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Celebrating A Rich Tradition Of Women In The IWW: They Weren’t Kept At The Back, So They Went To The Front

By Autumn Gonzalez, Nicholas DeFilippis and Donal Fallon

This story originally appeared in the Industrial Worker - Issue #1733, March 2011.

The Industrial Workers of the World has always distinguished itself in its resolutionto be the One Big Union for all workers. “All workers” means just that: all wage workers, “regardless of creed, color, nationality,” or for our purposes here, gender. How women have made their mark within a union that embraced them—while the employer’s regime relegated them to the status of “the slaves of slaves,” in the words of Lucy Parsons—is a story too few labor organizations have to tell.

Women have been at the forefront of the IWW since its inception. The IWW was the first union of its kind to attempt to organize prostitutes in major U.S. cities. While the percentage of female representatives at their inaugural convention (around 12 in total) may seem quite small, the issue of gender equality was always at the front of the organization’s agenda.

During the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike—commonly referred to as the “Bread and Roses” strike— female strikers carried homemade placards proclaiming “we want bread and roses too!” committed to improving not just the conditions of the working class in the work place, but indeed the general living conditions of working-class people. Local media reported that more female strikers than males were arrested by the local police force. Their crimes included, according to the police, “intimidating strikebreakers.”

Women were also at the forefront of the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913, when around 25,000 striking silk workers shut down the three hundred silk mills and dye houses in Paterson, N.J., for almost five months.

There are countless other chapters to the history of women within the IWW, and the women profiled here are just some of the female faces among the Wobblies of the past. There are many others whose names remain unknown.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is one of the many women who stand out in the history of the IWW. She was just 17 years old when she shared the platform with a certain James Connolly, who she described as a “Short, rather stout, plain-looking man, [...] a scholar and an excellent writer [whose] speech was marred for American audiences by his thick North of Ireland accent.” Connolly thought very highly of her too:
“She started out as a pure utopian, but now she laughs at her former theories. Had she stuck by her first set of opinions she would have continued a persona grata with the Socialist Party crowd…but her advocacy of straight revolutionary socialism and industrial unionism alienated them and now they hate her.”

Shortly after becoming a socialist, Flynn began making speeches for the IWW and was expelled from high school in 1907. She then became a full-time organizer for the IWW, standing at the forefront of organizing support for the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, along with famous Wobblies Big Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca. In the face of police brutality and hunger, the striking workers agreed to evacuate their children out of Lawrence. Flynn was in charge of this evacuation effort, though many of the children were subsequently arrested and beaten after they left town.

Flynn, Haywood and Tresca also grew involved in fanning the flames of the Paterson Silk Strike. Flynn held successful weekly meetings for women only and delivered powerful speeches to mass meetings throughout.

After the Lawrence Textile Strike and the Paterson Silk Strike, Flynn helped to organize campaigns among garment workers in Pennsylvania, silk weavers in New Jersey, restaurant workers in New York City, and miners in Minnesota. Flynn was arrested ten times during this period but was never convicted of any criminal activity.

In 1915, Flynn visited Wobbly Joe Hill in his jail cell. Hill immediately composed a song in honor of Flynn—a sentimental tune that championed the women of the IWW, titled “The Rebel Girl.”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn once famously remarked, when responding to criticism of the IWW for using women as shields: “The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front; the truth is: the IWW does not keep them at the back – and they go to the front.”

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons was one of the founders of the IWW. She had been involved in the foundation of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) journal, The Alarm, in 1883. In a piece entitled “To Tramps, the Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable,” published in 1884, she called on the poor and disenfranchised to: “Avail yourselves of those little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives!”

In 1905 she displayed similar radicalism when speaking at the IWW’s foundation—a speech that was reputedly interrupted several times by loud applause. “We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it, and the only way that we can be represented is to take a man to represent us. You men have made such a mess of it in representing us that we have not much confidence in asking you! We [women] are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women.....”

