We Were Once All Antifascists

When you hear the word antifascist, you might think of the people who try to reason with right-wing paramilitary brawlers in Berkeley. Or it might call to mind the black bloc, hooded with faces covered, on a rampage smashing windows. Probably you don’t think of the US government.

But there was a time when the villains of US foreign policy were fascists. It was after the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, in which the US refused to intervene, letting the fascists win with the help of Hitler, Mussolini and US oilmen (see Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild). It was before the CIA incorporated Nazi war criminals into its organization and focused our wrath on communists and the Soviet Union after WWII (see The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot).

Flo in ARC uniform
Mom in uniform

In the aftermath of WWI, European writers sought to alert the world about the fascist threat and Americans—if they were paying attention—would have known about what was happening in Europe. My mother, Florence Wick, was paying attention. Trying to understand why she decided to join the American Red Cross (ARC) and serve in Europe during the war was what impelled me to study this period.

Watch on the Rhine

In the years before television, theater played an influential role in shaping the culture. Visiting New York City in 1941, my mother saw Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play written by Lillian Hellman. The popular play won the New York Drama Critics prize that year and was still on Broadway when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1943, Watch on the Rhine was representative of a genre of antifascist art popular in the US during the early years of WWII whose purpose was to persuade isolationist Americans to get involved in the European war. It certainly influenced my mother’s decision to join the Red Cross and go to war. I think it may have been one reason she chose to join the ARC, which promised a job in Europe, rather than other slots that opened for women, which may have kept her behind a desk back in the States.

watchrhine
Playbook saved by Mom in 1941

I watched the movie, intrigued by the genre, and several others with similar messages. Some are just naked propaganda with unbelievable characters and dialog. Others, like Hellman’s, seek to educate Americans about the crisis in Europe, about class and about anti-Semitism. Hellman, who had briefly joined the Communist Party, wrote the play in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. Her call for a united international alliance against Hitler contradicted the Communist position at the time. She was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the Communist Party, ironically later a moniker used by the FBI during the McCarthy purges to target communists. Her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote the screenplay.

His introduction reads: In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that, in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, and they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men.

The man is Kurt Muller, a German who has devoted his life to the antifascist movement. We learn that he and many of his comrades fought in international brigades along with the Spanish Republicans to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They and others have constructed an underground antifascist organization in Europe. Watch on the Rhine shows us that fascists come in many shades; that Americans, naive about world politics, haven’t moved so far from slavery; that Bette Davis (bless her heart) excelled at overacting. The part played by Davis, Muller’s American wife, was expanded for the movie to make use of her star power at the box office.

The play is set in the Washington DC mansion of the wife’s family, whose dead patriarch had been a respected US Supreme Court justice. The family matriarch, Mama Fanny, runs it like a plantation, overseeing black servants with strict control. When Joseph, the male servant, is summoned, he answers “Yasum.”

But Joseph gets some good lines. When Mama Fanny orders, “That silver has lasted 200 years. Now clean that silver,” Joseph says, “Not the way you take care of it Miss Fanny. I see you at the table and I say to myself, ‘There’s Miss Fanny doing it to that knife again.’ ”

Hellman uses the three Muller children, sophisticated, language rich and worldly, to teach Americans about the outside world. “Grandma has not seen much of the world,” says the oldest, Joshua. “She does not understand that a great many work most hard to get something to eat.”

We learn that the antifascist movement is nonviolent. The youngest kid, Bodo, says, “We must not be angry. Anger is protest and should only be used for the good of one’s fellow man.”

I was so impressed with this movie, I watched it twice, taking notes the second time. It’s both a critique of American culture and an attempt to school Americans about developments in Europe. Hellman did deep research for her script, and I thank her for helping me to understand this historical period and the forces that shaped it. Like most films from this era, it’s not available on Netflix, but I was able to check it out from the San Francisco Public Library.

