‘If We Are United, We Cannot Lose!’
Speech by Sylvia Weinstein at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, during Women’s History Month, 1993. It combines Sylvia’s personal background with the convictions expressed throughout the book FIGHTBACK! Published originally in Socialist Viewpoint magazine, October 2001.
I want to thank all of you for being here tonight, and thank the students at the University of Baltimore for inviting me.
I want to start by telling you about how I became a socialist. Actually, I became a socialist long before it was popular to be known as a feminist. My being a socialist came from my upbringing. I was born in 1926, just in time for the stock market to prove that capitalism was an unstable system. However, my family was poor not due to the stock market, but because we were a working class family.
I was born in the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, and my parents constantly fought over religion. My father was a Presbyterian, and my mother’s family were hard-shell Baptists who spoke in tongues and had complete faith that every single word in the Bible was the gospel.
My father worked on the Calumet Race Horse Farms training five-gaited saddle horses for the landed gentry. That ended soon after the stock market went under, and then he became a cab-driver and whatever else he could find. Like most men and women who lose their jobs or can’t find work, he blamed himself. They feel that they just don’t have what it takes to keep a job; not like others in the neighborhood who were still working. It was a while before people began to look around and find that they weren’t the only losers. Long lines of the unemployed began to show up wherever there was the slightest chance for work, regardless of the paycheck.
My parents separated when I was around six years old and went their different ways to find work. My father had begun drinking and couldn’t give it up, although he did later. My mother went to Brooklyn to her sister’s and found work as a waitress; my father went to Middletown, Ohio to work at paper mills, and finally, the Armco Steel Mill. We five children were left to be raised by my grandmother, who already had eighteen children of her own—she didn’t need another five little ones.
Christmas time seemed to be the worst. I would ask my grandmother why we were so poor, and she would answer that it was the Lord’s way. I asked her why wasn’t the Lord fair? Why not give something to us at Christmas time, and not the children up the block? She answered that I was not to question the Lord’s way. However, I did. But not out loud; my grandmother was a firm believer in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” theory. When I was six years old and in the first grade our teacher showed us a globe—the whole world that we could spin around. I was thunderstruck. I told my grandmother that my teacher had showed us the whole world and that it was round like a ball. My grandmother slapped my mouth and said, “Don’t you ever blaspheme the Lord again.” I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that the Bible says that at the end of time Gabriel will blow his horn from the four corners of the world, and therefore the earth cannot be round. Secretly, I believed my teacher, but I was very careful what I told my grandmother.
When I was ten years old my father remarried, and my sister Beatrice, my older brother Glen, and myself went to live in Middletown, Ohio. My younger sister Delina, and brother Jimmy, stayed with my grandmother in Kentucky.
My first strike
The first strike I was involved in was organized by my step-grandmother in 1936 when I was ten years old. She worked for the P. Lorillard Tobacco Company. They made chewing tobacco called “Old Plug.” My step-grandmother and several other workers wanted to get a union at their workplace. Working people all over the country were organizing themselves and fighting for unionization. Her boss knew about the secret union and called my grandmother into his office and said how he thought unions were a good idea, and he would like to talk to her and the other organizers. My grandmother, very naively, told the other organizers, and they went into the boss’s office, all four of them. As soon as she got into the office, the boss, after making sure that these were all the organizers, ordered them all off the property and said if he ever caught them near the factory, he would have them arrested. My grandmother went out onto the factory floor, stood on a tobacco basket, and told the other workers what had happened. Every single one of them left the plant.
They set up a full field kitchen that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all the strikers, their families, and anyone else who was hungry. Shop keepers would donate canned food, and farmers from around the area delivered meat, vegetables, eggs and milk to the strike kitchen. Then came the showdown. I was ordered by my step-grandmother to serve in the kitchen washing dishes and serving food. So I got a first hand look at just how strong women could be when they got angry.
The Governor sent in the National Guard to stop the strikers. At the crack of dawn workers began to arrive at the factory to wait for the Guard. My step-grandmother was in the front line, and she made me stand with her. As the day wore on, more and more workers arrived. They filled about three blocks, standing shoulder to shoulder and building to building. It was a very hot day. There we stood, and soon we heard the sound of trucks. Up they came, dressed for battle. The trucks came right up to the strikers who were blocking the street. One of the soldiers yelled at my grandmother to move out of the way, or he would roll over her. My grandmother, with great dignity, looked at him and said, “Young man, I’ve put diapers on boys your age, so if you want to roll over us, then come on—we ain’t moving.” We stood eye to eye with the truck fender for what seemed like hours. Finally, we heard workers down the line starting to applaud and yell—the trucks began to back out. We had won!
