Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.
The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.
Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859.
John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society.
Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work.
In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.
In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.
Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.
“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.
Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances.
In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage.
After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years.
With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.
Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.
Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell.
Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”
Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.
Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.
The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.
In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first paycheck radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.
At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.
In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.
I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.
When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.
Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.
Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.
In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.
While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.
We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.
Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.
We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? They refused to serve us but we did take up a table during the lunch hour. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.
That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).
Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.
In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.
I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!
Mom was no communist. There’s no evidence that she even flirted with the idea like so many did during the volatile period between the world wars. It was hard to find a communist in Yakima, Washington to flirt with. Unless you count William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, whom John Birchers dubbed “the only known communist in Yakima County.”
No, during my mother’s early life, the county was run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to Make America White Again.
In such a reactionary environment, how did my mother turn into a liberal? Trying to understand her politics, I’ve been investigating the history of her hometown, which is also my hometown. Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the state with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place when my mother, Florence Wick, was growing up in the 1920s and 30s. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state whose population is concentrated on the west coast.
Catholic missionaries had settled in the valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the US Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Indians had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars of the 1850s. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different groups that were forced to settle there in what we call the Lower Valley, a few miles south of the town of Yakima. The sagebrush country with fertile volcanic soil was partly developed and irrigated by Japanese immigrant farmers who began arriving before the turn of the 20th century.
Researching what life was like in my hometown in this period, I found a book written by Thomas Heuterman, who was my journalism professor at Washington State U. The Burning Horse: The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942, documents discrimination against the Japanese community in Wapato, a town on the Yakama reservation where the farmers leased land. In emails Prof. Heuterman told me he had been surprised to find what his research showed: a long history of racism and exclusion in the Yakima Valley.
He wrote: “I went into the project predicting that the Valley Japanese were an exception among all the prejudice of the era. That’s what I remembered as a child from my folks’ attitudes. But, as you know, I found just the opposite. Most of the Nisei (second generation) who have read the book also didn’t know that racism was going on; their folks had protected them from that too.”
Japanese farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned. Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. Here is some of what he found. These were headlines in the Seattle Star during hearings to determine the fate of Japanese immigrants in Washington State in 1920.
WILL YOU HELP TO KEEP THIS A WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY?
JAPS PLANS MENACE WHITE CIVILIZATION
Japanese plans for expansion at the expense of the white race are a deeper menace to Caucasian civilization than were ever the dreams of Pan-German imperialists
In the 1920 version of fake news, testifiers at the hearings repeated lies about the Japanese and weird ideas about racial purity that were then amplified by newspapers across the state. A well-organized American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Anti-Japanese League perpetuated the apocryphal threat of the Yellow Peril. Then the Grange took up the cause. Anti-alien laws passed in Washington were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites. The goal in Yakima was to drive all Japanese out of the valley.
Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s in the Yakima Valley and in the entire West. As a child and young adult, my mother must have been aware of it. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924, which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town after the state refused to grant them access to the state fairgrounds in Yakima. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.
Farmers welcomed migrant laborers when labor was scarce. But when the economic cycle moved from boom to bust, these workers were targets of violence, forced removal and alien restriction laws. American workers who saw their jobs being taken by immigrants who would work for less were some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Racist organizations gained influence after World War I. In the Red Scare of 1917-20 nativism swept the whole country. During that time Alien and Sedition laws were used to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed by the government to be radicals, the anarchist Emma Goldman among them.
In Yakima, terrorism was directed at other groups as well as the Japanese. In 1933, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) led a strike for higher wages of white migrant farmworkers that was put down by orchardists with pipes, clubs and bats. Then the strikers were marched five miles to a stockade that had been constructed in the middle of downtown Yakima. Some of those arrested were jailed for six months, and the stockade stayed up as a deterrent for a decade. In 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos also became targets of harassment.
I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 strike took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and as kids we thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. I have a vague memory of Flo telling us about the “battle of Congdon Castle.” She surely knew about it. The primary industry in Yakima, then and now, was agriculture and agriculture was always big news.
Probably my mother already knew which side she was on by the time these events occurred. Her parents, immigrants themselves from Sweden and Norway, can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore has her father enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Her father’s thinking surely influenced young Flo. She told me she remembered his troubled reaction to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose incarceration lasted from 1920 to 1927. She was 14 years old when they were executed by the US government. Flo’s Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused.
This was the Yakima of my mother’s youth, a place where, if you read the newspapers, you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, this history escaped us. Our family often visited Fort Simcoe, the restored Army fort on the Yakama reservation, but I never learned about the Indian Wars as a child. Indians and revolution were scrubbed from our textbooks and xenophobia persisted.
