IWW-women-graphic

Podcast about the early history of women in the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World union in the United States, in conversation with Heather Mayer, author of Beyond the Rebel Girl: Women and the IWW in the Pacific Northwest, 1905-1924.

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Get Heather’s book here: amzn.to/2DqONVc
Episode 6 of our podcast gives an introduction to the IWW in the US so we recommend listening to that before this unless you are well acquainted with IWW history and terminology already.
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For a detailed history of the IWW in the US, you can get this extensive collection of writings in our online store hereRebel Voices

FOOTNOTES
– Everett massacre: here is an extensive collection about these events: content.lib.washington.edu/pnwlaborweb/index.html
– Mother Jones: this is her autobiography – libcom.org/library/autobiography-mother-jones
– Lucy Parsons: this is a short biography – libcom.org/history/articles/1853-lucy-parsons
– Emma Goldman: this is a short biography – libcom.org/history/articles/1869-1940-emma-goldman
– Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: this is her autobiography – https://libcom.org/history/rebel-girl-autobiography-my-first-life-1906-26
– Spokane free speech fight: this is a short history – libcom.org/history/1908-10-spo…e-free-speech-fight
– Lawrence textile strike: this is a short history – libcom.org/history/articles/la…textile-strike-1912
– Paterson: this article about Italian anarchists in Paterson covers the IWW and the silk strike: libcom.org/history/patersons-i…e-salvatore-salerno
– This is a photo gallery of women in the IWW: reuther.wayne.edu/image/tid/1941
– Immigrant girl, radical woman: a memoir from the early 20th century by Matilda Rabinowitz is a great, illustrated account of one leading IWW woman organiser. You can get it here: amzn.to/2JJOKo6

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
– Thanks to the Salt Lake Tribune for permission to use the recording of Rebel Girl, performed by Alyeah Hansen in 2015. Check out the full video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_tz3wPgLUw
And take a look at their excellent Legacy of Joe Hill homepage: local.sltrib.com/charts/joehill/landingpage.html
– Edited by Daniel Waldorf

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TRANSCRIPT

WCH:

This episode continues our series about the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World, which we introduce in episode 6. So if you’re new to the IWW, I would go back and listen to that one first. While many people have heard about the IWW, perhaps the most important working-class organisation in American history, an essential part of the union’s story has often gone under the radar and that is the role of women in shaping the union. Women were at its founding conference, were leading workplace organisers and soapbox speakers, took militant industrial action and got thrown in jail. This is Working Class History.

[Rebel Girl by Joe Hill played]

WCH:

Today, we’re very happy to be joined by Heather Mayer, author of Beyond the Rebel Girl: Women and the IWW in the Pacific Northwest and contributor to Wobblies of theWorld: A Global History of the IWW. Both of these texts reveal a lot of information about the under-researched role of women in the union. We’ll start off with one story which illustrates just that. Heather, thanks for joining us. In your chapter in Wobblies of the World, you tell the story of Edith Frenette and the Everett Massacre. The Everett Massacre is quite a well-known incident in IWW history but you tell it from a really different perspective which is really interesting. Could you maybe say a bit more about that?

Heather:

Yeah, that was really the inspiration of my entire focus on this area of research because I was familiar with the story of Everett. The well-known version is that in Everett, a city north of Seattle, Washington, there had been some disputes in the lumber mills in the area and there were a lot of tensions there. The IWW members were coming in, speaking on the street, trying to organise and increasingly being met with violence by local vigilantes, usually business leadership in the town. This keeps building and building until they announce that there’s going to be this massive free speech rally. A boatload of 250 Wobblies are coming in from Seattle to the town of Everett and they’re met by these vigilantes and sheriff deputised citizens. This is the famous anecdote where they try to stop the Wobblies and say, ‘Who is your leader?’ and they say, ‘We’re all leaders!’ Somebody then fires a gun, a shootout ensues, Wobblies end up dead and the sheriff ends up dead. This is the traditional picture of this story. When I started to look into more, I would see this woman’s name, Edith Frenette, keep popping up. I saw that there were all-female pallbearers at the funerals of the men who died during the shooting. I saw that there were pictures of women in all of these things, so I started to be more interested in the story of what role the women were playing. I did find that Edith Frenette was actually one of the main organisers of these free speech fights that were happening. She would be arranging for a boat to take people into town. During the trial that ensued after the massacre, she was really pointed to by even the Mayor of Everett, saying, ‘She’s the mastermind. She’s the one behind all of this.’ When you look at the newspapers in Everett and how they were talking about the IWW and these strikes, they were saying, ‘It’s all of these women, children and girls that are showing up to listen to these Wobblies speak. They really shouldn’t be doing that.’ Women in the community were very well involved in the leadup to the massacre and the free speech fight that was going on.

