by Marci Merola
Edvige Giunta works tirelessly to keep the dead alive. It happens during her memoir writing workshops, like a recent one entitled “Stories of Our Dead,” and through her day job as Professor of English at New Jersey City University, where such stories are both read and written. It’s obvious when she’s writing the names of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in chalk in front of their homes on the anniversary of the tragedy (a newish tradition started by Ruth Sergel that she carries forth) or observing the impact that it has on students of her Triangle fire class. Now, in a new book co-edited with Mary Anne Trasciatti, Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (New Village Press), she breathes new life into the stories and the legacy of the 146 workers who died in the devastating fire that happened 111 years ago.
“It’s not that I am obsessed with the fire,” she says, smiling over Zoom. One glimpse into her airy, plant-filled home office, and you can get a sense that keeping things alive comes naturally to her. “And it’s not just that the Triangle fire has been a subject of study for me. It’s something that’s been so organically integrated into so many aspects of my life, from friendships and collaborations with Italian American women, to the teaching of it, and even within my own family. It’s very personal.”
“Just yesterday,” she says, “we had a meeting with the publisher who gave us the official publication date of the book: March 22, 2022. It feels really momentous, like a really long, long journey that for me started when I was 17.”
Giunta’s introduction to the Triangle fire took place thousands of miles away from New York, and is intertwined with her introduction to feminism. “I was born in Gela, a town in Sicily. It’s a biggish town but very provincial, with a small-town mentality. Fortuitously, in the 1970s, Gela was host to Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, a well-known Italian writer, who came to live there because she was teaching nearby. She started a feminist group, probably the first in Sicily. I was 12 or 13 years old … I had an older sister and I knew some of the girls who gravitated toward Maria Rosa.”
She lays all this out so matter-of-factly, but it’s clearly a story of its own, with sufficient ingredients for a Giuseppe Tornatore epic. Imagine Cutrufelli, the Sicilian-born, University of Bologna educated, self-made writer and feminist, who moves to the small town of Gela, causing more rumblings than Mt. Etna, awakening and radicalizing young women there. Although the feminist group dissolved after Cutrufelli left, the seeds of change had been planted in fertile Sicilian soil: Many of the young women also left Gela, some headed to cities like Catania and Bologna to continue to work for women’s rights. Giunta, still a teenager, stayed behind, but was deeply affected.
“When I was 16, I started my own femminismo and became very intrigued by the issues of women’s rights,” she continues. “At that time, abortion rights was the big issue. And it’s kind of strange that this is what is coming up again today, right? So many women and girls died because of abortions being performed in terrible conditions. There were the classic stories of the knitting needles. I was outraged. At that time, The Radical Party was campaigning, so I went to Catania and told them I wanted to campaign for them, even though I wasn’t old enough to vote. The following year I started a feminist radio program at the local radio station.”
“Now… in my memory for the longest time, I thought the first time I heard about the Triangle fire was when I was 18 and had joined the feminist movement in Catania. During the feminist marches, part of the collective memory was the story of these women who had died in a fire in a factory in New York City. I didn’t know it was called Triangle; I didn’t know there were Italian women; I did not know there were Sicilian women. Then a few months ago I was flipping through an old notebook of my scripts from my radio show when I was 17, and there it was: I talked about the Triangle fire in my first radio program at Radio Gela, Sfruttata con onore. So I feel that the Fire actually sanctioned my public voice as a feminist.”
From Sicily to New York
Giunta left Sicily for the U.S. in the 1980s to pursue a master’s degree, then her Ph.D. in English at the University of Miami. The Triangle fire was set aside, until her work took her to New Jersey and New York, where her subject matter moved from James Joyce to women writers and finally to Italian American writers. In 2001, she helped to organize a commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the Triangle fire with Casa Italiana at New York University. She believes it was the first time an Italian American group had done a public commemoration of the Triangle fire.
“The Triangle fire has entered the Italian American public memory rather late,” she surmises. “I think it has existed in personal and familial memory—at the level of passing on stories. But really, the assertion that yes, this was a chapter of Italian American history, especially Italian American women’s history, has come really late, especially when you consider how Jewish American history has embraced it from the beginning.”
It was after the commemoration that Giunta began teaching about the Triangle fire in her classes, which focus on immigration and women writers. “I started including it in my teaching,” she says, “remembering it with my students. Always feeling the responsibility to pass it on.”
Talking to the Girls
Fast forward twenty years and you’ll find that Edvige Giunta has made a successful life in the U.S, as writer, editor, teacher, activist, mother and wife. She’s published several books, has co-founded the Collective of Italian American Women, now known as the Malia Collective, and is editor of multiple anthologies, including the acclaimed, The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture. In fact, Giunta was about ready to hang up her editor hat … yet one more book called to her.
