Rose Finkelstein Norwood

Rose Finkelstein Norwood (1889-1980)

Rose Finkelstein Norwood and Hyman Norwood

Rose Finkelstein Norwood was an energetic, indefatigable union activist and organizer. She believed strongly in the rights of workers to unionize, and she was part of many strikes and organizing drives in Boston and the wider New England area. She not only faced anti-union opposition but also faced police dogs, bitter cold, and snow. She also championed workers’ education where workers were given opportunities to continue to learn.

Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1889, Rose immigrated with her family to Boston at the age of one. She grew up in East Cambridge where she was victim of a violent anti-Semitic attack; this helped sensitize her to the oppression around her, especially toward immigrants. She and her family subsequently moved to Jamaica Plain and then Dorchester. Her father was a garment worker and trade unionist, then a tailor. Her mother, Fannie Schafferman, opened a small grocery store.

Rose quit Jamaica Plain High School to work at New England Telephone & Telegraph. Initially, telephone operators had been men; later it was decided that women would be more compliant. Operators worked in a regimented work environment and frequently were assigned a split shift where they had an unpaid several hour break between shifts. Rose became a charter member of the Boston Telephone Operators Union and became a leader during their subsequent strike in 1919. They walked the picket line for six days, paralyzing phone service in five states. The mainly women operators received little support from male union leaders, but they won their strike demands; their weekly pay was increased from $16 to $19 a week with no more split shifts. They maintained a guarantee of the right to unionize; this was an important step in consolidating a union in this industry.

She married Hyman Norwood, a Russian Jew, who ran a tire and battery store. Her wedding dress was made in union-style in the dress shop of the Women’s Trade Union League; she later served as president of this organization! They shared interests in riding motorcycles as well as flying airplanes. Because she got married, she had to quit her job, a penalty for married women at the time. Together Rose and Hyman had two children.

Workers’ education provided night classes and summer school for factory workers. Rose attended the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. Learning well the lessons for workers rights taught at Bryn Mawr, she and other students demanded that trade union standards be applied to the college’s black maids and groundskeepers! In addition, she organized programs where library books would be loaned to factories and union halls.
Rose worked in many other unions during her career as an organizer: jewelry workers, boilermakers, laundry workers,International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She worked for American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) where she organized Boston Public Library workers. In addition, she called for the right of domestic workers to organize.

She found organizing the clerks of Jordan Marsh department store in the late 1940s one of her most memorable organizing experiences. She later told the Boston Globe: “I’d go upstairs to the dining room where there’s [hundreds] of workers and start handing out literature. The private detectives spot me, they escort me out, one on each side, and I just go in the other door. When I saw a detective coming, I‘d hide in the coats. Or I’d go to the Ladies Room. They’d be waiting outside for me though.When they saw the girls getting a raise in pay, they came over to me and said, ‘Hey, how about organizing us?” The clerks successfully formed a chapter of the Retail Workers International Union (RWIU).

The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was organized nationally in the early part of the twentieth century, uniting social reformers, progressive union members, and settlement house workers. Rose was an active member of Women’s Trade Union League as they campaigned for women’s rights and for women suffrage. Rose moderated a public forum in Boston in 1924 where lawyer Jennie Loitman Barron (later Judge Barron), spoke on the necessity of having women on juries. (Massachusetts finally agreed to allow women on juries in the 1950s following many other states). Rose later became president of the Boston chapter, a position she held from 1941 to 1950 when the organization was disbanded.

Ever a fighter for justice, she campaigned for the defense of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s. She fought for the right of married women to work and keep their pay, and she campaigned for publicly funded day care for the children of women who worked in the war industry during World War II. She also belonged to the NAACP, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and she was a labor Zionist. Towards the end of her life, Rose was appointed by Boston Mayor Kevin White to serve on the city’s Advisory Commission on Elderly Affairs.

– Linda Stern

Learn more

  • American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Labor’s Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923 by Stephen H. Norwood. University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Rose Finkelstein Norwood Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
  • Jewish Women’s Archive