All over the country workers were organizing themselves into the new CIO. Men and women were beginning to look at one another as union sisters and brothers, instead of as people who wanted to take their jobs. A couple of years later, the war was coming and women began to be in big demand. My stepmother became a welder for an aircraft factory, my aunt operated a crane at Armco Steel. Women became teamsters, bus drivers, trolley drivers, shipyard workers—all of those jobs that had been the purview of men, became women’s work.
Wartime work for women
In the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California there was twenty-four hour childcare—women were working all shifts. You could bring in your dirty laundry, and it would be done for you. If your children needed new shoes, someone would take them to the shoe store for a proper fit. Of course, you paid for these services, but they were necessary if women were to keep working.
Finally, the war ended and women were expected to go back to their old ways. Actually, for the whole history of this country, women have worked, but in the worst, hardest, and lowest paying jobs. They filled the garment factories, cotton mills, department stores, restaurants, office buildings, etc. Black women have always worked—as slaves in the fields, and as housekeepers, and child raisers for their white masters. Poor women, black and white, have always had to work to feed their families. But the war changed a lot of things.
GI’s came home, and they had great expectations. After all, they had fought the war for the “four freedoms”—freedom of speech, and worship, and freedom from fear and want. They came back to what looked like a depression—factories were shutting down war production, but peacetime production couldn’t get going. Housing was in short supply, and getting a job at a living wage was difficult. Many soldiers had married and were now expecting families.
My husband was in the Merchant Marine. We got married when he was 20 and I was 18. In Elkton, Maryland, in 1944, in fact. We had to live with my mother, because we could not afford our own apartment. Like millions of other working class young people, we always leaped before we looked. Of course, I immediately got pregnant. But both me and my husband thought this was really great. My husband had become a socialist while sailing on a ship to Venezuela. It was a three month trip, and he was a captive audience to a Trotskyist shipmate. I still have the letters he wrote me—three v-mail letters which started off with, “At last I have found the truth.” I thought he had become a Jehovah Witness.
The economic system of capitalism
is not good for your health
But I became convinced when one of his socialist friends explained why there were poor people and rich people. He explained that rich people owned the means of production—the banks, factories, and everything else and working people had to work for them at wages which never caught up with their needs. It was like a bolt of lightning! It wasn’t, as my grandmother told me, God’s will, but because a small group of wealthy people owned everything of worth, and working people owned nothing. Even their homes were owned by the banks. I have been a socialist for fifty years, and every year I am more convinced than ever that the economic system of capitalism is not good for your health or for the health of any other living thing.
The GIs wanted a better life. They began to organize and to march for jobs and housing. That’s when the government agreed to the GI Bill of Rights. Massive housing projects were started. Whole townships were created. In Levittown, New York, you could, if you were a GI, purchase a house for $5,000 dollars with $500 dollars down and $50 dollars per month payment. Ex-GIs began to go to college on the GI bill. In former times, only the upper class and middle class sent their children to college. Working class young men and women usually never even graduated high school and went to work in blue collar industries as soon as they found a job. Now, for the first time, millions of returning GIs were going to college. In fact, this was the beginning of the two-year junior college. They were formed so that those returning GIs could acquire the languages, math, and science, which would enable them to get into four-year colleges.
It was these same GIs who were determined to give their own children a college education. And that’s why you’re here.
My first activity in the women’s movement
My first activity that concerned women was an action that came out of Boston. This was in 1958 or 1959. At that time women could not buy a diaphragm, a birth control device, in the state of Massachusetts. That was a state that was heavily dominated by the Catholic Church. Some of the women wanted to protest. They had been driving to Connecticut, where you could walk into a drug store and purchase a diaphragm without even showing your marriage license. So they were going to car caravan from Boston to Connecticut, and we from New York (I lived in Brooklyn), were going to meet them at the border of Connecticut to show solidarity. The Boston police were outraged. They were going to call upon the state police to stop the women, arrest them on the way back, and confiscate their ill-gotten gains, their diaphragms. But the women stopped them cold by saying that they would be wearing their diaphragms, and how were the state police going to confiscate them? There was silence on the part of the state, and shortly after, the State of Massachusetts was forced to allow the sale of diaphragms.
I was especially interested in birth control, because of two illegal abortions I had. When my first daughter was four months old, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was pregnant again. After a lot of hard work, we finally made contact with an abortionist. The charge was $300 dollars, which was like a million dollars to my husband and me. By the time we got the money together, I was three or four months pregnant. I had the abortion in an empty apartment in Staten Island with this man who I did not know—he could have been the Midas Muffler Man, for all I knew—and a woman who stayed with us. It was done on a cold kitchen table. What he did was split the placenta and it took hours before the abortion was over. I spent that time in a movie theater with a woman and man who were waiting for the abortion to take effect. The woman would insist that I go to the bathroom every ten minutes. Actually, they finally drove me home, and it was there that the abortion took effect. Fortunately, my mother packed me in ice when I began to bleed all over the place. I lived through it.