The Moon Is Down

During Hitler’s rise, Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was and still is much admired. Alarmed artists approached the US government with proposals for antifascist plays, movies and books, among them the famous writer John Steinbeck. The result of his effort, the novella, The Moon is Down, was published in March 1942. The next month it played on Broadway and a year later premiered as a movie. Its purpose was to motivate the resistance movements in occupied countries. The sinister title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.JohnSteinbeck_TheMoonIsDown

I accidentally discovered the thin book in a friend’s library and read it with great interest. Perhaps there are many books like this one, which describes life in a town that has been invaded, but I have never encountered another.

There is bloodshed. Orders are followed. People resist, are arrested and executed. People flee. Some people collaborate. Others form an underground to communicate with those on the outside. At the end of the book, the war is still going. But the invaders have been surrounded and we are very aware that the invaders have become the harassed. In a way, the occupiers have become the occupied.

Steinbeck acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. We learn as much about the motivations and humanness of the invaders as the invaded. For that reason the book was criticized mercilessly in the US and Steinbeck’s patriotism questioned. But Europeans loved it. It was translated into many languages and became the most popular piece of Allied propaganda in WWII. This year the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California is celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary.

Five Came Back

Things weren’t looking good for the Allies as the US joined the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were conquering Europe and the Pacific. The US had only just started to gear up its factories to make war materiel and Europe feared we wouldn’t get it there in time to stop the Nazi advance. It was during this time that the US antifascist propaganda machine went into high gear.Five_Came_Back_(poster)

 From 1942 to 1945, Frank Capra directed a series of seven antifascist propaganda films, narrated by the actor Walter Huston. The series, called Why We Fight, was produced by the War Department to make the case for US involvement in WWII. These films can now be accessed online. I also saw Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix series about five American film directors, including Capra, who produced propaganda for the US government during the war. The others were John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.

Making movies of the war changed the filmmakers as well as audiences. We learn that they were haunted by what they saw. Wyler was shocked by racism against black soldiers and refused to make a film meant to recruit blacks. Stevens, at Dachau, realized he should be there to film evidence of crimes against humanity, not propaganda. Ford turned to drink after witnessing the bloodbath on D-Day. Huston took on PTSD only to have his film suppressed by the government. Racism was present in these films. While Germans were depicted as humans, Japanese were often seen as subhuman caricatures. The government worried, rightly, that violence against Japanese Americans would result. Then, in 1942, it incarcerated them until the end of the war.

Women in WWII: 13 short films featuring America’s Secret Weapon

Most of these are US military propaganda films whose purpose was to convince women to join the WACS or other service, and also to persuade men that women could do the work. Some were written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by famous actors like Katherine Hepburn. The American Red Cross, in which my mother served, wasn’t mentioned, but there was a picture of an ARC club in North Africa.WomenWWII

I wish the government had made films like this for women in the trades. In one scene a couple of men are talking on their front porch about how one’s sister wants to join the WACS and they think she’s crazy. It’s a man’s war, they say. Then the film counters their sexism and shows competent women doing all sorts of jobs. However, these films also endeavored to persuade women that they were taking men’s jobs and they needed to go back home after the war and relinquish their war jobs to returning soldiers. It was made clear that the jobs belonged to men.

I don’t know if my mother saw any of these films, but it was this sort of government propaganda that propelled her and her generation into World War II. When the enemy was fascism, she was “as patriotic as they come,” according to her sister. Only after the war did she begin to question the government-constructed enemies of the state.

Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust

Released in 2004, this film makes the case that the story of the Holocaust has been told to the world by films made in Hollywood, starting with Warner Bros. Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, then MGM’s The Mortal Storm in 1940. Neither of these films used the word Jew. The Jewish studio heads wanted to stay in the closet and just be known as Americans. Also, the movie industry made a lot of money from selling its films to Germany during the early years of Hitler’s takeover. Some historians now view studio directors as Nazi collaborators.

 

 

Finally in 1940 Charlie Chaplin used the word Jew in The Great Dictator, which he made with his own money. Imagining that an antifascist film can also be hysterically funny might be difficult until you see The Great Dictator. Chaplin slays as Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly disguised Hitler. Jack Oakie’s spoof of Mussolini inspires hilarity. I confess I had never seen the film. Now, having watched it, I understand why Chaplin is praised as a comic genius. In the globe scene, Chaplin/Hynkel performs a ballet dance with a balloon earth, achieving perfect domination. Chaplin impersonates Hitler to great comic effect. He watched Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will to learn Hitler’s speech patterns and body movements. Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of Nazi atrocities, he wouldn’t have made the film.

