Rebel Girls and the IWW

Yes, her hands may be harden’d from labor,

And her dress may not be very fine;

But a heart in her bosom is beating

That is true to her class and her kind.

And the grafters in terror are trembling

When her spite and defiance she’ll hurl.

For the only and Thoroughbred Lady

Is the Rebel Girl.

That’s the Rebel Girl, That’s the Rebel Girl,

To the working class she’s a precious pearl.

She brings courage, pride and joy

To the fighting Rebel Boy.

We’ve had girls before

But we need some more

In the Industrial Workers of the World,

For it’s great to fight for freedom

With a Rebel Girl.

Joe Hill

“The Rebel Girl,”

written for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1915)1

The Industrial Workers of the World represented a new kind of unionism in the United States. Organized by industry rather than by craft and rejecting the exclusionary practices and jurisdictional wars of the AFL, it engaged in a fight to the death with the capitalist class, a fight for power rather than for bread alone. The general strikes it led in the textile mills of the East—Lawrence in 1912, Paterson in 1913—showed it could mobilize masses of working women. By addressing their problems as class problems rather than purely workplace ones, the IWW linked workers in the textile industry with the rest of their community—their husbands and wives, their ethnic organizations and churches, and workers in other industries—to build a working-class army strong enough to lead embryo revolutions.

The IWW’s founding conference in 1905, called by an assortment of revolutionaries from the Western Federation of Miners, the Socialist Party, and the Socialist Labor Party, and including only one woman. Mother Jones, laid out its principles with unmistakable clarity;

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system….

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.2

Only when the working class was organized into one big industrial union with revolutionary politics would it have the unity and muscle it needed to fight the capitalist class, becoming stronger and stronger until it seized power through a general strike that would paralyze the country. All the workers in the United States would occupy their workplaces and put their hands in their pockets. Powerless without them, the capitalists would stop making money, the government would be deprived of revenue, and in a month at most, the state apparatus would simply collapse.

Although this vision was unquestionably more of a revolutionary fantasy than a well worked-out strategy, the IWW’s emphasis on class solidarity was real—in practice as well as in theory. Unlike the AFL, the IWW or Wobblies, as they were often called, organized women and men on an equal basis, just as it organized blacks and whites together in a South ruled by lynch law and the Ku Klux Klan. The IWW organizers declared, “No longer will we allow the Southern oligarchy to divide and weaken us on lines of race, craft, religion and nationality.”3 But at the same time, the IWW firmly maintained that there was no “race problem. There is only a class problem…. The economic interests of all workers, be they white, black, brown or yellow, are identical, and all are included in the program of the IWW.”4 In line with this approach, the IWW seldom acknowledged the existence of women’s oppression as distinct from class oppression. The problems of working- class women, like those of men, were to be solved by the abolition of wage slavery and the class system.

This economism—thinking that all the problems of the working class were economic in origin and could be solved in one simple stroke—was a severe weakness in the IWW’s work. Despite it, the IWW was able to reach out in an extraordinarily sensitive way to women in many strike situations, leading vast uprisings of the entire working-class community—men, women, and children—in isolated, poverty-stricken, one-industry textile or mining towns. Disregarding the contemporary stereotypes of female delicacy, the Wobblies had a keen appreciation of the fighting qualities of women;

The advent of women side by side with men in strikes, will soon develop a fighting force that will end capitalism and its horrors in short order. As one of them remarked to the writer not long since, in the language of Kipling, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” It is also well to observe that the male becomes more “deadly” in the presence and with the aid and encouragement of the female. The industrial union movement seeks to develop the fighting quality of both sexes.5

Strikers’ wives became active in the IWW-led nass strikes because, unlike the AFL unions, the IWW made a deliberate attempt to involve them and to support them against the indifference or opposition of their husbands, fathers, and ministers. It enlisted the wives of male strikers in the IWW local itself, rather than relegating them to “union label leagues” or women’s auxiliaries. Moreover, these women had their own reasons for wanting to fight. In the company towns and migrant labor camps of the West, people were oppressed as members of family units rather than as individuals. The wives of the Mesabi iron miners, the Eastern European steelworkers in Pennsylvania, the Italian fishermen in California, or the Western loggers all had grievances of their own and could be organized by any union sensitive to their concerns.6

In the iron mines of the Mesabi, for instance, mine bosses insisted on getting sexual access to a miner’s wife or daughter in return for giving him a safe place below ground. It is no wonder that miners’ wives and daughters were active in the great iron strike of 1916.7 In a number of company towns, the workers lived in company-owned housing and were evicted during strikes. In such cases the whole family inevitably became involved, the women often fighting off scabs with rolling pins, brooms, and pokers. They were proud of such activism. In a fishermen’s strike in Pittsburg, California, when the fish dealers tried to renege on the price they had agreed to, the women went after them with rocks. An IWW organizer foolishly told them to be quiet and go home, and they retorted, “We will make a revolution here, and who are you?”8 Entering the industrial struggle gave these housewives enough collective strength and confidence so that they could, at least momentarily, resist the patriarchal authority of priests, husbands, and even IWW organizers.

Time and again the IWW proved its ability to mobilize masses of women during strikes; it was, moreover, the only labor organization to raise the non-workplace-related issue of birth control. But it never did the follow-up, the day-to-day organizing, or the special work around the oppression of women that would have enabled it to hold onto them as members. This was only partly because of the kind of crude male chauvinism inevitable in an organization so largely made up of men, which Elizabeth Gurley Flynn criticized from time to time in her speeches;

I know a local where members forbid their wives speaking to an IWW woman, “because they’d get queer ideas!” I heard a member forbid his wife, who had worked nine hours in a mill, from coming to the meeting, “because she’d do better to clean the house!” When I suggested an able woman as secretary of a local, several men said, “Oh, that’s a man’s job! She couldn’t throw a drunk out!”9

Such chauvinism could be overcome, because most members realized that it violated their principles of solidarity. The economism that lay behind their failure to develop special campaigns around the oppression of women was harder to fight, since IWW theory supported the idea that such efforts were unnecessary even as its practice showed the opposite. Organizational measures like special locals for women’s work would have been seen as transgressions against solidarity, and campaigns around women’s rights were believed to disrupt class unity.

In 1907 a rank-and-file member of the IWW, Sophie Beldner, wrote a letter to its Western newspaper, the Industrial Union Bulletin, suggesting a new approach to organizing women workers, She had worked in the garment industry in New York and San Francisco and had found a low level of consciousness among the women she worked with. As they repeatedly told her, “We have no use for a union. We’re going to get married before long.” While this sort of attitude led many male unionists to conclude that women were not worth organizing, she had a different opinion:

But as women are a little behind, and a greater amount of energy is needed to call them to action, therefore I would suggest that a literature fund be established in one of the industrial centers where there are enough active women to take the initiative to carry out this plan….

Meanwhile, IWW women would contribute articles to The Bulletin, bearing on the question of industrial unionism and working class emancipation.

The local in charge of the fund would select the best articles and publish them in leaflet form with the sanction of the general administration of the IWW.

This, in my opinion, would be the only means by which we could reach the women in factory and at home, and make out of them a powerful factor in the onward march of the working class.

We must also take into consideration the women that are out of the shop, the slaves of the slaves—that we can reach only through literature. On the other hand, there are many class-conscious women who feel and know the necessity of revolutionary education, but not being in the proper conditions to agitate or having no talent to convince others, remain inactive. Supplied with literature which they could distribute, they would benefit the organization just as much as their active factory sisters.’10

Suggestions like these were raised from time to time but nothing came of them. The roesult was that the IWW had few women members. Joe Hill, the IWW songwriter and martyr, spoke to this problem in 1914:

The female workers are sadly neglected in the United States, especially on the West coast, and consequently we have created a kind of one-legged, freakish animal of a union, and our dances and blowouts are kind of stale and unnatural on account of being too much of a “buck” affair; they are lacking the life and inspiration which the woman alone can produce.