My second illegal abortion happened when my second daughter was five years old. This time, in a doctor’s office, a doctor that I knew. I went in on a Saturday when his office was usually closed. He warned me before we began that if anyone came to his office door, I must be prepared to get up and walk out, no matter what stage the abortion was in. He did a D&C. Naturally, he did not use anesthesia. That did not turn out so well. I kept hemorrhaging, and after a week of hemorrhaging, even the doctor told me to go to the hospital emergency. But I was afraid they would find out I had an abortion and that the doctor would be arrested. But finally, when my feet were beginning to go to sleep, I went to the emergency room. I required two transfusions, and for some reason, the doctors said they believed me about the miscarriage.
I woke up to a full ward of women, and about three beds away was a woman screaming in pain and three policemen were around her bed. They told her they would not let anyone help until she gave the name of the abortionist. She was a women in her forties with a grown son in the army, and she was unmarried. She was ashamed to have him know that she was pregnant, so she had an abortion. The person who gave her the abortion had stuck a copper tube into her uterus and left it there. He said not to remove it until the pain became unbearable. It became so unbearable that she was taken to the emergency room. It was there that the cops grabbed her. It was the law that the hospital had to report any abortions.
What women need most of all
If I were given a choice of what women need the most, it would be control of their reproductive lives. My experience has been that there can be no equality if women are forced to bear child after child and can’t get out the door to even look for a job, not to speak of an education. And when I say choice, I mean choice. I feel that any woman who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, should have access to a safe, legal, and, if necessary, free abortion. However, any woman who is pregnant and who wants the child, should have every support—medical, economic and emotional—so that she has a good environment to raise a healthy child in a secure home. This is a rich country. Just by taxing the rich instead of working people, we could afford this necessity.
In the 1960s, colleges were being flooded with young, working class women. They were following in their GI fathers’ footsteps. But many things were happening in the 60s. The civil rights struggle against Jim Crow. This started in the late 50s, and many of those struggles were led by Black former GIs who thought that they had fought for freedom in the Korean War, not just for whites, but for themselves, also. Many white students became “freedom riders” and went into the dangerous South to change history. I had to get into it and was busted by the police in Brooklyn for sitting in at Coney Island Hospital, trying to force them to hire black workers for building more hospitals. It was the usual lay-down protest, and over 800 people were arrested in two weeks. We also put picket lines around Woolworth’s in solidarity with the Southern Woolworth’s sit-ins.
It was the Vietnam anti-war movement which gave women the opportunity to begin the Second Wave of feminism. The anti-war movement included millions of students, male and female. Women were learning how to make leaflets, how to stand up before thousands and make speeches, and how to appeal to the vast numbers of parents who wanted that war to end. The major slogan was “Bring Our Boys Home Now.” It did not fall on deaf ears.
After the war, young women began to look at their own situation. We organized a march for choice in New York in 1969 of 500 women. We held teach-ins where women gave their experience with illegal abortions openly. And it was, for many women, the first time they had ever told anyone about their abortion; not even their own husbands had known.
There had already been some changes in some states on this issue of abortion. In New York the laws were liberalized to include mental hardship or emotional endangerment, if one was forced to carry the fetus to full term. A board panel of three psychologiáts would hear the testimony of women who said that they would go crazy if forced to have this child. Later some men, using that testimony, would get custody of the children by claiming that the woman was mentally unstable.
We, mostly socialists, formed a national organization called WONAAC (Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition). In California we were working on a class action lawsuit for choice, because none of us really paid much attention to the Roe v. Wade case making its way through the courts.
In the WONAAC office we had the names and case histories of three thousand women who wanted to be in the class action suit. They were women who had to go to Mexico for an abortion, women who had been forced to bear six or seven children, women who had to give their children up for adoption because they were single parents, and it was a disgrace to the family. You name it and those women had been through it. Just as we got the suit all ready, along came the Roe v. Wade verdict and it was a major victory for all women. But that victory was only the beginning for women. The victory for abortion was hardly won before the anti-choice movement began.
I was one of the founding members of the Coalition of Labor Union Women in San Francisco. CLUW was organized to bring some measure of equality within the trade union movement. There were unions such as the telephone workers, the garment workers, which had mostly women in the workplace, but the union officers were in the large majority male. Women workers got caught up in the struggle for equality that was sparked by college and university women. The 1960s saw a large growth of trade unions in what were formerly considered to be “professional or white collar” jobs. Nurses, hospital personnel, office employees, and teachers were just a few who became unionized. They wanted job protection, as well as better salaries. Some union contracts called for on-job childcare centers.
Campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment
In the late 1970s and 1980s I joined in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It is shocking to know that this country has not passed the ERA. It was the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment that actually turned the National Organization for Women (NOW) into a truly nationwide organization. It unified all of the chapters around a central fight. In San Francisco, our chapter had approximately 200 members, although most of them did not attend meetings. By the end of the struggle for the ERA, we had 1500 members, and hundreds attended meetings and we were united and energized. Unfortunately, the NOW national leaders, in the middle of the fight, decided to rely on electing Democrats to pass the ERA, instead of mounting massive actions in the streets to force the politicians to pass the Amendment.
The NOW leaders decided to put their efforts into electing pro-ERA state legislators in the hopes of winning the two-thirds of the states necessary to make the ERA the law. Just a look at our experience in Nevada is enough to make you sick. In that state NOW wanted to campaign for eleven legislators who had said that, if elected, they would get the ERA passed in Nevada. The California State NOW sent hundreds of members into Nevada to hold wine and cheese parties, and go door-to-door for those so-called pro-ERA candidates. Some of us in the San Francisco Chapter wanted to hold a sit-in at the gambling casinos and fill the streets in Las Vegas until Nevada voted our way. Some of the leaders were horrified at our simple suggestion. So, of course, the minute those pro-ERA legislators got the chance, they all voted against the ERA. And this happened in state after state. In Illinois one legislator, who had formerly voted for the ERA, actually refused to vote for it in the Illinois legislature, saying he was tired of the whole issue, and women lost that state by one vote.
What has happened is that the leaders of the movements that in the 1960s and 1970s were in the streets and making gains, are now supporting lesser-evil politicians, mainly Democrats, and all of our victories are going down the drain.
Reproductive rights is in total jeopardy. But it was President Carter who made the first cut in choice by not allowing poor women to receive abortions under Medicare.
Nothing was ever won in the electoral arena. Everything that workers, Blacks, and women have won has been through massive struggles in the mills and factories, and in the streets. Politicians did not give women the vote. They won it by strikes, picket lines, marches, hunger strikes, and by generally making the ruling class know that they had better give in, or life would get even rougher for them.
In the thirties it was actually illegal for workers to get together and discuss organizing a union. They could be arrested for sedition, and there were law books full of laws which could jail workers for trying to organize. Finally, the workers said, “Just take your laws and stick them.” Owners of the steel and auto plants hired their own deputized guards, armed with guns to keep the workers under control. The workers went into the factories, sat-down, and took over. Plus they had massive picket lines that not only shut down production, but kept any scabs from entering the plants. Solidarity groups were formed to keep them fed and warm during the sit-downs. This is how we won the right to form unions. Don’t believe the lie that it was given to us by friendly capitalist politicians. It was won by millions marching in the streets, and around factory gates, and sit-down strikes.
The Civil Rights movement in the South, organized by the millions in state after Jim Crow state, held marches, sit-ins and demonstrations until the capitalist class saw the movement going from the South to the North and decided it would be better to concede on Jim Crow laws than to really have to give equality and economic justice to millions of Black workers. Malcolm X was beginning to organize the North, and he was the most dangerous to the owners of American wealth.
Stonewall, in Greenwich Village in New York City, declared for all that the gay and lesbian movement was out of the closet and into the streets. Unfortunately, just as the women’s, Black, and labor movements are supporting Democrats and putting their lives into the hands of people who can’t be trusted as far as I can spit, so have the gay and lesbian movements turned to electing the lesser evil.
Where has that gotten us? Just read The New York Times for the economic conditions of the vast majority of working people in this country. There are more homeless now than in the great depression. There is more poverty, with women and children making up the majority of people living in squalor and starvation. Young people who are in college today cannot ever hope to live as their families have, with their own home and a well paying job with security. Millions are without basic health care. HIV has killed thousands of people and actually the government does nothing. Some of the medicine which will allow HIV infected people to live longer lives costs $7,000 a year.
Socialism v. barbarism
We live in an economic system which relies on making a profit. If it can’t make a profit, it shuts down production. Enough food can be produced in this country to feed the entire world. But if it cannot be sold for a profit, the capitalist destroys it or stores it in mountains, or pays farmers not to grow it. Our environment is being destroyed, polluted, and laid to waste in the interest of mega-profits.
We socialists have a saying which is a warning first issued by Karl Marx—either socialism or barbarism. It will be your generation that will have to destroy the profit system of capitalism and build a democratic socialist society, or we will descend into barbarism. With male against female, white against Black, ethnic group against ethnic group, and all against each other. We will either unite in solidarity with each other, and take control of this anarchic profit system, or we will fall into fascism or degenerate into disasters like Bosnia, Chechnya, and Somalia.
I’m an optimist. I have witnessed the magnificent power of workers in struggle for their unions, women who have defended our clinics against the pro-life fanatics, Blacks who have fought and won against the most racist system of Jim Crow, and oppressed people who have the power to fight and the will to win. If we are united, and know who the real enemy is, we cannot lose.
A Collection of Socialist Essays By Sylvia Weinstein