By Hannah Hopkins
Heather Mayer is an instructor of History at Portland Community College and a scholar of American social justice movements. She received a PhD from Simon Fraser University. Her book Beyond the Rebel Girl: Women and the Industrial Workers of the World in the Pacific Northwest, 1905-1924, published by Oregon State University Press in 2018, attracted the attention of union supporters across the country. She agreed to do a short interview with me by email.
What is the one main takeaway you want readers to get from Beyond the Rebel Girl?
The community of radicals and people connected to the IWW in the Northwest in the early twentieth century included more than just single, male itinerant workers. Women, children, and husband-and-wife organizing teams all played an integral role in the Wobblies’ success. And that activism wasn’t always as big and visible as a leading a free speech fight or a strike. There were a lot of ways to support the union that were much smaller but still vitally important.
What made the IWW different, and why were so many women involved and prominent members in the early twentieth century?
While women still made up a small percentage of membership in the northwest, there were a few things that I think drew them to the IWW in this period: first, that they had freedom to focus on issues that interested them, such as birth control, antiwar activism, and freedom from restrictive middle-class ideals about sex and marriage, in addition to workplace issues of wages, hours, and conditions. Second, that it was an avenue for activism that did not focus primarily on getting women the right to vote. While the Wobblies weren’t against women’s suffrage, they focused more on direct action than political activism. These were women who saw that they had more in common with working class men than with upper class women.
What do you think of the state of the IWW these days especially with regards to women?
I think people are fond of the Wobblies because, unlike other unions in the early twentieth century, they advocated organizing all workers, regardless of sex, race, or skill. But not being exclusive is not exactly the same as being inclusive. The Wobblies of the early twentieth century lamented the lack of female membership, but didn’t examine the structures or practices that made it sometimes difficult for women to join and take part. From an outsider’s perspective, I think the Wobblies of today do a much better job of actually being inclusive and understanding the needs of a variety of workers, but there’s always more work that can be done.
What other books by women do you see as invaluable to anyone trying to rebuild a radical labor movement here in the US?
Two recent ones I would recommend are Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide and Annelise Orleck’s “We are all Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages. Although not a book, I’m really enjoying the articles by Kim Kelly (@grimkim) in Teen Vogue and other places.
Download the full issue of the July-August issue of the Seattle Worker.