My mother told us kids stories about her time in Europe during the war, but she never talked about the Holocaust and we were not taught about this historical period in school. So I didn’t learn until 1970 that she had been present at the liberation of Dachau. What finally got her talking was an American TV mini-series, QB VII, about a British court case involving concentration camp crimes. It exemplifies how American media jogged the memories and imaginations of war survivors even 25 years after the war.

Night Will Fall

Night Will FallIn 1945 a team of British filmmakers overseen by Alfred Hitchcock went to Germany to document the Nazi death camps. Their documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was suppressed and then lost for seven decades. Night Will Fall, a 2014 documentary directed by Andre Singer, chronicles the making of the 1945 film and includes original footage. These images are hard to watch, but I think we need to see them, to witness the consequences of fascism.

The death camp films were suppressed partly because they were thought too graphic for British and American tastes. And American tastes had changed almost as fast as superstate enemies revolved in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The Germans, our most recent deadly enemy, had become our friends. The Soviet Union, our recent ally, and communism, was now our mortal enemy.

Florence E Wick dogtag

 

 

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The Blue Album

It is massive, about the size of a small suitcase, with a dark blue padded leather cover now, 70 years later, quite beat up. It weighs 25 pounds. Throughout our childhoods my brothers and I pulled it out, looked through it, listened to our mother’s war stories. The scrapbook is filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, travel paraphernalia and it tells the story of Mom’s two years as an American Red Cross (ARC) “donut girl” in Europe during World War II. With a crew of three other women she drove a clubmobile, a truck retrofitted with a kitchen, near the front lines, making and serving coffee and donuts to soldiers of the Third Infantry Division in Italy, France, Germany and Austria.

Mom was a scrapbook maker and for that I am now grateful as I try to piece together the events of her life. Perhaps she had the idea for the album even before she sailed to Europe on a hospital ship in May 1944. I do know that the act of putting it together when she returned home after the war in 1946 salved her sadness at the deaths of so many and helped her readjust to life stateside where it seemed compatriots had moved on and no longer thought about the war.

When my mother, Flo, died in 1983 at the age of 70, I claimed the album and it’s been stored in garages and closets ever since, occasionally brought out for perusal by relatives or friends with an interest in World War II. For a time it lived in the mold-infected storage room and so it was infected along with other archives. I’ve exposed each page to sunlight in an effort to reduce the mold and that’s helped, but when I really want to examine the book I don a respirator to avoid breathing in clouds of invisible mold spores.respirator

In trying to understand the World War II era, my ongoing research includes reading about this historical period and the books I know Flo was reading during the 30s and 40s. Her saved scrapbooks from the 1930s give many clues to what she was thinking and reading, setting the stage for the advent of the 1940s and the war. I’ve found useful artifacts in boxes saved by my brother Don and my cousin Gail. Don dug out a box of Flo’s essays and letters-to-the-editor from the 1960s to the 1980s that I had thought were lost. We have precious few of her personal letters, but my cousin recently found two letters written to her mother, Flo’s sister Ruth, from Europe in 1944! Don, the family historian, has helped me track down information about Flo’s clubmobile comrades. They are now all dead, but I’m in touch with one of their daughters, who is providing another perspective on the “donut girls.” I’ve read accounts of their experiences, although I haven’t found one that mirrors Flo’s particular journey. And I’ve read the stories of men who served in the Third Infantry Division, to which Flo’s clubmobile was attached.

I’ve dreamed of traveling to Europe to trace Flo’s route through towns and battlegrounds. Someday I may do that but I’m thankful that now I can take a virtual trip right here on my computer.

