fannia Cohn's life was her work, and increasingly her work was her life. On a holiday in Europe to improve her health in 1922, she took time to stop in Paris to visit the garment trades' offices and discuss workers' education among other labor-related activities. She concluded her trip by meeting the president of the ILGWU in London and addressing several mass meetings of the needle trades' workers (Cohen, 1975). This particular trip, however, was to become a source of embarrassment. According to Kessler-Harris (1985) the June 11, 1923 minutes of the General Education Board meeting note that Cohn made the trip to Europe at the advice of her physician and that the financial loss, which she bore herself,
made it impossible for her to straighten out her financial situation and that she asked, therefore, to be reimbursed four weeks' pay. It was decided to grant this request and in the future on occasions of that kind, requests are to be made prior to the taking of vacations. (p. 137)
It is also likely that at the time of her trip Cohn increasingly was being besieged by the male leadership who questioned her loyalty to the union.
Cohn returned revitalized and continued to develop new programs for the union. She arranged for the New York garment workers to attend classes at the New School for Social Research at reduced rates. She also enlarged the education program to include lectures during the first hour of all the locals' business meetings, instructing the captive audience in English or Yiddish in subjects which ranged from labor and economics to industrial hygiene. She organized a new program for the wives of members and included a Women's Auxiliary Institute at Brookwood Labor College during the summer to analyze the problems of both working women and the wives of workers. She began work on behalf of Pioneer Youth of America, which sponsored a summer camp staffed by men and women sympathetic to labor, to instruct workers' children in a social philosophy consistent with the trade union movement. At the ILGWU's 1924 convention, she was able to report that 216,903 union members had been involved in education activities between 1922 and 1924 (Cohen, 1975).
Despite the fact that the union's educational programs were relatively healthy, the union's internal battles with Communists and Communist sympathizers, who threatened the control of its leadership, were costly. By 1924 there was no money for what some viewed as the unnecessary luxury of an Education Department, and Cohn carried on with only one assistant.
Cohen (1975) quotes Gus Tyler:
Fannia Cohn carried the educational department on her own back for many, many years. To the extent the union continued its involvement with educational work it was because Fannia insisted. . .. She was indulged even when the union didn't have any money. Of course, indulging Fannia was very cheap. She wore the same dress for thirty years. She didn't eat. She had no worldly needs whatsoever. My guess is that her relatives kept her alive for those years--not the union. . .. She carried it through the bad years of the twenties-the union was small and, at one point, they turned off the elevator because the union couldn't pay its electric bills. (p. 174)
In 1925, with almost no funding, Cohn continued to build the educational programs of the union:
She formulated an extensive new program, based on her vision of the ILGWU as a total community. She decided that education should not be confined to the classroom. Instead, the department should satisfy the members' and their families' intellectual, economic and recreational needs. On Saturday afternoons members (as well as their families and friends), now had the opportunity to attend special lectures and guided tours at the Museum of Natural History. . .. She also introduced the practice of exhibiting paintings by members and their children. . . in order to bring art into the workers' daily lives. Finally, she became an associate of the Monumit School, resident school for workers' children in Pauling, New York. (Cohen, 1975, p. 183)
She revamped the curriculum for the fall 1925 education season, scheduling classes in economics, economic geography, economic history, history of the labor movement, labor problems, social history, social psychology, and literature. In the midst of this activity, the ILGWU held its annual convention in December 1925, and Fannia Cohn was defeated in her bid for re-election as a vice president and member of the union's General Executive Board. While her conflicts with the other vice presidents could not have helped, most observers have blamed her defeat on her exclusive focus on the educational activities of the union and her isolation from the other work of the union. Cohn herself blamed her defeat in part on her refusal to take sides in the battles during the 1920s when Communists sought control of the ILGWU (Wong, 1980). Others identify her defeat with the debate over women's role in labor (Kessler-Harris, 1985; Lorwin, 1933).
A twilight period for the workers' education movement followed until both the ILGWU and its Education Department were revived during the New Deal when ILGWU President David Dubinsky appointed Mark Starr as director. The scope of Cohn's position as executive secretary was then severely restricted. Workers' education gave way to labor education and
"What is good for the union is good for the members" replaced Cohn's and Poyntz's intricate cataloging of unionists' intellectual and emotional needs. More important, the link between workers' education and progressive social action was broken. Labor education in the ILGWU was designed to serve the union, not the world. . . . The new members were to be taught about unionism not so they could be forged into a fighting force for a new and better world, but so they would loyally follow their leaders. (Wong, 1984, p. 55)
After 1935 the ILGWU's Education Department sponsored recreational and cultural events, but its systematic study classes dwindled to a new member course designed to create union loyalty and an officer qualifications course designed to introduce candidates for paid office to union structure.