My brother Don remembers as a freshman in high school in 1967 defending the rights of Native Americans in history class. The popular teacher launched into a diatribe against him in front of the whole class. She said Indians had an inferior culture and deserved to be conquered. She said they were dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. She believed it was right of a superior culture to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said. When Don told Flo about it she was outraged. She and the teacher had been friends but that killed their friendship.
The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. In his book, Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden posits that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.
Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans.“If Irish Americans identify with the 10 percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”
My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity, but the advantage they had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The Legion, the KKK and others demanded to make America white again. I’ve no clue how the xenophobes felt about Southern Italians, but it seems that if you came from Europe you were ok with them. In Yakima, they reserved deepest hatred for Japanese. But they also scorned anyone not of the “white race.” The irony was that these invading whites had themselves displaced indigenous people and it’s difficult to understand how they failed to see this giant contradiction. The trick, of course, was to make them subhuman.
That Flo’s parents identified as immigrants rather than white informed her understanding of the world. Flo was also a voracious reader and certainly was influenced by what she read. She spent hours at the Yakima public library, receiving her first library card at a young age and migrating to the adult section before children were allowed. She was one of those kids who took a flashlight to bed and often read under the covers at night.
She was also active in the YWCA, quite a progressive organization during that period just as it is today. Besides championing racial integration, the YW also lent support to Japanese families who were incarcerated during the war. Her involvement in the YW got Flo out of Yakima to meetings across Washington State and in the big cities of Chicago and Columbus, widening her worldview.
Flo’s father, Ben Wick, overlapped with William O. Douglas for a year in 1921-22 when they both taught at Yakima High School. Flo may have known Douglas as a child. She would have been nine years old when he got fed up with teaching school in Yakima and and left to make his fortune in the East. In any case, Flo admired Douglas greatly and I believe she shared his politics, which were shaped by class. He grew up fatherless and poor. When discussing how his personal experiences influenced his view of the law, Douglas said, “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the IWWs who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”
He was no communist either but he did defend the concept of revolution in a 1969 screed. He is famously quoted in Points of Rebellion: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” He survived two impeachment attempts.
When I asked my lawyer friend Judy about Douglas she said, “Legal standing for trees!” He was famous for defending nature and the environment, often in dissenting opinions. She added, “I wish he was still on the court. God help us now.”
Douglas returned to our hometown later in his life and Flo and I ran into him and his wife Cathy in the 1970s. We had decided to splurge on lunch at the Larson Building, the town’s only high-rise, an elegant Art Deco architectural gem built in 1931. We spotted them as we walked into the lobby. “Justice Douglas, Justice Douglas,” my mother entreated as she ran up to him. He graciously remembered her father.
The wartime internment of Japanese did not happen in a vacuum. Finally, after decades of domestic terrorism, the American Legion and its ilk got their way. In June 1942, 1061 Japanese were evacuated from the valley, sent by rail to a processing center at the Portland livestock grounds, and then incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for the remainder of the war—800 miles from home. Only a few resettled in the Yakima valley.
One of my heroes, the labor organizer Sister Addie Wyatt said, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
This is where we come from. I fervently hope it is not where we’re going. I’m so glad people like immigrants and Americans of color, the Wobblies, my mother, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.
My mother used to wonder aloud why my generation of girls and young women chose to hang out in co-ed groups. Why was there so much pressure to be with boys? She told me that as a young woman she’d had loads of fun communing with sisters in same sex groups. They invited boys to dances and events that they organized, but otherwise they sought the companionship of other women. Now, looking through scrapbooks she made in the 1930s, I can see what she was talking about.
My mother, Florence Wick, had graduated from Yakima High School at age 16 in the class of 1929½, just as the country sank into the Great Depression. She was planning to enroll at Washington State University (my alma mater) when the stock market crashed and ended her dream of going to college. Instead she went to secretarial school. She got a job as a stenographer and worked steadily throughout the decade, living at home and supporting her family when her father lost his teaching job. In the 1930s my mother actively participated in women’s organizations that I now see set the stage for the feminist movement of the 1970s.
While she could never afford college, she did join a sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, which had been reorganized from a college group to include businesswomen. She was also a member and president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (Biz-Pro) one of the “business girls” clubs that fell under the umbrella of the YWCA. These linked organizations provided opportunities for what we now call networking, but they also promoted the rights and welfare of workingwomen by sponsoring legislation for equal pay and to prohibit legislation denying jobs to married women. Founded to address the surge of women into the workforce during WWI, Biz-Pro still continues to advocate for workingwomen promoting equal pay, comparable worth and family leave legislation.