The idea is to establish a kind of good fellowship between the male and the female workers, that would give them a little foretaste of our future society and make them more interested in the class struggle and the overthrow of the old system of corruption. I think it would be a very good idea to use our female organizers, Gurley Flynn, for instance, EXCLUSIVELY for the building up of a strong organization among the female workers.11

Perhaps in response, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn tried that same year to bring into being a “live group” to do “propaganda among women.”12 Again, nothing happened. Two years later, Frank Little, the half-Indian organizer soon to be lynched by vigilantes, suggested that a “special literature be created for women workers, that space for articles concerning female workers be provided in our papers, and that a league for women, with lecturers, be formed to carry on a special agitation for the benefit of women.”13 Once again, there were no results. The IWW strategy for women remained one of workplace organizing alone. In a period where relatively few women worked outside the home, this strategy was bound to affect its ability to organize women. It never solved the organizational problems involved in recruiting housewives; the IWW charter, in fact, stated that only wage earners were eligible for membership. Another irate letter to the Industrial Union Bulletin from Sophie Beldner in 1908 asked what this meant the organization thought of working-class housewives:

1.Is a married woman of the working class a chattel slave or a wage slave?

2.Has she the right to belong to a mixed local of the IWW?

I ask these questions because objection has been raised by some members of the Denver local to the effect that a married woman, a housekeeper, has no right to belong to a workingmen’s organization….

Some assert that we have no grievance against the capitalist class, therefore we have no place in the union. Our grievance is against our husbands, if we are dissatisfied with our condition.

I believe the married woman of the working class is no parasite or exploiter. She is a social producer. In order to sustain herself, she has to sell her labor power, either in the factory, directly to the capitalist, or at home, indirectly, by serving the wage slave, her husband, thus keeping him in working condition through cooking, washing and general housekeeping.

For being a mother and a housekeeper are two different functions. One is her maternal, and the other is her industrial function in society. I believe the wage slave’s wife has got a right to belong to a mixed local. I think it should be encouraging for working men to see women enter their ranks and, shoulder to shoulder, fight for economic freedom.

Civilization denies us the right of expressing our political opinion at the ballot box. Will the economic organization, the IWW, our only hope, exclude us and deny us the right to record our discontent against the capitalist system?14

The editor replied that he could see no reason why a married woman could not belong to a mixed local (a local of workers from more than one industry), but that he had no idea what would become of housewives once the mixed local had enough members from the various industries to divide into industrial unions. “It is a matter to which the next convention will give attention,”15 he wrote—but the next convention did not deal with it.

As we have already seen, it was a widespread fallacy in the working-class movement that workingmen’s conditions were declining because women were going into the factories and driving down wages. In the socialist movement this took the form of saying that while women had to be wage slaves under capitalism, after the revolution they would be able to return to their happy homes and would not have to work for wages any more. One female IWW member wrote a spirited rebuttal to this fantasy in 1910:

Fellow Worker Man Toiler: You say you want us girls to keep out of the factory and mill so you can get more pay then you can marry some of us and give us a decent home. Now, that is just what we are trying to escape; being obliged to marry you for a home. And aren’t you a little inconsistent? You tell us to get into the IWW, an organization for wage workers only? We haven’t heard of any Household Drudge’s Union, not even in the IWW. Going from the factory back into the home means only a change in the form of servitude, a change for the worse for the woman. The best thing that ever happened to woman was when she was compelled to leave the narrow limits of the home and enter into the industrial life of the world. This is the only road to our freedom, and to BE FREE there is not anything to be desired more than that. … So we will stay in the factory, mill, or store and organize with you in the IWW for ownership of the industries, so we can provide ourselves with decent homes, then if we marry you it will be because we love you so well we can’t get along without you, and not to give you a chance to pay our bills, like we do now.16

Despite such polemics, there were never sufficient numbers of women within the IWW to mount a sustained recruitment campaign for women. Although the records do not indicate percentages by sex, many locals seem to have had only one or two women members, with women sympathizers grouped more loosely around them. But these members were too isolated to have much impact on the organization as a whole, and there were very few women in leadership they could look to for support. The IWW had only three women organizers: Lillian Forberg, very briefly in 1907; Matilda Robbins (Rabinowitz), between 1913 and 1916; and most importantly, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, between 1908 and the 1920s, who took a special interest in the oppression of women and frequently wrote and spoke on the subject.

One barrier to organizing women into the IWW was the organization’s composition. Although it focused everywhere on those dispossessed workers the AFL rejected—the unskilled, immigrants, blacks, Asians, migrants—there were crucial differences between the East Coast and West Coast membership, and it was the West that was dominant. Charles Ashleigh, an English-born member, explained these differences:

In the eastern industries women and children are employed. It is common for a whole family to be working in the same mill, plant or factory. This makes for family life; a debased and deteriorated family life, it is true … but nevertheless, marriage, the procreation of children and some amount of stability are assured by the conditions of the industry….

As we journey westward we mark a change. We leave the zone of great industry and enter country in which capitalism is still, to some extent, in the preparatory stage…. All of these three principal occupations of the unskilled workers of the Pacific coast—lumber, construction work and agriculture—are periodical in their nature…. The result of this is the existence on the coast of an immense army of unskilled or semi-skilled workers, of no fixed abode, who are forever engaged in an eternal chase for the elusive job….

The striking feature of the Pacific country is that it is a man’s country. Conditions render it impossible for the worker to marry. Long terms in isolated camps produce the same phenomena of sex perversion as exist in the army, navy and monastery. The worker is doomed to celibacy with all its physical and moral damaging results. The brothel in the town, between jobs, is the only resort.17

Many Western Wobblies felt that their lack of family and job ties made them the vanguard of the working class, the “militant minority” that would lead the downtrodden, hagridden masses of the East to freedom. As one put it:

The nomadic worker of the West embodies the very spirit of the IWW. His cheerful cynicism, his frank and outspoken contempt for most of the conventions of bourgeois society, make him an admirable exemplar of the iconoclastic doctrine of revolutionary unionism…. He promptly shakes the dust of a locality from his feet whenever the board is bad, or the boss is too exacting, or the work unduly tiresome, departing for the next job…. No wife or family encumber him…. Nowhere else can a section of the working class be found so admirably fitted to serve as the scouts and advance guards of the labor army.’18

Other Wobblies disagreed, feeling that the organization would be stronger when its vanguard members learned to stay on the job, pointing to the example of the Lawrence strike, where “the workers who were oppressed the most fought the hardest and stood the brunt of the battle—the women, encumbered with babes and husbands.”19

When the Western Wobblies did attempt to organize women, their lack of familiarity with the living conditions of most women workers sometimes made their approach very odd indeed. The author of the following appeal seems to have believed that there were hundreds of footloose rebel girls wandering about the land, jumping freight trains in search of work;

We need you women workers. If you have decided to spend the winter on the Pacific coast, come to Seattle and help us organize the women houseworkers!

Agitate in a quiet way. Make the public employment office your headquarters and spread the union idea. Discontent is great among women here, and liable to come to the surface at any moment. We need you, and badly, to exploit this discontent.

Remember that the value of organization—industrial unionism—is the most necessary lesson the women workers of Seattle need. Birth control and other side issues will regulate themselves, once the I.W.W. has job control in the industries, and then only.20

Faced with this level of male incomprehension, it is a wonder that there were female locals in the West, especially since the organization’s ideas about solidarity discouraged separation along sex lines. Nevertheless, in one of the more curious chapters of U.S. labor history, the housemaids of Denver organized themselves under the leadership of Jane Street in 1916.

Domestics were traditionally the most isolated and subservient of workers, tucked away in the attics and basements of the rich, unable to leave the house except for an afternoon once every two weeks, with mistresses who acted like parents and spies as well as employers. Such working conditions bred resentment, but it was seldom expressed in collective action; more often, domestic workers flitted from job to job, in a pattern known among employers as “the servant problem.”

