Fania Mary Cohn
(1885 - 1962)
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 February 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
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
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 Staff 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.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included
Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish
Heroism, © 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.