Groundbreaking "We Were There" honors women in radical history

All too often accounts of the past ignore the contributions of women in the making of our society.  The work women do, inside and outside the home, is treated as an afterthought, their contribution to the definition and defense of those rights that are now so threatened treated as secondary to that of men.  And all too often written history ignores working people as if the life of society and the development of the economy were the products of the ideas of people sitting in executive suites.  Wars take pride of place, political leaders and businessmen come next and to the extent that social movements are considered at all, it is only through the voice of a few leaders.  But those who do the labor upon which the whole edifice rests are rendered invisible.  And so the measure of the work and creativity of women in making our world, and the measure of the organizing women do in making society more just and more equal, are ignored twice over.

Over 50 people attended a program at Takoma Busboys and Poets on March 21 sponsored by the Metro Labor Council's Bread & Roses series that brought some of that hidden history to light.  We Were There is a multi-media women's labor history project featuring voices, songs and projected images of women fighting for justice throughout US history.  It was performed by local union and social justice activists, accompanied by members of the DC Labor Chorus.

Two women at a time come to the stage, say the name (repeated by the audience) of the women whose words they speak, taken from their speeches, letters, diaries and other writings.  Behind them historical photos of women at work, at public protests, are shown onscreen behind them.  Intermittently the spoken word is replaced by songs, old and new, while images and photos from the past are shown on screen behind those on stage.  The lyrics below by the show's creator -- singer/ song-writer Bev Grant -- encapsulates the entire program's theme:

We have ploughed and we planted
We have gathered into barns
Done the same work as the men
With babies in our arms
But you won't find our stories
     In most history books you read
We were there, we're still here,
     Fighting for the things we need

The activists highlighted are from different periods of US history, from different communities and engaged in different arenas, and two remain active and engaged in our present time.  The show was not about stressing their role as leaders, but rather as showing them as representative of women who refused to be silent.  Some of the women represented in the play are better remembered than others, and even those who are known are remembered mainly as names rather than in the depth of their contributions.  In fact, most union or social justice activists would know little about these historical figures for the reasons cited above, and perhaps as well because history as a whole is ever less valued, ever less explored in any depth.

Profiles in Radicalism

Of course, that is the reason for the show.  Although text alone can hardly replicate the impact of a multilayered show, all, whether they attended or not, should know more about these ten.  So below is a brief biography of each, listed in the order presented in the show:

Sojourner Truth (1797 c. - 1883)
The child of Africans (from present day Ghana) captured by British slavers, she was born in slavery in New York in the late 18th century.  Sold several times, Isabella (the name given by her first "masters") also experienced the pain of having her own children taken away and sold to other plantations.  To prevent that from happening again to her infant child, she escaped in 1827 and helped free another of her children from an Alabama slave owner.  Giving herself the name Sojourner Truth in the 1840s, she became an active abolitionist and women's rights advocate, attending the Women's Rights Conventions from 1850 forward.  During the Civil War she helped recruit black soldiers to fight for the Union army.  After the war she worked at the Freedman's Bureau in Maryland to help the newly freed slaves to find land and employment.  She never gave up her commitment to racial justice and equity for women, and remained an advocate for women's suffrage and for black suffrage even after those movements were pulled apart.

Charlotte Forten (1837-1914)
A free black who grew up in Massachusetts, Forten became a teacher and a writer.  She was an abolitionist and a part of the Underground Railroad in the pre-Civil War years, allowing her house to be used as a stop along the way to freedom.  In 1862, Forten went to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina in 1862 to set up some of the first schools for freed slaves.  After the war she helped recruit school teachers to go to the South and provide education to adults and children alike.  Forten continued to object to racial discrimination North and South in subsequent years and left a series of diaries that are amongst the very few written records on the life of a free black during her times.

Sarah Bagley (1806 -- 1888 c.)
One of the Lowell Factory "girls" employed at textile mills in the 1840s, she became president of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, the first women's trade union in the United States.  From that position she became a delegate to the Massachusetts labor council, also the first woman to do so.  Her activism began as a writer for the factory journal, turning it from a tool of the owners into a militant forum of self-expression.  She later was to use that skill to become the first woman to edit a labor journal and -- after the union's defeat -- left the mills and became (another first for a woman) a telegrapher.  To the end of her life Bagley remained committed to labor reform, in particular the 10-hour day movement.  She was a support of prison reform, improving working conditions and health care and an advocate of women's rights.

Mother Jones (1837 - 1930)
Born in Cork, Ireland, she emigrated to the United States during Ireland's potato famine.  She lived in Chicago where she worked as a seamstress until her husband and four children died during a yellow fever epidemic.  She sewed for the wealthy until a fire made her homeless, after which she took to the road becoming an advocate for the unemployed, for railroad workers and other industrial workers, and especially for miners, leading children's crusades for justice, and organizing miners wives during bitter strikes in which all had to endure hunger.  Arrested countless times, she worked with the American Federation of Labor, the IWW, socialists and anyone else fighting for men and women workers across all racial and ethnic lines.  Mother Jones' last years were spent in the DC area where she was taken care of by a local socialist.  She is buried in Adelphi, Maryland where a marker stands today.

Pauline Newman (1890 - 1986)
Newman grew up in a poor Jewish family in Kovno, Lithuania (then part of Russia), emigrating to the United States in 1901 after the death of her father.  Soon after her arrival, she became one of the many children employed in New York City's garment industry working 12-hour daily shifts.  She joined the Socialist Party and led a rent strike that began in the Jewish tenements and spread throughout the city.  In 1909 she was part of the "uprising of the 20,000" a multi-language, multi-ethnic strike of women in the garment trade (it was the strike during which the Bread & Roses song was composed).  Although a mixed success, that led to the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and Newman went to work for ILGWU as a national organizer.  Subsequently, the Triangle Factory where she had previously worked caught fire.  Newman knew many of the 146 women (mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants) who died because the doors were locked to keep the union out.  This event reinforced her lifelong support for unionism and for public health.  Committed to freedom in private life as well as public life, she lived with her partner Frieda Miller, whom she met through the Women's Trade Union League.