Jane Street, My method was very tedious.an independent-minded Colorado domestic worker, felt that of all the kinds of labor, hers bore “the deepest taint of chattel slavery handed down from the time when it was a disgrace for a member of the master class to lace his own boots.” She was determined to give the “ladies on the hill” in Denver a real servant problem by building a union of modern revolutionary housemaids who “don’t believe in mistresses or servants. They would do away with caste altogether. They believe in removing the degradation from domestic service by teaching their employers to look upon the hands that feed them and wash for them, and scrub for them with respect or fear and humility.”21

By March 19, 1916, after three months of intensive organizing, Jane Street had contacted enough domestic workers to hold a secret mass meeting, where they spoke of their grievances and formulated demands for the future: $12 a week, no work on Sundays, shorter hours, and better treatment. In a letter to a fellow Wobbly woman, Jane Street described the way she had gone about organizing this meeting:

My method was very tedious. I worked at housework for three months, collecting names all the while. When I was off of a job I rented a room and put an ad in the paper for a housemaid. Sometimes I used a box number and sometimes I used my address. The ad was worded something like this, “Wanted, Housemaid for private family, $30, eight hours daily.” [This was an unusually high wage.] I would write them letters afterwards and have them call and see me. If they came direct, I would usually have another ad in the same paper, advertising for a situation and using my telephone number. I would have enough answers to supply the applicants. Sometimes I would engage myself to as many as 25 jobs in one day, promising to call the next day to everyone who phoned….

I secured 300 names in this way. I had never mentioned the I.W.W. to any of them, for I expected them to be prejudiced, which did not prove the case. I picked out 100 of the most promising of the names and sent them invitations to attend a meeting. There were about thirty-five came. Thirteen of the thirty-five signed the application for a charter.22

The new local had several tactics for raising wages and bettering conditions. It planned to build up a card file of all domestic jobs in Denver and make this information available to anyone looking for work. It would thus act as its own employment bureau and drive the “employment sharks” out of business. It would focus on recalcitrant employers, making it impossible for them to get help unless they met the union’s demands. And it would start its own boarding house, an organizing center where women could stay and leave their baggage while they looked for work. Jane Street was confident of success; as she told her fellow workers, “You have one great advantage over your mistress. She must have you in her home. She won’t wash her own dishes. You can get your rights by working on the individual woman.”23

The local at first met with great success. Its list of jobs grew from 300 in March to 2,000 in May and 6,000 in November.24 When there was an advertisement for a maid, dozens of “union maids” would respond and demand the same price until the prospective employer was convinced that it was the going rate. The union also took up the IWW’s militant language and tactics, including the threat of sabotage: “It is almost uncanny the way dishes slip out of that girl’s hands,” reported the Rocky Mountain News. “Picture father putting on his favorite soft shirt to find that the new laundress ‘sabotaged’ it by using plenty of starch.”25 Another weapon was the use of songs, such as “The Maids’ Defiance”:

We’ve answered all your door bells and we’ve washed your dirty kids,

For lo, these many weary years we’ve done as we were bid,

But we’re going to fight for freedom and for our rights we’ll stand.

And we’re going to stick together in one big Union band.


It’s a long day for housemaid Mary, it’s a long day’s hard toil.

It’s a burden too hard to carry, so our mistresses’ schemes we’ll foil.

For we’re out for a shorter day this summer

Or we’ll fix old Denver town.

We’ve washed your dirty linen and we’ve cooked your daily foods;

We’ve eaten in your kitchens, and we’ve stood your ugly moods.

But now we’ve joined the Union and organized to stay,

The cooks and maids and chauffeurs, in one grand array.


As the local grew stronger, opposition began to come from the rich women of Denver, seconded on one side by the YWCA and on the other by employment bureaus whose businesses the union had destroyed. The YWCA urged the housemaids to join its ranks instead of the union. The employers organized their own group, called the Housewives’ Assembly. According to the IWW it was

made up largely of the female politicians and members of the Colorado Law and Order League, an organization formed during the Colorado coal strike of two years ago to oppose the coal miners in their fight against Rockefellerism and wage slavery. They are the same gang of society parasites that applauded the Colorado National Guard and lionized its officers after they had massacred women and children of Ludlow.27

The methods used by the employment sharks were more devastating. When the local had first organized, the employment agencies had descended upon its meetings in pursuit of “white slaves” for the whorehouses of the Far West. The girls appealed to their fellow workers in the IWW mixed local in Denver, who rose to the challenge with enthusiasm and “foiled the white slavers and drove them away from our meetings. These fellow workers, though repeatedly threatened with bodily violence at the hands of the gang of white slavers, stood their ground and defended the girls.”28 But the underworld was not defeated so easily. In November 1916, the “sharks” raided the union’s office and captured its card file of employers:

The robbery occurred in the early morning when Secretary Jane Street had stepped out of the office to go to the wash room on the floor above. Fellow Worker Street had been sleeping in the headquarters at night with a “gatt” under her pillow and a section of gas pipe within easy reach guarding against just such an occurrence. She locked the door when leaving and upon her return found the list gone with the exception of a few cards scattered over the floor that the thief had apparently been in too great haste to pick up.29

The loss of the card file was a serious setback, but it did not destroy the local. A year later Jane Street wrote a fellow organizer in Tulsa that they had moved into a new office and were growing stronger every day.30 And the union was spreading across the country: domestic workers in Salt Lake City organized in June 1916, followed by those in Duluth, Chicago, Cleveland, and Seattle.31 Until World War I and the accompanying repression of the IWW interrupted the union’s progress, its future looked bright indeed.

Although male Wobblies had been willing to defend the women from white slavers, the question of sexuality divided the Denver IWW itself, as it did the labor and revolutionary movements as a whole. Some members of the IWW mixed local appeared to believe that the domestic workers’ local was there to provide them with girlfriends and were enraged when they were barred from the women’s clubhouse. They were no doubt outraged to begin with by the existence of an all-female local, a deviation from the IWW norm. Jane Street thought their objections more personal than principled, as she wrote a fellow Wobbly woman in 1917:

I would advise you strongly against trying to have your headquarters in connection with the other I.W.W. local there…. Sex can come rushing into your office like a great hurricane and blow all the papers of industrialism out the window.

The Mixed Local here in Denver has done us more harm than any other enemy, the women of Capital Hill, the employment sharks and the Y.W.C.A. combined. They have cut us off from donations from outside locals, slandered this local and myself from one end of the country to the other, tried to disrupt us from within by going among the girls and stirring up trouble, they gave our clubhouse a bad name because they were not permitted to come out there, and finally they have assaulted me bodily and torn up our charter.32

At the beginning of the century issues of sexual behavior were perhaps more controversial than any others. The IWW was considerably more radical in its sexual ideas and analysis of society than was the population at large, but in a period when the sexual double standard was rigidly enforced and the penalty for straying was frequently devastating for women, “sexual freedom” was bound to be more expensive for them than for men.33 This is vividly revealed in the memoirs of Chicago cloakmaker Abraham Bisno. One passage describes the aftermath of an affair he had with the wife of a comrade whose husband encouraged the romance. His experience of the affair was completely different from the woman’s, as he points out, because of the different opportunities available to them:

A friendship between men and women is not only a friendship but also a sex act, which in my opinion is essential to the friendship. Once [there was] a real friendship, the natural consequence would be a sex life together and to be honest with oneself, sex satiation…. I therefore made approaches to my woman friends with no moral compunctions and no sense of that conduct being binding for continuity, while the effect on my friend’s wife was different. It was an experience of an instinct acquiesced in because of my pressure as well as her husband’s. Once the experience was over, she needed continuity because her field of opportunity was so limited as compared with mine or that of her husband…. She was hungry for me as well as lonesome, while I loved her just the same but loved others and was neither hungry nor lonesome. That situation which was not the same for her as for me formed a feeling of resentment in her. I had done her an injury, the result of which caused her great suffering. I had done myself no injury at all, the result of which only left in me a pleasant memory of a very comfortable experience.34

Sexual radicalism was all too frequently a mask for sexual opportunism among men. As one socialist wrote in the New York Sunday Call in 1911 :

Certain party members, principally males, either believe or profess to believe that they have “advanced” ideas concerning love and marriage. Reduced to essentials, these theories generally indicate that the men in question do all in their power to escape marriage, but persistently exert every effort to have as many love affairs as possible.

