Women’s History Month has its roots here in Sonoma County, CA. In 1978, the local Commission on the Status of Women called for a week in March to be set aside to acknowledge the struggles and accomplishments of women. By 1980, the Women’s History Project was underway and Congress declared March our month.
Many women have influenced my life but in this day of attacks on the labor movement and hard-won labor rights I want to honor one woman who led the way, often with controversy. I hope you enjoy this tale.
Excerpt from HUACHUCA WOMAN Benson, Arizona July 1917
Wiping her face of rivulets of sweat, she walked away from him and took a shady bench seat under the eaves of the station house, right alongside me. She was a smallish woman, getting on to thirty or thereabouts, fine featured with a full head of soot black hair, her crowning glory. She had the look of too many miles, too few good nights’ sleep and too much bad food. Her color was off and dark circles pooled under her gray blue eyes. She gave a faint smile.
“Don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to the Arizona sun,” she said, fanning at the heat waves with her bit of the El Paso Herald.
“I’m Arizona born and bred,” I said. “I’m still not used to it. Name’s Josephine Nichols.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”
“The one they call ‘the rebel girl?’”
“My main claim to fame,” she answered.
“Believe I’ve read about you. You went out and made speeches for those lady silk workers in New Jersey about three, four year ago. Newspaper picture didn’t do you justice and I ‘spect they didn’t do so well by your speech either.”
“You have that right. The newsies tend to intentionally garble what I say most of the time. Fortunately, the workers heard my message for themselves. It was a time.”
“Is that what you do? I mean, travel around the country and talk folks up?”
“That and some writing,” Elizabeth answered. “What are you doing in this god forsaken place?”
I laughed. “That’s my machine and trunks they’re trying to get loose. I’m heading back to my folks’ ranch with my boys.” I watched my sons horse around, in their usual fashion, and smiled when I caught Willy’s attention. He waved back. “Their daddy has gone off to the war.”
“A soldier? You’d think men would learn from their women to gather over the back fence or a cup of coffee and settle their differences before rushing off to kill one another.”
“You sound like my Peter. He’s spent the last year or so saying that to anyone that’d listen. When the United States joined in the fray, he studied on it some more until he found a way to help. He’s gone off to drive ambulance for the Red Cross.”
“Good for him. I hope he returns safely to you. And soon.”
Wanting to shift the discussion away from Pete, my constant worry, I asked, “Who’s that man y’all were talking to? Your husband?”
“No, no. He’s Big Bill Haywood, chief organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Some call us ‘Wobblies’ or the IWW. Some call him a ‘rabble rouser.’ There’s no one quite like him for getting the attention of working folks and management alike.”
“Where y’all headed?”
“There’s been some ugly business in Bisbee.”
“Land’s sakes, those mines are so dangerous that it’s big time news when a month goes by without an accident,” I told her. “Makes the headlines hereabout.”
“They‘ve been saying the IWW down there is full of traitors and immigrants, people who don’t belong here.”
“I’ve heard it said,” I responded. “Along the border here, most Mexican laborers come over for a time but go home when they want, and take their money with them.”
“You might be surprised. The mining companies, at first, recruited Cornish, Welsh and German Austrian miners for their skills.” She took off her jacket and undid a few buttons of her blouse. I followed suit and found some relief from the heat. “Now, these folks are a long ways from home and, for most, there’s no going back. They’ve settled here, become citizens, own land, have bank accounts, kids in local schools.”
“German friends of ours just got chased out of El Paso a couple of months ago.” I could see their sad faces as we saw the Kohls off at the station. “You’re right, there’s no going back to Germany for them. Just back to New York to be with more German Americans, to spare the children not fitting in.”
“It’s a sad time for some, no doubt about it. Most of us have only a generation or two to look back to for immigration stories. My own family is lace curtain Irish.” She looked blankly into the distance as if seeing her ancestors.
“True enough,” I said. “Though to hear some talk, you’d think their people built and rowed the Mayflower across all by theirselves.”
We both shifted in our seats as the sun moved further west and the shade slid off the bench. We fanned ourselves with more vigor. Late afternoon was coming on quickly toward dusk, still the heat held on. Shimmering light danced off a rock wall across the tracks. Flies hovered over horse patties on the parallel trail while a lizard, long and lean, scurried from under the station platform to begin its trek along the rails.
Willy and Jim-boy, tired of supervising the repairs, collected coins from the crowd and went in search of cool drinks at the drug store down the road. I felt drowsiness come on me. Elizabeth’s head lolled to her shoulder, causing her to shake awake. She shifted again in her seat and offered an embarrassed grin.
“Your sons are quite a nice twosome.”
“They’re good boys. Do you have children?”