“I was very fortunate to find a partner like Mary Anne Trasciatti,” says Giunta of the new book. Trasciatti is a Professor of Rhetoric and Director of Labor Studies program at Hofstra University, and President of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. “We come from different academic backgrounds and interests, but we share an affinity of ideas and commitment to the Triangle fire.
“We both felt, as did the contributors, an enormous sense of ethical responsibility to the story. Which can be a bit tricky, given the genre of personal/memoiristic essay that we chose for the book. In memoir, the boundaries between what happened, what did not happen, and what might have happened or even a kind of fantastic reimagining of reality, are very slippery. Memoir aims to identify and tell the subjective truth of memory. We wanted to do this with this book through the essays but maintaining historical accuracy. It was quite a challenge.”
Work began on the collection in 2017. “We never wanted to just ‘finish,’” says Giunta, “we wanted to come to completion of the project in a manner that did justice to the story that we were telling collectively.”
While previous publications have focused on the monumental changes that the Triangle fire brought forth, Talking to the Girls is a collection of 18 essays that expose a private, personal aspect of the legacy, by 19 authors connected to the Triangle fire in various ways. “We wanted to get to the heart of what it is that connects the personal and the public. We had to urge the writers not to be reticent about telling their story and to recognize openly the relevance of those intimate details, how their personal and private experience is relevant. We are very grateful that contributors were generous, letting us go back and forth to keep asking questions. It was a project of discovery and revelation for all of us.”
That work is evident. “There’s the incredible essay by Martin Abromovitz,” Giunta offers, “who writes about a very complex and difficult story of the possibility that his father had inadvertently started this fire. The willingness and courage and grace with which he tells that story is remarkable.” Or the story of Suzanne Pred Bass, who writes of two great aunts, Katie and Rose Weiner, who were in the fire: one who perished, and one who bravely grabbed the elevator cable in order to make it to safety. “In that story, we find out that March 25 also marked the death of an older sister, eight years prior. So when you try to understand the role of the Triangle fire within a particular family, you just don’t look only at the person who died in the fire, but at the constellation of moments that help you understand the family in the context of immigration history, in the context of women’s history, in the context of making memory, and in the context of coping with grief.”
Impact on Italy and International Women’s Day
If there’s one problem with interviewing Edvige Giunta, it’s that every sentence she utters makes for a great closing quote; a great opportunity to end the conversation; a perfect mic drop. Yet there’s always more to ask and more to learn. And so I ask about the second life that the Triangle fire has had in Italy.
“For the longest time we [Italians] believed that the Triangle fire took place on March 8,” she says. There is a song from the 1970s called ‘8 Marzo’ by the Movimento Feminista Romano: ‘Remember us we died in a factory, exploited at work, exploited at home.’ Some believe that International Women’s Day was established because of this.”
Debate ensues about the origins of International Women’s Day. The first march took place in Northern Europe on March 19, 1911, where more than a million women and women attended rallies campaigning for women’s rights. But just days later, the Triangle fire would make world news, turning eyes to the U.S. and further galvanizing the effort. While some believe the Triangle fire is at the core of the movement, March 8 was ultimately selected as the official date, marking the anniversary of a provisional end to women’s suffrage in Russia.
Perhaps the duality of its history is indicative of the time. “The feminist historian, Emma Baeri, whom I knew as a young feminist in Catania, has talked about this kind of imagined memory,” she says, explaining that so much of Italian women’s stories and experience has been passed down through conversations and oral tradition, not through history books. “We have been on the margins and outside official history. So as women, we try to pass on the stories and push them into the realm of history the best way we can. So that is how we end up in Italy with this re-imagined memory of the Triangle fire.”
But even Italy has come full circle. “It’s really wonderful to see how Italy has recovered the history of the Triangle fire today with a level of historical accuracy,” says Giunta. She recounts the visit to the 2014 U.S. of Laura Boldrini, then President of the Chamber of Deputies of Italy. After her official stop in D.C., Boldrini asked to visit the site of the Triangle fire, so the U.S. Consulate arranged a visit through Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana, with Giunta being one of the hosts. “That was incredible! Now you have an Italian government representative coming to the site of the factory fire, and meeting with Vincent Maltese, the grandson of Catherine Maltese, who died with her two daughters, Lucia and fourteen-year-old Rosaria, who was the youngest to die. It was momentous in terms of immigrant history.”
Equally momentous is the story of Ester Rizzo Licata, with the Italian feminist group, Toponomastica Femminile, whose recent work seeks to commemorate and correct history. “She became committed to tracking down where the Italian victims were born,” says Giunta. “Most of them from Sicily, but also Apulia, Basilicata, and Campania. For six, the birthplace has not been identified yet. She contacted the mayors of all these various towns and said let’s do something commemorative for these workers. So now all these towns have plaques and squares and streets named for them.” In her essay in Talking to the Girls, Licata writes:
I wanted to bring them back home … When a group of us, all women, read that long list on the stage of a theater in my hometown of Licata, Sicily, on March 8, 2012, a respectful silence enveloped the audience. It was then that I felt a deep desire to learn about and understand the lives of these fellow Italian women before they went to America, to give them the dignity of being remembered in the places where they were born and where they lived a chapter of their lives.
