Out of the Ashes

In his compelling book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America,” David Von Drehle reminds his readers in vivid detail of the events of March 25, 1911.

By nightfall, 146 young girls, burned from the fire or crushed and mutilated by death-defying leaps from nine stories up, lay dead on the sidewalk. Until the tragedy of 9/11 happened, the Triangle fire was the worst workplace disaster in the history of NYC.  

In a review of the book, Vince Piro writes: “Back in 1911, the Triangle Waist Company employed hundreds who sewed blouses (or shirtwaists) in its 10-story factory located in Manhattan. Most of these employees were immigrant women, of which 40 percent were Italian and about 60 percent were Eastern European Jews.”

Just one week before the fire, on March 19, 1911, Europe marked its very first International Women’s Day when more than one million women and men in four countries rallied for a woman’s right to vote and right to work.

Ironically, only six days later, the deaths of teenage immigrant girls half a world away led to sweeping changes in labor legislation and to a worldwide commemoration of International Women’s Day. 

In fact, a Google search of the topic tells us that International Women’s Day grew to become a vehicle to recount the stories of ordinary women who made history.

One site takes us back to ancient Greece where Lysistrata organized what was probably the world’s first strike. She encouraged women to withhold sex from men who made war. From the women of the French Revolution who stormed Versailles calling for “liberty, equality and fraternity,” to the bravery of Michela Marciano whose life began in the ashes of a tiny Italian village at the foot of Mount Vesuvius and ended in the ashes of the Triangle fire, International Women’s Day in the month of March remembers them all.

I’ve lived in Italy for 14 years and each year in March I am struck by the nationwide celebration of International Women’s Day, “La Festa della Donna.” The holiday falls on March 8 when it is customary to give sprigs of bright yellow mimosa to every woman you know. Men give mimosa to women but maybe more importantly, women present the flower to one another. 

Why mimosa? Romans say that the mimosa signifies sensitivity, a trait that propels many women to stand strong for their beliefs. Others say that the mimosa represents “concealed love,” the love that biblical Queen Esther had for her people that led her to break her silence by disclosing that she was Jewish – an admission that led to the salvation of her people.

And then there is the memory of the few young girls who survived the Triangle fire. On that fateful day, some recall seeing wild mimosa blooming in the vacant lot adjacent to the factory. For nearly 150 beautiful, vibrant and determined Italian and Jewish women, the ordinary mimosa was the last flower they ever saw.

From historical heroines like Lysistrada and Queen Esther to the courageous immigrant girls whose deaths propelled massive changes in factory working conditions around the world, we Italian women cherish their lives and honor their memory. How? Every year on March 8 you can see us. From Italy’s cities in the far north to southern villages in the “toe” of the “boot,” Italian women are a sea of bright yellow as we wear mimosa in our hair.