The ESA flower was jonquil
She saved dance programs
Biz-Pro dance program
The sorority met twice a month, once for a study program and once for a social event. My mother saved programs and newspaper articles reporting on their events. Flo sometimes appears in the programs reviewing books (Stanley Walker’s Mrs. Astor’s Horse) or authoring skits. She participated in a bridge club and took home prizes. She directed a questionnaire on current event topics at one meeting. At another she reported on the biography of Nijinsky written by his wife. Politics was also on the agenda. On the Oct. 6, 1936 program, Miss Sylvia Murray presented a “Symposium of Nazism and Fascism.” Flo presented “Excerpts from Days of Wrath by Andre Malraux.” They had picnic summer potlucks. They played games. The local news reported: At the Thanksgiving party, 30 members and their friends were expected. The colors were yellow, orange and brown.
Sisters’ Ski Trip
Smart cotton frocks of today’s vogue and demure fashions of 50 years ago vied for supremacy last evening when Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority members entertained at a dessert bridge party in the Woman’s Century clubhouse. The sorority will have a horseback riding party as a feature of its next meeting, reported the local Yakima newspaper. In news articles the married women are referred to by their husbands’ names. A dinner and theater party were planned by sorority members at their meeting last evening in the home of Mrs. Malcolm Mays.
The Biz-Pro meetings, too, sought to combine business and pleasure.
Miss Edith Livingston had charge of decorating the tables with white cellophane Christmas trees, snowmen, blue streamers and white tapers. Girls made a contribution to the iron lung fund.
Despite their name, the business and professional women were not above movie stars and gossip.
Mrs. Gledhill, the former Miss Margaret Buck of Yakima, related interesting Hollywood anecdotes and described the YWCA work in the southern city. She particularly mentioned the Studio club in Hollywood where girls who are hoping for a “break” live and rehearse, “even tap dancers,” she says. Among board members are Mary Pickford and Mrs. Cecil De Mille.
Both my mother and I were active in the YWCA during the 1970s when its “One Imperative” was to “use its collective power to eliminate racism by any means necessary.” Together we attended the 1973 national conference in San Diego where the farmworker leader Cesar Chavez spoke. But I hadn’t realized how involved she had been in the YW during the 1930s. After its members demanded a focus on workingwomen at the 1910 world conference in Berlin, the YW’s objectives changed from protecting women from the vagaries of industrialization to promoting their equal inclusion. To this day the YW remains a worldwide force working against violence and supporting women, racial minorities, people with AIDS and refugees.
Biz-Pro dance program
Flo represented Biz-Pro as a council member at its conference in Chicago in November 1937. A newspaper report of the meeting quoted her: “It was grand and I liked Chicago so much,” says Miss Florence Wick, all in one breath, of the National Business and Professional Women’s Council of the YWCA meeting in Chicago from which she returned this week. The article says of the 26 council members, she was the youngest (she was 24). The meetings were held in the McCormick residence in Chicago, a memorial to Harriet McCormick, an early supporter of the YW. “The loveliest building you ever saw,” according to Miss Wick. “I met so many notables in YWCA work, I feel so very insignificant,” Miss Wick remarks, laughing.
In April 1938, she traveled to Columbus, Ohio to the national YWCA convention and later explained the “reorganization of the business girls’ groups” to her local chapter. She traveled around the Northwest to represent the local group along with others including her best friend and my namesake, Molly (Mildred) Hardin, another single workingwoman. By that time they called themselves the “Business and Professional and Industrial Girls.” Industrial referred to women who worked in factories and plants, as opposed to the “business girls” who worked in offices.
Flo told me she had accepted that she would be an “old maid” when, at 33, she met my father. Still working as a stenographer, she had assumed the identity of “career girl.” Her sister Eva, my aunt, told me Flo was always popular. She had lots of boyfriends but she was in no hurry to get married. She enjoyed the independence and self-esteem that came from earning her own living as a workingwoman. And she thoroughly enjoyed the rich friendships and associations she cultivated in the women’s organizations she joined.
Mary Jo Estep was the last surviving Indian of the last Indian massacre in 1911. She was one of four children who survived the massacre. The other three died the following year of tuberculosis. Mary was about 18 months old when a posse in the Nevada hinterlands ambushed her mother and the remnants of her tribe and shot them while they were asleep. Her grandfather, Shoshone Mike (he was actually Bannock and his wife Jennie was Ute), had led the band across 300 miles of western desert after refusing to go to the reservation.
