History Among Us: Betty Elizabeth Scioscia
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
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
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
Betty Scioscia views the “New Haven’s Garment
Workers: An Elm City Story” exhibit at Wachovia Bank, Church Street, New
Haven: August, 2010