‘Problems Organizing Women’ by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from Solidarity (Cleveland). Vol. 7 No. 340. July 15, 1916.

‘Problems Organizing Women’ by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from Solidarity (Cleveland). Vol. 7 No. 340. July 15, 1916.

In extending an enthusiastic welcome the Women’s Edition of Solidarity I am merely reiterating my conviction that we must here study our materials and adapt our propaganda to the special needs of women. Some of our male members are prone to underestimate this vital need and assert that the principles of the I. W. W. are alike for all, which we grant with certain reservations. They must be translated for foreigners, simplified for illiterates, and rendered in technical phrases for various industrial groups.

An unnamed striker speaks during a meeting at the start of the Great Chicago Garment Workers’ Strike of 1910-11.

The textile workers discuss “one big union” in terms of warp and woof, the Joplin miners in terms of “cans of ore,” and the harvest hand in the job dialect of his seasonal work. The Western locals feel the need of a paper written in the style peculiar to their district and thus the general education progresses from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

I have heard revolutionists present a large indictment against women, which if true, constitutes a mine of reason 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, more interested in personal than social problems, 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 we are dealing with the sex that has 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 childbearing were their prescribed spheres. Marriage was their career and to be an old maid a lifelong disgrace. Their right to life depended on their sex attraction, and the hideous inroads on the moral integrity of women, produced by economic dependence, are deep and subtle. Loveless marriages, household drudgery, acceptance of loathsome familiarities, unwelcome childbearing, were and are far more general than admitted by moralists, and have married the mind, body and spirit of women…

Women’s Committee of Local Brownsville Socialist Party marching in New York City’s 1914 May Day parade.

After a few generations, custom will accept it as natural and ethical. When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1702, she was dubbed a “hyena in petticoats,” yet her views would be considered mild and conservative today. The early suffragists were mobbed and occupied the same plane in popular opinion allotted to the I. W. W. now, yet slowly the changing economic status of woman has made suffrage respectable, even fashionable. While women were merely instruments of passion or household drudges, so long as “the ideal woman was she of whom neither good nor evil was heard outside her own home” and education stopped with reading the catechism-there was no soil in which the roots of new ideals could cling or be nourished.

Today we see calm, clear-eyed women deliberating in conventions, marching in peace or suffrage parades, and enthusiastic militant ones in long and bitter strikes. It thrills us as mighty cosmic upheavals when the static of centuries moves, rises, and is changed. From this larger viewpoint, one must admit that women are forging ahead, and have really accomplished much with their limited opportunities. Given a fraction of the long eras of public, cooperative life men have passed through, the new woman whose outline we already dimly see will surely develop.

Women’s Trade Union League of New York protest child labor and distribute their journal ‘Life and Labor’ in front of City Hall in 1909.

But one should not exaggerate the number of real rebel women and become over sanguine about the general outlook. There are many intelligent women who have only arrived at an intense rebellion against the handicaps placed on women, which is pithily expressed in the slogan,”Give a woman a man’s chance.” The rebel woman realizes that “a man’s chance” is not enviable under the present order and that her fight is to secure relief for all workers, irrespective of sex. Ideas do not change automatically with environment and many hold-over ones, a century behind actually, aggravate and humiliate self-respecting women…

Miseducation further teaches girls to be lady-like, a condition of inane and inert placidity. She must not fight or be aggressive, mustn’t be “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 a pitiable inability to think and act alone, characteristic of so many women.

I.W.W.’s Lumberworker’s Industrial Union No. 500 outside their hall in Arlington, Washington. 1917.

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 discussions 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 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.

A single girl is deluded by expectations of escape through marriage, a state which gives to the man additional incentive to fight for better conditions. The married woman worker has a two-fold burden from which her husband is immune-childbearing and housekeeping. To counteract these tremendous handicaps and draw the women of labor into its warfare is a task pitted to the I. W. W. Women and foreigners have been step-sisters and brothers in the A. F. L. The I. W. W. must be capable, large-spirited, all-inclusive to bring a message of hope into the noisiest workshop and dingiest kitchen…

Volunteering for picket duty during the great 1909-1910 New York City Shirtwaist Strike.

