Women that Wobbled but Didn’t Fall Down

The IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World, is an organization dedicated to promoting workers rights through the “abolition of capitalism… [and] the wage system,” (“Preamble to the IWW Constitution.” Hereafter PIC). The IWW mission statement, for example, says “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” (ibid.) and, under that supposition, IWW members and organizers make it their mission to combat the “employing class” through all means available, when they see the employing class as exploiting the working class through unfair treatment (ibid.).  Therefore, they are willing to radically oppose employers in order to get their demands met in regard to worker’s rights.

While there have been many trade unions throughout the history of the Industrialized West, the IWW stands out as one of interest for three reasons:  First, the IWW blossomed in a time of great worker-unrest in America.  Second, women seem to have played a larger role in the IWW than in other unions of the time.  Third, the IWW is, in fact, not actual a “trade union”: instead, it relies on ‘global’ unionization of all “trades,” for the purpose of providing a solid foundation for workers’ demands.  Because of the IWW desire to organize all trades, the IWW included several primarily female ‘trades’ in its list of supporters, something which trade unions rarely did.  As a result of these three reasons, a careful examination of the role of women in the IWW will also provide great insight into the role of gender in political and worker power-struggles.

The history of the IWW began in late 1904, when eight men gathered in Chicago to plan a secret meeting for the creation of a society dedicated to the betterment of the working class.  For their second meeting, the first eight invited a total of 36 delegates (chosen for their previous demonstration of strength in the progressive/radical labor movement), of which 12 were women.  The women invited included Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (St. John).  The manifesto for the new organization which sprang from the meeting of the 36 delegates, the Industrial Workers of the World, was drafted on July 27, 1905.  Shortly thereafter, the IWW shot into action.

The lives and political actions and beliefs of Parsons, Jones and Flynn, who became great leaders of the IWW, provide insight into the attraction, for so many turn-of-the-century women, of the IWW.

Lucy Parsons, an adamant socialist and ‘Wobbly’ (a term for IWW members), stands out as a great example of a woman in the IWW.  While little is known about her earliest background, we do know that she was born in 1853.  Her ethnicity was the convergence of African, Mexican and Native roots, and, because of this, she was keenly aware of injustices in society in respect to those groups to which she belonged (Bird, Georgakas and Schaffer).  Furthermore, it is supposed that she was born into slavery, which, again, gives her an interesting perspective in regards to the injustices perpetrated by the rich on the destitute.

Over the course the first few months of 1886, in America, a great movement in support of the “8-hour day” swelled.  Lucy, married to Albert Parsons, at this time, was very active, along with her husband, in the organization of strikes for those who couldn’t convince their employers to cut hours without cutting wages.  Organizers across the country decided that, by May 1, 1886 (‘International Worker’s Day’), workers who were so inclined would demand 8-hour days without pay decrease, and if their demands were not met, they would strike.  Shortly after May 1st, when the workers’ demands were refused, over 350,000 workers, nation wide, left their jobs in one of the earliest mass strikes (a signature move of later IWW efforts).  Lucy and Albert, who were living in Chicago at the time, were witness to one of the larger components of this major strike: 40,000 Chicagoan workers struck, making their’ city one of the most active parts of this mass strike (“Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will.” Hereafter LPWOW).  However, although some few strikers managed to get their demands met, the strike was not, by any means, fully successful.  For example, on the third of May, 1886, a large mass of unarmed Chicagoan strikers were fired upon by police, killing four and wounding others.  The situation in Chicago erupted, and an emergency organizing meeting was called in Haymarket Square (one of the largest markets in Chicago, at the time).  At the meeting, an unknown (to this day) party threw a ‘bomb’ at police officers, killing one of them.  And, despite the fact that they weren’t even in attendance at the Haymarket gathering, Albert was arrested in connection with the crime, and Lucy was placed under strict police-surveillance.

