‘Courage’ by Mary Heaton Vorse from The Liberator. Vol. 6 No. 3. March, 1923.

Legendary labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse with a wonderful picture of the marching, militant women of Kansas’ striking coal mining families led by Mine Workers dissident Alexander Howatt.

‘Courage’ by Mary Heaton Vorse from The Liberator. Vol. 6 No. 3. March, 1923.

RECENTLY I was in the coal fields of Southern Kansas, District 14, Alexander Howat’s district. Here I found both men and women held an attitude in talking to strangers different from any I have ever met from the Mesaba Range in Northern Minnesota to the textile workers of New England. The women talked to me as if I were an old friend; their stories came pouring out without reserve.

They had no fear.

In District 14 I met more people in a short time that I will remember always than I ever did in so short a time anywhere. These people in that flat Kansas country had the precious gift of individuality. They were like trees which grow alone and are individual, while the closely-packed forest trees are indistinguishable one from another. As I jolted around from one mining camp to another, I met woman after woman who held their heads high, who told me stories of their lives which embodied fidelity to courage, unremitting gallantry in the face of intimidation, hunger, and the strain of prolonged strikes. They told these stories unconscious that they were giving me a history of undaunted souls. To them what they had to tell was an everyday matter.

Usually when a stranger tries to talk to the wives of workers an awful silence must be overcome. This is especially true if the women are foreigners, then they wrap around them their immemorial reticence. The distrust of the unknown peers from their eyes and betrays itself in their guarded answers. Often swift panic that a stool pigeon is with them closes the gate of confidence.

Miners’ leader Alexander Howat.

During the weeks that I spent in Kansas I met women and men of all nationalities. Magnificent old pioneers in unionism, American women from West Virginia, women with a pungent Scotch burr, English women, Belgians, Serbs, Italians. These women were separated by age, nationality, by distance. They did not know each other. They were bound together by this unusual trait of individuality. Differing so much, they were alike in that they had no fear. All of them had some part of the story of District 14 to tell.

The longer I stayed in Kansas, the more I wondered what made these people so different from women in mining camps in Ohio, in Pennsylvania and even on the Mesaba Range. What load had been lifted from them that they could be completed human beings? I wanted to know why they weren’t afraid to talk. A young lawyer who had worked for the U.M.W. of A. in this district gave one answer.

“Nobody in District 14,” he said, “has had to be afraid of their jobs for years. Alec Howat wouldn’t let a man in any mine be fired for a caprice or spite. He’d stand up for the last-come Hunky just as much as he’d stand up for a member of the executive board. No operator could put anything over on Alec.”

Alec Howat had killed the fear of unemployment in his district. It had been dead for years. So in that flat Kansas country human beings were liberated from one of the fears that haunts almost all workers. For the lives of workers everywhere are maimed by the fear of unemployment, old age and illness.

Imagine a society where the three fears didn’t exist. Imagine a society liberated from fear. Fear is the foulest poison that the human soul knows. I have lived in New England towns where old and dignified houses faced great commons. Double rows of mighty elms stood tranquil sentinels of beauty along the wide streets, yet in these towns the voice of life was so muted that youth flowed from them. In these towns, unusually free from the burden of poverty, spiritual poverty crippled almost every human soul, because fear sneaked from house to house muttering, “Conform, conform- don’t think or others will think you impious or immoral”-so when thought withered, life withered and died.

I have lived in steel towns where the nameless fear of espionage poisoned the very air. No one may grasp or measure the harm wrought by the system of “Under cover men.”

No Devil invented by man’s perverse ingenuity can equal Fear. Fear chokes all upward strivings of man’s spirit.

Fear skulks by night and day poisoning the wells of thought, strangling brave endeavor. It spreads dark nets to enmesh the bright spirit of youth in its stubtle, filthy bondage. To every natural gesture, to every generous impulse, to any new-born thought, fear whispers its potent formula, “What will people think?”

Gathering for the march.

Fear is the enemy of love and beauty. Fear limits all largeness of life and all extension of joy.

Down the ages fear has skulked through the world whispering, “Do not think the penalty for thinking differently from your generation is death.”

Fear is bigotry’s spouse, persecution’s father. Read civilizations record. Fear stands in the path of change with the noose and the knife, ready for slaughter. For centuries fear was the relentless enemy of science.

Fear slinks along, head down, tail clamped close, a licked cur ready to kill-in self defense. Fear walks with murder. Fear has shrieked to men and to nations, “Arm yourselves swiftly. Kill! kill! kill! Or you will be killed!”

Fear is armament’s excuse. Fear is the mask behind which stand the cunning manufacturers of the tools for the human abattoir we call war. Fear is war’s closest friend.

Lift the burden of fear ever so little and mankind grows in stature like the fabulous tree of life. All that is great in man’s spirit responds to “Fear not” as soldiers to the bugle call. In the shifting, inconstant valuation of “good and bad,” one virtue alone has been as fixed as the north star. It is old as time. It is venerated from the African Bush to the highest summits civilization has attained. To it youth through the ages has paid its passionate homage. Courage is its name.

Down in Kansas there was a fearless man named Alexander Howat. His fearlessness was as a magnet to other fearless men. Unexpected things happened in this fiat Kansas country, where folks made their livings from cornfields and coal. A year ago in December something happened whose like I do not recall in all the history of labor. Howat was in jail and with him were August Dorchy and four members of the Executive Board- John Flemming, Willard Titus, Hearl Marshall and James McIlwraith. They were in jail for having fought the Industrial Court law.

The International of Mine Workers of America, had expelled these men from the union. “Provisional Government” had been put up in District 14. All the members of District 14 who did not return to work when ordered by the international had been suspended from the union. District 14, in its convention, had voted unanimously to support Howat and the officers of the district in their fight against the hated law. Lewis ordered the men back to work. Driven by hunger many had seeped back into the mines.

