The Accidental Suffragist
New York City, 1911. Helen Fox is a factory worker barely able to make ends meet and so reluctantly allows Abigail, her eldest daughter, to go to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; the family desperately needs the money. When Abigail is killed in the devastating fire, Helen is paralyzed by grief and self-recrimination. But she is ultimately able to channel her sorrow into the suffragist cause, and to her surprise, becomes swept up in its idealistic fervor.
Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks with debut novelist Galia Gichon about The Accidental Suffragist (Wyatt-Mackenzie), and the ways in which emotion and activism intersect.
YZM: What inspired you to write about women’s suffrage? Does the subject have a particular relevance now?
GG: I’ve been fascinated by the Suffragists since I was a young girl. These women were fighting an uphill battle and I was so impressed by their dedication, especially since the odds were against them for so long. The 100th anniversary of a woman’s right to vote was only last year, so the interest has definitely resurfaced as a result. Central Park erected a statue to honor three famous suffragists just in 2020!
YZM: Can you speak about the meaning of the title—why “accidental?”
GG: Helen Fox, the protagonist never meant to get involved in the Suffragist movement. She lived in a tenement apartment. Although both she and her husband worked in the factories, they still barely had enough food to feed their family of six. All she was concerned about was the safety and well-being of her children. When the tragedy of her eldest daughter’s death occurred, she by chance met key suffragists who ended up helping her financially and with support. They offered her a job which she initially took because it paid, but she didn’t really care about the cause. But in no time, she was swept up in the Suffragist cause and became a rising leader in the organization.
YZM: Lilith has long covered the women labor union organizers of that era who were Jewish; can you say more about them?
GG: There was Clara Lemlich Shavelson, an influential labor union leader who barely spoke English (she mostly spoke Yiddish) initially but then went on to help spark the historic “Uprising of the 20,000, which focused on improved factory conditions and fair wages. Pauline Newman worked in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She ended up organizing strikes across the country to benefit garment workers and more. Rose Schneiderman worked in the factories for the money. An advocate of the working class, she became a union organizer and supporter of women’s suffrage. All these women became involved and activists despite societal pressures and their families’ wishes.
YZM: You’ve talked about a convergence of “Judaism, women’s rights and gender equality.”
GG: The common thread here—which has been an integral part of my upbringing—is helping minorities achieve equal status free from persecution. I grew up wanting Jews to have religious freedom in Israel, Europe and the United States. As a teen I learned about women’s rights and wanted an equal footing in my education and workplace. This was especially important as I started my career on Wall Street and noticed the pay disparity between women and men. With the advent of the #MeToo movement, gender equality is even more pertinent to women feeling comfortable in organizations, corporations and their communities.
Religious freedom, women’s rights and gender equality can’t happen in a vacuum—they need each other to progress.
-A Novel Goes from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to the Suffragists’ Fight for the Vote
Yona Zeldis McDonough
Helen Fox, her husband, Albert, and their twelve-year-old daughter Abigail work long hours under difficult conditions at New York City’s garment factories in the early twentieth century. Although Albert briefly entertains the idea of joining a union, the family is resigned to a lifetime of thankless labor and low wages. Then the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claims Abigail’s life, and Helen is drawn into the burgeoning suffragist movement by one of its charismatic leaders. When Helen is offered a well-paying job at the Equality League, she takes it—despite Albert’s misgivings, the money will help their family escape from poverty. Helen becomes passionate about women’s suffrage, taking extraordinary risks in support of the cause. Despite some minor pacing issues and occasional clunky dialogue, the story is engaging, presenting a different perspective from most fiction about this era, which tends to focus on the well-heeled leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Helen is an appealing heroine and her personal journey will resonate with readers. Fans of Fiona Davis’ The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) may appreciate Gichon’s spirited debut.
- Nanette Donohue
The Accidental Suffragist is set in 1911 and follows New York factory worker Helen Fox, whose
life trajectory is consumed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This event brings with it a
newfound political awareness and participation in the blossoming Suffragist movement. This, in
turn, results in estrangement from her husband, prejudice from former friends and existing
neighbors, and tough decisions surrounding putting politics ahead of family.
Throughout World War One, as the story progresses, Helen finds her activism and revised
purpose in life receives steady opposition, bringing with it many dangers beyond that of
confronting the authorities and status quo.
Galia Gichon does more than recap well-known historical events. Her novel delves into Helen's
quandaries and mind as she steadily moves into the Suffragist world that brings with it an
acknowledgement of her role in past suffering and events to come: “Did we let her go to work
too easily? Remember when she came to us and told us about the job?” Helen asked. “Helen, we
barely had enough for food,” Albert reminded her. “Besides, other girls in the building were
going to the factories, too.” “We didn’t even put up a fight. Not every family sent their twelve-
year-old daughter to the factories.”
