Wonderful story of the transformative power of collective experience by women newspaper workers on strike against Hearst’s Milwaukee-based ‘Wisconsin News’ in 1936.
‘You Can’t Eat Romance’ by Lola Bullard from Women Today. Vol. 1 No. 3. July, 1936.
TODAY I am wearing a pair of low-heeled shoes. All my life I have worn teetery spike-heeled pumps of shiny patent leather or kid. I look at my feet, pacing back and forth, back and forth, on the picket line before the Hearst-owned Wisconsin News building.
My new shoes are not pretty: Flat heels, stubby round toes, heavy brown calfskin built up sensibly high around the arch. No, one couldn’t call them gay shoes, nor frivolous shoes. But they are sturdy, the heels will not give way under me, and when I take these oxfords off at night my arch will not throb with pain.
What have my pair of cheap new shoes to do with a strike? Why do I talk about shoes when I and my fellow workers of the editorial department have been out in the street for seven weeks, seeking to win from a power-mad old man recognition of our union (the Milwaukee Newspaper Guild) and a decent living standard?
Because, in a way, these “sensible” shoes are a symbol of what has happened to me and to the men and women I work with. We are down to earth at last!
For too many years we newspaper people walked, as it were, on tiptoes. The publishers told us- usually when we asked for a raise- that we were professional people, creative craftsmen, white collar men and women, artists! Today we know that, men and women alike, we are workers and that, as workers, our only strength lies in organization.
“Workers, men and women alike!” It was the employer who taught us that we were that. I don’t know about other newspaper offices, but on the Wisconsin News, where I worked for 15 years, women never received any special consideration in view of their inferior physical strength. They did receive a little less pay and a little more abuse; our city editor, like all bullies, preferred for his victims those he thought were weakest.
The unlimited work week, frequently 80 hours, sometimes 25 at a stretch, applied to women as well as to men. No assignments were closed to me because I was a woman. I handled- and took pride in handling- difficult, even dangerous work with the men.
The American Newspaper Guild, in its constitution, recognizes the right of women to participate in movements to better their condition, not as women, but as workers. A clause, passed unanimously, specifically sets forth that no person shall be barred from membership in the Guild-trade union of newspaper editorial workers because of sex.
There are five women employed in the Wisconsin News editorial department. When the strike call came, three of us walked out: Vivian Gardner, radio editor; Jean Dessel, librarian; and me-I’m a reporter. Our shifts on the picket line are exactly as long and as frequent as those of the men. They were, too, even in the 16-below zero weather in which the strike began.
There are three women on the strike committee which directs all strike activities. They are Jean, Mary Van Vuren who is a reporter on the Journal here, and I. Jean is, in addition, strike secretary, and I put in my time at strike headquarters, when I’m not on the picket line, working on a special committee seeking to reduce News advertising. Vivian handled most of the arrangements for our benefit dance.
As I write that about her, she comes in from the picket line and sits down with a needle and thread and some bright scraps of silk. I smile at her and she grins back ruefully.
“I’m making some duck wings for Dick,” she says. “He’s going to be in a school play. This business of being a mother and a striker…”
Vivian’s husband was a popular and widely known newspaperman here for years. He was fired in the last Hearst “shake-up” here. He had worked for nearly 10 years for the newspaper, but a new managing editor wanted his place for an important yes-man. Unable to get another job to pay for the medical care he needed, Dick died in a few months. They hired Viv to carry on his column-at $10 a week. They called it a part-time job, but it required an average of 10 hours a day. It was more than a year before she got a raise.
“Viv,” I say, caught up in the past, “do you remember the time a couple years ago when the bunch was sitting in the Press Bar and that solemn little cub reporter we had then, asked what fascism was?”
“Yeah?” she says.
“And somebody said it was an Italian invention, and somebody said it was the corporate state, and somebody said it was the last stand of monopoly capitalism, and then we all ordered another beer and forgot all about it?”
“Yeah?” she asks, stitching away at the duck’s wing. “What about it?”
“Well,” I say, “I was just wondering what would you say today if anybody asked you what fascism is?”
“What would I say?” Viv almost yelled. “What would I say? Why, I’d say that fascism is what Willie Hearst has done to us in the past and what he’s trying to do to us today!”
“It’s the most vicious sort of exploitation! It’s the attempt to sweat more and more out of men and women, who work for less and less money. It’s spies and stool pigeons and bribes. It’s the determination of that rich, wicked old man, to beat us down by promises and trickery and threats, and when those fail, by strikebreakers and open violence. When I think of that scab choking one of our boys while the cop watched him? When I think of that 200 pound cop punching Jean in the stomach! “
She sputters breathlessly, and jabs the needle through the silk. “Fascism! It’s what Hearst preaches in his columns every day; it’s what he practices against his own employes!”
Seven weeks of striking, seven weeks of walking the line have taught us many things.
Jonathan Eddy, national Guild executive secretary, asked 11-year-old Dick, Vivian’s son, “What do you think of your mother going on strike? “
Dick thought it over, and explained,
“Why, mother’s just fighting for her own rights and for me. I’m pretty proud of mother.”
And still, with that sort of spirit, Hearst thinks he can lick the men and women of the Newspaper Guild. Still his spokesmen tell us, “Mr. Hearst doesn’t like the Guild. Mr. Hearst won’t recognize you. Mr. Hearst doesn’t think newspaper people should organize.”
“Why not? Why not? Why not?” our bargaining committee kept asking. I believe it was its woman member who, tiring of the Hearst evasions, gave the true answer, which Harry Bittner, general manager of all Hearst publications, was unable convincingly to deny.
“Hearst won’t recognize the Guild,” she said, “because he’s afraid that, if newspapermen and women gain strength through organization, they will refuse to do the dirty work he has demanded of them in the past.
“He’s afraid,” she said, shaking her finger under Bittner’s nose, “that newspaper people will at last tell the truth to his readers about the American labor movement!”
What greater nightmare could haunt a fascist’s dreams?
The Working Woman, ‘A Paper for Working Women, Farm Women, and Working-Class Housewives,’ was first published monthly by the Communist Party USA Central Committee Women’s Department from 1929 to 1935, continuing until 1937. It was the first official English-language paper of a Socialist or Communist Party specifically for women (there had been many independent such papers). At first a newspaper and very much an exponent of ‘Third Period’ politics, it played particular attention to Black women, long invisible in the left press. In addition, the magazine covered home-life, women’s health and women’s history, trade union and unemployment struggles, Party activities, as well poems and short stories. The newspaper became a magazine in 1933, and in late 1935 it was folded into The Woman Today which sought to compete with bourgeois women’s magazines in the Popular Front era. The Woman today published until 1937. During its run editors included Isobel Walker Soule, Elinor Curtis, and Margaret Cowl among others.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/wt/v1n03-may-1936-women-today.pdf