These men are not novices at all in the art of interesting bright young girls intellectually. The girl’s interest once enlisted … the “advanced” theories are trotted out…. More often than not her surrender is brought about because she is made to believe that she has been ungenerous—taking all and giving nothing.”35

Such bitter observations were supported by the testimony of some of the men. Floyd Dell, a Greenwich Village writer, described the way his fellow bohemians dealt with a woman’s guilt feelings about engaging in premarital, or “free,” sex:

There were three ways in which these feelings of guilt were commonly exorcised—first, and most completely of all, by the emotions of self-sacrifice…. Any tenth-rate free-verse poet could find a capable and efficient girl stenographer to type his manuscripts, buy his meals and his clothes, pay his rent and sleep with him; the maternal emotion sufficed instead of a marriage ceremony…. The other spiritual hocus-pocus which sufficed instead of a weddingring to give a girl a good conscience, seemed to consist in quotations and arguments from Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and other modern prophets, arguments designed to show that love without marriage was infinitely superior to the other kind, and that its immediate indulgence brought the world, night by night, a little nearer to freedom and Utopia.36

Some women did take up the cause of sexual radicalism. Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger espoused free, expressive sexuality for women as well as for men, reinforced by the protection of birth control. The few women in leadership positions in the IWW were also able to be unconventional, even anticonventional, in their love lives: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived for many years with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, who had a wife and children elsewhere; Matilda Robbins had a protracted, difficult relationship with Ben Legere, a fellow Wobbly, who was also married with children. When asked her opinion of “free love,” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn exclaimed magnificently, “What is the other alternative? slave-love? Then I believe in free love, at all costs.”37 But not all women in the IWW felt similarly. In 1915 a rank-and-file woman, Mrs. Floyd Hyde, wrote Solidarity expressing her concern about propaganda favoring free love:

Once on the other side of what present day society considers decency, the woman who has taken this step is not only branded by the world as lewd, but she has lost her guide post of experience which leads to a well organized personality. She has launched herself out into the world with a lot of abstract, aimless ideas which tend to disintegrate all her organized effort. She is shifted here and there by the impulse of her emotions, till more often the end is, that she sinks beneath the swell of her passions, ruined, lost.38

Ben Williams, the editor of Solidarity, responded like a good dialectical materialist:

The ethical code of the future society will not spring full-blown with the advent of that society. On the contrary, it finds its roots immediately in the general movement of today whose goal is economic freedom. And just as there are political and industrial martyrs to the cause of the new society, so there have been, are, and doubtless will be, sex martyrs to the cause of the new morality whose full fruition can only result from the economic freedom of woman.

He added however, that this was something each woman had to decide for herself, and a “mere man” was not justified in “butting in” with advice?39

Mrs. Floyd Hyde responded that, unfortunately, men were “butting in” and insisting on being paid sexually for teaching women about politics and admitting them as equals into the revolutionary movement:

Since the days of the hetaerae [courtesans], or freed women of Greece, men have demanded a price for all these new interests [of women]. Woman must pay with her sex for all she receives. These women of Greece became poets, artists, and learned in political affairs, while their virtuous sisters remained ignorant slaves to the men for whom they bore children, but these women of hetaerae were public women. If one of these women had reserved her right of choice she would have been thrown out from her world of opportunity. So we find women of today with broad minds, hungering for the social intercourse of other minds congenial with theirs, giving their sex as the price of this association. Not because their sex feeling has become so strong that they must exhaust it in this manner, but because they are willing to sacrifice their sex feelings to supply their intellectual demands.

It is the innate disposition of every man to expect a woman to pay with her sex for all the benefits she receives from him, social, intellectual, or otherwise. The woman who refuses to pay this price, but battles in the face of it for her place in the intellectual world, has a harder battle to fight than if she committed the usual social sin.40

Women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn tended to overlook such problems—at least until they impinged upon their own personal lives—and sometimes spoke as if sexual freedom, once a woman was financially independent, could be accomplished by an individual exercise of will:

The only sex problem I know is how are women to control themselves, how be free, so that love alone shall be the commandment to act, and I can see but one way, through controlling their one problem of how to live, be fed and clothed—their own economic lives…. Sexual enslavement … follows economic enslavement, and is but a gentle way of saying prostitution, whether it be for one night or one whole life.41

The disjunction between the views of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mrs. Floyd Hyde are one aspect of the difference between the few women who became leaders in the IWW and the masses of women who had some relationship to the organization. The demands on all IWW leadership were severe in terms of poverty and risk, and these were particularly hard on women; a defiance of conventional sexual morality was but one item in a list of particulars that made the life of the organizer strikingly separate from that of most working-class women. Women organizers who traveled for the trade unions, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Socialist Party faced similar problems: few had stable marriages, few had young children. Being an organizer for the IWW was, however, far more hazardous than any of these because of the explicitly revolutionary character of the organization, which was from its inception under attack by employers, local police and vigilantes, the federal government, and the Pinkertons, not to mention the AFL. Certainly no woman with a traditional family life could have been a full-time IWW organizer. If Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had not had a devoted mother and sister who cared for her baby after her marriage broke up, for instance, she could never have gone on the road as she did, while Matilda Robbins gave up her job after she had a child, although she had additional reasons for doing so, and saw her life as a struggle between her political commitment and her unhappy but demanding love affair.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn did her best to develop an understanding of the oppression of women that went beyond the general economism of the IWW, but she was isolated in an organization with so few active women in it, and found little support for this aspect of her work. Her interest in feminist issues was, however, encouraged by her friends in the Heterodoxy Club, a consciousness-raising organization that was founded by Marie Jenney Howe in 1912 and lasted into the 1930s; the only membership qualification was that one had to be a woman with unorthodox opinions. As Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described the club’s luncheon discussions, their effect on her point of view was considerable:

The subjects dealt mainly with women and their accomplishments. All the members were ardent suffragists, some were quite extreme feminists. All were people in their own right in many and various fields of endeavor. No one was there because her husband or father was famous. … I had worked almost exclusively with men up to this time and my IWW antipolitical slant had kept me away from political movements. It was good for my education and a broadening influence for me to come to know all these splendid “Heterodoxy” members and to share in their enthusiasms. It made me conscious of women and their many accomplishments.42

Inez Haynes Irwin, a writer and militant suffragist, recalled some of the discussions at the Heterodoxy Club in her unpublished autobiography:

Sprinkled among meetings came a series of what we called “background” talks. A member told whatever she chose to reveal about her childhood, girlhood, and young womanhood. They ranged in atmosphere from the middle-western farm on which Leta Hollingsworth’s childhood was spent, where all her dresses were made from flour bags which had the manufacturer’s name printed on them, through a life of inherited rebelliousness, like that of Charlotte Perkins Gilman; from the cool, faded elegance of the great house on the Hudson, in which Alice Duer Miller was raised; to the fiery shadow of Emma Goldman, in which Stella Comen Ballantine—who was her niece and adoring partisan—lived, was brought up on the theory of philosophic anarchy and listened to the discussion of all the rebellious movements in the world….

I have never listened to such talks as these backgrounds. … A statement of one of our members immediately gave me to think. She was telling simply but frankly the story of her love affair and her marriage. She ended; “But I would not have married him if I had not lived with him for a year to find out whether or not I cared enough for him to marry him.” This was the first time that I had ever heard any woman make a statement that, in my childhood and girlhood would have been described as “compromising.” … But later I reflected with a great surge of feministic triumph that most of the women in Heterodoxy were—through their own efforts—economically independent. Many of them with established and impregnable reputations. They were as independent of their own “compromising confession” as any man.43

If her ties with women outside the organization helped Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to maintain her concern with women’s liberation during her years in the IWW, her own background and parentage were an even greater influence. Annie Flynn, her mother, was an extraordinary woman, an Irish revolutionary and member of the Knights of Labor who had supported her entire family as a tailor when she was young and who continued to work even after she married and had children. This was extremely unusual at the time, as was her insistence on having only female doctors during her pregnancies. Annie Flynn hated “household drudgery,” as she called washing, ironing, dishwashing, and cleaning; she preferred to read and go to lectures in her spare time. A poem that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn clipped and pasted in her scrapbook when she was fifteen expressed her own views on the subject;

From a kitchen, good Lord, deliver me!

And from sweeping and scrubbing dirty floors,

Rescue me, O Lord, from eternally washing dishes and baking little paltry messes!

From building little insignificant stove-fires, and churning with an insignificant little churn O save me!

And from dusting useless furniture! And moving around other useless property! And doing things on a small scale.

