I Had Been Hungry All the Years

Between Women, an anthology edited by Carol Ascher, Sarah Ruddick, and Louise DeSalvo

I have spent the last fifteen years of my life writing about some obscure women, long dead, who were socialists, feminists, and labor organizers before World War I. I wrote about them first in a history book, The Rising of the Women, then in a novel, Rivington Street . During the same period I worked in the women's liberation movement and on the left; labored at a succession of largely menial jobs; lived in innumerable cold apartments in four cities; went through the hopeful beginnings and bitter dissolution of one marriage and, at length, began another; and raised a child. I also wrote leaflets, political manifestos, letters, unpublished short stories, songs, and children's books. But always I returned to this group of historical women, as if I could not really go on to anything else until I told their story.

            In the beginning, it was their brave moments that captured me: Clara Lemlich at seventeen, standing up before the huge crowd of shirtwaist workers in New York's Cooper Union in 1909 and calling for a general strike; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn traveling back to mama in a bumpy cross-country train, extremely pregnant but unwilling to stay with her husband because he wanted her to give up organizing; Matilda Robbins, torn for many years between her work in the Industrial Workers of the World and her passion for a flashy actor who undermined her confidence and for whom she had contempt; Maggie Hinchey, the laundress-suffragist adopted and then abandoned by the feminist movement, writing to her friend Leonora O'Reilly from a 1913 suffrage convention, "I feel as if I have butted in where I was not wanted." And Leonora O'Reilly herself, the brilliant child-laborer rescued from factory life by fascinated settlement workers. They saw her as a beacon of hope to other working girls, yet she carried with her the mementos of her class: heart disease caused by her early labors and a bitterness and unwillingness to be patronized by well-meaning ladies who didn't think before they spoke.

            I loved these women for their conflicts: between work and love, politics and family, the feminist movement and the labor movement, the joys of poetry and the discipline of analysis, the grindstone of social responsibility and the illness or pregnancy or physical breakdown that forced them to take a rest from lives that were too hard. I loved their voices, their ungrammatical eloquence, like these words of a Chicago garment worker in 1910:
            What bothers me most is time is passing. Time is passing and everything is missed. I am not living, I am only working. But life means so much, it holds so much, and I have no time for any of it; I just work.In the busy time I work so hard…I am too weary for anything but supper and bed. Sometimes union meetings, yes, because I must go. But I have no mind and nothing left in me. The busy time means to earn enough money not only for today but to cover the slack time, and then when the slack time comes I am not so tired, I have more time, but I have no money, and time is passing, and everything is missed.[i]
            These immigrant cadences, like those of my own grandparents, were to me the true voice of feeling and moved me as great literature does.
            Of course I romanticized these women at first; it was 1969 and we were all looking for heroines who could show that women knew everything even when they'd been taught nothing. Our movement needed a past. How had these earlier organizers combined the personal and the political? How had they bridged the chasm between middle-class and working-class women? We needed answers, for although the women's liberation movement seemed able to attract hundreds of members wherever it hung out a shingle, what was our program? What organizational form did we want? How could we develop a strategy? Did our inability to grasp these problems havesomething to do with how middle class we all were? Was the women's movement different when it had more workers in it?
            I would try to find out. I would write a history book.
            It wasn't a job I'd been trained to do. I grew up in the fifties, in a midwestern suburb where excessive thinking on any subject was discouraged, especially for girls. I never met a woman who had a career, although I understood that some of my mother's friends had had jobs before they married. The only things women did besides "homemaking" were "social" (playing bridge, going to the country club) or "community service" (being on the temple women's committee, fundraising for Israel, helping out at hospitals). I knew no way of life that seemed more meaningful to me, though I also knew I could never feel at home in Milwaukee. There would be more choices in a more cosmopolitan place. I went east to college.
            There, after experimenting with theater and art, I settled down to write, only to find I could not write fiction. My goal was "self expression," but this left me with nothing to write about, since my life seemed to me so trivial, without adventure, even boring. I could write about it cleverly, but mere wit did not interest me; I wanted to be great. This ill-concealed ambition did not sit well with most of my teachers (all male) or the boys I went out with; all made it clear that hubris was reserved for their own sex. "Why do you always have to write these long, analytical papers?" asked one boy impatiently. "Why can't you write little poems?"
            Yet the only sufficiently challenging projects were the papers J set myself, grand schema of literary typologies. Did this mean I should become a graduate student? Perhaps later on, when I had gained wisdom through experience, I would be able to write fiction. I went off to London to study the great works of English literature, still hoping to find role models for an acceptable way of life if I only traveled far enough from home. In Europe I would become an aristocrat of the imagination, like Henry James's “heiress of all the ages.” I did not understand that the sources of my misery were political, not geographical. I knew nothing of politics.