Helen's personal calling is to gain women the freedom to vote, for reasons of her own. When
she faces a pregnancy in the midst of her efforts, life threatens to change and come crashing
down around her once again.
For many, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire opened the door to not just new ideas about
labor and women's rights, but personal conundrums over how their roles and lives were
changing not just for themselves, but for their daughters and generations to follow.
As her activism moves from personal environment to trips to Washington and associations with
high-level Suffragists, Helen discovers new ways of decision-making and thinking that hold
opportunities for revised freedoms not only for her and fellow women, but for the men around
Readers interested in a story that does more than recap the sad events surrounding this era's
labor and women's movement relationships will find The Accidental Suffragist brings to life the
impact and changes on families and marriages that were sparked by the Triangle Shirtwaist
More so than most fictionalized accounts, The Accidental Suffragist holds a compelling and
intriguing approach that readers will find enlightening and involving. It's highly recommended
even for those well aware of the changing politics of the times, early women's rights
movements, and the factory fire's lasting impact.
-Midwest Book Review
The Accidental Suffragist
Galia Gichon wears many hats: financial advisor, woman's advocate, educator, mother, and author. While spearheading her New York-based financial literacy firm Down-to-Earth Finance, Galia has penned her debut novel, The Accidental Suffragist (Wyatt-Mackenzie, June 2021), a work of historical fiction written in a contemporary voice. She'll celebrate the book's release with a signing at Barnes & Noble, 76 Post Road East, Westport, on Saturday, July 3 from 1:00 - 3:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
Galia is not entirely new to the page; she's previously written and published My Money Matters (2008), a personal finance book which received notable press from the New York Times, the TODAY Show, CNN, Newsweek, and Real Simple, among others. In addition, she's run seminars for Barnard College for the past 13 years, focuses on women-led companies, and counsels impact startups. Galia also co-founded Woman's Compass Forum (WCF) with attorney Margie Jacobson and yoga instructor Michelle Didner — a 3-hour course that morphed into a 3-month webinar developed to educate woman on finances, legal issues, and health matters.
A Ft. Lauderdale native, Galia attended University of Florida then headed for Manhattan to pursue a fast-paced career in finance and banking. Coupled with her prowess in the Wall Street world, Galia also has a strong appreciation of culture; she frequented museums and galleries in her youth, and has had a longtime penchant for history books. In mid-life Galia tapped her storytelling ability, calling writing her "second chapter." Enter The Accidental Suffragist.
The author moved to Westport a decade ago and has taken fiction writing workshops for half of that time. It was at Westport Writers' Workshop that Galia developed the character, Helen Fox, and set her tale in New York City's 1912. The Accidental Suffragist follows Helen from her first suffrage meeting to marching in Washington, D.C. to working as an activist with hopes for equality in a male-dominated society. Nannette Donohue of Booklist said, "Helen is an appealing heroine and her personal journey will resonate with readers. Fans of Fiona Davis' The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) may appreciate Gichon's spirited debut."
"I love the blank page as it's an open opportunity to give birth to any scene, any character. As a strong supporter of female empowerment, I wanted to write a compelling story of one woman's journey in the collective fight to vote. I'm beyond thrilled to share my first novel with friends, writers, and readers at Barnes & Noble on July 3," said Galia Gichon
Published in The Westport Patch & Westport Hamlethub
The majority of stories about the suffrage movement in the early 1900s are told through the eyes of leaders in the movement, most of whom were educated and/or wealthy. Gichon takes a different approach. In this book, Helen Fox, a factory worker from the tenements, is swept into the cause after a devastating family tragedy. When the grieving Helen is befriended by Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of the pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and offered a job in the office of a suffragist organization, she gets to know Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and other suffrage leaders. Unlike these more privileged women, however, she has money worries, children to care for, and a husband who is unsupportive of her new venture. Helen’s kowtowing to her husband may be frustrating for contemporary readers but highlights the absolute powerlessness of poor women.
Events depicted in the book include the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; the 1913 March on Washington, DC, when policemen stood by as a crowd of angry, drunken men attacked the marchers; and the Night of Terror in 1917, when women who had protested outside the White House were arrested, brutalized and tortured. Choosing these particular instances underscores the urgency women felt in achieving equality. Gichon provides a granular account of how the suffragists planned, organized, and relentlessly pursued their goal. She also vividly shows how difficult and dangerous life was for members of both sexes in the working class at this time.
While appealing to anyone interested in this topic, the book would also make a wonderful text for college (or high school) students to learn about an era when certain brave women were willing to sacrifice everything for the right to vote. The accessible narrative style and the sympathetic characters bring this important story to life.
Historical Novel Society