Lord, I would fain give all this work to machinery, and of what that cannot do I will willingly do my share!44

Other women associated with the IWW thought it was terrible that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was not better at housework because it made her one-sided, a defect caused by too early and too exclusive an immersion in movement work.45 They did not, needless to say, make the same criticism of male agitators.

If Elizabeth Gurley Flynn got her feminism from her mother, she got her outspokenness and her love of travel from her father, Tom Flynn, a stone quarrier from New Hampshire who had lost the sight of one eye and most of his male relatives to the quarries. Determined to get out while he could, he passed the entrance examinations to Dartmouth College and began to train as an engineer. Although he had to leave school before completing his degree in order to support his brothers and sisters, Tom Flynn was able to find work in this profession—on and off. He was always losing his jobs, however; either the company failed or he was fired for his outspoken views on such issues as the Spanish- American war. He understood imperialism because he knew how the British had treated Ireland; he was an early member of the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the growing overseas involvement of the United States, and to the day of his death he never mentioned the word “England” without adding “God damn her!”

Because he kept losing jobs, the Flynn family moved around a lot, going from New Hampshire to Ohio to Massachusetts to New York City. There, in 1900, Annie Flynn put her foot down and said she would go no further. She had four schoolage children who needed to stay put.

The Flynn family moved into a cold water railroad flat in the South Bronx, where the only heat came from the stove. A few years later they moved to another tenement a few blocks away, at 511 East 134th Street, where they remained for the next twenty- seven years. There they fought the usual heroic battles of the poor against roaches and rats, dark and dirt, hunger and cold. They had only one set of underwear each, and Annie Flynn had to wash all of it each night. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn always felt that it was their extreme poverty, along with their Irish background, that made them receptive to the socialist ideas they encountered in New York.

The Flynns got door-to-door leaflets about Sunday night forums being given in Harlem by the Socialist Labor Party, and the family began to attend. Elizabeth took to these events like a duck to water, but the other children—Tom, Kathy, and Bina—were too young. They would go to sleep on the benches that lined the walls and wake up at refreshment time.

To all the Flynns, but especially to Elizabeth and her father, Marxism came like a light, making sense of everything that had happened to them. As Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote later;

When I began to accumulate scientific Socialist literature, my father seized upon it. He read everthing by Marx and Engels he could lay his hands on. His knowledge of mathematics helped him to master them easily. He read them aloud to his family. He talked and argued about them with anyone who would listen—in the saloon, in the park, on the job. Scientific Socialism came as a balm to my father’s spirit. It exposed the capitalist system in all its ugly naked greed, and its indifference to human welfare. It showed how it enriched the few and impoverished the masses of people. It explained what caused depression, “bad times,” economic crises.”46

She was reading avidly herself, gulping down Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Kropotkin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, as well as The Communist Manifesto and other works by Karl Marx and Friederich Engels. She read widely on the position of women, especially Mary Wollstonecraft and August Bebe’s Woman and Socialism, the main theoretical work at that time.”47 Someone at the Harlem Socialist Club heard that she was on her high school debating team and invited her to make a speech at one of their forums. Her mother encouraged her, but her father was against it; he disapproved of women speaking at meetings and also felt he should have been asked to speak instead. She compromised by choosing a topic her father would think too unimportant to be jealous about—“What Socialism Will Do for Women”—and made her first public speech on January 31, 1906. She was sixteen, in a short schoolgirl dress that came down just to the top of her boots, with her hair streaming down her back like Alice in Wonderland. Her speech was not childish, however. She blamed the oppression of women on organized religion, culture, and laws, as well as on women’s lack of education and submissiveness. One of the high points of her speech was an attack on the idea of chivalry:

Men cant of chivalry, they carry a little bundle or umbrella for a woman, but seldom carry a baby. They give up a seat to a fast, gaudily-dressed butterfly woman, but let a poor working girl stand, they take the pretty girls home from a party or club while the less attractive ones must trot off alone, they tell their wives of their simpering, silly adoration for them, but clasp their pocketbooks with an iron hand, they are willing to do all the foolish little nothings that a sensible woman doesn’t want, but refuse to give us our rights, and they talk of chivalry….

I do not argue that woman is higher than man, but I do argue she is his equal. She is to the man and the man is to her as the two parts of a pair of shears are to each other. Together they are useful, separately they are worthless, but they are equal.48

At about this time, she cut out another poem for her scrapbook, “The New Woman” by Elizabeth Cardozo, which describes a cold feminist who works for social progress and looks down on love as unimportant. The poem ends with her stepping down from her pedestal to “forfeit all just to look up and love.” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn scribbled in the margin in red ink: “Don’t do it! Don’t look up to any man!”49

In the summer of 1906 she began to talk from a soapbox near Times Square and at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 128th Street in Harlem. The press made much of her youth, her extremism, and her loveliness. In August she was arrested for blocking traffic at 38th Street and Broadway. The judge discharged her, suggesting that she should finish high school before trying to teach others. Her previously straight-A record was going downhill fast, however, as a result of nightly meetings. She was sick of school, which she criticized in one of her speeches for divorcing theory and practice, preparing for college rather than life and work, and giving too much homework.

She began to frequent radical meetings on the Lower East Side, where everyone was talking of the revolution then going on in Russia, and she went to her first mass demonstration, protesting the czar’s massacre of 1,500 workers on Bloody Sunday, 1905. Soon she was swept up in the agitation around the trial of the officers of the Western Federation of Miners (Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone), who were being held in Colorado on murder charges as part of an effort to break up their union. At one meeting, she met Irish revolutionary James Connolly, later martyred during the 1916 Easter uprising. He was living in New York, publishing The Harp to publicise the struggle for Irish freedom, and organizing for the IWW on the docks. Through Connolly and the Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone trial she learned of the work of the IWW, which she joined in 1906. Although IWW bylaws restricted membership to wage earners, she, like other women, was allowed to join because the organization needed women, because of her youth and working-class background, and because she did full-time movement work.

Her local elected her as its delegate to the national convention in Chicago in 1907. It was her first train trip alone and she was terribly excited, expecially when she made a speaking tour in the West after the convention. From then on high school seemed duller and duller, and she became increasingly unable to tolerate her father’s attempts to run her life.

She began corresponding with Jack Jones, an IWW organizer in the Mesabi iron mines that she had met at the convention. He was a handsome man in his early thirties, a man of action who seemed exciting compared to the New York intellectuals she knew. When he invited her to speak on the Mesabi range in December 1907, she quit school over her mother’s protests and was off. A few weeks later she married him. She was seventeen. As Vincent St. John, then filling the IWW leadership post of General Organizer, joked, “Elizabeth fell in love with the west and the miners and married the first one she met.”50

No sooner were they married than Jones was arrested on a phony dynamite charge. Though he was released, he lost his job. He found another working on the Duluth railroad tunnel and brought Tom Flynn to work there as an engineer, but both men did so much on-the-job agitation that they were quickly fired. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn recalled:

All three of us went to New York, and I can see my mother’s pale face as this unemployed army appeared with suitcases full of dirty clothes. It was a hard summer. We were all very poor. The men remained out of work.

My mother resented Jones’ presence. She felt he should not have married me, so young a girl, so far away from home, without the knowledge of her parents, though she felt guilty for letting me go alone. She hated poverty and large families and was fearful that my life would become a replica of her own. It was bad enough to have one man around the house out of work, spouting ideas and reading books while she toiled to keep our small crowded quarters clean and make ends meet—but to have two of them was just too much. It was an unhappy time for all of us.51

Jones became restless in this situation and the couple moved to Chicago to look for work. She was already pregnant. They moved into a rooming house where two other IWW members, Joe Ettor and Ben Williams, also lived; they were all very poor, living on free barroom lunches, but they managed to get an egg and some milk every day for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn because of her “delicate condition.” Nevertheless, poor nutrition probably contributed to the death of her baby, which was born prematurely. Both she and Jones were grief-stricken. Vincent St.John came to their aid: he found Jones a job in the West and sent Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on her first cross-country tour as a paid organizer. They were reunited in Missoula, Montana, where she became pregnant again.