Florence E Wick dogtag

I Find Eddie’s Last Name and More

I had given up finding out any more about my mother’s admirer, Edna L. Then, looking through a box of family photos and letters that my brother Don had taken with him to Vancouver BC, I found another scrapbook made by my mother. This was mostly high school-era, 1920s-1930 (Flo had graduated in the class of 1929½). But Flo had tucked mementos from other decades into it. Among the high school graduation notices I was delighted to find another note from Eddie (as she sometimes signed her name) in her now familiar diminutive handwriting. It was an invitation to a party during the Columbus YWCA conference. It said:

In the Wick and Lauterbach den

On Wednesday night at half past ten

We hope you’ll join us for a spree

To give us one more Council memory

Then there is one of Eddie’s cute stick figure drawings—two skirted figures with F and E written underneath. At the bottom it says, “Just to be sure that my roommate will be here to act as co-hostess with me.” While they were roommates Eddie could never keep Flo at home it seems. It was written on the Neil House stationery and dated April 27, 1938.floeddie

I had found Eddie’s last name—Lauterbach—the one thing I’d been searching for in the scrapbooks, the one thing I needed in order to find out more about the woman with a crush on my mother! I was so happy I danced around the house singing her name.

Googling her name got me to the Edna A. Lauterbach scholarship fund for the education of nurses. She was a nurse who championed home care. Then I started making up stories. I imagined Edna was an important historical figure, an organizer. Perhaps she had been a speaker at the conference. I imagined she traveled around the country on speaking tours seducing women in every town. I wondered whether Eddie had had lots of lovers, or no lovers at all. Was she the archetype of the lonely lesbian who never found her mate? Was it hard to seduce women in the 1930s?

I wrote to the scholarship fund to see if they could provide more biographical information. The marketing director got right back to me saying it was a different person, as the age didn’t match up. This Edna Lauterbach was not even born until after the meeting in Columbus took place. Scratch her and all my associated fantasies.

Then Don and I got on the computer and looked at census records. We found an Edna R. Lauterbach, born in 1900 and died in August 1979 who lived her entire life in Brooklyn, NY, after 1930 in a 43-unit apartment house on 88th Street. I found pictures of the building, built in 1926, online. The apartments now sell in the million-dollar range, so I’m guessing the neighborhood was gentrified long ago. But when the Lauterbach family moved in, this would have been a working class neighborhood. Edna had two sisters, one named Gertrude. This was a deciding clue, as her sister Gertrude had been mentioned in one of the other notes found in Flo’s scrapbooks. Don found records for Edna in the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. In all, she was single and living in the family home. By 1940 their father (a truck maker whose parents had emigrated from Germany) had died, but the three sisters were all still unmarried, in their thirties and living at home with their mother. A household of old maids! Perhaps all the sisters were lesbians.

According to the census, Edna worked in advertising. She was there for the Mad Men era, although she would have been 60 years old in 1960. I imagine her as the staid older secretary who runs interference for her philandering boss while correcting his spelling and grammar and making him look good. She may have worked in the industry until she retired, possibly at the same job. Had she remained a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture and if so, where was it centered? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. But I’m imagining big lesbo parties through the decades at the apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn on the parents’ bowling nights.

It turns out Edna R. Lauterbach wasn’t anybody famous. I couldn’t even find a funeral notice for her, although we did learn that she is buried in the famous Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery with some 560,000 others. She was a workingwoman, a stenographer, who managed to keep a job through the Great Depression. In 1939 she worked in advertising 44 hours per week and 52 weeks in the year. Her income was $2040 that year.

Her parents were ethnically German and my guess is they were not Jewish. The YW is a Christian women’s organization, but it did work with Jewish groups against anti-Semitism and to prod the government to increase numbers of Jewish refugees allowed into the U.S. during the Nazi era. Jewish women did join the YW, but usually as members of the Biz-Pro groups or associated Jewish organizations.

Edna Lauterbach and my mother were two of the thousands of workingwomen who benefited from their membership in the Business and Professional Women’s organizations under the umbrella of the YWCA. One benefit was being able to make friends with other workingwomen from around the country.

Eddie surely had a giant crush on Flo and my heart aches as I read her letters. My mother never revealed that she’d had a sexual relationship with another woman but when I came out to her in the 1970s she did confess that she had known lesbians. And the name Edna Lauterbach is vaguely familiar to me. Did Flo tell me about her? I can’t remember. But it seems as if they kept up the friendship for some years at least. What was the nature of their relationship? They were certainly close friends, and possibly lovers, although I found no conclusive proof.

