Seamstress, floor lady, union representative, and mother of three, Betty Grace Scioscia (born Elizabeth Chessa in 1915) demonstrated the power and determination of an independent woman taking charge of her work and home life before it was fashionable.
Betty’s father, Frank, and mother, Joan Louise, were born and lived in Sardinia, Italy with their three children Pauline, John and Mary until 1912. The Chessa Family came to America in search of a better life. The coal mines of Pennsylvania provided that dream for many.
Within a few years, Josephine, Molly, Betty, Angeline, and Helen were born in Johnstown, PA. Years passed quickly. Betty and her six sisters were approaching their teens and soon would be in need of work. The coal mines were not the answer for a family of girls. The Chessa family learned that Bridgeport, Connecticut was a hub of the sewing industry, respectable employment for girls. In 1923, the family bought a home there.
At age 15, starting as a trimmer, Betty began training as a seamstress under the tutelage of her oldest sister Pauline. Betty was quick of hand and soon took a seat on the line sewing complete shirtwaist dresses. Quick of tongue as well, she was not afraid to voice her concerns about poor wages and working conditions. Elected as union representative, she went to monthly union meetings and brought back the latest labor information to her co-workers.
After she married, Betty juggled the roles of mother, seamstress, and union representative. In her role as union representative, she was often required to settle disputes between bosses and her fellow employees. Areas of conflict included bosses’ favoritism, seamstresses holding on to tickets of dresses already completed in order to inflate the next week’s wage, and the practice of secretly taking work home. However, the International Ladies Garments Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the union label were sources of pride for all involved.
Betty’s job was a difficult one. Union issues and stories of conflict among fellow workers often caused heated discussions over the delicious home cooked meals she always prepared for her husband and three children. Her closest sister, Molly, who lived upstairs, was often a guest.
Betty and Molly were inseparable. In 1945 with the support of Betty, Molly decided to open “Molly’s Tavern” on Howard Ave in Bridgeport. It became a local icon serving delicious home cooked Italian meals along with the typical spirits.
In 1972 when some of the Bridgeport dress industries were moving south, Molly decided that she wanted to buy the outgoing Weiss Dress Industry and try her hand as the owner--with the condition that Betty would leave her secure job at I&J Dress in order to join and support her in her new enterprise. Molly’s Dress Factory was opened with Betty as her floor lady. Betty’s outgoing personality, strong spirit and ability to face conflict head on helped her to negotiate fair prices with New York buyers. She continued to sew dresses and serve as the union representative while raising her family.
Throughout the years, I have watched this amazing woman, Betty, work tireless hours in the factory, in Holy Rosary Church and at home. White beans and escarole, spinach and egg, meat balls and spaghetti, pizzelles, ricotta and anisette cookies were at the heart of our home. As Betty’s biggest fan I continue to be in awe of her work ethic, determination and spirit. How does she do it all and still have a smile on her face? Betty, my mom, who is 94 and a half years old, continues to serve as an inspiration not only for me but also our family, her church, community and everyone she meets.
admiration, and respect are immeasurable.
Written by Barbara Scioscia-Reed; photos courtesy of Barbara Scioscia-Reed
Below, Betty Scioscia views the “New Haven’s Garment Workers: An Elm City Story” exhibit at Wachovia Bank, Church Street, New Haven: August, 2010