At this time the IWW was trying to organize Western migratory workers in the employment centers of the logging industry, the railroads, the fields, and the mines. They did this by speaking on street corners in the transient workers’ districts. To prevent such organizing, the Missoula city government outlawed streetspeaking in 1908, and the IWW tested the law in mass civil disobedience campaigns similar to those of the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

We sent out a call to all “foot-loose rebels to come at once—to defend the Bill of Rights.” A steady stream of I.W.W. members began to flock in, by freight cars—on top, inside and below. As soon as one speaker was arrested, another took his place. The jail was soon filled and the cellar under the firehouse turned into an additional jail. But the excrement from the horses leaked through and made this place so unbearable that the I.W.W. prisoners protested by song and speech, night and day. They were directly across the street from the city’s main hotel and the guests complained of the uproar. The court was nearby and its proceedings were disrupted by the noise….

Eventually, the townspeople got tired of the unfavorable publicity and excitement. The taxpayers were complaining of the cost to the little city…. An amusing tussle then ensued between the I.W.W. and the authorities as to who should feed our army. We held our meetings early so the men would go to jail before supper. The police began to turn them out the next morning before breakfast….

Finally, the authorities gave up. All cases were dropped. We were allowed to resume our meetings. We returned to our peaceful pursuit of agitating and organizing the I.W.W.”52

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn did not remain in Missoula long, for another free speech fight began in Spokane, Washington, and she was called off to help—despite her pregnancy and the disapproval of her husband, who would not go with her or even visit her. He thought it was time for her to start acting like a normal wife.

Spokane was the center of all the industries in the Pacific Northwest that used migrant labor. After picking the crops or laying rail in the summer, the workers would come into Spokane to spend their pay in its cheap flophouses, bars, and brothels, and then proceed to the local employment agencies to find new jobs. These agencies were run by racketeers, or “sharks.” The workers would have to pay a shark a commission to learn where the job was, usually the distance of a day’s travel or more from the city. When he got there, however, the worker would find that the job did not exist; or he might be fired after a day or two so that the shark could send out another worker and split the commission with the foreman. The individual worker, without a union or legal protection or other means of finding work, would have to travel back to Spokane and try again. Consequently, Spokane had a large skid row area full of angry workers who were receptive to the IWW’s call.

The sharks were also the major organizers of prostitution in the Northwest. In 1908 C. F. Sebring, an officer of Peerless Agency, was convicted of shipping out fourteen- to sixteen-year-old girls for the purpose of prostitution. The scandal implicated a number of other agencies as well, but, as the IWW speculated, since only one man was brought to trial and the city clearly knew what was going on, Sebring “may have been imprudent or lacked money.”53 The IWW local concentrated on the sharks’ abuses, urging the workers to come to the union hiring hall instead of the employment agencies. It gathered recruits by street corner speaking and by the spring of 1909 it had at least twelve hundred members and was publishing its own paper, the Industrial Worker.54 In March 1909, the city council, acting on complaints from the sharks and the chamber of commerce, passed a law against street speaking by anyone but the Salvation Army, on the grounds that the IWW was attacking religion and government. The IWW responded with its usual tactic: a free speech campaign, as soon as the heavy work seasons of spring and summer were over. On October 25, James Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit. On November 1, the union began continuous soapboxing, with a new speaker replacing each one who was arrested. A police raid on the IWW hiring hall caught whatever leadership was there, including the editors of the paper. Four hundred people were arrested during the first week in October. Most were sentenced to thirty days; when they were released they spoke again and got another thirty days—those whose health could stand more than one stay in the Spokane jails, that is. Spokane’s treatment of IWW prisoners was designed to kill or maim rather than to punish by due process or reform. Groups of twenty-eight men would be forced into a seven-by-eight foot cell, called a “sweat box”; it took four policemen to push the door shut. Then the police would turn up the steam heat until the men passed out, after which they were put in ice-cold cells and given the third degree, including brutal beatings. Three men died after their discharge from the Spokane jail and many were permanently injured.55

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spent only one night in the jail before the IWW raised bail for her, even though it was set unusually high because of her fame as a class warrior. Her comrades were concerned about her health as well as her safety, for she was noticeably pregnant. Although she felt she could be more useful out of jail than in, she rather resented her comrades’ solicitude, feeling that they were “fussy old guys” who were motivated as much by prudery as by concern.56 This was a period in which pregnant women were not supposed to be seen outside their homes but were to emerge after nine months bearing an infant who had arrived by mysterious means. A number of men in the Spokane local felt that it did not look nice for her to be seen speaking and worried that she might have her baby right on the platform; they had restricted her activities to out-of-town fundraising meetings and to work on the paper.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn used her night in jail to tremendous effect for the IWW; her story was picked up coast to coast. She had been put in a cell with two prostitutes. In the middle of the night, the warden came and took the younger one out of the cell. She was gone for a long time, and it appeared that she had been taken downstairs to see a “sweetheart”; she was later taken out to visit another and subsequently explained that a third man would have been brought to her cell except that the warden did not entirely trust the new prisoner. “Taking a woman prisoner out of her cell at the dead hours of night several times to visit sweethearts looked to me as if she were practicing her profession inside of jail as well as out.”57 As a result of Flynn’s revelations, the Spokane feminist movement got involved in improving jail conditions and a matron was installed in the jail for the first time.

Money poured into the IWW, and the Spokane free speech fight ended in victory for the union, although at a considerable cost in health and life. The city was spending $1,000 a day on repression, but this campaign showed no signs of destroying the IWW. When a negotiating committee went to see the mayor, he agreed to stop enforcing the anti-free speech law and to let the IWW reopen its hiring hall, sell its paper, and hold street corner meetings in the near future. The city also revoked the licenses of the worst of the employment sharks and released IWW members who were in prison. The Wobblies could now organize migrant workers in Spokane.

When the Spokane struggle ended, Jones came to get his wife. He demanded that she give up speaking and traveling and live in one place with the baby and him. But she did not want to settle down:

A domestic life and possibly a large family had no attractions for me. My mother’s aversion to both had undoubtedly affected me profoundly. She was strong for her girls “being somebody” and “having a life of their own.” I wanted to speak and write, to travel, to meet people, to see places, to organize for the I.W.W. I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for this. I knew by now I could make more of a contribution to the labor movement than he could. I would not give up. I have had many heartaches and emotional conflicts along the way but always my determination to stick to my self-appointed task has triumphed. But it wasn’t easy in 1910.58

Despite the advanced state of her pregnancy, she took the first cross-country train home to her mother, who was delighted with her decision. Her mother and her sister Kathie helped take care of the baby, Fred, from the hour of his birth; Annie Flynn even rented a room in Lawrence during the 1912 strike so that her daughter could see the child at any time. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stayed home only until Fred was weaned, and then she began to speak occasionally in New York. The IWW paid her a wage as a part-time organizer, but the family was very hard up and she refused to take money from Jones. As the baby grew older she began to travel again, leaving Fred in her mother’s care and concentrating on strike towns, where she could be most useful. She had been getting $19 a week plus expenses from the IWW; after Fred was born she got $21. The rent on the Flynn apartment was $18. The younger Flynns worked while in school to help out, but the family budget was still very tight.

Although the life of a traveling organizer was strenuous and dangerous, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn loved it. She had a wanderlust and a deep interest in regional conditions and differences. She learned to know the lives of working people intimately, to analyze them, and to make use of local examples whenever she spoke.

I stayed at homes wherever I went. I knew the lives of working people first hand. In those days no travelling Socialist or I.W.W. speaker went to a hotel. It was customary to stay at a local comrade’s house. This was partly a matter of economy, to save expenses for the local people, and partly a matter of security for the speaker in many outright strongholds of reaction, like one-plant company towns.

But, more than all else, it was a comradeship, even if you slept with one of the children or on a couch in the dining room. It would have been considered cold and unfriendly to allow a speaker to go off alone to a hotel. It was a great event when a speaker came to town. They wanted to see you as much as possible. People came from all around to socialize at the house where the speaker stayed. They heard about other parts of the country while the speaker could learn all about the conditions in that area. It was hard on the older speakers, but while I was young and vigorous I did not mind it.59

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn quickly emerged as a major agitator, and as one of the more important voices for women’s liberation in her time, though this aspect of her work has since been neglected. It is true that Flynn was part of a largely male organization; nevertheless, her wide range of experience, her Marxism, and her own concerns as a woman made her able to express the problems of women vividly. She was quick to defend women against the widespread charges of being “backward” and “impossible to organize” that were used to justify neglect;

I have heard revolutionaries present a large indictment against women, which if true, constitutes a mine of reasons for a special appeal based upon their peculiar mental attitudes and adapted to their environment and the problems it creates.