A very powerful orator, said to be more dangerous than “a thousand rioters” by the Chicago police force, she quickly took to editing The Liberator, the newspaper of the IWW in the Chicago area. While class struggle was always to the front of her political agenda, she used the space this paper offered to push for, among other things, women’s right to access birth control and the legalization of divorce. Interestingly, Parsons was highly critical of the idea of “free love,” and disagreed with attacks made on the traditional institutions of marriage and family by other anarchists, in particular by Emma Goldman. It is thought that Lucy Parsons married twice, firstly to Oliver Gathing, and later to Albert Parsons—a fascinating character who had fought as a Confederate soldier before becoming involved in union activism and gaining an interest in anarchism, leading to his eventual execution as one of the famous Haymarket martyrs.

Mother Jones
Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones” and born in the rebel county of Cork, Ireland, was once described as “the most dangerous woman in America,” which must be up there with being “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”! She stated in her autobiography that her family had been involved in the “struggle against British rule” in Ireland. Indeed her grandfather was hanged as a result of his activity in the nationalist movement. Mother Jones played a huge role in bringing the issue of child labor to the forefront of the political agenda, writing in her autobiography:
“In the spring of 1903 I went to Kensington, Penn., where 75,000 textile workers were on strike. Of this number at least 10,000 were little children...I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, ‘Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit.’”

Mother Jones famously led a group of striking children on a march all the way to the front door of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The march, from Pennsylvania to New York City, was designed to take the issue of child labor right to the president’s doorstep. Around 100 children took part in the march, designed to show what she termed the “New York millionaires” the suffering of working-class children. She led the children all the way to the president’s Long Island home, and when they reached the home, she was informed by the president’s secretary that Teddy himself was “unavailable.” Still, the campaign had succeeded in drawing public attention to a shocking issue. In her words:
“We are told that every American boy has the chance of being president. I tell you that these little boys in the iron cageswould sell their chance any day for good square meals and a chance to play. These little toilers whom I have taken from the mills—deformed, dwarfed in body and soul, with nothing but toil before them—have never heard that they have a chance, the chance of every American male citizen, to become the president.”

The children carried banners with slogans like “we want time to play” “we miss our parents,” and “we want time to go to school” and demanded a new federal law prohibiting the exploitation of children in the work place. While they failed in this, it was clear Mother Jones was standing by her own life philosophy to “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

Matilda Rabinowitz
As a young woman, Matilda Rabinowitz traveled the country with the IWW supporting organizing drives and striking workers. She may be best known for her participation in the Little Falls textile strike of 1912, where she was able to gain the trust and confidence of a diverse group of mainly immigrant workers, rebuild the organizing committee, and reform a completely female strike and picket line. While the long battle with the mill in upstate New York dragged along, Rabinowitz organized for the children of strikers to be housed by IWW-sympathetic families in neighboring communities, which prompted further community support for the mostly-female strikers. She also lead a legal defense fund for arrested strikers, going on a months long speaking tour for those who were arrested in the battle at the mill, raising money and awareness for the effort. Her leadership was key in the strike’s successful conclusion.

Rabinowitz wound her way in 1931 from upstate New York to Michigan, where her soapbox speeches began drawing lunchtime crowds of 3,000 at a Ford plant, causing Ford officials to abolish lunch privileges. Ford also had Rabinowitz and four other IWW organizers arrested for their activities, but the damage was done, and autoworkers in the area took the IWW messages to heart. Workers at a nearby Studebaker plant began organizing and calling for the eight-hour day and weekly paychecks—rather than the bi-monthly paychecks that they were receiving—held a combined skilled and unskilled walkout on June 17, 1913. This action, considered to be the first major strike at a U.S. auto plant, may not have occurred without Rabinowitz’s work. The fire spread to a nearby Packard plant, where workers were attacked by police, but in the end concessions were won on the paycheck issue, although the eight-hour day would wait. The IWW would not gain a foothold in the auto industry, but it proved to the union movement that both skilled and unskilled workers in one industry could work together in one union to fight the boss.