WCH:

We’re going to return to Edith Frenette and Everett later on but it is just one part of a much larger story of women in the union which began with its founding conference in 1905.

Heather:

At the founding convention in 1905, there were about 12 women out of the, roughly, 200 participants. The most well-known would be Mother Jones who was a well-known activist, especially amongst mineworkers, and Lucy Parsons, the widow of the Haymarket martyr, Albert Parsons. Those were the two really well-known women. There were a lot of women from Chicago since that’s where the founding happened and there were a lot of people who were involved in activism in that area.

WCH:

As the union grew over time, what sort of women joined the union?

Heather:

It really depends on the location. As we know, the IWW organised in many different regions and in many different industries. In the East Coast, you have women who were textile workers, garment workers and those types of things. In the Northwest, you have some cannery workers, tailors, waitresses and domestic workers were organised in some areas, most notably Denver, Colorado. All different types of occupations could be organised by the IWW. It doesn’t mean there was a large presence but they were women from all walks of life.

WCH:

What about women who would have the profession of housewife?

Heather:

That was brought up early on in the union and there was this question ‘Can they join? Are they technically workers?’ Basically, they said, ‘Yes, women can join a mixed local.’ That meant a local that was not organised by industry but many different types of workers but they never really addressed it any further. I think there were women, who would be considered housewives, who did join the union but there wasn’t a Housewives’ Industrial Union [laughter].

WCH:

What was the political perspective of the union on the role of women in society, the emancipation of women and that sort of thing?

Heather:

Most Wobblies left it fairly vague. There was this idea that there needed to be more women in the union and that once the ‘One Big Union’ ideal had come about, then things would be better for women but it wasn’t really articulated. I would say that intersectionality was not a strong point for the Wobblies at this time. They really focused on class identity first and foremost in that women workers should be identifying with male workers more than they should identify with women of the upper class. I think there was an appeal there because it left it up to women as to how they wanted to see their place in the union and the type of women’s issues they wanted to focus on. So there was a freedom there but it was fairly vague as far as what women’s emancipation would look like.

WCH:

In your book, there’s quite an illuminating exchange from the pages of Industrial Worker, in the letters’ page, between a male worker and a woman worker about their views.

Heather:

Yeah, that was one of my favourite parts of my research to see that exchange. The original letter was signed ‘a man toiler’. Basically, it had this idea of a family wage and what men need to do is to organise and be able to make enough money so that their wives didn’t have to work which is a fairly conservative union view at the time. This woman wrote back, and signed ‘a woman toiler’, and said, ‘We want to marry you because we love you and we can’t live without you and not because you can provide for us financially. Both men and women need to be making a living wage.’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the most famous female organiser in the union, also talked about this as well and said, ‘The point of the ‘One Big Union’ ideal for the IWW is not that women should be in the home or that they should be forced to work. Everybody should be making a good enough wage that women can make those choices on their own.’

WCH:

That was a really interesting exchange which, I think, not only goes into the question of wages but also love and relationships. Do you think you could, maybe, elaborate on that?