I have no evidence that they ever saw each other again after 1941 when Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie. My mother returned to her hometown of Yakima, Washington where (after a stint in Europe with the Red Cross during WWII) she married, raised four kids and lived the rest of her life. Edna L. lived out her life in her family home on 88th Street in Brooklyn.

There is so much more I want to know about my mother’s admirer. Did she frequent the lesbian bars in Manhattan? Was she involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? Did she continue to be active in the YWCA? I do know that, even if she and my mother were lovers, the affair would have been long-distance and periodic. And perhaps Eddie’s attentions were not returned at all.

Dearest Eddie, I hope you found love in your lifetime. I hope you found a woman who could love you back.

Driving Jack

Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge
Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge

Driving from one place to another is the best time to get the old Commies talking. Today I drove Jack from Fort Point to our regular lunch at the restaurant near Lands End. He started telling me about visual images still in his head from his childhood, memories of walking across the plains in Texas hunting as a kid. I think he said prairie.

“What did you hunt?”

“Rabbits, squirrels, really anything that moved.”

Looking back at the City
Looking back at the City

“What kind of gun did you have?”

“I started out with a .22, and then later got a shotgun when I was about 14.”

“Did you skin them and eat them?”

“Yes, I ate everything I killed. I loved that shotgun and kept it till just a few years ago. I didn’t want a gun in the house. My grandson was growing up.”IMG_1015.JPG

I told him I have a gun, a .22 handgun, how my mother was horrified when I told her I’d bought it. It was just before John Lennon’s murder. My gun is a Taurus revolver, the exact model that killed John. I put my gun far away in the storage room, partly because I didn’t want any visiting kids to find it, but also because I went through a period of deep depression and was afraid I might kill myself.

Then he said he had owned another gun, a .45. Jack had been in the Army in World War II. An Army friend who took it from the Oakland Army base after the war gave the gun to him. The guy asked him, kept asking him, if he wanted a gun. Now he thinks the FBI planted it on him.WaveCity

“Most of the black Army officers were recruited to the FBI,” he said, and this friend was one. The FBI kept close track of Jack, and maybe they still do, he said. He was in the Communist Party USA till the mid-50s and the FBI would call him up periodically just to check on him.

The CP, and particularly one friend, bugged him to get rid of the .45. The CP frowned on their members having guns. It was dangerous, and especially dangerous for black men. Finally he took the .45 apart, every screw, he said, put all the parts in a paper bag, then walked along the waterfront throwing the parts in the water one by one. No one will ever find that gun, or pin it on him!BridgeFlrs

Later, when a president was about to visit San Francisco (he thinks it was Truman) the FBI came to his house. When they knocked on his door and asked him if he had any guns, he was able to honestly say no.

The FBI would always have someone at CP meetings recording who was there and making lists. But even after Jack stopped going to meetings, they were surveiling him. He thinks an FBI agent even came to a Catholic prayer meeting he was leading a few years ago. “The guy picked up all the religious books and looked at them. He came a couple of times. I knew he was FBI,” Jack said.

“Didn’t it make you paranoid, knowing they were watching you?”

At first he said no, but then he admitted yes. That’s why he got rid of the gun.

Jack said he left the CP in ‘55 or ‘56, when the Krushchev report came out about Stalin. “We thought the Western press was making up all those stories, but there was no need. The truth was awful enough.”chain

 

 

Finding Wonder Women in the Tenderloin

My story, Wonder Women, posted on this blog on 9-18-15, which takes place in a Tenderloin cross dressers’ bar, is based on true events. But I couldn’t remember exactly where the bar was, and I couldn’t remember the name of the bar. So uncovering the facts required some sleuthing.

I needed to find an old-timer who had been there. So I set about describing this gritty watering hole, as best I could remember, to every old codger gay guy I knew. Nobody could remember having been there, or maybe they just weren’t talking.

