Ruth Maguire: Lessons from a Life of Activism

Ruth Maguire is my hero, a lifelong activist and an inspiration to us all. Along with historian Gail Sansbury, I recorded Ruth’s oral history and was delighted to learn about her interesting life. This letter, written by Ruth to her friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday, contains valuable lessons for future generations of activists.

I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.  

In thinking about what helped shaped me, I realized that I learned a lot from my parents.  That won’t surprise most of you, but it did surprise me. I’ve never credited them with having much to do with who I am, but these many years later I recognize how foolish that is. They emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland in 1912 or 13. They faced misery here–very poor, with a two-year-old frequently ill, no ability to communicate in English–a terrible frightening struggle. They were about to give up and return to Poland when WWI broke out. They couldn’t return and that saved our family from the Holocaust, which erased the family they’d left behind. Their languages were Yiddish and Polish. By the time I was born in 1925, they spoke accented English and were somewhat more at peace in America. Their marriage, though it lasted 60 years, was not made in heaven, and it was not a happy or communicative home.

I was loved and I loved them, but I couldn’t wait to leave home and did so the minute I graduated high school. (It was WWII time–my friend, Pearl, and I moved into an apartment together; we worked the midnight shift building airplanes and went to UCLA in the morning). My father was a garment worker and worked in a factory all his life; he was also a proud member and active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. My folks were hard-working people, no formal education and, therefore, very focused on our getting educated. They were very honest people, had enormous integrity; they were Socialists, not organizationally, but certainly in believing that capitalism was an exploitive, degrading system and workers had to organize to fight for humane working conditions. Of course, they were influential in shaping my and my brothers’ view of the world, although, amazingly, I’ve given them little credit until now. Perhaps because my father was difficult and tyrannical, and my mother was victimized by his patriarchal values and behavior, which narrowed her world, but without real consciousness, I chafed against our home scene from early childhood. My memories seemed to focus on that household atmosphere rather than recognizing the other values my father, in particular, instilled–that of having a personal responsibility to the world, especially to working people who deserve better than a life of drudgery and little joy.

So thank you, Mama and Papa–I know you too did the best you could with what your backgrounds and experiences enabled you to understand. I’m ashamed of how little I consciously sympathized with or understood, until grown, of their struggle to survive, their struggle to understand this new land, to acquire some English, to create a life of purpose, to become part of a community of friends. I come from good people–not easy folks–but I’ve much to value in my beginnings.

Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland earlier this year
Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland earlier this year

Another major influence was my many years in the Communist movement.   In the 30s and 40s, it was not outlandish to be a Communist. It was a legal political party; it ran candidates; it had a vision of a better life for struggling people everywhere. Its members were disciplined, committed, hard-working, fiercely devoted to helping organize the trade unions which opened the doors to a decent life for workers still working 60 and 70-hour weeks in the early 1900s; whose children, 8 and 10 years of age, worked in mines and mills. In the 30s the trade unions fought for the social benefits that came to us over the next number of years: public education, a 40-hour work week, Unemployment Insurance, Social Security and, perhaps most important, dignity and respect for their labor.

The Communists were the most committed, most selfless participants in the bitter struggles of those years. I was a very little girl in the 30s, so I don’t get credit for leading those struggles, but it was part of my world, and I was a Young Pioneer when I was 9 or 10. The Communist Party had a ladder to entry–a young group called the Young Pioneers from which you graduated to the Young Communist League, and from there to the Party. (Obviously, you didn’t have to go through all the stages). I remember nothing of how I joined the Pioneers (my father probably signed me up). I remember no one who was in it with me; I remember nothing of what we did. I know we proudly wore red bandanas and red armbands and we sang a song, which, unbelievably, I still remember, every word. A rather apolitical, rah-rah song, but if you’re part of a marching group, and wearing a red bandana, I guess you feel you’re making a better world even when you’re 10 years old and singing a dopey song.

Very important, I think, was that, beyond organizing and activism, the Communist Party was a school for its members. Every meeting began with an “educational”–that is, a discussion of an important current event, often followed by discussion of an assigned reading of a more analytical or theoretical turn. Forevermore, this led to awareness and consistent involvement in concerns beyond the confines of our personal insular lives. “It’s a habit,” I’ve often said to people who wonder at my ongoing activism at my advanced age. In any case, even if our constant discourse often veered towards convincing us of the “rightness” of decisions already made by “leaders”–still, to be aware of peoples’ needs and to care about them were not minor expectations to absorb. And the comradeship we shared was a cherished value in itself.

One more thing about life in the Party:  bigotry against any group, especially African-Americans (always the most oppressed), was unforgivable and never excused. Criticism, even expulsion, was certain if evidence of discriminatory behavior or language surfaced. I’m glad my learning curve on racism–its bitter cruelty, its ugliness, its destructiveness–started so early in my life.

I left the Party in the 50s after the Khrushchev speech.  He became leader of the CP of the Soviet Union and leader of the country following Stalin’s death. I left because we learned that what we had never believed was true–that millions were killed in the struggle for absolute state power. Millions of peasants were killed or starved who resisted collectivization of their farms; there was indeed a gulag where millions more died; and Stalin murdered almost the entire leadership who made the revolution. The orgy of death was an agony to learn about. The Soviet Union turned out not to be the model of the Socialist world we envisioned. Hundreds of us left after months of effort to reshape our own Party into a more democratic organization failed. And we saw the motes in the eyes of our own leadership, many of whom were didactic, authoritarian, controlling.

