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Carola Woerishoffer and Why She Is Awesome

Have you ever heard of Carola Woerishoffer? Of course you haven't. Because as Americans, we hate hard-to-pronounce names, and she's basically the most obscure insanely awesome person I've ever heard of.

I came upon her name while finishing The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein (written in 1962 when survivors of the fire were still alive and could be interviewed). It's a well-paced, thoughtful and obviously moving account of the fire, the events leading up to it, and the repercussions/after-effects. Carola ('Woerishoffer' seems too forbidding) is only mentioned in one paragraph, but it interested me enough to read more about her. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of readily-available information, but there was a lengthy memorial by muckraker journalist Ida Tarbell. Here's the original paragraph I read. The setting is the shirtwaist strike of 1909, when the girls in the factories went on strike for three months. They were beaten in the streets and arrested for no legitimate reason:

Carola Woerishoffer, young, wealthy, dark-eyed, and a graduate of Bryn Mawr, did it her own way. She used her money to buy houses. Then she haunted the entrance to the Jefferson Market Court at Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street and whenever another group of arrested strikers was marched before a magistrate, she was with them in front of the bench armed with a deed, ready to slap it down for their release.

That would have been enough for me, but then I read Ida Tarbell's essay and was stunned. Carola Woerishoffer exemplified what Tarbell calls "the Revolt of the Young Rich." After the robber barons, steel tycoons and Wall Street magnates started accumulating their wealth, they had children. Who were, of course, very very rich children. And, possibly because of the socially turbulent and progressive times, they wanted to do something with their money; they wanted to help people and understand classes other than their own. Not all of them wanted to, of course, but enough that it became a marked trend. Carola worked in the steam laundries so she could report the working conditions to the Consumers' League. She did this for four months, in stifling conditions, with no hint given of who she really was.

This and the previous paragraph are two small examples of the good she did. Tarbell writes of strike funds established, factories inspected, gifts to the needy given (anonymously), and an unshakeable sense of what needed to be done, always followed up by action.

"To whom much is given, much is required"? She is one of the few I know of who lived up to and exceeded this maxim. I wish her life had been longer so that it was possible to see what she would have done in WWI and the Great Depression, but in 1911, at the age of 26, she was driving in bad weather, the car skidded and went down an embankment, and she died of resulting injuries.

Of course, the most sobering thing from all this is to look at her life, at the lives of her contemporaries, and then to look at their modern day counterparts: Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. As my friend said while discussing this topic, "Sometimes I hate today."

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