To the wives and mothers the I. W. W. ideal could be presented from many angles. A happier, more wholesome family life, conditional on economic security for the bread winner, certainly appeals. The abolition of child labor and of the toil of mothers who must neglect their babies to feed them should gladden every mother’s heart that feels “the child’s sob in the silent curses deeper than the strong man in his wrath.”

The home of the future will eliminate the odd jobs that reduce it to cluttered workshop today and electricity free the woman’s hand from methods entirely antiquated in an era of machinery. There is no great credit attached to making a pie like mother used to make when a machine tended by five unskilled workers turns out 42,000 perfect pies a day! Cook stoves, washboards, and hand irons are doomed to follow the spinning wheel, candles and butter churns, into the museums, and few tears will be shed at their demise.

Catherine Alsopp, a washer woman, committed suicide in London eleven years ago and left the following poem written on a sugar bag, a fitting epitaph for woman’s labor:

Rose Strunksy, gesturing, organizing women textile workers in New York, 1909.

Here lies a poor woman, who always was tired;
She lived in a house where help was not hired.
Her last words on earth were, “Dear friends, I am going
Where washing ain’t done, nor sweeping, nor sewing;
But everything there is exact to my wishes,
For where they don’t eat there’s no washing of dishes,
I’ll be where loud anthems will always be ringing,
But, having no voice, I”ll be clear of the singing.
Don’t mourn for me now; don’t mourn for me ever,
I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

Birth control propaganda opens up another avenue of assault on the system, and women readers will agree upon its vital importance. Masculine opposition is theoretical, not practical, since few can understand the hopeless, hapless lot of involuntary maternity, which bequeaths a heritage of submissive despair to the offspring.

Betty Marandi, Laura Douglass, and Emma Polcari lead 3000 strikers past deputies guarding the National Silk Dye Company in East Paterson, New Jersey, 1926.

Recently I met the wife of a miner, mother of six the oldest eight, the youngest a nursing baby. She was suffering from general debility due to excessive childbearing and when I said, “I hope you’ll feel better,” she said scornfully, “I hope I die soon!” Certainly there would be more rebellion in our people if this crushing burden were lifted from women.

I am besieged by pleas for information on the subject and know the desperate chances women take with their lives under our puritanical laws, yet it is amazing how few members bring their wives when the subject is selected by a local. Our men should realize that the large family system rivets the chains of slavery upon labor more securely. It crushes the parents, starves the children, and provides cheap fodder for machines and cannons.

Selling the Socialist ‘New York Call’ during the shirtwaist strike.

If women are to be active, however, their ability should not be disparaged. I know a local where members forbid their wives speaking to an I. W. W. woman “because they 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!” With lots of husky men around to attend to such unpleasantries, a good secretary need hardly be a Jesse Willard. The secretary of the Italian Syndicate of Agricultural Workers (their A. W. O.) is a woman of twenty-five, Maria Rugiery. It has 35,000 members, laborers in the vineyards, olive, fruit and mulberry groves, and in the fields. She was imprisoned in 1912 and led a strike of 12,000 marble cutters in 1914. In recent large struggles women have fought bravely.

The most widely read of I.W.W. newspapers, Solidarity was published by the Industrial Workers of the World from 1909 until 1917. First produced in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and born during the McKees Rocks strike, Solidarity later moved to Cleveland, Ohio until 1917 then spent its last months in Chicago. With a circulation of around 12,000 and a readership many times that, Solidarity was instrumental in defining the Wobbly world-view at the height of their influence in the working class. It was edited over its life by A.M. Stirton, H.A. Goff, Ben H. Williams, Ralph Chaplin who also provided much of the paper’s color, and others. Like nearly all the left press it fell victim to federal repression in 1917.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/solidarity-iww/1916/v7-w340-jul-16-1916-solidarity.pdf

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