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972)
A Jewish immigrant, Schneiderman was born in Russian Poland to a tailor's family.  She grew up in New York City's Jewish Lower East Side, going to work at age 13.  While employed at a factory making caps, she organized her first union, in part motivated by a determination to end the disparity of pay between men and women workers.  She was also a pioneer in the fight against sexual harassment, a constant reality for women whose supervisors knew their desperation for work.  Schneiderman became an organizer for the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union.  In 1904 she was elected to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Executive Board where she played a pivotal leadership role in the union's 1909 strike.  A leader of the Women's Trade Union League, she rejected charity in favor of justice and equality, criticizing those who thought words were sufficient after the Triangle Fire.  Schneiderman also was active within National American Women's Suffrage Association and was a Socialist Party member, running for office several times on its ticket.  A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, she strongly supported the New Deal.  Schneiderman's partner, Maud O'Farrell Swartz, worked within the Department of Labor in the 1930s.

Lucy Parsons (1853 - 1942)
Born of mixed black, Mexican and Native American heritage, Parsons was a Radical Republican during the Reconstruction era.  Forced to leave her native Texas after marrying a white Southerner (Albert Parsons) she moved to Chicago where she worked as a seamstress and became part of the 8-hour day movement.  After Albert's execution in 1886 as part of the Haymarket frame-up of radical labor leaders, Lucy took part in the IWW's founding convention in 1905.  Never freed from poverty, her children dying at a young age, she remained a convinced revolutionary and worked with anarchists and Communists in political prisoner defense, working women's rights and union organizing campaigns all her life -- including the successful CIO drive at the Haymarket factory shortly before her death.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890 - 1964)
Born in a poor Bronx Irish immigrant family, Flynn was the most prominent women organizer in the IWW, building support for workers engaged in often violent industrial disputes across the country.  Most famously, she became one of the leaders of the 1912 Lawrence textile workers strike (after the original IWW leaders were arrested) helping to keep united 30,000 workers, from 51 different nationalities, speaking multiple different languages.  A leader in the IWW's free speech fights which led to numerous stints in jail, Flynn became active in defense of imprisoned workers such as Joe Hill and Sacco and Vanzetti.  In the 1920s she helped found the ACLU.  In the 1930s she joined the Communist Party, becoming its National Chair in 1960 after her release from prison under the Smith Act.

Ai-Jen Poo (b. 1974)
Ai-Jen Poo's parents were Taiwanese immigrants; she was born and raised in Pittsburgh and became an activist while attending Columbia University in a campaign that led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.  She then began organizing working women within the Asian American community which led to the formation of Domestic Workers' United -- an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers in New York.  Their work won a key victory with New York State's passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010.  That same year, Ai-Jen Poo helped found the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2010, which she continues to direct and which has passed similar laws in other states.  Additionally she serves as co-director of Caring Across Generations, which has led campaigns to ensure affordable health care to the elderly and quality jobs to the caregiving workforce.

Dolores Huerta (b. 1930)
A mother raising seven children, Huerta never wavered in her commitment and activism.  Born in New Mexico, and raised in California, she was initially active as a community organizer in the struggle to end discrimination against Chicanos.  Huerta went on to help found, alongside  Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, eventually serving as UFW Vice President,  She led the national grape boycott in 1965, led numerous negotiating session with growers and was instrumental in the political campaign to pass California's 1975 Agricultural Laborers Relations Act.  Arrested and beaten many times for both her union and anti-war activism, she never wavered in her commitment to nonviolence. Today she heads up the Dolores Huerta Foundation, focusing on reproductive, health and economic rights for women.  A long-time socialist, she is an Honorary Vice Chair of DSA.

Records of Endurance

Taken together, these stories depict women that came from all corners of the globe, traveled different paths, worked in occupations, had different perspectives.  But those differences highlight what they held in common: a shared determination to end oppression flowing out of a commitment to both social justice and personal freedom.  As the song's lyrics express:

We were Polish, we were Irish
We were African and Jew
Italian and Latina
Chinese and Russian, too
They tried to use our difference to split us all apart
But the pain we felt together touched the bottom of our heart.

The stories told in We Were There provide a glimpse into what women have endured, how they have resisted, what they have helped create.  The beauty and universality of the show is that we could take numerous lists of ten women through the years and find similar themes of hardship, determination and victory.  The fact of women active today speaking the words of other women emphasizes the continuities over time and into our present.

Taken as a whole, the program serves as a reminder that the troubled and troubling times we are now living through need not be accepted as a permanent state of affairs. The Trumps and Ryans, the Walmarts and Koch Brothers, the assorted men of wealth and power alongside various zealots all determined to roll back women's rights, destroy workers' rights and set people against each other need not be successful if we trust in and support each other.  Remembering the past means remembering that power lies in those who do the work of the world while doing the work of holding families and communities together.  In that sense, We Were There was as much a look ahead as a look back.  Each performance concludes with the song -- the last lyrics from the chorus, emphasizing pride, speaks to an optimism that grows from not flinching in front of pain, but rather striving always to overcome.

We were there in the factories
We were there in the mills
We were there in the mines
And came home to fix the meals
We were there on the picket line
We raised our voices loud
     It makes me proud just knowing we were there.


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