Heather:

Yeah. Famous anarchist, Emma Goldman, made that argument during this period and said that marriage was prostitution. A woman is exchanging her life and her sexual availability for being economically provided for by a man. The Wobblies did somewhat share this point of view in that they were advocates, somewhat, of free love during this period. We don’t think of it as 1960s free love where everybody’s hooking up with everybody but it was a critique of marriage as a relationship with the state or marriage as a religious institution. The belief was more that people should have the freedom to enter into and dissolve relationships as they so choose. There is this kind of tie into the way that prostitution is talked about by the Wobblies versus by larger society during this period. The argument in the late 1800s and early 1900s was that women became prostitutes because either they just liked sex so much, or they were mentally unstable in some way, or something drew them to that life. The Wobblies made the argument that prostitution was an economic issue and that women were driven to prostitution as a means of supporting themselves. They made that very clear to tie that; that this is part of the larger problems of capitalism. It’s not a moral failing on the part of a woman. It is an economic issue. They were not puritanical in that way of making moral judgments of women’s sexual behaviours within the union, although that was very much used against them by the authorities and by the media.

WCH:

There’s an example you cite where, I believe, cannery workers took strike action for a pay increase, saying that the low wages they were on were a cause of people turning to sex work, basically.

Heather:

Yeah, they literally held signs on the picket line that said ’40c a day makes prostitutes’. They made that argument very clearly by saying, ‘This is what we’re talking about here. If you’re not going to pay us, then that’s what is going to happen.’

WCH:

The earliest example of a campaign that you talk about in the book, where women took a leading role, was the Spokane free speech fight in 1909. Could you tell us about that?

Heather:

Yeah, and this is one of those interesting cases where it’s a fairly well-known story in the history of the IWW of this first free speech fight. It’s very much often seen as part of this rough and tumble, single male, hobbo element of the IWW that was involved in this free speech fight. Basically, the city of Spokane tried to stop the IWW organisers from speaking on the street and getting to workers in that way. So the Wobblies put out this call to say, ‘All the footloose Wobblies come to town and speak on the street. We’ll continue to be arrested. We’ll test how the city can enforce this law.’ What was interesting, in addition to the hundreds of men that were arrested, was that there were several women who were there that were arrested too. When women were arrested during events like free speech fights, they were often released very quickly. The men would be held for sometimes up to 30 days in these terrible conditions but the women tended to only be in jail for a day or two and they were back out on the streets. So they could really help advertise what was going on in the jails, advertise what was going on during this whole process and were able to really spread that message. One of the interesting things that ended up happening in Spokane is that they started writing about the conditions in the women’s jails. This ends up getting some of the more progressive, upper-class women in Spokane involved in this issue and they end up making a change in the system in Spokane and appointing the first female matron in the city jail as a result of this publicity from the women in the IWW. That wasn’t necessarily a goal of the free speech fight. It was a very tangential aspect of it but it pointed to the important role that women’s participation played within these movements.

WCH:

That was something that was really interesting because, as you say, that free speech fight and the free speech fights, in general, are written about quite a lot but most accounts don’t really talk about the role that women played in them, apart from the occasional mention of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn or other leading figures being in town.

Heather:

Another interesting part of the Spokane fight actually happened when a bunch of young boys were arrested for selling the IWW newspaper. One of these was the son of the major organisers of the free speech fight. He was arrested and his wife and his son were coming in to watch the trial and the judge starts to make these comments about how no respectable woman would ever set foot in an IWW hall and any woman who would allow their child to go there is an unfit mother. He was just making all of these judgments about the respectability of these women and these families who were involved with the union in Spokane. The next day, this judge’s chamber is filled with women making the argument, ‘We can make decisions about our children and about our respectability. You don’t get to make that call and say whether or not we’re good parents for letting our children be part of this movement.’ He very quickly back-peddled on his comments. It was just another way in which this element of families and about wives or organisers being part of the IWW in the Northwest has long been ignored with the focus on these single, male workers.

WCH:

So the Spokane free speech fight, like the other free speech fights, ended in authorities caving in to the demands of the IWW to allow them to speak on the streets, so they were important in helping the union organise in those areas. As well as that sort of thing, there were a number of industrial disputes of predominantly female parts of the IWW. Could you tell us about a couple of those key disputes?