            The sixties changed that. Politics was in the air I breathed. Reading the newspapers —the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, the riots all over the country—became unbearable. Things began to come together for me. The pain my country was inflicting on the world, the racism within it, the emptiness of my own life—all were connected and were tied to the self-satisfied, prosperous boosterism of the community I'd grown up in, where there was no room for oversensitive children or intellectual females. There was a system in all this and its name was imperialism. Feeling as I did, I had two choices. I could try to block out my own sense of reality and continue as I was, but this felt more and more like going mad. Or I could change my life by trying to change the world—starting with the war.
            I plunged into the antiwar movement. Within a few months my thesis ceased to interest me; I never finished it. I found I had a talent for politics and was a natural administrator. For the first time, hard work had some point. I came back to the United States, to Boston, because it made more sense to do antiwar work here than in London. I was ceaselessly active. But I wasn 't writing, except for an occasional leaflet.
            The women's movement gave me a way to write. It connected me directly with an audience, a community; at last I found people like me to talk to— thousands of them. I began to find my own style, to get beyond the easy wit and academic cleverness that had served me well in school but had always felt like a con game. First in speeches, then in an essay called “Woman and Her Mind,” I began to hear my voice—still raw, wordy, and full of uncontrolled pain, but reaching beyond irony to feeling. The essay was excerpted in many underground newspapers and printed as a pamphlet by the New England Free Press. It sold more copies through the mail, without advertising, than anything I’ve ever written since—but it cost only 35 cents and I never made a penny from it.
            When I decided to write a history book, in 1970, I thought it desirable to find a more commercial publisher. I wrote an ambitious proposal, covering virtually the entire history of feminist organization in the United States, about which I knew next to nothing; and I found a publisher immediately. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, one of the first radical feminist manifestos, had must come out and was creating a sensation, and everyone wanted a piece of the new women’s liberation market. Could I get my book done in two years? Sure, why not? My organizing wouldn’t stand in my way; research and social practice would go hand in hand. We had our own group in Boston now, Bread & Roses, one of the first socialist feminist organizations, so everything seemed under control.
            But two years later Bread & Roses was falling apart and all my study couldn't teach me how to put it back together. Nor was my writing zipping along. Everything around me was in turmoil. SDS had disintegrated; the Black Panthers were being destroyed; the antiwar movement was still active because of the government's bombs but was shapeless and full of contradictions. I felt abandoned and cut off. Marxists told me the workers were the most revolutionary force in society, so why didn't the working class come and rescue us from this mess? We couldn't even seem to broaden the base of the women's movement. But I knew this had been done in the past: The Women's Trade Union League, founded in 1904, had recruited workers like Leonora O'Reilly who could lead it and give it strength .
            But soon I found that Leonora O'Reilly had had problems working in the league. She'd resigned three times because she resented being patronized. Other workers had similar difficulties. Did that mean a women's movement broader than the middle class was impossible? I couldn't figure it out. I had no theoretical understanding that would have enabled me to put together the contradictory bits of evidence I found.
            In 1972, like many of the perplexed, I turned to the study of Marxism-Leninism, especially as it seemed to be practiced in China. I found a way of thinking that held more excitement and potential than any I had previously explored. This was not the crude materialistic reductionism of the Marxists I'd previously encountered, but a supple dialectical method that could balance tensions between class and race and gender, culture and material circumstances, individual and organization. At least, it held that promise. I have never learned so much so quickly as in that year of study. Sometimes I felt as if my head would burst. And my study had a powerful impact on my ability to understand problems of women's history, such as the IWW's approach to organizing women:
            The IWW's second major contribution to work with women was its effort to integrate women's fundamental demand for reproductive freedom with the general class struggle, to take the demand for birth control into the labor movement and bring out its class aspects. Not only did the IWW agitate around the need for access to birth control information; it actively distributed such information at a time when to do so was to court arrest. This...stood in startling contrast to the rest of the labor movement's avoidance of the dangerous issues of reproduction and sexuality...IWW practice on the birth control issue showed that it could be militant about the needs of women as well as about economic issues. By bringing these two realms together, the IWW added a new dimension to both the labor movement and the movement for women's liberation.[ii]
            Applying Marxist-Leninist theory to the present was harder than writing history. Bread & Roses was gone by this time, and I had found people to work with who were trying to formulate a revolutionary strategy for the United States. We applied theory in a rather slapdash way, like putting on a coat of paint without examining the wall underneath, but we were in a hurry. We needed to build a movement that wouldn't fall apart so easily; to us that meant it had to be based in the working class and led by a Leninist party. Those of us who were willing should declass ourselves and go into the factories to build links with workers, learn from them, teach them Marxism, and recruit them into some future party.
