A Suffragette in America
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A Suffragette in America

Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change

E. Sylvia Pankhurst, Katherine Connelly, Katherine Connelly

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eBook - ePub

A Suffragette in America

Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change

E. Sylvia Pankhurst, Katherine Connelly, Katherine Connelly

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About This Book

This book is a collection of Sylvia Pankhurst's writing on her visits to North America in 1911-12. Unlike the standard suffragette tours which focused on courting progressive members of America's social elite for money, Pankhurst got her hands dirty, meeting striking laundry workers in New York, visiting female prisoners in Philadelphia and Chicago and grappling with horrific racism in Nashville, Tennessee. Adored by socialist students and progressive politicians, Pankhurst was also shocked by the dark underbelly of American society. Bringing her own experiences of imprisonment and misogyny from her political work in Britain, she found many parallels between the two countries. These never-before-published writings mark an important stage in the development of the suffragette's thought, which she brought back to Britain to inform the burgeoning working-class suffrage campaign there. The book also includes a contextualising introduction by Katherine Connelly.

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Pluto Press

1. A Strike of Laundry Workers in New York


Sylvia Pankhurst’s second visit to North America began on 11 January 1912 when the SS Oceanic docked in New York. By the very next day, Sylvia had made contact and publicly identified herself with the citywide laundry workers’ strike, a decision that reflected her increasing determination to connect the suffrage struggle with the women’s labour movement.
The strike, which had started on 1 January, was conducted by a largely female workforce who fought a vibrant campaign, picketing outside the laundries against the efforts of hundreds of organised strike breakers, the constant threat of arrest and the bitterly cold winter conditions that Sylvia recalls here. They attracted the support of the Women’s Trade Union League, who established a headquarters at the Harlem Arcade, described by Sylvia as a ‘dirty and dingy’ dancehall.
On 12 January the League organised a parade of automobiles to drive through the laundry districts adorned with pink and black banners proclaiming: ‘200 Laundries Organized’, ‘We Are Striking for More Pay and a Shorter Day’, and ‘Don’t be a Scab’.1 That afternoon, at a meeting in the Harlem Arcade attended by around two hundred women strikers, Sylvia spoke alongside leading industrial organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mary Dreier, the president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, and Margaret Sanger, at that time the secretary of the New York Women’s Socialist Committee. Flynn later recalled the ‘laundry workers’ strike meeting, with her [Sanger] and with Sylvia Pankhurst, the British suffragist’ during which Flynn called upon the strikers to stand together and to try and persuade the engineers to strike to strengthen the struggle.2 Sylvia, meanwhile, ‘urged them not only to stand for their industrial rights but for political equality as well. She told them of a recent strike in England and how the strikers there had won success through holding together.’3 Therefore, whilst Sylvia formally adhered to the WSPU doctrine of urging the importance of political rights, she avoided the WSPU leadership’s assertion of the primacy of the political struggle and often dismissive approach towards labour struggles by referring to a successful example of women’s industrial action in Britain. This was almost certainly the strike of women working in the packing factories around Bermondsey in August 1911. At the time, Sylvia demonstrated her interest in the details of women’s exploitation and their forms of resistance by interviewing three hundred of the strikers about their pay.4
Sylvia adopts the same interest in diligently listening to and recording the experiences of working women in this chapter; in fact, she does not even mention her own role as the speaker at the strikers’ meeting. Sylvia’s combination of empirical and observational detail recalls her ‘working women of England’ project of 1907, in which text and painting recorded the women’s shared experiences of pay, conditions and labour, alongside their individual appearances, characters and relationships. In this chapter, Sylvia’s description of an 18-year-old laundry worker is characteristic of her approach. ‘She might have been anybody’s daughter’: Sylvia asserts the laundry worker’s individual humanity and, with her artist’s eye, captures in vivid detail the colours and textures of her hair, skin and clothes, before reciting the deadening timetable of work to which she is subjected. In the very fabric of Sylvia’s writing, the realisation of individuality is integral to the revolt against collectivised exploitation, collapsing, at least in textual form, the WSPU’s dichotomy of individual political rights and collective economic struggle.
At the meeting on 12 January, Sylvia told the strikers that ‘she knew the conditions which brought about the strike and that it was justified’, and this chapter certainly bears out her claim.5 She evidently listened intently to the laundry workers, her enumeration of the excessive hours worked closely correlates with the contemporary report of the strike provided by Mary Dreier.6 Using the laundry workers’ testimony, Sylvia provides a graphic description of overheated, steam-filled workplaces, the lack of changing rooms and the abusive language foremen and employers used towards their workers.7
Sylvia’s concern with racism as a mechanism for sowing divisions in the workforce and intensifying exploitation is expressed frequently in the chapter. Her insistence upon the large component of American women in the laundries echoes the speech she delivered at the strikers’ meeting in which she stated that ‘[i]t was a common argument … that low wages were due to the competition of foreign labor. But in the case of the laundries this did not hold.’8 As Sylvia states in the chapter, the widespread presence of native-born workers undermined the racist and sexist myth that ‘the American woman does not need to work in a factory, and is always well paid and well cared for.’ Sylvia’s approach blamed employers, and not foreign-born workers, for poor pay and conditions. She reinforces this point by recording the evidence of a (presumably American-born) laundry worker – that two Italian women are paid less than she is for the same work. The solution to these divisions is suggested towards the end of the chapter which describes a white American, a black American and an Italian-born worker united across racial boundaries in a collective struggle against the laundry bosses.
In the end, despite the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration’s recommendation that the employers grant the strikers’ demands on hours, pay, safety measures and union recognition, the strike was defeated on 31 January 1912. Only six laundries had recognised the union and conceded wage increases; the rest replaced the workers who had the audacity to strike with strikebreaking labour.9 Sylvia only records a moment in this month-long struggle before it was defeated, and it testifies to the courage of the strikers, and Sylvia’s determination that their voices be heard.