The treatment of Cohn was viewed by many as a public humiliation. Rose Pesotta, herself an eventual vice president of the union, but, unlike Cohn, a rebel, wrote to David Dubinsky in outrage:
Fannia Cohn's service to our organization is only recognized by those on the outside who can dispassionately evaluate such unselfish efforts on the part of one person, for the cause of workers' education. But most of the credit is now the heritage of a director who has entered the field after the thorns were weeded out, the marshes dried and all other obstacles removed. She remains a tragic figure amidst her own fellow workers, whom she helped to gain prestige with the outside educational world. Were she a man, it would have been entirely different. (Pesotta, n.d.)
Cohn continued as a relatively powerless executive secretary of the Education Department (by the 1950s her sole responsibility was the book division) until the union forced her hand by staging a retirement luncheon for her in August 1962. She died of a stroke four months later (Wong, 1980).
A parallel development to the rise of workers' education provided directly by the labor unions was education for workers provided by other agencies in society--e.g., the Young Women's Christian Association and colleges and universities. Fannia Cohn was one of those asked by Bryn Mawr College President M. Carey Thomas to meet in 1921 to design a curriculum for the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers. The Bryn Mawr program began that year with Hilda Worthington Smith, the College's dean of undergraduates, serving as director. Cohn pleaded the excuse of other obligations. Cohen (1975), however, believes that Cohn's refusal was in part due to her repeatedly stated belief that trade unions, not the universities, must control workers' education. Yet, the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers shared many of Fannia Cohn's ambitions. Its purpose, according to Heller (1984), was "to offer young women in industry opportunities to study liberal subjects and train themselves in clear thinking" (p. 115). It is significant that Cohn's narrow focus, and her distrust of the middle-class and upper-class women who ran the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) which supported the Bryn Mawr Summer School, did not permit her to work cooperatively in the development of what became a model program of its kind. She continued to believe, "workers' education would succeed only when provided by trade unionists for trade unionists. . . . However, despite Cohn's reservations, the ILGWU's educational department provided scholarships to . . . both the Bryn Mawr and Barnard summer schools" (Wong, 1984, pp. 48-49).
From 1916 until at least 1935, Fannia Mary Cohn almost single-handedly kept alive the education movement in the ILGWU, offering programs which served the individual's development as well as the union's purposes at a time when the United States was attempting to assimilate large numbers of immigrants into its society. While educational programs for adults were being offered by other agencies as well, the unions served as an opportune entry point into American society for immigrant workers.
A number of events conspired to influence Fannia Mary Cohn's life in the United States: her experience with the oppression of the State and her fellowship with other Jewish immigrants in one of New York City's urban ethnic ghettoes. She quickly became involved in the women's garment industry that the Russian Jews had made their own (Higham, 1975).
Radicalized by her Russian experience, it was not difficult for Cohn to reject middle-class opportunities offered to her by her relatives. Her initial experiences on Ellis Island interacted with her activist and educational orientation to provide a foundation for her eventual role in the ILGWU.
Her acceptance of the value of workers' education was not unusual nor singularly significant. Reformers of the period directly contended with the philosophy of William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spencer, based on social evolution that favored survival of the fittest. Even though Spencerian ideas frequently were used to justify corporate excesses, reformers found an equally persuasive spokesman in Lester Ward. Commager (1970) quotes Franklin Giddings-a- Spencerian--who described Ward's work as follows:
. . . there runs one dominating and organizing thought. Human society as we who live now know it, is not the passive product of unconscious forces. It lies within the domain of cosmic law, but so does the mind of man; and this mind of man has knowingly, artfully, adapted and readapted its social environment, and with reflective intelligence has begun to shape it [society] into an instrument wherewith to fulfill man's will. (p. 210)
Fannia Mary was already convinced of the value of education which she preferred over charitable activities. Yet, she reflected the radical's view of education and resisted efforts that would have integrated workers' education with mainstream educational institutions. She subscribed to the British radical's view of social class and seems to have had little interest in any educational activity that challenged the concept. Perhaps that attitude was instrumental in her apparent rejection of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers and her devotion to Brookwood College.
A description of the Bryn Mawr School appearing in the New York Times (1921, June 5) is hardly consistent with the life style of a woman who had "no worldly needs whatsoever." The Times reported:
Denby Hall, one of the most beautiful of the dormitories on the famous Bryn Mawr campus will be used for the seamstresses, flower makers, and telephone operators who are to take the courses and it is said that those alumnae of the college who serve as tutors to the new girls will live there too during the summer, more for the purpose of seeing to it that the working girls get all the traditional sociability and fun out of their stay than to act as chaperones or teachers, for there will be summer parties and dances on the electric-lighted roof, tennis, basketball, field hockey, cross country walks, evening entertainments, lectures and motion pictures and mid-week and week-end trips. (Sec. VI, p. 5:1)
Considering the plans for a "late breakfast hour" and efforts to relieve the young women workers of household duties, the Bryn Mawr Summer School is in stark contrast to the description of Brookwood College. For example, a statement by the cooperative labor committee that established Brookwood emphasized "no individual would be exclusively assigned to manual work" and, by inference, no one would be excused from manual work at the college. Faculty and students would routinely perform the jobs that call for manual labor from "cooking to wood-cutting and from farming to dishwashing." The statement further noted that the "the importance and dignity of handwork and headwork are both fully recognized" (New York Times, 1921, June 16, p. 8:1).