Raised by the family of the white superintendent of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, Mary knew little of this and did not remember it. When, in the 1970s, the Oregon writer Dayton O. Hyde wrote a book about her grandfather and the massacre, he found her and told her the story. Her reaction to the attention this brought was to discount it. “Most of my friends are non-Indians. I was raised in the white world.” “They know my mother was one of Shoshone Mike’s daughters. Her name was Snake and one thing I can’t stand is snakes,” she joked. About her grandfather she said: “I knew he had something to do with stealing things, but I never asked. I’m just not a curious person, I guess.” About the massacre she said: “I never think about it. I’ve got too many other things to think about.”
Mary Jo Estep graduated from Central Washington College with a degree in music and spent 40 years teaching school before retiring in 1974. At the age of 82 in 1992, Mary died in a nursing home because a nurse had given her the wrong medication and hospital staff determined that her non-resuscitate directive meant that they could not help her. The effects of the overdose could have been easily reversed. She took several hours to die and in that time her friends, who had come to pick her up for a party, surrounded her, but could not move the doctors to save her life.
“You look at what happened to her, and you could say that she died at the hands of the white man too,” said Louis Jarnecke, one of her friends.
I still have the newspaper article telling of her death, and the book written about her grandfather, The Last Free Man. What they don’t say is that Mary Jo Estep was a lesbian. She lived with her “long-time companion” Ruth Sweany for more than 50 years on Summitview Avenue in my hometown, Yakima, Washington.
I met Mary Jo and Ruth through my mother who had organized a seniors writing group in Yakima. My mom was interested in the history of our part of the world and she encouraged old people to tell and write their stories. She worked for the senior center there and for a time she produced a local TV program in which she interviewed old-timers and taped their histories. The women told me they were part of a group called “Living Historians,” and laughed saying, “At least we’re still living!”
I have a chapbook that includes the writing of all three: Mary Jo, Ruth and my mother Florence Martin. My brother Don and his press, Hard Rain Printing Collective, printed it in 1980. Mary’s only piece in the chapbook, The Man With the Hoe, chronicles an incident from her childhood of an old man who is lost and then found the next day by neighbors. Two of the published entries are by my mother. Ruth Sweany has four; three are poems, but the fourth is a prose piece that describes her life with Mary, particularly when their friend Mabel comes to visit on Fridays. I think the friend must be Mabel George, another writer published in the chapbook.
A photo in the archive Yakima Memory from the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper shows Mabel George (born January 8, 1899) at the piano, and another entry is titled Mabel George Children’s Songs from 78 records, 1947. So Mabel was a musician and songwriter.
Ruth’s story never mentions Mary, but clearly the “we” in the piece refers to Ruth and Mary as a couple. It’s about the fun they have when their friend Mable visits. They listen to music (a critique of modern loud disco music follows), they read poetry and plays to each other. They also write and produce plays, calling themselves “The Carload Players.” Ruth writes that they even produced a couple of plays before an audience. This makes me wonder if their papers were archived and whether I might find the scripts, but I’m not hopeful.
These women rejoiced in each other’s company. Ruth writes: “So our Fridays are always cheerful. Why not? We are doing things we enjoy, in a congenial group. After one of Mabel’s visits the world stops going to the dogs and the sunshine comes out a little brighter.”
Ruth and Mary carved out their own woman-centered culture in the hostile environment of Eastern Washington before the advent of the modern women’s movement and lesbian pride. Living lightly on the cultural landscape served them well.
On November 7, the Labor Chorus appeared with the Joe Hill Roadshow, a varying collection of musicians and spoken word artists traveling the country to remind us about Joe Hill and our labor history. It was our pleasure to back up the amazing performers David Rovics, Chris Chandler and George Mann. If the Joe Hill Roadshow is coming to your area, go see it. The show is now touring the West.
On the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor hero and songwriter Joe Hill, I’ve been reminiscing about our little chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Pullman, Washington in the early 1970s. I still have my dues book in a box somewhere. We all had Little Red Songbooks and I remember we used to meet in a basement (must have been Koinonia House, where many radical gatherings took place) and sing the Wobbly songs. Most of us were students at Washington State University along with a few faculty members.
The IWW was headquartered in Chicago then (it has moved back to Chicago from San Francisco) and we would send to the international office for union materials, which seemed to have been stored there since the 1920s. My dues book had a space for the year that read 192_. You had to fill in which industry you worked in. That confused me until another member filled in Education. That’s when I understood that Education is an industry. Duh! There were wonderful pen and ink posters that were shipped in cardboard tubes too.