Heather:

The most well-known would be in Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey with silk workers and textile workers and that’s where the workers were predominantly women. The IWW had success in organising workers of a lot of different nationalities and a lot of European immigrants, in particular, because they would come into these areas and rely on local connections that were already there. The IWW did go in and try to organise specific industries but also very often, it came in when there was already a conflict. They were better able to capitalise on the networks that were already built up, the frustrations that were already there and help provide some leadership, some structure and some voice to some of these women who were striking. That’s also what happened with the cannery workers in Oregon. It was really more of a walkout that was then approached by the local Socialist Party leadership and the local IWW leadership to basically say, ‘How can we help you with this?’ They were able to amplify these women’s voices. There were women who were involved in smaller industries and smaller strikes too. In the Seattle, Washington area, there were women working in tailor shops and these would be really small shops of maybe 10-20 workers. They’re not massive with thousands of people on the street kind of strikes but they are still organising women and still helping to amplify their voices and fight for better conditions. It really was in all different kinds of areas. Like I said, domestic work in Denver is one of the examples of just getting workers together to demand better pay or to help people find a job rather than having to rely on an employment agent who might take a cut of their earnings. There were a lot of different ways in which women were involved as workers with the union.

WCH:

Now, we’ll return to the Everett Massacre, the story we heard at the start of the show.

Heather:

The way that the newspapers talked about the Wobblies during this period is similar to how you would hear Fox News describing Antifa right now [laughter]. Basically, they sound like there are these incoming hoards and they’re going to attack everyone. The editorial on the day of the massacre, when the Wobblies were coming in on this boat, said, ‘These men are entitled to no sympathy. They deserve everything they get.’ They were really seen as just this out-of-town, disreputable element that is coming to upend life as we know it’. However, when you look at the actual trial, they were a lot of just regular female citizens of Everett who testified on behalf of them and said, ‘I went to these speeches and they never incited violence. I was always treated well. It was the authorities that attacked them.’

WCH:

I think it’s probably worth pointing out to listeners that the trial was not of the deputies who shot the Wobblies but it was the trial of the Wobblies who were shot.

Heather:

They arrested 75 Wobblies right off the bat for the death of one person on the deputy’s side. They put one man on trial, Thomas Tracy, to begin the trial for the death of this one man. Another interesting aspect of this trial is that women in the state of Washington had already been granted the right to vote and so there were actually women on the jury which is different than a lot of these cases. Usually, when the IWW ends up in court, it’s very much what they would refer to as a ‘kangaroo court’. They’d already decided on their guilt before they even get started. However, there were women on this jury and a lot of this court case really had to do with this idea of whether these people were outside agitators or were they members of our community and did they represent the values of their community. Tom Tracy ended up being acquitted and they let go all of the other Wobblies who stood to be tried. It was actually a bit of a success for the IWW in this period and it gained a lot of publicity for their cause.

WCH:

You mentioned that a lot of the witnesses to what happened were local women as well, including women who would be seen as generally respectable types and who owned property which really helped sway public sentiment.

Heather:

It was part of this kind of interesting tightrope walk that the Wobblies did as far as how women were portrayed and how they used this idea of respectable women or being part of the IWW. They very much did say, ‘Look at all these women who are part of this movement and you call them respectable and so how are you saying that we’re outsiders?’ They also thought very much that women shouldn’t be given lighter sentences than men and that women should be treated in the same way but still fell back on some of these gender stereotypes about respectability. For example, during this trial, one of the women who testified, her husband was one of the organisers as well. You actually find out, during their testimony, that they only got legally married the week before the trial started. They’re asking them about that and it sounds like they had been together in a common-law relationship but probably to help promote this idea that they were respectable citizens, they decided to officially get married before this trial so she could legally be seen as his wife.

WCH:

In episode 6, we talk a bit about how authorities reacted to male Wobblies with a lot of lynchings, killings and jailings. How did authorities react to women members of the union?