Albert’s court date was set for October of the same year.  Furthermore, the police department of Chicago started rounding up other known anarchists and socialists, and detaining them for questioning.  In October, Albert was sentenced to death by hanging.  Lucy attempted to gain clemency for her husband by starting a nation-wide tour of speaking engagements where she attempted to advocate for her husband’s release.  However, police departments in many of the places she visited barred her from entering meeting halls under the supposition that she was there to incite another Haymarket type riot.  On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons was to be executed.  Lucy attempted to bring her children to the execution, so that she, and they, could see Albert one last time.  The police, however, had other ideas: they arrested her, forced her to strip, and left her naked with her children in a cell until after Albert’s execution.  This final injustice solidified the feelings of inequality in society that Lucy had been fighting against for her whole life.  She was primed to become a leader of the radical organization of fighters like herself that would develop nearly 20 years later, the IWW.

Another way to see the solidification of Lucy Parsons qua Radical Syndicalist is through the political battles that she fought within the labor movement, itself.  For example, the Knights of Labor (hereon KoL), who had organized the Haymarket meeting, actively denied involvement in the bombing, and condemned those members of their organization who were indicted in the incident (LPWOW).  The KoL leadership was very interested in maintaining a positive relationship between the government and their organization, and they therefore saw radical acts as divisive to their cause.  Thus, Lucy and the KoL took oppositional stands in regards to radical/militant protest: the KoL taking the side of liberal, government-interactive movement, and Lucy siding with her husband, and her own conscience, in choosing powerful, radical techniques for changing inequity.  This rift widened under the pressure of the elections of 1890: the KoL and other labor organizers attempted to hitch their organizations to the Democratic Party, in an attempted symbiotic relationship.  The Democratic Party received new voters, and, in return, the KoL was promised fulfillment for some of its demands.  However, Lucy saw this relationship as non-supportive of the overall goal.  As stated earlier, Lucy was a radical syndicalist, in part, due to her early experiences of class inequality, and the inability of her own person to transcend certain ‘roles’ she was given, in association with her class/creed/race.  Lucy often denied her own African roots due to the great stigma that was (and, unfortunately sometimes, still is) associated with such lineage.  One thing that she learned from her upbringing was that people of different classes had nothing in common: and, because of this belief, she viewed the blossoming relationship between the KoL and the Dem. Party as fraternization with the enemy.

A third political motivation for Lucy Parsons’ association with more radical syndicalist movements like the IWW was her realization, in 1890, that trade unions were simply too weak to combat the incalculably more powerful employment class.  During this same time, Lucy shifted from seeing individual successful strikes as victories, towards seeing them as signs of an impending, more overarching revolution.  This revolution, she supposed, would be an international movement of anarcho-communists who would, once and for all, destroy the class that had kept all of them down for so long (LPWOW).  Lucy Parsons’ early experience as an underprivileged pseudo-citizen, her later experience of injustice in the courtroom, her political conceptualization of the working-class struggle; all of these lead to her formation as a syndicalist and as a member and leader of the soon-to-be-formed IWW.

The tumultuous nature of labor/employer relations remained a central issue for several years after Lucy Parsons’ appearance, and, during these years, Parsons’ own position of international unionization gained support in light of the politically stunted abilities of trade unions that had gone to bed with political parties who promised assistance.

Mother Jones, or Mary Harris Jones, became another female leader of the IWW movement.  She had lost her family, early in their life together (four children and her husband), to yellow fever.  Shortly thereafter, all of her possessions were burned in the fire of 1875.  From that point forward, she dedicated her life to her new ‘family’ of industrial workers who had experienced loss and hardship in a way that she saw as similar to her own tribulations (Mother Jones: ‘Pray for the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living,’ hereafter MJ).  Harris Jones was born in 1830, and born into a lineage of radical political activists.  Her parents were Irish separatists, and after her father was murdered by British soldiers, she and her mother were forced to move to Canada (Hawse).  She was raised in Ontario, Canada; however she began her professional life as a teacher in Michigan.  She left teaching, which she despised, to become a seamstress after marrying her husband, George Jones, an iron molder who was involved heavily in Iron Molder’s Union activities in Chicago.