On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the IWW in 2005, I went to a celebration and conference at UC Santa Cruz. I went because I knew Archie Green would be there. Archie was a labor historian and folklorist who was singlehandedly responsible for the American Folklife Preservation Act. I had worked with both of Archie’s sons who were electricians in my IBEW local. One was an electrical inspector with me, but I could never get him to introduce me to Archie. I had to go to this public event to meet him.
I think it was Labor Day, 2007, when Archie was 90, that was declared Archie Green Day in SF. The Labor Archives and Research Center hosted a celebration at the ILWU local 34 hall. Archie stood onstage and spoke about his new book, which had just been published, The Big Red Songbook. He told us that this guy whom his parents had known through the Workman’s Circle in NYC had started the project of compiling all the Wobbly songs and their history. This guy, John Neuhaus, was dying of cancer in 1958 and when Archie went to visit him in the hospital he made Archie promise to finish the project. It only took him 49 years. Of course I have an autographed copy.
Archie became my mentor. He promised he would fund a book project about the history of the tradeswomen movement if I could just get the goddamned manuscript written. I submitted an outline and we argued about the focus. I interviewed Archie and learned that his Jewish family had emigrated from Ukraine and his father had been in the 1905 revolution. Archie was a fierce mentor. Two weeks before he died he was kicking my butt about the book. I said by the time I get the manuscript finished, books will be extinct (it’s still unfinished)
Heres’ the thing: I’m still singing the old Wobbly songs! A couple of years ago I joined the Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Heritage Chorus (the name might even be longer than that. I can never remember). It’s part of a subculture of labor choruses, still here but dwindling. I regret that I didn’t get involved sooner.
The guy who was the inspiration for that little subculture in the Bay Area was Jon Fromer, a singer/songwriter who had worked on a TV show called We Do The Work and organized the Bolshevik Café, a kind of Commie variety show. The twice-yearly Bolshevik Café had been the project of the Billie Holiday sect of the CPUSA. Commies who knew how to put on a show! I got there as often as I could. One time I spotted Angela Davis in the audience. Jon also founded the annual Western Workers Cultural Heritage Festival in 1987. Volunteers have taken on the organizing, but the old commies are aging and 2016 will be the last year. It’s held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at the Plumbers’ Hall in Burlingame. Jon died a couple of years ago. I hadn’t gone to the Heritage Fest until I joined the chorus and we performed there, though I knew about it. Like much of the remnants of the Left, it’s a rather insular group of old timers with a tiny sprinkling of younger folks.
The work is carried on by people like my chorus director, Patricia Wynne, who founded our chorus in 1999. Although, she’s no spring chicken either. Most of the chorus members are old people—mostly labor activists–like me. We come out to sing at picket lines and demonstrations along with Occupella, a little group that formed during Occupy, which includes the daughter of Malvina Reynolds who is now 80 years old herself, and the Brass Liberation Orchestra, a lefty marching band.
Pat has of late taken to writing what I call operas for lack of a better term. They are stories told with song and spoken words. My favorite production was taken from The Warmth of Others Suns. We sang with Vukani Mawethu, a local group that sings South African choral music. For me this was our most inspirational “opera” because these old black people—members of both choral groups–got up on stage and told their own personal stories of migrating from the South. Two of them, Alex and Harriet Bagwell, were old CP members who I first heard sing at the Bolshevik Café. Very accomplished musicians, they will be singing with our chorus again for the next opera, about working women. I’ve written a song for it about the crappy jobs I did before becoming an electrician (called Sister in the Brotherhood) and Pat put it in the program.
I can carry a tune, but I’ve got a lot to learn about being a singer. It turns out I’m a belter, like Ethel Merman. I always knew I had a loud voice but who knew it translated to singing? I call myself a failed alto because, although my goal was to learn to sing a part, my old brain never got good enough at it and I finally joined the soprano section so I can sing the melody. Sometimes I have to strain to reach the high notes.
Some of the old songs are kind of hokey and the music rather boring, but some—especially the old Joe Hill rewrites of old Christian hymns—I just love to sing. Some I remember from those basement sing-ins in Pullman, like The Preacher and the Slave. “You will eat by and by in that glorious land above the sky.” I especially love the Wobbly Doxology. “Praise boss whose bloody wars we fight. Praise him, fat leech and parasite!” Instead of Amen at the end of the song, we sing “Aww Hell!” But I never learned Rebel Girl, about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, probably because we couldn’t stomach the condescending attitude toward women. “She’s a precious pearl.” Blech! My chorus sings it, but with some changed lyrics to make us feminists happy.
