Thursday, August 6, 2009

We Want Bread & We Want Roses

Women workers in the United States also engaged in the same kind of activism taking place in England during the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, a wave of women entered the workplace, having lost husbands or family livelihoods, and encountered a great deal of hostility. They were excluded from trade unions and began to form their own, including a union of women shoemakers, the Daughters of St. Crispin. Women working in cigar making, umbrella sewing, printing, tailoring and laundering also formed their own trade unions.

At the close of the 1800s, conditions for women textile workers in New York City had become notorious, and the first long-term strike was organized by women in conditions of extreme hardship. The courts did not trouble to hide their bias against the workers as women—“You are on strike against God and nature,” one magistrate informed them.

Massachussettes textile factories were sites of some of the earliest and the most famous strikes. Women working at the Lowell mill first walked out in 1836. In 1912, one of the most significant strikes of the
century started after factory-owners in Lawrence reduced pay in the wake of a state law reducing the work week for women and children from 56 to 54 hours. 23,000 workers left the mills for the streets, and the violence of police against the striking women ultimately drew national attention and support. The strike is remembered for the picket slogan, “We Want Bread and We Want Roses,” as validating the right of workers to possess more than a bare material subsistence gained in dehumanized conditions. At the time of the strike, over one-third of the mill workers died before the age of 25.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) arrived on the Lawrence scene to help organize the strike and set up soup kitchens. At the age of sixteen, Eliz
abeth gave her first political speech, What Socialism Will Do for Women, at the Harlem Socialist Club and was expelled from high school because of her political activities. As an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World she was termed “an East Side Joan of Arc” by Theodore Dreiser. Flynn criticized the trade unions for marginalizing women.

She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, supporting birth control and women's suffrage as well as day care for the children of women workers. In the 1950s when Americans were being jailed for their political opinions, Elizabeth was among those who served a prison term. She wrote a book about this experience, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner, published in 1955.

In A Footnote to Folly (1935), Mary Heaton Vorse remembers Elizabeth addressing the Lawrence workers during the mill workers’ strike:

When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke, the excitement of the crowd became a v
isible thing. She stood there, young, with her Irish blue eyes, her face magnolia white and her cloud of black hair, the picture of a youthful revolutionary girl leader. She stirred them, lifted them up in her appeal for solidarity. Then at the end of the meeting, they sang. It was though a spurt of flame had gone through this audience, something stirring and powerful, a feeling which has made the liberation of people possible; something beautiful and strong had swept through the people and welded them together, singing.

© Eberle Umbach, 2007-2009

Bread & Roses

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

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  1. Fascinating stuff, that. Most of it was new to me - just shows how insular we all are (I am!) doesn't it? Thanks for pointing it out, and in such an interesting way.

  2. I know so little about the history of the American labour and socialist movement, this post is therefore so informative. But also written with such style and perfectly rounded off with the clip. Thank you Eberle.

  3. oh, thank you SO much for bringing this to be shared with us all - it is especially fitting that i read it today as i just posted the confirmation of sotomayor over at one of my blogs - great article! takes me back to my sociology academia/politically active days - very refreshing!

  4. Not the same thing, but I grew up where Mother Jones (called "the most dangerous woman in America") led and organized the United Mine Workers and their wives and children to strike against mine owners. She was imprisoned in a little house in my town, now used as the town post office. This is the same woman who organized The Children's Crusade, bringing the issue of child labor to public attention.

    Another note -- Alderson Women's Prison, unfortunately, is also in WV.

    I'm so glad you included the Joan Baez -- the minute I started to read it, I thought of her songs from the late 60s and early 70s.

  5. Once again, I'm reminded of just how lucky I am to be living in this place, at this time.

  6. Hi Dave, Alan, Jenean, Karen & Sandra:

    Sorry not to respond to your comments earlier--things have been crazy busy the last few days. But thanks all from both Eberle & me!


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