There are two competing (although non-mutually-exclusive) views of what compelled her to move into unionizing activities after the death of her husband.  Some say that her experience as a seamstress for the hoi oligoi of Chicagoan aristocracy changed her view of the ‘working class.’  Harris Jones reflected on her experiences, “Often while sewing for the lords and barons… I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front…. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me,” (ibid.).  In contrast, other historians see Mother Jones as developing interest in ‘the movement’ after the death of her husband, as an attempt to continue the work that he, like her father, so adamantly supported (MJ).  Either way, it is a fact that Harris Jones, shortly after her tremendous loss, became a prominent figure in the worker’s rights debate.  She was a self-proclaimed Socialist, and helped found the Social Democratic Party of America in 1898, before joining the KoL (ibid.).

The KoL provided Mother Jones with a sense of unity and singularity of purpose; it allowed her to keep going, in spite of her negative experiences prior to her membership.  So, even though her house was destroyed in the fire, she felt as if she was always at home in KoL protests and meetings.  She traveled across the country, visiting shanty towns and slums, and congregating with workers in an attempt to organize/unionize them.  For example, she organized for the Union Mine Workers of America in the 1880s, and also participated in a rail worker strike in Pittsburgh a few years earlier.  Most notable, before her actions as part of the IWW, must be Harris Jones’ “Children’s Crusade:” a strike consisting entirely of children textile workers from Pennsylvania in 1903, whom she led straight to former-President Theodore Roosevelt’s estate in New York (Hawse).   Again, in a way analogous to Lucy Parsons’ own experience, Mary Harris Jones was primed by her early experiences to join the IWW during its founding in 1905: She had experience as a socialist; she was adamantly for the working class; she agreed with international unionization (as opposed to trade unionization); and she had experienced loss which grounded her vision of the class struggle.  As stated above, Harris Jones was present at the IWW’s first meeting, and was one of the twelve women to sign the manifesto (Hawse).

An apparent trend in the women involved in early IWW activities seems to be a socialist, class-identified worker’s perspective.  It can be shown that this trend holds for another early and active, female ‘Wobbly,’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well.  Gurley Flynn was born in 1890 to a family of socialist, much as the stated trend would predict.  Flynn is reported as having an early-blossoming class-consciousness: as early as age 5, Flynn saw what separated her family from those families on the “right side of the tracks,” (Licht).  She said, for example, of her home town (an industrialized Manchester, New Hampshire), that it was “where the great mills stretched like prisons along the bank of the Merrimac River,” (ibid.).  Furthermore, her father’s active role in socialist politics promoted Flynn’s own role in the same field.  She reportedly gave her first public address to a socialist meeting at age 15, on the topic of women’s roles in socialism.  In fact, her father was a great influence in her life, and was one of the original signatories to the IWW manifesto.  Gurley Flynn, herself, joined in 1906 and became increasingly active in the movement.

An interesting, and slightly divergent, element of Flynn’s story is her own recollection, recorded in a speech to the University of Illinois, of how she came to focus more primarily on the IWW instead of the socialist movement.  Flynn felt that the socialist party was led by “professors, lawyers, doctors, ministers and middle-aged and older people,” (Gurley Flynn sic).  Moreover, she thought that a real movement capable of the changes she saw fit must rely in a completely different base-constituency: change for the worker, she thought, must be made by the work of the people.  She “felt a desire to have something more militant, more progressive, and more youthful,” and she found all three in the IWW (ibid.).  Even more interesting, given Flynn’s individual case history, is her perception of the workers that she toiled for.  She saw her core audience as “transients, [with] practically no roots in the communities of the areas where they worked,” (ibid.).  It is not hard to draw a connection between her perception of her audience, and her own personal experience of having little invested in her home town.  She saw clearly the privatized interests of the mill owners and how they had encroached on her and her families own portion of the town.  Furthermore, the sentiment Flynn is expressing is easily translated into Mother Jones’ experience, insofar as Jones’ connections to Chicago, the place where she lived and worked, were literally burnt, thus freeing her to see the town and its industrial barons as being in opposition to the interests of the disenfranchised, like herself.