Heather:

For the most part, women were not subjected to quite the same level of violence that men were. Authorities often tried different ways of getting at women and one of the examples that I found really interesting was a case of two Wobbly organisers in Seattle who ended up being tried for White Slavery laws during the time period. It was really a myth that white women were being kidnapped, drugged and sold into prostitution. That was the idea and it was a really big panic around 1913/14 but it did get laws put into place which were known as the Mann Act laws. These laws basically said you couldn’t take a woman across a state line for immoral purposes. Immorality is a very vague term legally. It’s pretty much whatever the arresting person decides it is and it didn’t matter if, for example, you could prove there was sex outside of marriage. Even if the intent was immoral, you could still be arrested for this. As these male and female organisers in Seattle were organising during this tailors’ strike, they were arrested and they charged the man with bringing the woman over from Russia for purposes of prostitution. This wasn’t the case and they were able to prove this wasn’t the case but all of the testimony and everything that they were looking at about these two Wobbly organisers was about whether they were immoral people. The immigration authorities are talking a lot about being members of the ‘free love’ cult. One of their pieces of evidence against this woman was that she had nude pictures taken of herself when she was in her late teens or early 20s, so they tried to use that to say she was an immoral woman in that way. She just responded by saying, ‘I wanted to remember how I looked when I’m older. I wanted to be able to capture myself in my prime.’ [Laughter]. They tried all kinds of ways to try to use all of these laws around immigration, or around immorality, or around prohibition later on, which was often used as a way to search people’s homes and to say that maybe they were making liquor in their homes. They tried to get at these people in all kinds of ways having to do with moral judgments on their lifestyles.

WCH:

In addition to labour organising activities, work around legal defence, trials and free speech, what sorts of other activities did women Wobblies get involved in?

Heather:

Women Wobblies were a large part of the cultural aspect of the union as well. When you look at the IWW newspapers, there are advertisements for parades, picnics and movies. There’s an IWW band with female members and all different kinds of things that were happening at these union halls. Spokane was a particularly good example of a union hall that had a lot of these family activities. Women were a part of that culture of the IWW as well which is in opposition to what we normally think of as the hobbo jungle Wobblies singing songs. There were also these women singing IWW songs in the IWW band. Women were also involved in other actions that spoke much more concretely to women’s lives and one of those, in particular, was birth control agitation. During this time period in the early 20th century, it was illegal to send information about birth control by mail. Margaret Sanger, who becomes very well-known as the founder of Planned Parenthood, really was associated with the IWW in her early years and very explicitly tied the need for birth control to working-class emancipation. These arguments that were being made by women in the IWW were that women needed to be able to choose how many people should be in their families in order to be able to care for the people in their families. Keeping women away from that information was a tool of the master class to keep the working class impoverished and to keep fodder for the armies. Women helped to spread information about birth control in a lot of speeches around the country and IWW speeches talked about actual information about how to prevent pregnancy, to the best of the medical knowledge at that time. One of the big supporters of the IWW, Marie Equi, who was a physician in Portland, Oregan, helped to edit some of Margaret Sanger’s information for medical accuracy to help spread that information about birth control. That was a very clear case of where women Wobblies were doing things to help women’s lives that wasn’t necessarily tied to organising in the workplace but tied to their life experience. Unfortunately, I think the height of this kind of radical birth control agitation coincided with the United States entry into World War One. So a lot of women who were involved in that turned to anti-war activism in those early years and the birth control movement became a little more tied to physicians and more middle-class ideas about morality and that kind of thing. It’s unfortunate to see where that activism would have gone were it not for the U.S. entry into the war.

WCH:

I think this is something that your book covers really well is the class element in the birth control movement which I wasn’t even really aware of before because I think when that is spoken about, often, it’s implied that, at the time, it was either Victorian moral attitudes or Christian attitudes that saw that as a problem. However, the Wobblies at the time were making the point that it really benefited employers and the wealthy for working-class families to have loads of children, as you say, to fill the army and to create a reserve army of unemployed labourers, essentially, who would work for the lowest wages.