The Rosa Luxemburg Collective was the culmination of our years’ long experiments in collective living arrangements in Pullman, Washington.
Thirteen of us student activists rented an old fraternity house and split all the costs. As members of a hippie commune, we believed in locally grown, organic food. There were no local farmers’ markets so we started a food co-op and began looking into buying food in bulk from large producers. This opened our eyes to the nature of the food distribution system. It turned out that in the Northwest much of the growing and handling of food was controlled by a Mormon empire and the closest warehouses were across the state line in Idaho.
I was the bread maker and wished for whole grain flour made from a kind of wheat they used in Europe. You couldn’t get it then. Bread in the 1970s in the U.S. was mostly of the Wonder variety. Whole grains were just on the verge of popularily. In New York or Chicago you could find a local German bakery, but in our small town if you wanted whole grain bread, you had to bake it yourself.
Bread making requires the baker to be around for two risings, so twice a week on days when I wasn’t in class I’d bake all day. We ordered flour in 25 pound sacks, and stored it in the freezer to discourage bugs, so it was deliciously cold when I would first plunge my hands in. Making bread was my form of meditation. I used the Tassajara Bread Book method, making a spongey mass first so the yeast got a good start before growth-inhibiting oil and salt were added. The first batch of bread would be eaten immediately by lurkers lured to the kitchen by the yeasty smell. I knew to make enough so there would be loaves left for the next couple of days.
The irony was that Pullman is surrounded by wheat fields. One year there was a glut of wheat and the grain silos were completely filled, forcing farmers to leave mountains of the unhulled grain near the train tracks. I imagined jumping into the piles of grain as one would jump into raked leaves, falling in like quicksand. I imagined it stone ground by old-fashioned mills. I imagined it refined and baked into perfect loaves.
The wheat fields surrounding us seemed terribly romantic from afar, driving by them on Highway 2. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before being covered by snow, then peeks up through the melting snow in spring. By the end of the spring semester, tall spikes undulate along the rolling hills. The sight of those softly swaying hills in spring makes you want to run out into nature, strip off your clothes and commune with her. One day my friend Joe and I decided to do just that.
Joe was a fellow student who lived in a collective house farther out in the Palouse country, a century-old uninsulated wood-heated farmhouse, the kind with two storeys and a huge porch. Keeping the interior of that building warm in Palouse winters required the burning of much wood and continual fire stoking. Mostly the human residents were just cold. The fabulousness of spring, when it arrives in this northern climate, cannot be overstated. Spring fever, I believe, is more truly celebrated in places where winter grips with an icy hand.
That April day was a spring cliché. The sun shone warmly and fluffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky. It was the time in spring when various shades of green compete for attention: the delicate yellowish green of early spring leaves just beginning to bud, the dense dark forest green of firs. The wheat fields were a bright emerald green, sort of wizard-of-oz-ish. When I walked out of the farmhouse, I expected to see the yellow brick road shining in front of me.
In the sixties there was a TV ad for something. It involved a couple running toward each other through a wildflower meadow, embracing wildly and–I forget what happens next. I was very taken with the wildflower meadow and tried to reenact this running embrace when I could get a friend to play the other part. Through years of trial and error I found that wildflower meadows, any meadows really, were hard to run through, especially when one is looking up at one’s soon-to-be embracer and not at the ground. Rodent holes, depressions dug by hooves and unseen drainage ditches create truly hazardous conditions. Yet this image persisted in my brain. Meadows equal romance. OK, meadows equal sex. That’s what the TV was saying, right? Today it would be an ad for Cialis.
There was another factor at work here too, besides spring fever and the power of advertising. A subculture that encouraged sex in the outdoors had blossomed in the Palouse and we were part of it–cultural envoys in a way. By god, we took our envoyship seriously, feeling we owed it to the culture to have sex outdoors as much a possible. There was an entire day devoted to the worship of outdoor sex. “Hooray hooray for the eighth of May; it’s outside intercourse day,” had been a fraternity slogan long before I got to WSU. Our idea was to broaden the whole concept. Why focus only on one day a year?
The swaying wheat fields called to us and Joe and I ran through them with abandon, something, it seemed to us, young people were supposed to do. I was a country girl and so knew, as I said, that fields are not always our friends. I knew, too, that terrible chemicals were applied to agricultural lands. DDT, not yet banned, had been sprayed liberally everywhere during my childhood. We were admonished to keep our shoes on in the orchard and not to swim in the canals and creeks where farmers dumped pesticide residues.