Having established a similarity in purpose and origins between three of the ‘founding mothers’ of the IWW, it will be easy, now, to examine the early actions of the IWW, while continuing to keep an ear to the ground for the sake of rooting out what influence these women, and many other women like them, had in the formation and forward-action of the institution, itself.

The original manifesto of the IWW’s first conference cites the growing centralization of the wealth and power into a few hands as a reason to reject trade-unionization in favor of something more powerful.  The document goes on to suggest that the working class and the employing class are completely distinct, and that they cannot mix productively without some entity to protect the less powerful workers from the more powerful employers.  Whether or not the women cited above specifically suggested this is unknown, however their backgrounds (as described above) would have certainly predisposed them to agreeing with such elements.  Furthermore, one of the earliest and most influential actions of the IWW consisted of attempting, again, after the failed efforts of the 1880’s,  to reduce work hours without pay loss for the women and children in mills and textile factories.  In analyzing this, what they called the Bread and Roses strike, a few more strong women in the IWW came to the fore.

Work in the textile mills was hard.  Most of the workers were women, and most of them were under the age of twenty (let alone the smaller, yet sizeable contingent of workers under fourteen).  The job was low paying; in fact, debt was an everyday part of life for most of the textile workers.  Some were so indebted to their own workplaces that they worked solely to pay off the debt they had already accrued the week before (Women in Textiles. Hereafter WiT).  According to one historian, although the “national life expectancy was nearly fifty years, over a third of textile workers died before twenty-six.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a groundswell movement to change things began around 1908.  The women in textiles were tired of being tired (as the expression goes), and yet, they were unable to find good organizers to lead them in strikes or negotiations.  That is, they were without leadership until the arrival of IWW supporters and speakers on the scene.  The first organizers, working for the textile women, were Italian socialist journalists who also worked with the IWW.  They were met with harsh resistance in the form of police brutality and restricted ‘protesting areas.’  Things did not look promising for the textile workers, and their employers seemed to brazenly defy any demands that they made.  So much was this the case that, in 1912, several mill owners cut the salaries of nearly 25,000 employees (including a great deal of women).  This time, the employers had gone too far; a full on strike of nearly all 25,000 employees took to the streets.

Mill workers (mainly women) were blocked from striking directly at their places of business: instead, they formed a human chain and attempted to encircle the entire mill district (Spicuzza).  One protestor carried a sign that said “We want Bread… and Roses, TOO,” and people came to refer to the strike as the “Bread and Roses” strike.  And yet, despite the quaint name, the strike was all but pleasant. The police assumed that, owing to the fact that the majority of the textile workers were immigrants from Europe (including a largely Italian contingent), the strikes would end quickly, as they thought those immigrants were incapable of sustained, controlled, group action: they were wrong.