Fannia Mary Cohn was undoubtedly a headstrong, highly committed leader who was shaped by Russian and American experiences. She was also trapped by the complicated political forces arising from the activities of Communists, traditional labor leaders, and the emerging female labor problems. She found herself forced into a position that required her to choose between the radical activities of Local 25, later Local 22, known as "the girls' union" and the male dominated leadership. Those who rebelled, like Rose Pesotta, found themselves without support and those who conformed, like Cohn, were without power. Efforts to remove Cohn as a vice president seem to have begun as early as 1922 (Kessler-Harris, 1985). Her life sensitized her to the role and importance of education for workers and, as a result, she presided over one of the first, if not the very first, education departments of an international labor union in the United States. She was also convinced of the need for workers' education to be by and for workers. She seems to have distrusted the reformers of the day who did not have a life history that included a worker's experience. Her contributions to workers' education are both noteworthy and controversial.
While Fannia Mary's educational contributions may not have been original, they should be considered significant. She seems to have developed a view of education for workers that was broader than the social worker orientation that was prevalent at the time. While she did not reject the settlements, she was attracted to a liberal education concept that included drama, theatre, and music. She demonstrated an uncanny ability to creatively extend programs and activities originally created by others. For example, the Unity Centers were organized by Juliet Poyntz, as was the ILGWU's Education Committee in 1916. In some ways Poyntz may be described as the "brains" of the garment workers' educational program, but if so, Fannia was its soul. The importance of her contributions reside in the cumulative aspects of her involvement in a variety of activities when workers' education was in a fermenting stage.
Some of her experiences that merit recognition are:
1. Her participation in the Women's Trade Union League's first residential workers' education program is indicative of both her recognized potential and her commitment to education for workers.
2. She was not reluctant to use her elected position in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union to promote the education of workers, including women workers who generally had been neglected by union leaders. She not only worked in New York City where her own local was situated, but extended her efforts to other East Coast cities and Midwest centers such as Chicago and Cincinnati.
3. She focused her activism and educational efforts on the Education Department of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which was only one of three union "educational experiments" in existence before 1918 (New York Times, 1921, April 4, p. 3:5). It is apparent that Fannia Mary was the spiritual leader of this effort.
4. She recognized the value of a liberal education for workers and developed a curriculum accordingly.
5. She committed her personal resources to workers' education when her union resources were nearly nonexistent.
6. Representing one of three educational "experiments" in existence before 1918, she stimulated the creation of the Workers' Education Bureau which held its first conference in New York City in April 1921 (New York Times, 1921, April 3, p. 21:3).
7. She supported Brookwood College as the first residential college for workers in the United States.
8. She is recognized for her public relations or "propaganda" on behalf of workers' education. She not only carried out a voluminous correspondence, but she also authored a number of papers and journal articles.
In a sense Fannia Mary Cohn was a tragic figure. She was forced by circumstances to leave her native Russia against the wishes of her parents. She arrived in America as it was in the process of profound change. The nation's changing ethnic composition, attitudes concerning women's roles, and political and economic ideas exerted extreme stress upon the country's social fabric.
Upon arrival in the United States she chose to throw her lot in with her fellow Jewish immigrants in the garment industry. Her leadership qualities soon led to her election as the president of Local 41 of the Kimono, Wrappers, and Housedress Workers' Union of New York. The same qualities were revealed time and again during her life as she became the first woman elected to a vice presidency in the ILGWU. Yet, she was a victim of her own constituency as she was isolated from both the male and female power brokers. After serving as a vice president for several years, she was defeated in her bid for re-election in December of 1925. Many factors probably contributed to her defeat, but her single-minded dedication to workers' education as she perceived it should be was possibly an important element. Her defeat in 1925 was followed by a continuing decline in the activism of the Education Department as workers' education gave way to labor education.
Cohn's uncompromising, demanding, self-centered, and domineering personality combined with her romantic and idealistic views of education presented her with many interpersonal and political problems that possibly interfered with her influence in some instances. For example, even though it is likely that she shared many of the aspirations identified for Bryn Mawr's Summer School for Women Workers, she rejected the opportunity to influence the curriculum because of her radical philosophy. And even though she encouraged the activism of Local 25 members, she could not continue her support because of internal union politics. However, the same qualities, commitment, dedication, and assurance of the value of workers' education, which were a source of weakness, were also a fountainhead of strength.
Aims of workers' college. (1921, June 16). New York Times, p. 8:1.
Bryn Mawr's new step: Summer school of women industrial workers attracts wide attention. (1921, June 5). New York Times, VI, p. 5:1.
Cohen, R. C. M. (1975). Fannia Cohn and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.
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