Local author speaks at county libraries about historic factory fire
Christine Seifert will speak at area county libraries. (photo courtesy of Westminster College)
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During the Gilded Age of America, thousands of immigrants flocked to factory jobs; some of them found hope, others found tragedy. In her new book, “Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic View of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,” local author and Westminster College professor Christine Seifert examines one of those tragedies, which she discussed during a book tour of Salt Lake County libraries. She visited Whitmore Library on June 7.
One of the worst industrial disasters in American history, the 1911 New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, including 123 women, mostly immigrants between the ages of 16 and 23. In a then-common practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft, the factory owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. This would prove fatal when a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the factory and trapped workers on the upper floors.
“I would have loved to tell the stories of all the young women involved in the fire that day,” said Seifert. Her book explores the lives of five young adult women, four teens and a 21-year-old man who perished in the fire.
“I wanted to write something that would show readers what life was like for a factory girl ... before and after the fire,” Seifert said.
Seifert is a professor of communications at Westminster College, where she has taught the past 12 years. Instead of focusing primarily on the cause of the fire and the aftermath (which resulted in some of the first occupational safety regulations to protect factory workers), Seifert’s focus is on the workers themselves.
“I hope readers walk away with an understanding of what it was like to be a young immigrant woman in early 1900s New York,” she said. “The five young women I talk about are truly incredible people and deserve to be remembered.”
Seifert’s book discusses the excesses and impacts of the Gilded Age, which she relates to the conditions women around the world are working in today.
“One of the things I took away from writing the book is that things haven't changed that much. Yes, we've made tremendous progress in terms of how we think about some workers’ rights and safety in the United States, but we’ve ended up outsourcing much of that labor abroad to the developing world,” she said. “Workers in India and Bangladesh, for instance, work in basically the same conditions as the factory girls of 1911.”
There may be no easy answers regarding how to avoid buying items produced globally in “sweatshops,” a pejorative term for places that employ labor in poor or socially unacceptable circumstances. “I went into the book believing that consumers should refuse to buy clothing from companies that use sweatshop labor, but I left with a sobering realization: Boycotting sweatshop labor is almost impossible,” said Seifert. On one side of the issue are the deplorable conditions that women labor in while working for pennies per day; but on the flipside, a sweatshop provides an alternative to prostitution, trash-picking or starvation.
“Boycotting products made in factories in India, for example, can have devastating consequences for workers who depend on the small wages to survive. I discovered that there are no easy answers.”
Seifert’s previous books include “Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars,” published in 2015, and a young adult novel, “The Predicteds,” which was voted Best Dystopian Twist by “Salt Lake City Weekly” and has been published in three languages, and “Virginity in Young Adult Literature after Twilight.” Dr. Seifert appeared on “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” show to talk about her fiction works and her analysis of sex and sexuality in young adult popular culture.
During her book tour, Seifert visited Millcreek Library on June 13, Riverton Library on June 20, and Hunter Library on June 27.