Jessie Ashley
Sometimes remembered tangentially for being a love interest of Big Bill Haywood, Jessie Ashley was an IWW figure in her own right. As one of the few women attorneys in the early 20th century United States, she dedicated her career to defending jailed unionists, and later in life, to advocating for a woman’s right for access to birth control. From a highly-educated and wealthy background, Ashley and many of her East Village compatriots were looked at with suspicion by some in the ranks of the IWW, but she threw herself into solidarity work without hesitation. Ashley is particularly known for her work on the Paterson Strike Pageant of June 1912, in which over 1,000 striking textile workers traveled from Hoboken, N.J., to New York City, marched up 5th Avenue and held a spectacular IWW solidarity event in Madison Square Garden to raise funds for the striking workers. The event was successful in drawing attention and sympathy to the strike, although it did not pan out financially for the strike fund and the strike itself ended in defeat.

Ashley continued to work in New York with the IWW, supporting the movement by providing legal advice and assistance to unemployed workers, fighting to protect free speech rights, and during World War I, providing free legal counseling to draft resisters and conscientious objectors.

Pearl McGill
Pearl McGill was a product of the Midwest, born and raised in Iowa. At the age of 16 she worked at a freshwater-pearl button factory in a town called Muscatine. In 1910, the button workers formed their own union and McGill was at the forefront of the organizing. McGill was soon the recording secretary of the local, as well as a member of the arbitration board. Her intelligence and spark lead to her being recruited by the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) to travel to Chicago as a speaker for the union. Her work with the WTUL next lead her to Boston, where she and other labor activists were drawn to Lawrence, Mass., where the IWW was leading the huge 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike. McGill dove in, becoming a valuable IWW organizer, and consequently had her credentials revoked by the WTUL and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) due to her involvement with the IWW. The strike was a radicalizing moment for the Midwesterner, who wrote to her family: “There is a big war being fought here. A battle for bread and a battle for life. And this is only the beginning of a revolution which will take place all over the world, between Labor and Capital.”

McGill was soon traveling as an IWW organizer throughout New England, speaking to factory workers and doing solidarity work. However, when the Paterson strike was crushed in 1913, along with a series of strikes later in the year, McGill experienced burnout and disillusionment with the movement and looked to other organizations, such as the Socialist Party, for leadership. McGill eventually moved back to Iowa, became a teacher, and sadly, was killed in a domestic violence incident by her mentally ill husband in 1924.

Helen Keller
We’ve all heard of Helen Keller and her work for the disabled. The fact that she was the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts makes her revolutionary in that sense alone, but what they avoid telling you in school is that she was also politically radical. After being appointed to investigate the conditions of blind people, Keller realized that many people suffer from blindness not because of an accident of birth, but because of poor industrial conditions caused by the carelessness and greed of the bourgeoisie. She became so upset by this that she began to study the works of Karl Marx and became a socialist. She wanted a better life for workers and eventually saw the downside of only engaging in political action. She joined the IWW and advocated for taking the workers’ struggle directly to the workplace.

During the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike the IWW had to provide food, shelter and other such support for 50,000 people, so Keller toured various cities in the north to raise money for them. Helen Keller and famous Big Bill Haywood were both members of the U.S. Socialist Party, but Haywood was expelled from its executive committee in 1913 for being too radical. Keller campaigned to have him reinstated. She also campaigned for the release of Joe Hill, who was executed for a crime he did not commit. During the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, notable IWW rebel girl and Communist Party member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was imprisoned. Keller fought for her release and even wrote a letter to the president demanding Flynn walk free. Speaking out for an imprisoned leftist during the Red Scare was one of the bravest and most dangerous things one could do during those days.

Keller also fought for women’s suffrage and birth control, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and opposed war. She often wrote in defense of socialism and the Russian Revolution, demanding an end to the economic blockade against the Soviet Union.

Amelia “Milka” Sablich
A lesser-known rebel girl who is definitely worth mentioning is Amelia “Milka” Sablich, also known as the “girl in flaming red” after her bright red clothes. Hailing from Trinidad, Colo., this 19-year-old was compared to the famous Mother Jones, however, the media decided Milka was much tougher. Given that she was known to get into physical fights with men, including police, it’s hard to take that away from her!