We went in from the frozen snow of the street, and a hot foetid breath met us. The dingy entrance passage was without furnishings, its walls were scarred, and its carpetless boards were darkened by long worn dirt. A group of poorly-clad men and women stood at the foot of the stairs, and around a door opening from the passage. We passed through them, and into a large room as dirty and dreary as the entrance. At either end was a drinking bar, and the smell of stale spirits filled the air. Cheap bent-wood chairs and small tables were huddled aimlessly together. Various red white and blue posters were hung up to announce forthcoming dances, for this was a New York ‘Casino’, or ‘dance hall’, which had been hired for the time being as the headquarters of the laundry workers, who were on strike.
Some twenty or thirty of the strikers were sitting here together. We asked one of them, a girl of 18, to tell us about the work.
She might have been anybody’s daughter. Social distinctions had no place beside her. I saw, as I looked at her, a child in an English country lane with her hands full of primroses. The texture of her fair clear skin was as flawless as the imagined flowers. Her abundant hair, coloured like straw, was put back as simply as it should be with those rounded cheeks, delicately arched eyebrows, and quiet wide blue eyes. She was tall and slender, and wore a plain black dress, a white knitted woollen jacket, hanging unbuttoned, and a soft black scarf that fell loosely about her lovely throat. She sat inclining gently towards us, and with a calm sweet gravity, and low, well articulated accents told her tale.
She used to be a ‘sales lady’ at a ‘store’ in Albany, and earned 6 dollars a week (24 shillings.) – a wage not worth nearly so much as it would be in this country, owing to the higher cost of living in America.* On coming with her people to New York recently, she was obliged, through lack of other openings, to go into Langfelder’s Laundry. Work there was supposed to start on Mondays at 1 p.m., and to continue until eleven o’clock at night. The timetable for the week was as follows: –
Monday 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Tuesday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Wednesday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday 7 a.m. to 8 .p.m.
Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This would mean a 70 hour week, but these hours were often indefinitely prolonged, and nothing was paid for overtime. Half an hour was allowed for the mid-day meal, and this was the only interval permitted during the day, even when the work was carried on until the small hours of the next morning. The women of all ages who were paid a fixed wage in this laundry, got from 4 dollars (16/-) to 6 ½ dollars (26 shillings) a week. This girl, who was engaged in damping collars, got 5 dollars (£1). The piece workers, starchers and others earned more.
Another girl, who was employed at Preuss’s Laundry as a ‘taker off’ at the mangle told us that she was paid 6 dollars a week. She said that two Italian girls who worked beside her only got 4 dollars. She supposed they did not know they could get more. She herself had been offered 4 dollars, but had refused to take less than six. She worked from 7.30 a.m. til 9 or 10 p.m. every day, except Saturday, when work stopped at 3 or 4 p.m. She said that she had been at work in the laundry when a procession of strikers went past. She had stopped work at once, but the doors were a strike of laundry workers in new york . 73 locked, and she was told that she could not go. She had then picked up an iron bar, and declared that she would fight her way out. On thus showing her determination, she had been released.