I had a vague memory that the bar was associated with Charlotte Coleman, who owned a number of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1950s through the 1990s. During the 1970s Wonder Woman Electric worked on the electrical systems in many of her bars as well as in her home in Noe Valley. I learned that Charlotte, in her 90s, lived in an assisted living institution in Vallejo. Then I was lucky to meet an old friend of hers serendipitously. Roberta, in her 80s, regularly visited Charlotte and offered to drive me there to meet her.

In the meantime, I discovered a website, Lost Gay Bars of SF, with a map made by a guy named Mike Stabile that shows the locations of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1960s through the 1980s. I needed the name of the bar or the address to use this resource. I was stuck. But Mike responded to my questions in a Facebook message. He thought the bar might be Aunt Charlie’s Lounge on Turk Street, still there, perhaps the very last of the old Tenderloin gay bars. I googled Aunt Charlie’s and found an informative web page with interviews of some of the old timers. http://www.auntcharlieslounge.com. Could this be the bar I was searching for? It looked just as seedy as I remembered. And Aunt Charlie’s still has drag shows! I had to go there.

By the time I could arrange to meet Charlotte, her health had deteriorated and new visitors were no longer welcomed. But I did get Roberta on the phone and described the bar to her. Sure, she said, she remembered that bar. It was called the Blue and Gold and it was on Turk Street. It was a black and white bar, she said, meaning it was racially integrated. It was Charlotte’s most notorious bar, site of nearly nightly fights and disturbances. “They broke the toilet regularly.” But the Blue and Gold made far more money than any other bar, Roberta remembered.

BlueGold
Site of the old Blue and Gold

Blue and Gold! I had the name! I had the street! Now I could use the Lost Bars map to locate the bar. I quickly found the address: 136 Turk. The description on the website said the piano bar opened in 1947 and closed in 1993. The Blue and Gold had been right across the street from Aunt Charlie’s Lounge.

I chose a Saturday afternoon for a visit to Aunt Charlie’s, knowing that I’d be unlikely to stay up late enough to hit the drag show. The one hundred block of Turk Street still rates high on the funky list. But the bar’s regulars and bartenders welcomed us two old dykes and were happy to talk about the old days. Barry, who had tended bar at Charlie’s for decades, remembered the Blue and Gold, as well as dozens of other neighborhood gay bars, all closed. The building’s exterior had been covered in blue and gold tile, he said. (Nobody knows what the colors meant in 1947. A hangout for Cal alumni?) It has been painted over recently and it now houses the SF City Impact Rescue Mission. I noticed that the address is now 140, not 136, Turk.

Feeling in a historical mood, we strolled the couple of blocks over to the new Tenderloin Museum, housed in the historic Cadillac Hotel. There we learned about the rich history of the Tenderloin neighborhood, including the gay and transgender scene in the 1960s. The Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966, “one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco,” took place right up the street from the Blue and Gold. It was a fitting completion of my magical history tour. Tenderloinmuseum.org.

 

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.

Advice from an Old Tradeswoman Activist

  1. Know your friends and know your enemies. Tradeswoman organizations are our friends, even when they are applying for the same funding. Those who want to keep us barefoot and pregnant and not allow us to work are our enemies. They will always try to divide us. Do not let them.

 

  1. Discrimination makes us crazy (and sick and angry). Sometimes we are called upon to support crazy women and tradeswomen organizations must be there for women when we are crazy.

 

  1. Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.

 

  1. Our community is small. Activists in the Tradeswomen Movement must know that you will encounter over and over the same people who are also active in the Movement. Build bridges, don’t burn them.

 

  1. One woman can change everything. In most cities where tradeswomen organizations have flourished, one woman organized the first meeting. Sometimes one righteous woman in a position of relative power in a state, federal or local government or a union organization can mean the difference between jobs for tradeswomen and none.

 

  1. Laws (and lawyers) can be our friends. Having the backing of government makes a world of difference when we are trying to change our world (unfortunately, the feds have neglected affirmative action since Jimmy Carter’s time).

 

  1. Mentor each other. Our job is to support each other. Our job is to inspire each other. Sometimes we don’t know the effect we have had on others until many years later.

 

  1. Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.

 

  1. Always try to be the best at everything. Otherwise you make women look bad. When we are the only one on the job, we embody the stereotype of all tradeswomen.

 

  1. Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.