Leaving the Party was painful. The attacks upon it, which came with the flourishing Cold War which emerged so quickly after WWII, made us feel disloyal for severing ties when it was under fire. Moreover, there was comfort in having clear answers about how history evolves, having a clear vision of how society should be organized, believing that a disciplined, structured organization is required to make change happen–and, like True Believers everywhere, we had all the answers as to how to build a better world. Uncertainty takes getting used to.

But this is what I learned through that experience: Nothing changed in my core beliefs–I continue to know that war is never the road to peace, that Robin Hood was right–we must take from the rich and give to the poor, that bigotry and discrimination against any group is abominable and hurts us all. My certainty about the necessity to end war, injustice, inequality never wavers. What is no longer certain is the exact shape of that final good society we want, or the clear path to get there.

But what I’ve decided (at least I think so–doubt and questioning are my friends now) is that you organize and join with people around issues as they emerge. There are no final solutions, and battles are never finally won. Every problem solved uncovers another problem around which to struggle. Changes occur–progress is made–but there is always more to be done. And unexpected consequences happen and varied paths emerge and they lead to different possibilities. Today, we have to fight some of the old struggles over again. Did we think we’d have to fight again for the right to organize? For a living wage? For public education? To maintain social security? And there are the next level of struggles on the back of previous struggles:  assuring that black lives matter, that mass incarceration ends, that voting rights are sacred, that science is respected, that corporations and the very wealthy not have the legal right (Citizens United) to buy our government and write its laws. And, now, right now, the incredible struggle–only recently on my radar screen–to control climate change and save our earth. I’ll march in demonstrations as long as my legs move forward, but this battle belongs to the young–it’s their lives, their world, and they are stepping up on campuses and on the streets to win this fight for all of us.

Also important to who I am is that I’ve always been an atheist. I presume I have my parents to thank for this too, and I do thank them. My faith is in the power of people working together to create a humane world. The responsibility lies with us, not in sending prayers somewhere. I don’t believe our current mythologies have more validity than did Zeus and all the gods and goddesses who cavorted in the clouds and muddled in human lives in previous ages. It is difficult for me to believe that a God is all-knowing and merciful when I look at the miseries and horrors of wars, hunger, refugees, deaths–and the devastation of earthquakes, floods, fire. Witness the ravages, hatreds, and murders by fundamentalists of all faiths, each of whom knows God is on their side.

That said, I’ve enormous respect for those whose faith activates them on behalf of people. I know that the Black Church was the backbone of the Civil Rights movement, and people of many faiths gave their commitment and strength to that cause–and to all good causes. I’m delighted that Pope Francis is speaking loudly and forcibly on two crucial issues of our time: man-made climate change and wealth disparity. His voice is powerful and he attributes these terrible calamities to the greed, drive for profit, and inhumanity fostered by a corrupt economic system. So does the Dalai Lama. I’m glad they’re on our side.  Not on every issue, but on these crucial ones.

There’s an old Wobbly song whose chorus goes: “Oh, you ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a Red,” and that remains true today. Whatever decent effort Obama has made on behalf of health care, to lessen debt for students, to raise the minimum wage, etc. brings screeches of he’s a Socialist. The same attacks are made on Pope Francis. Any effort to improve the lives of the 90%–0.1% have more wealth than the bottom 90% in our country — brings cries that our sacred free enterprise system is being undermined. So, in the words of another labor song:  “Don’t let red-baiting break you up.” I’ve also learned a lot from years of working in various programs to expand opportunities for the poor, minority peoples, and young people. I learned from all I worked for and worked with. I thought each program would change institutions, the city, the country, the world. They didn’t, but they did change the lives of many of those who participated in them. I have to be satisfied with that.

So, This I Believe (in no particular order):

*Ends and means are inextricably connected.  No good end will ever be reached by violent, dishonest, ugly means.

*Doubt is important as an aid to thought.

*Globalization demands a globalized trade union movement so that workers are not pitted against one another and conditions can improve for workers everywhere. (I’m troubled with a goal of saving our jobs if it means workers starve elsewhere. “Workers of the World Unite” is still a great slogan).

*Power to make change lies with human beings, not with gods. (As Alexander Hamilton said to Benjamin Franklin when Franklin suggested starting meetings with a prayer:  “We don’t need foreign aid”). 

*Outrage — never acceptance–is the proper response when our social, political, economic, human rights are stolen or undermined.

*The glory is in the struggle–there is never a perfect victory or a perfect society–there is always more to be done.

*War must become a taboo–an evil that elicits horror, disgust, shame, and a choice impossible to imagine by individuals or nations. 

*We are each other’s keeper–we are responsible for participating in collective efforts to make all lives better.

*Be passionate about whatever it is that is deeply meaningful to you.

*My immortality lies in the memories of those I’ve loved and who love me. (So I’ll probably last another generation). We’ve only this life–make it worthwhile and beautiful. 

I didn’t do anything great in this life. I wasn’t an inspiring teacher; I didn’t cure cancer; I didn’t write a great book or compose beautiful music; I sure didn’t end our wars–but I did participate in the issues and struggles of my time. That gave my life purpose and meaning. I’m grateful to and dearly love my family and friends. I’ve learned that if you do engage, have a passion for whatever might be your thing, you’ll spend time with some of the best people in the world.

Ruth Maguire’s oral history can be found at the San Francisco Labor Archives & Research Center.

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What Ate My Brain?

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Drawing by Ana Esquivel

As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.

Climbing trees was my specialty
Climbing trees was my specialty

When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.

I always tried to get to the top of everything
I always tried to get to the top of everything

Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.

My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.

At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.

When I fell off, I got right back on.
When I fell off, I got right back on.

Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.

Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.

When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers' ladders taller.
When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers’ ladders taller.

How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).

Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River
Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River

Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.

Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.

The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960
The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960

As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.

Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground
Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground

Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.

I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.