Heather:

Yeah, as part of that access to birth control information, we see that middle-class and upper-class families were having fewer children during this period and so it’s not like the information wasn’t there. It just wasn’t getting to working people. During this period, what was seen as the most reliable form of birth control was to use a diaphragm which needed to be fitted by a physician. Again, middle and upper-class women who had access to physicians, who would give them this information and do that for them, were able to have smaller families but it was working-class women, who didn’t have access to any of that information, who were desperate. They were desperately seeking ways to have fewer children in ways that could be dangerous to their bodies because they didn’t have access to that type of information. It benefited employers and for moralistic reasons, on behalf of the authorities, that information shouldn’t get out. The pamphlet that Margaret Sanger put out on family limitation became subject to this campaign in Portland, Oregon, where the people who were distributing it were arrested. The judge had to make these arguments about why that pamphlet shouldn’t be available and he said, ‘I’m not against people learning about birth control but this pamphlet talks about enjoying sex.’ That was part of the thing that it wasn’t just about having fewer children. It was also that sex should be something that was not scary for people and that people should have information about. So that was part of this moral panic around the Wobblies that they would undo family life and morals as we know it because of frank attitudes about this kind of stuff.

WCH:

Yeah, completely. I suppose Dr. Equi, who you referred to, was openly lesbian at the time as well which must have been quite a radical thing to the authorities.

Heather:

Yeah, and from all the recollections that I’ve seen and the way that she was treated by the Wobblies, it was not an issue for the working-class people that Marie Equi worked with. That’s kind of part of the general ‘to each their own’ kind of philosophy of the Wobblies’ attitudes towards sexuality. The reason I mentioned earlier that she wasn’t officially a member was that she was a physician and self-employed and so she couldn’t necessarily be a member of the working class. However, she was an avid supporter of the union and she did things like providing abortions for working women or providing access to birth control and birth control information. That stuff was tremendously beneficial for the working people that knew her and she was tremendously supported, particularly when she was arrested for speaking out against World War One. She had a lot of support within the working-class community in Oregon because of the way she was able to help women in that way.

WCH:

I guess that brings us on to another movement that women Wobblies were heavily involved in which was the opposition to World War One.

Heather:

The IWW itself did not take an official stance against the war but many members of the union were anti-war. I talk, in particular, about the cases of two women; Marie Equi, that I just mentioned, and another woman, Louise Olivereau, who was a member of the union in Seattle, who sent a bunch of flyers out urging people to resist the draft. There was a draft during this period and Woodrow Wilson, the President, said, ‘It’s not really a draft of the unwilling. The entire nation is willing and we’re just selecting people.’ She thought it was ridiculous [laughter] and said, ‘We wouldn’t need a draft at all if we had enough willing people who wanted to fight in this war.’ Some women, in their anti-war activism, urged people to either resist the draft or to register as a conscientious objector which was an option during that time period but it wasn’t easy, even if you were a conscientious objector. You were still under the control of the military. So women were involved in that way in anti-war activism during the World War One period and were subject to a lot of persecution because of it. It was basically illegal to say anything bad about the military, or the flag, or the government while the country was at war. In Marie Equi’s case, what she was accused of was referring to the military as ‘scum’ during a speech which she always contested she never did and many of the Wobblies contested that she never did either. There were, of course, spies at any of these events who were spying on these activists and trying to get anything that could be used against them.

WCH:

With Marie Equi, that specific allegation was almost certainly nonsense because the whole point of the radical opposition to the draft in World War One was that it was your own brothers and sons who were being sent off to die and not ‘scum’.

Heather:

It’s working people from the United States fighting against working people in Germany. It’s an employers’ war that the working-class people have no part in or no stake in.

WCH:

I guess, unfortunately, both of those individuals, Louise Olivereau and Mari Equi, ended up getting put in prison for their opposition to the war.

