he celebration of Women’s History Month is an opportunity to visit and acknowledge the contributions of women in the rich history of the labor movement.
For the past 18 years, I’ve been performing a one hour multi-media show about women in labor history called “We Were There!”. It combines narrative, visuals and music in a walk through that history through the voices of the women who were there, but whose stories have often been left out of the historical narrative because they were women.
The show begins with Sojourner Truth, a former slave in Ulster County, New York, who was an outspoken abolitionist and woman’s rights advocate, originally named Isabella Baumfree. When she gained her emancipation, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth because she felt “called by the Lord” to travel the country and tell the truth to the people. She was a powerful orator who spoke at the early women’s rights conventions and is probably best known for a speech attributed to her in which she proclaims: “I have ploughed and I have planted and gathered into barns…and ain’t I a woman?”
Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant, was in her eighties when she helped to lead the mineworkers’ strikes in the early 1900’s. Her grandmotherly looks belied her feisty words when she said: “A lady is the last thing on earth I want to be…I call myself a hell raiser!”, and “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living!” She was arrested on numerous occasions for standing up to the rich mine owners and their thugs, but was greatly loved by the miners, who she called “my boys.”
At 16, Rose Schneiderman immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. She became a garment worker and then an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In my show, she describes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 young women because the company had locked the doors to prevent stealing or escaping. She remembers seeing a young man helping a young girl out of the window of the burning building, dropping her nine floors to the ground “as gently as if he were helping her into a streetcar.”
Many of the songs included in the show are labor classics like “Which Side Are You On,” “Union Maid” and “Bread and Roses.” Local readers read the parts from a script, and I am always struck by the emotion that gets stirred up when they speak the words of our foremothers and sing the lyrics to the title song:
We were there in the factories
We were there in the mills
We were there in the mines and came home to fix the meals
We were there on the picket line
We raised our voices loud
It makes me proud just knowing we were there.
Bev Grant is a member of AFM Local 1000.