Women are over-emotional, prone to take advantage of their sex, eager to marry and then submerged in family life, are intensely selfish for “me and mine,” lack a sense of solidarity, are slaves to style and disinclined to serious and continuous study—these are a few counts in the complaint. Nearly every charge could be made against some men and does not apply to all women; yet it unfortunately fits many women for obvious reasons. It is well to remember that we are dealing with the sex that have been denied all social rights since early primitive times, segregated to domestic life up to a comparatively recent date and denied access to institutions of learning up to half a century ago. Religion, home and child-bearing were their prescribed spheres. Marriage was their career and to be an old maid a life-long disgrace. Their right to life depended on their sex attraction and the hideous inroads upon the moral integrity of women, produced by economic dependence, are deep and subtle. Loveless marriages, household drudgery, acceptance of loathsome familiarities, unwelcome child-bearing, were and are far more general than admitted by moralists, and have marred the mind, body, and spirit of women.60

For all these reasons, Flynn agreed with the rank-and-file women in the IWW that special forms of propaganda and special kinds of organization suited to the conditions of women’s lives had to be developed if the IWW were to successfully organize them. She opposed the tendency to address general appeals to the whole working class and then blame women if they did not flock to the organization’s banner:

We of the IWW must study our material and adapt our propaganda to women, if we expect a ready response. Some of our male members are prone to underestimate this vital need, and assert that the principles of the IWW are alike for all, which we grant with certain reservations. They must be translated for foreigners, simplified for illiterates, and rendered into technical phrases for various industrial groups.61

Similarly, they must be specially directed toward women.

In a speech she made in 1911, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn laid out her ideas and feelings with a passion that clearly places her in the struggle for women’s liberation as well as the class struggle;

Multitudes of wives and mothers are virtually sex slaves through their direct and debasing dependence upon men for their existence, and motherhood is all too often unwelcome and enforced, while the struggle for existence even in homes where love and affectionate understanding cast their illuminating rays is usually so fierce that life degenerates into a mere animal existence, a struggle for creature comforts, no more, and it is impossible for love to transcend the physical. The mental horizon of the average housekeeper is exceedingly limited, because of the primitive form of labor in the household, the cooking, cleaning, sewing, scrubbing, etc., for an individual family. How can one have depth or mental scope when one’s life is spent exclusively within the four walls of one’s individual, composite home and workshop, performing personal service continually for the same small group, laboring alone and on the primitive plan, doing work that could be better done by socialization and machinery, were not women cheaper than machines today.

We are driven to the conclusion … that much more than the abstract right of the ballot is needed to free women; nothing short of a social revolution can shatter her cramping and stultifying sphere of today. Yet I have a firm and abiding conviction that much can be done to alleviate the lot of working class women today. … I feel the futility, and know that many other Socialist women must, through our appreciation of these sad conditions and our deep sympathy for our sister women, of extending to them nothing more than the hope of an ultimate social revolution. I am impatient for it. I realize the beauty of our hope, the truth of its effectiveness, the inevitability of its realization, but I want to see that hope find a point of contact with the daily lives of working women, and I believe it can through the union movement.62

Notes that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn made for a speech about women sometime during World War I clearly show both her feminism and her Marxism. She focused on the growing tendency of women to leave the home and enter industrial production, believing that it laid the economic basis for a real struggle for equality. But she was no mechanical materialist, relying on economic developments alone to liberate women. She saw reproductive and sexual freedom, exemplified by birth control, as the “most fundamental of all the claims made by women,” for only a woman’s “right to her own body—Sex independence in and out of marriage” could bring about “equality in the home” and the “breakdown of that modern and bad institution, the mansupported family.” She pointed to the necessity of “solidarity among women to achieve these ends.”63

Although she agreed with the IWW that the struggle for woman suffrage diverted women from their true needs, she knew that women were oppressed by culture as well as economics, and applauded the efforts of the feminist movement to break down the genteel trivialization that afflicted the lives of even working- class women at this time:

To the girl industry is a makeshift, a waiting station for matrimony. “Get married,” “have your own home,” “won’t need to work,” is the litany she hears daily at home and in the shop. Dances and social affairs, the marriage marts of the poor, become her haunts, dress and artifices to beauty, her interests. The profound biological instinct of the young to mate, artificially stimulated by mercenary motives and social stigmas, produces many unhappy marriages….

Mis-education further teaches girls to be lady-like, a condition of inane and inert placidity. She must not fight or be aggressive, mustn’t be a “tomboy,” mustn’t soil her dresses, mustn’t run and jump as more sensibly attired boys do. In Scranton recently, I heard a boy say to his sister, “You can’t play with us, you’re only a girl!” I hoped she would beat him into a more generous attitude, but in her acquiescence was the germ of an pitiable inability to think and act alone, characteristic of so many women. In the arrogance of the male child was the beginning of a dominance that culminates in the drunken miner, who beats his wife and vents the cowardly spleen he dare not show the boss! Feminist propaganda is helping to destroy the same obstacles the labor movement confronts, when it ridicules the lady-like person, makes women discontented, draws them from sewing circle gossips and frivolous pastimes into serious discussion of current problems and inspires them to stand abuse and imprisonment for an idea. A girl who has arrived at suffrage will listen to an [IWW] organizer, but a simpering fool who says, “Women ain’t got brains enough to vote!” or “Women ought to stay at home,” is beyond hope.64

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other IWW leaders were far in advance of most of the feminist and socialist movement in their understanding of the importance of female reproductive freedom. As Linda Gordon points out in her important book Woman’s Body, Womans Right, the Socialist Party refused to take up the issue of birth control organizationally—some members felt it was too risky and controversial, while others thought it was immoral. Most probably agreed with Kate Richards O’Hare, who responded to the women who flooded her paper, the National Ripsaw, with requests for birth control information (then illegal): “We are not in a position to wage this battle at present. We have too big a job on hand fighting capitalism to take time to go to jail for swatting one phase of the system. Instead of writing us, write a letter to your Congressman or Senator. Demand that the law be repealed.”65

Nor did the mainstream feminist movement take up the issue; to them the only issue was woman suffrage. As Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, wrote Margaret Sanger, “Your reform is too narrow to appeal to me and too sordid.”66 Birth control was first turned into a political issue not by any organization, but by individual militants acting as a loose, unorganized movement. The anarchists, particularly Emma Goldman and her lover Dr. Ben Reitman, did early and consistent agitation around the question. Important work was done by socialist activists in New York: Maud Malone, Anita Block, Dr. Antoinette Konikow, Rose Pastor Stokes, and Jessie Ashley. A few feminists, like Mary Ware Dennett and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, became deeply involved in birth control work; and there was a cluster of people who came from socialist backgrounds but became identified with birth control as a single issue; Margaret Sanger, her first husband William Sanger, Dr. William J. Robinson, Sanger’s sister Ethel Byrne, and her young allies Fania Mindell and Agnes Smedly (later to win fame for her work in support of the Chinese revolution). From the IWW came Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Georgia Kotsch, Caroline Nelson, and Dr. Marie Equi, a West Coast Wobbly who was an open lesbian and probably the main distributor of contraceptive information to workers in the Pacific Northwest during this period. All of them broke the law, risked prosecution, and in some cases were actually tried and jailed while attempting to bring birth control information to working-class people.

To some, birth control was primarily a feminist issue, a way women could gain greater control over their lives. To most it was also a weapon in the class struggle, a needed reform that could lessen the poverty and hardship of working-class life, especially for women, and enable them to be freer to fight. Intensive agitation about the need for information about contraception began during the depression of 1914–1915, when the sufferings of the poor were especially severe. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn made birth control the subject of one of her main speeches on her 1915 lecture tour and was gratified by the response:

It was an agreeable surprise on my lecture trip last year, that a number of applications for the lecture “Small Families: A Working Class Necessity,” were made. It proved one of the most effective topics, yet a few years ago it was a tabooed subject in America, classified as “vulgar and obscene” both by law and public opinion. The radical change in attitude which now permits and invites a frank and serious discussion of this subject, is largely due to the indefatigable efforts of one woman, Mrs. Margaret Sanger….