In 1927, after the male mine workers were jailed for “illegal picketing and vagrancy,” Sablich and other working- class women lead over 200 strikers at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Ideal Mine in the town of Huerfano. At one point during the strike she was hospitalized, visited by the police, and given the option of either staying away from union activity or going to jail. Sablich chose jail and spent at least five weeks behind bars on two separate occasions.

After she was released, Sablich went on a speaking tour around the United States to raise money for the miners. She did not accept a salary and lived off of the bare expenses. Upon speaking at the Work People’s College in Duluth, Minn., the students gave individual contributions to Milka so she could stay with them and attend the school.

Felix Arrellano
Another Colorado coal mine strike leader was a mother of Mexican-descent named Felix Arrellano. The Denver Morning Post reported that when striking husbands and sons were jailed during the IWW coal strike at Walsenburg, Arrellano was able to assume leadership, marching women into a battle with the authorities. She roused the crowd, some of whom were shot and seriously injured by the police, with the words, “If we were asking for diamonds we wouldn’t deserve them, but we are only asking for bread.” Unfortunately, she has all but disappeared from the pages of the history books, so we are unable to provide more information on this Wobbly.

Annie Westbrook
Down under we have sister workers such as Annie Westbrook, a famous Australian soapbox agitator who tried to appeal to the revolutionary potential of Australian women. Westbrook helped establish a union local in Perth and became its secretary during the years of World War I. She worked to free her fellow workers who were charged as being part of a “criminal conspiracy” in 1916 when the Australian government outlawed the IWW. Westbrook was eventually forced to leave the IWW in 1919 while the Australian government continued to suppress the union. By 1934 there was no active IWW in Australia, but Westbrook continued to distribute the IWW newspaper and advocate its ideals until she was in her 80s.

May Ewart
May Ewart was also a key figure in the Australian IWW. She was convicted under the Unlawful Associations Act of 1917 for her union work. Her mentor, Lena Lynch, faced a similar fate and was jailed and given four months hard labor.

Lesbia Keogh
Lesbia Keogh (later Lesbia Harford) was one of the first women to graduate law school in Australia, earning a degree from Melbourne University. During her youth she witnessed her family’s decline from the middle class, causing her mother to enter the paid workforce so she could give her kids an education. Keogh made many radical friends while attending school, including Italian-Australian communist Guido Barrachi, leftist book salesman Percy Laidler, and Kate Lush. Keogh and Barrachi worked together to oppose the university’s pro-war stance during World War I.

Though troubled with a congenital heart defect her entire 36 years of life, she was very active in the Clothing and Allied Trades Union as well as the local Socialist Party. Keogh sat on the Dressmakers’ Wages Board and was elected to be vice president of her section of the union. She was originally drawn to the Australian IWW for its strong stance against conscription, its direct action, and its egalitarian structure and she tutored IWW members throughout the war years. When the Wobblies were outlawed in 1916 she used her knowledge as a law graduate to defend the imprisoned activists.

Keogh was also a poet. She believed that art should reach a wider audience than educated individuals, which prompted her to write poems about revolution, social justice, and the working class life.

Keogh’s heart condition once caused her to be hospitalized after wearing herself out preaching the anti-conscription message, but she snuck out of the hospital and was back on her soapbox the next day. Unfortunately, her ill health caused her to stop activism and take up white-collar jobs in the early 1920s. Her health continued to decline rapidly and she died in 1927.

The future of women in the IWW
What women have brought to the industrial struggle since the early days of the IWW is nothing less than a new understanding of themselves in the shell of the old. By organizing around the concerns of their class, women have assumed their natural place alongside their brothers—and not infrequently in front of them, leading the way.

But ask yourself this: In the time since the IWW was formed, what has the boss’s example communicated to women workers of the world? That their work is less valuable, their skills less sought out, or their presence less missed? A full century gone by, and still the employing class cannot abide by what the IWW stood for in 1905!

The women mentioned here are only historical examples of the kind of women who are active in the IWW today. Let their example be a lesson to women and men alike that our roles are not to come down to us in the form of orders from above; they are best forged alongside one another, in open defiance of the bosses.

With contributions from Ryan Boyd and Diane Krauthamer.