A hundred years ago, Washington and Oregon were hotbeds of labor radicalism. The most radical union of the time, the Industrial Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”), was almost unique in its politics. Unlike the more mainstream AFL (American Federation of Labor), it welcomed and recruited women and people of color, including Black people and Chinese immigrants, who were otherwise almost universally rejected by American labor.
The mainstream image of the Wobblies in the Pacific Northwest is the migratory male laborer, particularly in lumber and mining camps and in agriculture, and, indeed, those types of workers made up a large percentage of its membership in this area.
However, as Heather Mayer demonstrates in “Beyond the Rebel Girl,” women had a major role in IWW organizing in this area. Women became active in the IWW both because they were in workplaces organized by the union, and because they actively participated in struggles for women’s rights that went beyond the mainstream suffrage movement.
The IWW didn’t limit itself to labor issues, consistent with the vision it had of transforming a highly unequal and exploitative society into one in which everyone shared in the benefits of their work. Consistent with its philosophy, it advocated equal rights for women, both in the workplace and in the home, and supported struggles to legalize women’s birth control (for example, the diaphragm) and educate women in how to use it. Margaret Sanger, one of the most famous birth control advocates, was closely associated with the IWW in her early campaigns.
Mayer looks at specific campaigns in the Pacific Northwest to both show how women led struggles in the IWW and the pushback they received from mainstream society, including the reformist Progressives. Progressives supported votes for women, but also advocated protecting women as homemakers and limiting their participation in the workforce. Because of that, “progressive reformers focused on restricting young women’s sexuality and punishing female delinquency.”
As an example, in Portland, “immoral” women between the ages of 12 and 25 could be committed to the newly established Industrial School for Girls for three-year terms to study housework and the Bible. Women who went on strike or who spoke out on the street as part of free speech fights were at risk for being sanctioned for stepping out of their assigned female roles.
Chapters in the book open windows into the role of women in the early part of the 20th century. Trials of activist IWW women arrested on picket lines and at protests almost inevitably led to challenges of their “respectability;” the IWW already had a reputation for advocating “free love,” which at that time meant the right of women to choose their lovers, inside or outside of marriage, and regardless of gender. Women who were arrested during these campaigns were forced to prove their respectability and defend their personal lives, as well as defend against the charges brought against them.
The IWW also supported the rights of prostitutes, whom it saw as being exploited workers, and drew the link between low wages and unemployment for women and them turning to sex work to survive. That was in contrast to the prevailing narrative at the time, which was that women became prostitutes either because of personal characteristics like “depravity” or “feeble-mindedness” or because they were kidnapped and forced into the role.
Women were crucial in IWW community organizing. Mayer uses the example of the solidarity campaign leading up to and after the Everett massacre, in which a free speech fight in Everett culminated in a gun battle between Wobblies and a right-wing vigilante group supported by the police. She also cites the defense campaign after the Centralia massacre, in which World War I veterans attacked the IWW union hall. Organizing resistance in both those towns depended particularly on women. Her picture of the radical community of Wobblies and Socialists and others in the Northwest in this time includes settled families as well as migratory workers, and picnics and gatherings as well as strikes.
Perhaps the most prominent woman in IWW leadership in the Northwest was Marie Equi, a Portland doctor and “out” lesbian who specialized in women’s health care, including abortions. She was eventually sentenced to 3 years in San Quentin prison for speaking out against World War I.
Mayer argues convincingly that the IWW provided a venue and support for working women organizing around issues in their lives. One area she doesn’t touch on, however, is whether the commitment to equality for men and women extended into the homes of IWW families. For example, did Wobbly women expect husbands to share in housework and childrearing?
Nevertheless, "Beyond the Rebel Girl" is an important contribution to women’s history, labor history and radical history, particularly in the Northwest. It’s more a collection of examples of how women were important to the IWW — rather than a comprehensive discussion of women’s role in the union — but the examples definitely correct the unbalanced image of the IWW as a mainly male organization.
Read the full March 20 - 26 issue.
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