All these things I knew but the TV ad image still had a hold on me. Joe and I loped up the hill behind the farmhouse. When we got to the top, we had a speclacular view of the Palouse, Kamiak Butte in the distance. Had we thought to bring a blanket? Possibly, but even with a blanket, the thick stalks of wheat resisted flattening. Up close, the wheat field was far less romantic than it had seemed far away. The cracked earth looked dead, sprouting nothing but wheat. There were no weeds. This worried me. If whatever had been used on this field could kill weeds, what would it do to our butts, or any part of us that touched the earth?
As much as we felt we owed the culture outdoor sex, the outdoors was feeling less and less sexy. We made a flat place to sit down, but then of course, wheat obscured the view. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us said.
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.
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.
The tradeswomen movement might be the most unsung subset of the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Like the feminist movement, it did seem to erupt suddenly, simultaneously, across the country and the world. All at once in the mid-1970s women began demanding access to blue collar jobs that had been the exclusive domain of men, like construction, utility maintenance, driving, dock work, policing and firefighting.
But the movement was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Women had been working for decades toward equality under law. Women had been included—however disingenuously—in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in education including sports programs. Young feminists, studying the statistics, were painfully aware that on average women working full-time made only 59 cents for every dollar made by men (in 2011 the proportion had risen to 77 cents). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and efforts by black men to enter the white world of union construction, women began to organize toward employment equity.
In the 1970s and 80s organizations advocating for women’s access to these jobs sprang up all over the U.S.: Chicago Women in Trades, TOP-Win in Philadelphia, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Hard-Hatted Women in Cleveland, Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Women in Trades in Seattle.
In the San Francisco Bay Area activists first formed Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) as a project of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), a nonprofit organization for working women which included housewives, unemployed, retired, and women receiving welfare.
Early tactics included demonstrations and marches and efforts to enter union apprenticeships in the construction trades. The training programs, administered by joint committees made up of employers and unions, are comprehensive and free. An apprentice works full-time while completing training, usually at night during the program, usually four years. Hourly pay increases until you “turn out” as a journeyman in your trade. The apprenticeship system, especially in desirable high-paid trades like electrician, plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal and ironworker, had been closed to all but white men, primarily relatives of men already in the trade. The federal government had put in place agencies to enforce the new civil rights laws and women began to organize to tear down that wall.
Carpentry was a popular choice among women. The idea of working with wood, which it turns out construction carpenters don’t do much of—they mostly build forms for concrete–seemed romantic. The carpenters’ union was and still is the largest construction union with the biggest apprenticeship program and the most jobs. In the 1970s, it was one of the easiest apprenticeships to get into. Other crafts required applicants to take aptitude tests, submit to interviews and wait for months for a score but the carpenters used the “list” method, just creating a list of applicants, first come first served.
In 1975, with support from a sister nonprofit, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) whose purpose was to place women in these apprenticeships, women learned that getting into the carpenters’ apprenticeship was just a matter of standing in line at the union office and signing up. The night before the apprenticeship opened, women formed a line outside the union door so there would be no question about who was first. Sleeping for one night on a concrete sidewalk seemed small payment for the opportunity to enter a training program which would also assist in placing trainees in construction jobs.
When the union’s doors opened the next morning the women who had waited in line all night found that their names did not appear first on the apprenticeship list. They also learned that carpentry was a “hunting license trade,” meaning that the apprentice must first find a contractor willing to hire him before he can be indentured into the apprenticeship. Hiring and, therefore, the apprenticeship was controlled by the contractor/employers who preferred to choose known workers rather than request new apprentices sight unseen from the union’s list. The women did travel to various job sites in the Bay Area seeking work, but no contractor would hire them. They decided to look for a lawyer.
Sue the Bastards
Filing a lawsuit was a decision not taken lightly. It almost certainly meant that the filer would become a martyr to the cause and would be blacklisted from future work. It could also mean months and years of shepherding a case through the system. And, as much as it was apparent that the unions were acting as the enemy of women, the women did not want to make the unions their enemy. The unions were the only reason trades jobs paid decent wages with decent working conditions.
Litigation cannot be the sole foundation of a mass movement, but litigation in the 1970s when class action lawsuits proliferated and very often resulted in wins, became an important part of activists’ strategy for change. San Francisco Bay Area tradeswomen activists were lucky to have advocate lawyers at Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm devoted to defending working women, and the Employment Law Center. Across the country, most women fighting employment discrimination were out of luck. No lawyer would take their cases.