Heather:

They did and that’s one of the things, during this time period, that really struck me so much in doing this research is the tensions of persecution on a movement and on a community. There’s a ton of infighting going on during this period because everyone was under so much stress. You could be arrested for simply visiting the IWW hall, where that used to be the centre of where you would go to see your friends and take your children, and you’re now subject to being just rounded up and arrested if you even go near it. There are all these questions, like where do the resources of the union go? Who should be supported and who shouldn’t? It was a tremendous amount of stress on this entire community that was detrimental to the Wobblies in this whole war experience. We know that the leadership was taken out across the country and put on trial in Chicago but even in these smaller cases, women were arrested for going to visit male Wobblies who were in jail. A woman stepped up for her husband to edit the Industrial Worker newspaper and she was arrested. Even if they didn’t end up with long jail sentences, it just disrupted the entire community and added so much stress to people’s lives and stress about what kind of action should be supported. For example, the letters that Louise Olivereau sent out, urging people to resist the draft, she did on her own. She paid for it on her own and that was her own action. She was the stenographer for the Seattle local and she was a member of the union. So the union gets pulled into what she had done as an individual and some people were upset about that. There were all kinds of infighting issues that were happening because of this tremendous amount of stress that everyone was under.

WCH:

One of the most tragic examples of that comes up in our episode 9 about a later period in the Wobblies when IWW leader, Big Bill Haywood, skipped out on his bail and went to Russia. From reading your book, I found out it was a woman who’d put up her house for bail and ended up losing her house when, I guess, the Soviet Union didn’t pay back the bail money. She then ended up committing suicide. It was a really difficult time.

Heather:

All these kinds of decisions that were being made at upper-level leadership really trickled down and played an important role in a lot of people’s lives. In the conclusion, I write about the case of one male Wobbly, E. F. Doree, who was arrested. There’s a series of letters between him and his wife and basically, he quits the union during this period while he’s arrested. There was infighting about whether or not people should accept clemency, or pardons, or whether they should wait until everybody is pardoned. He didn’t like the way his wife was being treated by the Executive Board on the outside and all of these things were bubbling up because of all these decisions that people had to make as everybody was being arrested and sentenced to many years in jail.

WCH:

At this time period that we’re talking about, there’s also a more mainstream feminist movement and a movement for women’s suffrage. How did women in the IWW relate to that movement and, I guess, to middle and upper-class women in general?

Heather:

It’s almost amazing how little the idea of suffrage is brought up among IWW activists during this period. Basically, when they do talk about it, they just say, ‘The vote hasn’t helped working-class men’s emancipation. Why would it be any different for women?’ They obviously weren’t against women having the right to vote but it definitely wasn’t where you should put your energy towards women getting the right to vote. In some of the western states, women had received the right to vote earlier than they did at a national level and so it wasn’t as big of an issue in Oregon and Washington by the mid to late teens. They talked about this idea of upper-class and middle-class women having nothing in common with working-class women. They often made fun of upper-class women in the newspapers. They talked about experiences, like in Spokane, where the upper-class women would do one thing in support of women in jail and then turn their backs on the whole movement. They repeatedly pointed out, ‘Even if you think that these progressive upper or middle-class women are on your side, they still benefit from this system that keeps workers in bondage.’ They were saying that they weren’t really their allies. Suffrage was the main avenue for upper and middle-class women’s activism during this period and the focal point. I think that was one of the appeals of the IWW to women in that it provided another avenue and focus of activism that wasn’t so politically driven.

WCH:

You also mentioned the progressives who, I guess, were a reasonably prominent group at the time – a liberal, reformist, progressive type of people. From their perspective, they thought they were advocating for women and women’s rights. How did the approach of the IWW differ from the middle-class progressives?

Heather:

It was really a case of progressive activists deciding what was best for people and not necessarily listening to what the people themselves wanted. We see that case in the packing company strike in Oregon in 1913. There’s this kind of progressive reform group that takes on negotiating an end to the strike without taking the demands of the workers into account and without involving the workers in these negotiations. The workers were pretty mad about that [laughter]. At the end, they were told, ‘The strike is over,’ and they said, ‘What? We didn’t have anything to do with this settlement.’ I’m not saying that progressives were bad people, by any means, but it was very much an idea of what is proper and deserving. There are a lot of jokes in Wobbly papers about the ‘deserving poor’ and the people who deserve to get helped and handouts and all of that kind of thing. It was really about making judgments on what people’s lifestyles should be and not really listening to their own wants or needs. Again, I think that was an avenue where the Wobblies helped people to advocate for themselves rather than advocating for them without listening to their needs.