            I moved to Chicago and went to work in an electronics factory, where I learned a lot more than I taught. Factory work was exhausting and I wasn't very good at it, but it was fascinating. I changed in ways that brought me closer to the women in my book. I began to understand work and hardship and the long haul. But I did. not become proletarian enough for my political associates. I kept wanting to work in the women's movement- clearly I was an unregenerate feminist, always backsliding. Even my husband, who had been doing factory work for years, could not understand why I was always making trouble about women's issues. Eventually I found myself alone, a single mother, with no support group of any kind.
            Thrown back on my own resources, I remembered those long dead women organizers whose groups had fallen apart or abandoned them, who had no families, who were losers, as I felt myself to be. Like Maggie Hinchey in 1918, when she lost her connection with the women's movement and went back to work in a laundry:
            I lost my bread and also lost the light or sunshine when I lost my work now I have to work long hours in darkness and take my rest in a celler and work until 9 o’clock at night for 18 a week in my last job and no work I received 32 a week...so we will have to find an org that will stand by the working women that we can trust wont sell us out while our nose is to the grinding stone.[iii]
            Or like Kate Richards O'Hare, one of the very few women to reach the exalted heights of the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party:
            My experience on the N.E.C. gave me an excellent chance to study the antics of the male who feels that his domain has been treacherously invaded by a female. Only Shaw could do justice to the humor of the paternalistic patronage, the lofty scorn, the fatherly solicitude I enjoyed lest my weak and faltering footsteps be led astray in the dangerous quagmires of party service. I am happy to say that I managed to extract enough fun from the situation to make the annoyance bearable, though [was totally unable to be of any service to the party. I am absolutely sure that my experience has also been the experience of every woman in the party who has ever held a position or accomplished a piece of party work that some man felt it would have been an advantage for him to have held or done.[iv]
            Perhaps now I could give these women a voice. I completed the second draft of my book while working full time as a nurse's aide, barely able to pay for food, child ca re, and carfare. I would rise at 5:30, get my baby up and to the sitter, and be at the hospital by 7. I'd get off work at 4, pick up the baby, feed, bathe, and play with her, then put her to bed . I'd sleep from 10 until 2. Then I'd write for two hours, take another nap, and begin again. It didn't leave much time for social or family life, but I had none to speak of.
            In 1976, I moved back east, where I had friends, and began to rebuild my life. I submitted my book to the publisher. But my once enthusiastic editor no longer liked it. It hadn't turned out the way she'd hoped. It wasn't well written. She hired her lover, a noted left-wing authority on trade-unionism, to read it, and he didn't agree with the politics; he thought it was "too Leninist." Besides, her publishing house felt the market for women's books had peaked . Wasn't the feminist movement dead? She said I shouldn't give up hope; they might still publish the book. I should make some more revisions and, since I had quoted extensively from books and manuscript collections, I should write letters asking permission to quote.
            All that fall, I spent the little free time I had writing permission letters—only to be informed that my publisher was dropping the book. Although my editor had told me to take all the time I wished, my contract specified a deadline of two years and I was late. My editor had decided to move to another publishing house and wasn't taking my book with her; it just wasn't good enough. The publishing company sent me a letter advising me that they probably wouldn't sue me to get back the $4000 advance I had gotten over the years, as long as I didn't sell the book to anyone else.
            I was devastated. Years of work blown away! They were probably right that the book was no good. Nothing I'd ever done had amounted to anything. There was no solution. I sent the manuscript to two other publishers, but they weren't interested. A small alternative press was, but it didn't have $4000 to buy out the first publisher. I was working as a legal secretary, borrowing money to keep my child in preschool, and doing literary piecework—copyediting, book reviewing—at night to make ends meet. I could no more get $4000 than I could get $400,000. I put my book aside in despair.
            I had obtained book-reviewing work through want ads in the New York Times. I was paid $25 a shot for blurbs about mass-market novels, mainly historical romances about queens and courtesans and Regency belles, books aimed at America's housewives and working women. None of it was foreign to me. I'd grown up on a slightly higher grade of the same sort of novel. When I moved from the young adult to the adult sections of the library, I went from Louisa May Alcott to Daphne Du Maurier and Annemarie Selinko without even shifting gears. I always knew there were two kinds of books, men's and women's, and while I sometimes raced through the books my father brought home—books about wars and doctors and murders—I preferred my own, about love and family. If they had some history thrown in, all the better. I even read some men's books—Kenneth Roberts and Captain Horatio Hornblower—just for the history in them.
