On March 25, 1911, 100 years ago today, a wealthy young graduate student named Frances Perkins (right) was having tea in downtown New York when she heard a commotion: A catastrophic fire had broken out at the Triangle Shirt Waist Company.

“I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was,” Perkins said in a lecture in 1964. “We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there.” Trapped inside the upper floors of a 10-story building, 146 workers—mostly young immigrant women and teenage girls—were burned alive or forced to jump to their deaths to escape an inferno that consumed the factory in just 18 minutes.The scene changed Perkins’ life; she began to advocate for working conditions for women, eventually serving on the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. In 1932, more than 20 years later, Perkins became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor.

In commemoration of the event, the documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire premiered on HBO last week. Its makers had in mind the movement spawned by the fire and contemporary labor struggles. We also thought of the long  history of women’s leadership in the garment industry, including recent struggles to keep it alive in this globalized era.

And if you’re near New York’s Washington Square Park at lunchtime today, you may want to swing by for the 12:15 or 12:45 performance by Nina Haft & Company (profiled last week), marking the anniversary of the fire.

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