Lawsuits filed by individuals rarely resulted in changes to laws or regulations. Women were pressured to settle for cash and to agree not to disclose the settlement. The lawsuit that had won affirmative action goals and timetables for women in the construction trades was filed by a coalition of feminist advocates against the U.S. Department of Labor in 1976.
The case that resulted from the 1975 attempt by women to join Carpenters Local 22, Eldredge vs. Carpenters Trust, kicked around in the courts for 21 years and was finally decided in favor of the women. Judge Betty Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reserve 20 percent of its job referrals for women. In her opinion, an obviously exasperated Fletcher wrote, “The bottom line is that women historically have been systematically excluded from carpentry work and for more than two decades have sought relief through the courts while the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the craft’s gatekeeping organization, has waged a relentless battle to preserve the status quo.” But the carpenters union ultimately was the real winner. For a time, the union complied. It found plenty of women in the San Francisco Bay Area anxious to enter the trade, putting the lie to its past complaints that women weren’t interested in construction work. Then, when the 20 percent apprenticeship goal was met, the union petitioned the court to end the consent decree. The settlement agreement failed to require follow up and when the judge’s decree ended so did the hiring of women.
The women’s lawyer, Alberta Blumin of Berkeley, essentially worked for free, but there is no accounting of the legal costs to the JATC for its “decades’-long legal recalcitrance and foot dragging” (Fletcher’s words).
Goals and Timetables
In 1978, when the new federal affirmative action rules and regulations went into effect, tradeswomen and women who aimed for careers in construction celebrated. The goal for women to be hired on federally funded jobs was 6.9 percent, increasing to 9 percent over five years. Apprenticeship programs were required to indenture 23 percent women (the number was one half the percentage of women in the general workforce—46 percent). If the unions and employers actually met the goals and the federal and state governments actually enforced them, it would only take a few years for women to achieve parity in the construction trades.
The new comprehensive federal guidelines that resulted from the Department of Labor lawsuit spelled out more than just numerical goals. Titled Executive Order 11246 and upgraded under President Jimmy Carter, the law acknowledged that a critical mass of women would be needed to counter the isolation and harassment women were experiencing in nontraditional jobs. The regulations pointed out working conditions and safety as paramount.
That year, 1978, union construction apprenticeships across the US were forced to induct their first women, but most women were still alone in apprenticeship classes with men. Many dropped out. In San Francisco’s IBEW Local 6, four women began the apprenticeship. One, Pat Snow, was able to retire with a full pension after 25 years as an “inside wireman.”
The large hope was not fulfilled. The 6.9 percent goal was never met except for a few isolated jobs, and never increased. Nor was the apprenticeship goal met, except in the Seattle IBEW Local 46 program, which for seven years was headed by a female electrician, Nancy Mason.
A good percentage of women who entered the construction trades in the 1970s were college-educated and middle class. Economics was a driving factor. Unemployment was high and women had difficulty finding well-paid jobs in more traditional occupational sectors. But many women didn’t want to work as teachers, nurses or secretaries (the main historical choices). The feminist movement had posed the question: Why can’t I do this? Suddenly everything seemed possible. Women who didn’t want to dress in skirts and pantyhose, whose dream was other than sitting at a typewriter all day, who weren’t interested in teaching kids, found a welcome alternative in construction work. You could get up in the morning, throw on the same clothes you’d worn the day before, put a hard hat on uncombed hair and go to work. You could drive around town and point proudly to buildings you had built. In union construction work men and women make the same wages and the contract provides for decent working conditions and benefits.
Among the many reasons to choose construction work was free apprenticeship training and no requirement for college education. Activists saw the breaking of resistance to women in trades as a path out of poverty for women. Here was a way to counter the “feminization of poverty,” a shocking trend especially as more women in the U.S. became single heads of households. Such a demographic shift could end poverty for women and children all over the country.
In 1979, Tradeswomen Inc., a 501c-3 nonprofit, was organized by a group of advocates including Madeline Mixer, director of District IX of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor; and Susie Suafai, director of WAP. The goal was to access money to expand the already successful WAP project that was placing women in Bay Area union apprenticeship programs. For a short time, under President Jimmy Carter, construction jobs opened up to women. But after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 everything changed. The Reagan administration immediately dismantled and defunded whatever affirmative action programs it could, and stopped enforcing regulations already on the books.
Women, however, continued to fight to enter construction and nontraditional jobs.