            So it was obvious to me that the main way to get history into the hands of masses of women readers was in the form of a novel. It wasn't enough anymore to get into the libraries; such a novel would have to be a mass-distributed paperback, so that people who didn't go to libraries or bookstores could get it in the drugstore, supermarket, or shopping mall.
            I had thought about this idea quite a bit over the years, and now, reviewing historical novels, I knew I could do better than many of them. But I had no time. Not only was I caring for a child alone and holding down two or three jobs, but once the right-wing attack on abortion began in 1977, I became active in the women’s movement again.
            Then, in 1978, my situation was transformed. I had left my job as legal secretary for one at a small magazine. When the magazine changed hands after six months, I was laid off. It seemed like a miracle—I could collect unemployment!  For the first time in years, I had space to read and think.
            I'd been carrying around a microfilm since I972, without having time to read it. It was from the papers of a labor organizer in Chicago in the 1880s, and I hoped it would contain information about the activities of his wife, Elizabeth Morgan, an early organizer of women's unions. It did more than that. It turned out to be an archive of clippings about an almost unknown but extremely important women's organization, the Illinois Women's Alliance, which filled in gaps that had puzzled me for years.
            In my history book I had focused on the problems of alliances between working-class and middle-class women. The organizations I had studied, such as the Women's Trade Union League, demonstrated that such alliances were necessary and helpful, yet seemed to emphasize their problems—the cultural clashes, the lack of understanding of the middle-class women, the lack of workers' resources. This dialectic of class had always fascinated me, but there was little to read about it. Dimitrov, a Communist theorist of the thirties, talked about a "united front of women," but only perfunctorily. Mao Zedong's analysis of united fronts in China was meatier but said little about women. But the Illinois Women's Alliance was nothing less than a fully developed, much earlier example of such a united front between working women, socialists, and feminists, put into practice with great success between 1870 and 1890 by a brilliant group of socialist-feminist organizers.
            This new information illuminated the complexity of the issues. It was not merely differences of style that determined whether such united fronts were workable; it was the political environment. The strength of the labor movement, the openness of the socialist movement to feminism, the breadth of the women's movement—these set the limits on what could be done. Things that were possible in one period were not in another, because the configuration of forces had changed. This may sound obvious, but I had not understood it clearly before, and others had not discussed it.
            So I had to rewrite my history book yet again, changing it considerably. I had to pare down the vivid personal anecdotes and life stories, which had been the main commercial strength of the early drafts, and bring the analysis to the fore.
            The united front of women...was...a major factor in giving working women the social muscle to organize into trade unions….But its success depended on the strength of the labor movement as a whole, the strength of socialists within it, and how progressive the feminist movement was. Above all, the united front's ability to organize working women depended on who led it—what class and what kind of politics. When the working-class and left forces were strong, when they had deep enough roots among the people to be able to organize women without the help of the middle class, and when they were clear about what they were trying to achieve, they were able to lead the whole united front of women and build vital links between women's struggles at work and in the community. This was the case in the Illinois Women's Alliance.[v]
            Rewriting the book solved the problem of the $4000: The Rising of the Women was a different book from the one rejected by my first publisher. Monthly Review Press was consequently able to publish it.
            But my change in emphasis necessitated another change in my conception of the book. Throughout the early versions, I had used quotations from people's speeches, letters, and diaries in great profusion, wanting to let those women speak directly to the reader in their own voices, without my mediation. I hadn't even corrected their spelling. I wanted to make myself a vessel, a transmission belt, through which their spirits would pass and transfigure the reader. Friends who read the manuscript didn't seem to like this. Time after time they asked, "But what do you think? Why are you hiding behind all these quotes?" They didn't want a transmission belt; they wanted a mind. They didn't want a camera; they wanted a historical agent—someone willing to take the responsibility not of passively presenting history, with her interpretations invisible behind a collage of voices, but of saying what she thought it all meant. I cannot tell you how much this responsibility terrified me. A chorus of invisible judges seemed to read over my shoulder as I typed, jeering at every word; they held things up considerably.
            When I had finally finished The Rising of the Women, I had to confront the question of accessibility. No matter how well written it might or might not be, few working women would read it, few would even hear of it because, owing to the processes of book distribution, it would be available mainly in universities, movement bookstores, large metropolitan centers, and by mail order. How could I get this history out to the people who needed it most? A passage by Bertholt Brecht had been one of my sacred texts for years:
            Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.[vi]
            I had often played with the idea of an historical novel. Now I developed an outline for one based on some of the events in my history book, but focusing specifically on Jews in the New York garment industry. I called the book Rivington Street. Two of the characters were involved in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909, and one went on to be an organizer for the union and the Women’s Trade Union League. Another was a suffragist and another an career woman, carving out a niche for herself as a designer in a Fifth Avenue department store. They all had problems with love and identity.