In Italy, as in the U.S., the stories live on and new ones are born, thanks to inspired individual and collective voices who keep the legacy going. “In some ways this all feels like a version, an amplification of what I was doing when I was 17 years old and I was asking people to remember the women who died in a fire.” Amplification, indeed. The book’s epilogue, an inspiring interview with Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter about her work since the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen Factory fire, is a reminder that one hundred years later, the struggle for workers’ rights continues throughout the world.
“For me, talking about the Triangle fire is something that reverberates in every way, and I’m very curious to see what this book will do in terms of bringing together a new community of people who don’t know about it. I’m eager to see what will happen next.”
Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti, will be published on March 22, 2022, in time for the 111st anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Pre-order your copy through New Village Press.
A Brief History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
by Marci Merola
If you have lived or worked in the United States, your life has been impacted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, whether you know its dark history or not. It informs our lives in big ways and small, through labor rights that we take for granted and safety regulations governing the places in which we live and work. From the simple presence of exit signs that we pass without notice to social security benefits, American life has been shaped by the fire. But for some it’s much more private: educating others about this tragedy has become a self-perpetuating act, as it’s nearly impossible for anyone telling their personal Triangle fire connection to not recount the details. Such was the problem editors Mary Anne Trasciatti and Edvige Giunta encountered often as they edited their forthcoming compilation, Talking to the Girls, Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (New Village Press, March 22, 2022).
The facts are brutal. Greenwich Village, New York, March 25, 1911. As workers near the end of their shift, a hot cigarette ash drops into a garbage can. Working conditions in this sweatshop are truly incendiary: rooms stuffed with workers, air thick with fibers from hours of fabric cutting, stairwells and doors locked by employers—a common practice to keep workers from taking breaks. The Asch Building itself had been touted as “fireproof,” and although the structure still stands today, owners had taken shortcuts to skirt the few safety regulations in place. Rickety fire escapes were barely ancillary. An ill-equipped fire department had no means to reach the upper floors of this modern, high-rise factory. In the span of 18 minutes, all that was left of the wooden interior of the building was ash. 123 women and 23 men, Italian and Jewish immigrants as young as 14, jumped to their death, suffocated, or were burned alive. The story of the defeated fire chief who finds a live mouse among the rubble and takes it home is legendary: “At least I could save one life today,” he’s rumored to have said.
The aftermath is revolutionary. The 18-minute blaze changed the nation, resulting in advancement in workers’ rights, child labor laws, formation of unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), and adoption of fire codes and safety regulations.
Perhaps what fueled such a surge of change was that these conditions had been called out before. Two years prior, more than 20,000 shirtwaist workers in New York had gone on strike, protesting deplorable conditions that ultimately led to the death of those 146 workers, including safety issues, as well as unfair wages and long work days. Striking workers demanded a 20% pay raise and a shorter, 52-hour work week, plus overtime pay. While some companies complied, owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are said to have been staunchly anti-union, hiring thugs to beat employees and bribing police to make arrests. Ultimately, 400 Triangle workers went back to an unchanged work environment that would soon end in disaster.
Nothing was new about these terrible work conditions, said Mary Anne Trasciatti in her conversation with the Italian American Podcast. Co-Editor of this new collection, Professor of Rhetoric and Director of Labor Studies program at Hofstra University, and President of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Trasciatti is clearly an expert on the topic. Injuries, death and disasters were prevalent in garment factories, she explains. The new factor was that this fire had happened in the light of day, a horrific public spectacle that would forever change those who witnessed it.
One such person was Frances Perkins, an upper-crust young woman who happened to be having tea nearby when the fire broke out. Already focused on workers’ rights, Perkins had studied the working poor and working conditions in Philadelphia and Chicago, including Jane Addams and the settlement house movement, and was working with the New York Consumers League. But witnessing the horrors of the fire gave her new resolve. She went on to devote her life to workers’ rights, becoming the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor, appointed by her colleague, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Her New Deal accomplishments included implementation of the Social Security Act, as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set maximum work hours and minimum wages, and abolished child labor. “The New Deal began on March 25, 1911,” she famously said.
The story is not over. Through the work of editors Giunta and Trasciatti, Frances Perkins’ grandson finally had an opportunity to amend that statement: “The New Deal Began with My Grandmother, Frances Perkins” is the title of his essay, which gives us a glimpse into the personal life and legacy of his grandmother. Through this and many other carefully edited narratives, we see how the legacy of the fire lives on, through family secrets and ritual mourning of family members never known; from classrooms in New York and New Jersey to garment factories in Bangladesh; from protests in Berkeley to piazzas in Sicily. In this marriage of collective and personal memory, the editors have elevated both into historical record, and give new life to a story that should never die.