Mary Stuvitch..

Three women got together and agreed, “We women must do something about this.” Of the original committee one was an American woman, one an Italian, and one a French woman. These women put a little advertisement in the paper. It stated merely that a women’s meeting would be held in a hall in the town of Franklin to discuss the situation. It was a women’s meeting- no men allowed. Old women and young women, women of all nationalities streamed to that little hall. They came miles by the Interurban Railways. They drove from remote mining camps. Mary Stuvitch- a woman of Montenegrin blood -proposed the idea that every woman at the meeting should get two other women to march and that each of these two women must get two other women. In two days time a procession of women was organized that took the flivers and motors carrying the women three hours to pass any given point. At their head rode a young French girl on a great roan horse.

I do not know how many women marched. The figures given me differed from 4,000 to 6,000.

A remarkable thing had happened; something that had in it beauty and courage. It had meant so much that almost a year later everyone still talked of it. The first woman marcher that I talked with was Mrs. Pearson, in a remote mining camp. She was one of those Kansas people I will never forget. When I was in her house her husband was sick, bent over with rheumatism, and she had carried on the work of the farm by herself.

She was the sort of woman that made you feel she had never known even the meaning of fear. She was sunburnt, powerful, full of the good temper that is bred from an unconscious knowledge of power. The mining camp she lived in was now partially deserted. Dismal shacks blinked empty windows at you. The people who had once lived in them had been driven away during the strike by who knows what desperation of hunger. It was a sort of place to give you a haunted feeling, but this one woman of magnificent courage kept its heart warm.

“Of course I marched,” she said. “Boys and men were taking away the jobs of their brothers! They were taking away the jobs of the men that had built the Union and who’d fought with them shoulder to shoulder in strike after strike.

“‘We women must go to the men that are working,”’ I said ‘and make ’em understand what they’re doing and they’ll come out. It’s up to us women.’ That’s how I felt, that’s how allthose thousands of women felt that marched. We wasn’t goin’ to have any violence. We was goin’ to use reason.  Many a woman ‘d come with a sawed-off broom handle or tuck a rolling pin under her shawl. We’d go up and down the cars and explain to ’em. We believed if we talked to the men honest and frank like we was their own sisters an mothers they ‘ud know they was bertaying the union and was going back on Alec Howat, who’d spent the years of his life in making District 14 one of the best organized districts of the United Mine Workers. So out we went, thousands of us. We went from mine to mine and every mine we went to out come the boys!”

Workers in Pittburgh, Kansas on a one-day solidarity strike after the arrest of Howat.

This was just one of the women in that march. There were thousands like her. There were little old women that looked for all the world like New England school marms, magnificent women like Mary Stuvitch, splendid Italian women like Julia Cavellieri, who, though she reads English with difficulty, speaks four languages and has a lawyer’s mind.

In my days I’ve heard a great deal about “spontaneous uprisings of the people.” I have never known anything as spontaneous as this historic march of the women of Kansas.

After the second day the program of the march was so long that the young French girl, seated on her roan horse, could no longer lead. My mind returns to her, young and magnificent, riding at the head of the procession, instinct with the power of youth, aflame with the indignation that had sent these women to their self-appointed task. I like, too, to think of the old American women of seventy who walked three miles before daylight on that bitter December morning to the meeting place where the march started.

The “Provisional Government” was struck with terror. Wild stories were circulated. The women were going to march down on Pittsburg, Kansas, and burn the town! I was told that in the leading hotel the Provisional Government had machine guns and stacked rifles to fight the “Amazons.” Perhaps this is not true. I hope it is not.

Anyway, after three days the State troops were brought in to stop the terrible women. They chose the youngest boys of the militia for the purpose. One of the women told me: “I wanted to form committees of the oldest women. We would go to these boys and talk to them like their own mothers and explain to them why we was marching. Some of us talked to the boys anyway and I tell you them boys was disgusted. One said to me, ‘I’d never ‘a’ come, ma, if I’d known the truth!'”

Mary Heaton Vorse, left, with comrades bringing supplies to Kentucky’s striking miners in 1932.

“They had been told we was murdering folks and burning things, and when I talked to them I tell you them boys was mad!”

The story of these women’s march should be told in epic form. It is an instance of what can happen when the crushing weight of fear is lifted, if only a little, from human beings.

The story of the women’s march is only a detail in the history of District 14. It is significant that for the first time great numbers of working women rose up to support their men. They were intimidated, they were arrested, and the courageous spirits of most of them laughed at jail. No “outside agitator” influenced them. The courage they showed was no momentary thing. It had been in the air they had breathed. It was woven into the fabric of their lives.

The steady courage of the men and women in the Howat strike, who for weeks faced starvation until the miners of Illinois sent help, is another story which has never been told adequately. The old women and men will tell you of the four years strike when District 14 finally became organized.

Why these people, men and women both, shared in the rare gift of personality; why they were so liberated; why they had this signal courage in so great a degree was not to be explained entirely by the young lawyer. One of the last days I was in Kansas I went again to the jail at Girard to say goodbye to Alexander Howat and the other men shut up there. I talked to Howat about this courage and asked him for the answer.

Kansas women marching.

“Why,” he said, “we’ve been talking courage to them for twenty years. There’s not been a mass meeting nor a union meeting where we haven’t talked it.”

The question leaps to one’s mind if one man gifted with courage can draw about him a group of courageous men like him, and if they can change the spiritual outlook of thousands of people, what could be done if this were the watchword of the workers throughout the country. It flings open the door on a new life, on a different culture.

It shows the way to the killing forever of the Three Fears.

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