“I have a son, Fred. We call him Buster,” her face lit up. “He’s seven and spending the summer at the shore with the family. Mama and my sister Kathie look after him since I am away so much.”
“It must be hard to be so far from him. I mean, if he were to get sick or something.” I felt I had blundered badly here.
“You’re right for he’s a thin one and has been sickly. He gets the bronchitis in his lungs and he had appendicitis last fall. Fortunately, I was home at that time. We kept him out of school for the rest of the year, fearing he’d get the infantile paralysis. It’s really bad back in New York.”
“So I’ve heard. I had a brother die of lung disease,” I said. “Most of the lung problems out this way comes from the mining, but William Ebert didn’t have a chance to burrow under even if he’d a wanted. My first husband was a rock hound, but mostly on the surface.” She asked after him and I repeated that sad story.
We talked more of our families and their beginnings. Elizabeth much admired her well-read mother who inspired her daughters to go out into the world and make their mark. She spoke of her son in a wistful way, like a fancy doll she could take off the shelf and hold on special occasions, but didn’t dare get dirty. She worried that Buster would grow to resent her work for keeping her from him. I had no answer to that for I’d never had that particular fear, despite my own work.
Talking of this and that, in the way women will do, I was interested in how she had traveled all about the country. In my limited experience, few women traveled alone. She had been in the Minnesota mines, the Mesabi Range, that summer, to Seattle and Boston and points in between. I thought she was very brave and told her so.
“I don’t know that it is bravery, but I thank you. It’s just the way I am. I guess I’ll be fighting for better wages and working conditions until the end of my days. How about you, what do you see for yourself?”
“I don’t rightly know,” I answered slowly for in contrast, I felt my life to be of little social worth. “For now, I want to work the ranch. Get up before the chickens, ride the fence line, go on roundup with my daddy and sons, gossip with Mama and be pampered some by her. All the time praying that Peter comes home safe and sound.”
“I’d say you have your work cut out for you.” She smiled warmly at me, as if knowing my doubts. “What’s Bisbee like?” Elizabeth asked.
“It’s not hardly like any place else you’ve been, I ‘spect. There’s scarcely a level plain in the whole town. It’s all hillsides and topsy-turvey buildings, a bowl of a town with the houses barely stuck to the sides. And dominating it all are the mines with their sulphur fumes, dust, noise and saloons.”
“Sounds lively,” said Elizabeth.
“It’s had fire and floods and horrible epidemics, but it just keeps on thrivin’ and survivin’. One thing about Bisbee, you never know what’s gonna happen next. But something will. That’s Bisbee.”
“Did you know the miners at the Copper Queen went out on strike?”
“I been so busy packing up my household, I didn’t get many details,” I said, apologetically. “Is it settled yet?”
“Far from it. Two thousand good citizens of Bisbee, including company men and spies from the Justice Department, took it upon themselves to run some twelve hundred men out of town, county and state.” Elizabeth stood up and paced on the platform in front of me. “Dragged them out of their beds, and crammed them into boxcars. By sizzling hot noon, they were out in the middle of the desert, at some place called Hermanas in New Mexico. Kept locked up overnight, with little water or bread and no sanitary facilities.” She turned and stared at me.
“Good heavens,” I said. “I’ve heard of pogroms in Europe where they gathered up the Jews and run them off like that. Who’d have thought that could happen right here to home. What’s happened since?”
She took a big breath, came and sat with me again. Her shoulders slumped, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps in fatigue.
“A few were able to make it back to Bisbee, including our IWW lawyer who was caught up in the transport. Most, though, are sitting it out at the Army base near Columbus with no funds or way to get back here, and under a death threat if they do come.”
“Now, that ain’t right. I imagine there’s family men amongst them?”
“Absolutely. Most are citizens. Maybe half registered for the draft, have families and property. There’s even local businessmen caught up among the deportees.”
“I’m shamed. War or no war, that ain’t right. But you still haven’t said what you’re doing out here, so far from New York.”
A red capped porter was waving folks to board the branch line, the flatcar affixed in place. Willy and Jim-boy had long since settled down on the platform to wait and were now jumping on board and calling to me. We gathered up our satchels and climbed onto the train.
“I was headed back east when I got a telegram from Big Bill, asking if I’d come down and speak to the strikers, try to give them heart,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll do that and then be on my way.”
“All I can say is, you got grit, girly, and out here, that’s saying a mite.”
She gave me a wide open smile and a pat on my arm. We said our goodbyes as I headed to the forward car and my boys, and she moved to the rear with her escort and the men he’d gathered to him. The boys and I wouldn’t be going as far as Bisbee, but unload at Hereford and head to the ranch. Pity was, I liked that young woman. I think we’d have been fast friends, given the chance.