Fannia M. Cohn was one of the leading Jewish women trade union activists in the United States from 1909 until her death in 1962.
Cohn was born on April 5, 1885, in Kletzk, in what is today Belarus, the fourth of five children of Hyman (Chaim) and Anna (Rosofsky) Cohn. Her father managed a flour mill and the family was wealthy. She was educated privately, and at age fifteen became involved in clandestine revolutionary activities.
In 1904, following a pogrom in which her brother was almost killed, she and her brother immigrated to the United States where she worked at the American Jewish Women’s Committee at Ellis Island. She left the job to become involved in trade union work, taking a job as a sleeve-maker.
Cohn was 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 served as chairwoman 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 led the first successful strike of Chicago’s dress and cotton fabrics workers in 1915. Her fame spread throughout the union and she returned to New York in 1916. Cohn was aware of the male dominance in the labor movement and she constantly fought for women’s participation.
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. Cohn succeeded in establishing programs to educate workers in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
In 1921, Cohn helped establish Brookwood Labor College, the first residential college for workers in the United States. She would serve as a director of Brookwood until 1933, also sitting on the board of Brookwood’s Labor Publication Society, publisher of the magazine Labor Age. In 1932 Cohn was named a vice president of Brookwood Labor College, a position in which she remained until 1937.
In 1923, she began working with Pioneer Youth of America, which sponsored summer camps for worker’s children.
In the 1920s, she also attended major international conferences on workers’ education in Brussels and Oxford. She developed an international network of contacts and became widely known for her pioneering work in the field.
In 1924, Cohn became active in the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA), a group envisioned as an umbrella organization of progressive political and trade union activists leading towards the establishment of a labor party in the United States. Cohn was elected a member of the National Committee of the CPPA. Despite the failure of that organization to survive beyond 1925, Cohn remained active in left wing politics at least through the 1940s as a member of the League for Industrial Democracy.
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 effectively.”
Although she was the founder of the ILGWU’s educational activities and often served as de facto head of its education department, she never earned the title. When the union cut funding for her projects, Cohn raised money from family members to keep the activities going.
In 1925, Cohn was not reelected to the ILGWU General Executive Board and over the next few years, to the outrage of many, the new director, Mark Starr, restricted Cohn’s work. Starr and other union leaders felt that Cohn was responsible for trying to spark a rebellion among women workers within the union. Militant women activists, mostly Communists and Socialists, felt she had compromised her values by staying in the Union.
Cohn spent the rest of her career creating additional educational programs, opportunities, and events for workers despite declining funding and opposition from others in the labor movement.
She continued as a relatively powerless executive secretary until she was forced into retirement in August 1962 at the age of 76. She died of a stroke on December 24, 1962, in New York City.
“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 worker’s education,” said Rosie Pesotta, a noted ILGWU organizer and herself a vice-president of the union. “She remains a tragic figure amidst her own fellow workers…Were she a man it would have been entirely different.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish 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.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Thomas Dublin, “Fannia M. Cohn,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women’s Archive, (February 27, 2009), accessed on March 11, 2021.
“Fannia Cohn,” Wikipedia.
“Emotion Strained through a Thinking Mind: Fannia Cohn, the ilgwu, and the Struggle for Workers’ Education, 1915–1945,” in Anneliese Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965, North Carolina Scholarship Online, accessed March 12, 2021.