WCH:

The IWW, in general, was particularly important for its opposition to racism, especially at the time, and its pioneering organising of all workers together; white, Black, migrant and native. A lot of its leading activists were men of colour. Was this the same case for women of colour? Certainly, apart from Lucy Parsons, there aren’t many well-known women of colour, who were part of the union, who a lot is written about to my knowledge.

Heather:

I think this is one of those cases also of inclusive rhetoric but not necessarily inclusive organising or action. The IWW certainly said that everyone should be organised and that all working people should be organised together but how often they really listen to the needs and wants of workers of colour is an area that they spoke about more than they actively tried to do. As far as women workers go, I found very little evidence. I researched the Pacific Northwest and the majority of the IWW women that I saw were either born in the United States and Canada or European immigrants. There was one woman in the Portland strike that was referred to in newspapers as ‘an Indian woman’ but I couldn’t find more information on her. I think they did not do as great of a job of organising in that community and that could partially be because the type of activism and the culture of the IWW was not as inclusive as they make it out to be in words. Even Lucy Parsons herself, she was of mixed race ancestry and daughter of a former slave but she portrayed herself as being of mixed Native American and Mexican ancestry and she never really spoke out, specifically, about racial issues. Again, it was about class at the forefront. Even though she was a woman of colour, she was not particularly speaking out about race as an issue. Again, women of colour in the workforce, in this time period, were in domestic work or agricultural work in regions of the United States where the IWW did not have as much of a stronghold. I think there were possibilities there but I don’t think that the union was really that effective.

WCH:

What lessons do you think we can learn today from the experiences of women in the IWW a hundred years ago?

Heather:

I think one of the biggest lessons from looking at the IWW during this period is that there are many routes to activism and there doesn’t necessarily have to be the person who’s getting arrested in the free speech fight, travelling around organising for the union and out there on the line. That’s an important part of it but there also needs to be room for people who can maybe give a donation to the strike fund, or go make a meal for somebody in jail, or to participate in union activity. There are many routes to activism and that’s part of building a community. That’s part of these arguments that are made which I think are very similar today in looking at activists through a lens of respectability in the same way that they did a hundred years ago. They still look at people who are active on the streets in a protest and say, ‘Look at these people. They’re not respectable people.’ I think those arguments are still being made and I think it’s interesting to look at how the Wobblies combatted that by making sure that they did identify the interests of the community around them and said, ‘We are here fighting for the same things. Even though I may not look like you or I may have just come to town, we do have similar interests.’ I think there are a lot of lessons there with regard to the community aspect of activism, as well as the creative, multiple ways that Wobblies went about trying to create the world that they wanted to see. With regard to women in the IWW, it wasn’t just about organising them in the workplace. It was about the interests in all facets of their life and so I think that’s really important for activism today as well.

[Rebel Girl by Joe Hill]

WCH:

That’s all for today. We’ve got links in the show notes to get Heather’s book and Wobblies of the World, as well as lots more information and further reading. In addition to episode 6, our episode 9 is about the little known later part of the IWW’s history, so give that a listen if you haven’t already. Coming soon, we’ve got an episode on the history of the IWW in Australia, so do subscribe to make sure you catch that. You can get first listen of that episode and all of our others by supporting us on Patreon at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Thanks also to the Salt Lake Tribune and their Joe Hill Legacy project for the music used in today’s episode. Links to them in the show notes as well. We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank our patrons for their generous support and for making this podcast and the Working Class History project possible, so really thank you. It means a lot. This episode was edited by Daniel Waldorf. Catch you next time.

[Outro music]

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