A Life of Purpose

Carola Woerishoffer dedicated her life to social justice.

Carola Woerishoffer (Class of 1907) was born in 1885 into a family vibrant with the most humane ideals of 19th-century German-American socialism. Her father died before Woerishoffer was one year old, and she inherited over $1 million (current value: over $28.2 million).

“Carola was a person at 10 years of age, full of honor,” said the head of the Brearley School, her high school alma mater. “She had no care whatsoever for making a good impression . . . . From the beginning of her short journey, her path was straight, her step was strong and steady.”

That path took Woerishoffer from Brearley to Bryn Mawr and from Bryn Mawr to some of her era’s most progressive circles.

Most progressives, while benevolent, assumed that poverty was ineradicable—but not Woerishoffer. Her goal was the elimination of poverty itself, and she directed her fortune—anonymously—to that goal.

Anonymously, she financed the struggling Women’s Trade Union League, dedicated to organizing women workers and eliminating sweatshops. Anonymously, she funded the first-ever exhibition on urban congestion, held at the American Museum of Natural History in 1908. That exhibition was so powerful that it led to the creation of the new discipline of city planning. Throughout, Woerishoffer’s name never appeared.

In the bitter winter of 1909 and 1910, shirtwaist workers in New York walked out of their factories in what would be known as the Uprising of the 20,000. And every day for 11 weeks, Woerishoffer stood outside the courthouses at Jefferson Market and Essex Street to hand out cash bail of $2 or $3 to young strikers detained for resisting arrest. Her contributions, which amounted to almost $90,000, spared hundreds of immigrant girls the dangers and degradation of the workhouse; not one young striker failed to appear for trial.

In 1910, she was appointed a special investigator by New York’s newly formed State Bureau of Industries and Immigration, which she had funded—anonymously, of course—and traveled the state to visit factories and labor camps.

A year later, when 146 garment workers—123 women and 23 men—died in the New York’s deadliest industrial disaster, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Woerishoffer started a relief fund and participated in the investigation, for which she collected invaluable evidence and testimony from survivors.

But just seven months later, in September 1911, she died—at the age of 26—in an automobile accident while investigating remote migrant labor camps.

Woerishoffer bequeathed the bulk of her enormous estate to Bryn Mawr College “so that others may be prepared for social work as I have been.” The College used the funds to establish the Carola Woerishoffer Graduate Department of Social Economy and Social Research, the first such professional school affiliated with a college or university. Today, it is known as the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr.

Robin Berson ’67 is the author of Marching to a Different Drummer: Unrecognized Heroes of American History, which tells Woerishoffer’s story in more detail. Learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the about-to-be completed Triangle Memorial.

Bryn Mawr’s own rebel Girl Wealthy, open-hearted, and generous Carola Woerishoffer was fiercely principled and quietly courageous. An ethical prodigy, she developed a sense of honor, compassion, and justice at an astonishingly early age. An heiress who did not believe in philanthropy, she gave her fortune away eagerly (and anonymously). A radical revolutionary, she knowingly endangered her life over and over but never committed an act of violence. A woman profoundly committed to the poorest victims of unfettered industrialization, she lived out her principles throughout her short life.