Birth control among the workers, not as a solution to the class war, but as a valuable contribution towards that end, is a logical conclusion for a woman of Mrs. Sanger’s varied experiences.67

Margaret Sanger, a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side, was a left-wing socialist and a follower of the IWW, who had been active in strike support work in Lawrence and Paterson. Although in later years she advocated birth control for purposes of limiting and purifying the world’s population and staving off revolution, in this period she saw contraception as a way to help working-class women, bring about a sexual revolution, and make the working class as a whole more fit for combat. Encouraged by Bill Haywood, one of the leaders of the IWW,68 she went to France in 1913 to investigate the means of contraception being used there. The French working class was celebrated for having a declining birth rate despite the power of the Catholic Church and the government’s policy of paying family allowances to people that bore many children.69 Margaret Sanger collected many home birth control techniques in France, where “mothers prided themselves on their special recipes for suppositories as much as on those for pot au feu or wine.”70

She returned to the United States in 1914 to start her own magazine, the Woman Rebel, which was circulated through IWW locals and by anarchist friends like Emma Goldman.71 Margaret Sanger printed the IWW preamble in her first issue, as if to declare affiliation. Her purpose, she said, was “to stimulate working women to think for themselves and to build up a conscious fighting character.”72 Apart from its feminism, the magazine bore a strong resemblance to those of the anarchist fringe of the IWW, where there was a great emphasis on being a pure-spirited militant minority with, in Margaret Sanger’s phrase, “a burning faith and a faith in burning.’73 The U.S. Post Office soon indicted her for an article that was “a philosophical defense of assassination,”74 despite the fact that the magazine’s main message was sexual freedom for women, including freedom from “forced motherhood”:

Our fight is for the personal liberty of the women who work. A woman’s body belongs to herself alone. It is her body. It does not belong to the Church. It does not belong to the United States of America…. The first step toward getting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for any woman is her decision whether or not she shall become a mother. Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.… Once the women of the United States are awakened to the value of birth control, these institutions—Church, State, Big Business—will be struck such a blow that they will be able only to beg for mercy from the workers.75

When Margaret Sanger was indicted, she decided to flee the country and do further research into European techniques of birth control; she planned to turn her trial into a political forum when she returned. As she fled she released her pamphlet Family Limitation, a popular digest of information about contraceptive techniques she had gathered in Europe: douching, condoms, pessaries (diaphragms), sponges, and suppositories. It contained arguments against coitus interruptus as being harmful to the nervous condition of the woman involved, and pleaded for mutual sexual fulfillment rather than the forcible exercise of the husband’s conjugal rights. It suggested that “the working woman can use direct action by refusing to supply the market with children to be exploited, by refusing to populate the earth with slaves.”76

One hundred thousand copies of the first edition of Family Limitation were printed clandestinely by IWW printer Bill Shatoff, and it was distributed primarily through IWW locals. Margaret Sanger recalls:

At first I had thought only of an edition of ten thousand. However, when I learned that union leaders in the silk, woolen, and copper industries were eager to have many more copies to distribute, I enlarged my plan…. Bundles went to the mills in the East, to the mines in the West—to Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh, to Butte, Lawrence, and Paterson. All who had requested copies were to receive them simultaneously.77

In the next few years, 10 million copies were printed and many more were mimeographed, typed, or hand copied. When Margaret Sanger returned for her trial, she reported that “boys in the North Woods, lumberjacks, bereft mothers, all sent sums of from one to ten dollars out of their meagre savings to help me carry on the fight. Miners from West Virginia wrote that their wives had for the first time in 5, 8, or ten years been free from pregnancy…. Miners had walked five miles to read the pamphlet. Others had had it copied by friends who could write.”78 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote Margaret Sanger, suggesting that the IWW form Sanger defense committees. She reported that the IWW had printed five thousand leaflets in Chicago containing extracts from her book, and that “one girl told me the women in the Stockyard district kissed her hands, when she distributed them.”79

Despite the efforts of a number of IWW women and some men to make birth control a political issue, and despite the eagerness of IWW members for the information, there was considerable passive resistance to the issue inside the organization. In 1916 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn sharply criticized the bulk of the male membership for their lack of enthusiasm:

The majority of women readers will agree on the vital importance of birth control propaganda. Although some of our men are opposed to it they are usually single…. few men can understand the hopeless hapless condition of an involuntary mother, who bequeathes a heritage of submission and despair to her children. I met the wife of a miner recently, mother of six children, the oldest, eight, the youngest a nursing baby. She was suffering from general debility due to excessive child-bearing, and when I said, “I hope you’ll soon be better,” she reproached me scornfully by saying, “I hope I die soon.” Certainly there would be more vigorous rebellion in our people if this crushing burden were lifted from the women. I am beseiged by women for information on this subject, and this opens up another avenue of assault upon the system, yet whenever the subject is selected by a local it is always amazing how few I.W.W. workers bring their women folk to the meeting. It is time they realized that the I.W.W. stands for a larger program than more wages and shorter hours, and the industrial freedom we all aspire to will be the foundation upon which a different world for men and women will be reached.80

With the coming of the war and the IWW’s subsequent repression and disintegration, the organization was unable to agitate forcefully for birth control, even if all its members had been behind the issue. Because IWW members saw workplace-centered economic exploitation not only as the fundamental cause of class oppression, but as virtually its only manifestation, they did not understand the operation of the political machinery of class rule; the state. Despite the police harassment they were continually subjected to, despite the way troops were used against their strikes, they still took a lighthearted approach to state repression. They kept their organization loose, their membership lists were completely open, and they had no means of communicating with each other besides those offered by the U.S. Post Office. Consequently, when the government decided to destroy the IWW during World War I, it was able to suppress its publications and sweep almost all its active members up in a dragnet with little effort. Work with women—in fact, all IWW work—became a dead issue.

Margaret Sanger turned to other allies, while the women who had been active in the IWW went their separate ways. Matilda Robbins had a baby and became inactive. Dr. Marie Equi was sent to jail for treason—she had called American soldiers “dirty, contemptible scum,” and charged that the ruling class owned the army and navy. The prosecuting attorney called her an “unsexed woman.”81 When she was released after a year in San Quentin, her health had deteriorated and she ceased to be politically active. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn continued to do defense work for political prisoners, during the war and after, but she developed a heart condition and had to retire for a time when she was only thirty-six years old. During this period she went to live with Dr. Marie Equi. When she re-emerged in the 1930s and joined the Communist Party, her sense of urgency about the specific oppression of women had become muted by her desire to become more active again in general.

In the years of its strength, the IWW made two significant contributions to the theory and practice of organizing women in the United States. It found new ways of connecting the workplace and the community: in the heat of its great mass strikes, housewives came out of the isolation of their kitchens and joined their husbands and working women in the fight for survival on the picket line. In doing so, they created new space for their own struggle as women, new bargaining power in the home, new political understanding for the future, as well as doubling the size and strength of the working-class army. These moments did not last: after the strike, the community women returned to their kitchens and the wage-earning housewives sank once more under the unrelieved drudgery of their two jobs. And not only the women were demobilized: since the IWW’s fervor was considerably more developed than its organizational understanding, its locals often fell apart after a successful strike. Nevertheless, the heights reached in IWW strikes were significant peaks in the historical experience of the whole U.S. working class. Only in the general strikes of the garment workers were women equally active—and the women in the garment industry did not stay mobilized either.

The IWW’s second major contribution to work with women was its effort to integrate women’s fundamental demand for reproductive freedom with the general class struggle, to take the demand for birth control into the labor movement and bring out its class aspects. Not only did the IWW agitate around the need for access to birth control information; it actively distributed such information at a time when to do so was to court arrest. This was a significant departure from its general economist outlook on the oppression of women and stood in startling contrast to the rest of the labor movement’s avoidance of the dangerous issues of reproduction and sexuality. Even while its theory denied the necessity of special campaigns around women’s rights, IWW practice on the birth control issue showed that it could be militant about the needs of women as well as about economic issues. By bringing these two realms together, the IWW added a new dimension to both the labor movement and the movement for women’s liberation.

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