Two women employed as starchers at the Brunswick Laundry, one of whom had worked there 25 years, told us that they began work at 1 p.m. on Monday and went on until 1 a.m. the next morning. On Tuesday they started at 7.30 (6 ½ hours after they had left off), and continued once more till the following 1 a.m. The same thing happened on Wednesday. Thursday they occasionally started at 9 a.m., but more often at 7.30 as before, and finished at 10 or 11 p.m.. This was their weekly timetable: –
Monday 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Tuesday).
Tuesday 7.30 a.m. to 1 a.m. (Wednesday)
Wednesday 7.30 a.m. to 1 a.m. (Thursday)
Thursday 7.30 a.m. or occasionally 9 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m.
Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 8 p.m.
Saturday 7.30 a.m. or 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m.*
The week’s total therefore varied from 71 to 75 hours per week, with only 3 hours per week deducted for meals, for as, in the other laundries the half hour for luncheon was the only interval allowed each day! A few years of this horribly excessive labour in the heat and steam of the laundry must break down the strongest constitution. These women starchers were paid by the piece, 7 cents a dozen for shirts and 1 ¼ cents a dozen for collars. Some could make 16 to 18 dollars a week, some only 9 dollars. Then there were various deductions. Any work that was spoilt, perhaps through its being dropped on the floor, or in any other way, had to be done over again for nothing. Then there was what was called the ‘overcount’. Each woman counted her neighbour’s work in order to find out how much she had earned, but before she was paid the work was again counted, and she frequently found that one dollar, two dollars, three dollars, or even more was deducted from the sum to which she believed she was entitled. The women claimed that if a recount were necessary, it should be made in their presence, in order that they might be satisfied that it was correct.
A woman employed in another laundry, who had been a widow for eight years and had two children of school age, said that she earned 7 dollars a week, and gave as her working timetable: – Monday, 2 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.; Tuesday, 7.30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Wednesday, 7.30 a.m. to 7 or 7.30 p.m.; Thursday, 7.30 a.m. to 9 or 9.30 p.m.; Friday, 7.30 a.m. to 9 or 9.30 p.m.; Saturday, 7.30 a.m. to 6 or 7. These times, she said, were frequently exceeded. Here, again, one half hour at lunch time was the only interval, and this appeared to be the general rule in the laundries. Many further enquiries elicited but slight variations in the specimen timetables for the week that I have already given. There was general complaint in regard to the sanitary arrangements of the l...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Photographs
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Sylvia Pankhurst’s North American Tours – Timelines
  8. Note on the Text
  9. Introduction by Katherine Connelly
  10. Sylvia Pankhurst’s Text and Editor’s Introductions
  11. Preface
  12. 1. A Strike of Laundry Workers in New York
  13. 2. Laundries from the Inside
  14. 3. A Festival
  15. 4. Prisoners
  16. 5. A Socialist Administration – The Milwaukee City Council
  17. 6. A Red Indian College
  18. 7. Universities and Legislatures
  19. 8. The South
  20. Notes
  21. Index