On January 29, 1912, police fired on one of these sustained groups of protestors and killed a young woman named Annie Lo Pezzo. (Spicuzza) Consiglia Rocco Teutonica, a mill worker who was only fourteen years old, at the time, remembered exactly how much Lo Pezzo’s death meant to her community.  Despite the general assumption that the women were unfit to organize, the Italian immigrants had, for quite some time, been meeting in secret to discuss the progress of the “Bread and Roses” strike.  And, Rocco Teutonica recalls an organized response to the police violence: a group of Italian, women, textile workers were on their way home one late January day when they crossed a solitary policeman’s path.  Livid at the wrongful death of Lo Pezzo, the women attacked the police officer.  They took his badge and gun, cut his suspenders, and removed his pants.  The pants removal bit was, in fact, a common technique that their ‘unorganizable’ group had planned to use in just such a case.  They proceeded to hang him upside-down from the side of a bridge, pants-less, in the freezing Massachusetts winter weather!  Clearly, they could organize if they needed to. (ibid.)  After the great unrest caused by the murder of Lo Pezzo, the two original organizers were indicted on charges of inciting violence: the IWW sent in backup in the form of Bill Haywood (whose nation-wide tour, after the success of the “Bread and Roses” strike, was run by Lucy Parsons), Carlo Resca, and none other than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  Teutonica writes that, after the arrival of the new IWW organizers, the women were filled anew with the energy to fight back.  She describes a second time in which police arms were drawn and aimed at protesters: a younger woman ran in front of the crowd, and, while “calling the soldiers ‘Cossacks,’ [she] wrapped an American flag around her body and dared them to shoot holes in Old Glory,” (ibid.).  The police and, more importantly, the employers realized that they were fighting against something they had drastically underestimated, and they conceded to the demands (in part, but in sufficient part) of IWW organizers and the strikers in general.  The success in Lawrence was the inspiration for a whole nation of activists, socialists, and simply women in general.  According to a newspaper of the time, it was “estimated that 438,000 textile workers received nearly fifteen million dollars in raises as” a result of the strikes and organization (WiT).  Socialist and humanitarian women saw the IWW victory as a victory for women, in general, and were quick to support the IWW for many years to come: Helen Keller voiced her support, as did Margaret Sanger and Mary Kenny O’Sullivan (ibid).

What can be said about the role of women in the “Bread and Roses” strike and the IWW movement?  Clearly, they were underestimated and, at least beforehand, underappreciated.  But, the more important idea is that the IWW, and the strong, influential women who helped form and found it, were able to put into practice the things that mattered most to them.  What mattered to the IWW, given its influences in women like Flynn, Jones, and Parsons, was the general rights of the worker, the absolute refusal of the employer’s attempts to segregate workers or to down-play, or make illegal the protests which IWW members saw as the only way out.  Furthermore, IWW members wanted the worker to have power in numbers and, it is clear that, at least in the case of the Lawrence strike, they and the female mill employees they organized, did.

The participation of well-rounded, powerful, informed, civilian women in the formation and early action of the IWW is evident.  Their influences, and their own political beliefs, make themselves evident in the policy and methodology of Wobblies in general.  Furthermore, one of the first successful strikes organized by the IWW consisted mainly of women workers.  Thus, it is fair to say that women played (and, to this day, still play) a large role in the formation and management of the Industrial Workers of the World.  Also, one could say that the Industrial Workers of the World gave bright, yet unlucky, women a chance to show exactly how well they could organize, and just how much they, as women, could do on their own.


Bird, Stewart., Georgakas, Dan., Shaffer, Deborah.  Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW.

Lake View Press, Chicago, 1985.

Gurley Flynn, Elizabeth.  “Memories of the Industrial Workers of the World.” Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

8 Nov. 1962.

Hawse, Mara Lou. “Mother Jones: The Miner’s Angel.” The Illinois Labor History Society.  23 Nov. 2006


Licht, Mary.  “Rebel Girl: The Revolutionary Life and Work of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.” People’s Weekly World

30 Mar. 1996

“Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will.” IWW Selected Member Biographies. 11 Nov. 2006


“Mother Jones: ‘Pray for the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living.” Joe Hill: More Labor Leaders. 11 Nov. 2006


“Preamble to the IWW Constitution.”  IWW: A Union For All Workers.  17. Nov. 2006


Spicuzza, Mary.  “Bread Winners.” Metro Santa Cruz 10 Mar. 1999.

St. John, Vincent.  The IWW: History, Structure and Methods. Chicago: IWW PB, 1917.  11 Nov. 2006

<http://www.iww.org/en/culture/official/SaintJohn1.shtml&gt; (Online Book)

“Women in Textiles.” The Lucy Parsons Project. 11 Nov. 2006.



~ by mrballard on February 23, 2009.

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