            Through a friend in the women's movement, I found an agent who liked my outline enough to take me on, and who was skilled enough to sell my proposal for a large advance. Suddenly, in 1979, I found myself in the remarkable position of being able to write full time. Rags to riches! My good fortune was almost too much for me to grasp and I kept it virtually secret for months, afraid it would somehow be swept away.
I had been hungry, all the Years—
My Noon had Come—to dine—
I trembling drew the Table near—
And I touched the Curious Wine—
'Twas this on Tables I had seen—
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows, for the Wealth
I could not hope—for Mine—[vii]
            Writing fiction was a liberation. It left me free to construct characters and situations that were composites, ideal types of the contradictions that interested me. Since I knew the history so well, I could build on it and be confident I was not lying—that is, distorting what had happened—but rather creating heightened versions of the truth that people could identify with and remember. But I still needed to know as many facts as possible; since I am a realist, I feel helped rather than burdened by an accretion of fact. My research into the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, in which a government orchestrated anti-Semitic campaign led to a two-day orgy of terror, was far more extensive than I actually needed for the novel, but knowledge of many details enabled me to select among them. I was particularly proud that nothing about the pogrom, except the ways in which it affected my central characters, was "made up"; even the names of the victims came from casualty lists. And I took the greatest pleasure in finding out and re-creating the ways our grandmothers did their work: washing clothes in a cold-water flat, working in garment factories, doing fine sewing by hand, as Ruby, one of my central characters, does:
            When she had finished, the yoke was securely backed in satin and outlined in dark pink. She then cut away the paper backing between the net and the fabric, and began her embroidery, in a pattern of peonies, chrysanthemums, and curling tendrils and leaves. She stuffed the larger flowers and leaves with cotton as she went, to give a three dimensional illusion. She worked t~e one large and two small peonies in a rose and lilac satin stitch, filling their centers with mauve French knots, and did the leaves in short-and-long stitch, pale green. She used both pale green and olive for the stems, which she outlined in buttonhole stitch. The curling vines were a medium green. There were eight chrysanthemums of varying sizes embroidered in pink, beige, and old rose, with ivory highlights. This embroidery took Ruby four weeks. When it was done she carefully cut the satin from behind the net yoke, and bound the edges underneath with more buttonhole stitch . The front of the shirtwaist was now finished: a pinky beige satin bodice and a net yoke, transparent except for strategically placed embroidered leaves and blossoms. Her round pink shoulders would peek out from behind the pale chrysanthemums, while the shadow between her young breasts would be discreetly, erotically hinted by the curve of the darker peony, lilac and rose, and the trembling of the pale green leaves that twined around it like a lover's fingers.[viii]
            Including such details is a way of giving value for money. A book should be well made, like a good coat. If it's made sloppily, with big, careless stitches, it will fall apart. If the style is too extreme or fanciful, women won't be able to wear it for every day. I want to write books simple enough for everyday use but strong enough to be passed around from friend to relation , mother to daughter, and even to be read more than once, and to outlast current fashions.
            Since my novel, Rivington Street, was published, a number of my historian or social scientist friends have told me they don’t need to read it because they’ve already read my history book. When I hear this, I am flabbergasted. Surely there is more than one kind of truth in writing: the truth of feeling, which reaches from writer to reader, moving both; the truth of provable facts, bulwarks in winds of controversy; the truth of suspenseful narrative, which can be experienced as if lived through; the truth of analysis, which can be understood and used by the intelligence. While the provable facts and analysis are more prominent in nonfiction than in the novel, I prefer books that have a bit of all these kinds of truth.
            I expect to continue writing both fiction and historical-political analysis. I am still part of the women's liberation movement, seeking a history and a strategy, just as I am still a reader of popular fiction, seeking a story in which I can both lose and find myself. Doing both kinds of writing is my way of making sure the personal remains the political. It is not that my fiction is personal and nonfiction political: both are both. How can one compartmentalize the subjective element in writing? I am no one unless I can locate myself in history. History is nothing if it is devoid of the self— yourself, myself. This is another way of saying, as Rabbi Hillel, one of the authors of the Talmud, did: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I for? And if not now, when?"

[i]  Rising of the Women (New York: 1980), p. 110
[ii] Rising, p. 162
[iii]  Rising, p. 176
[iv] Rising, p. 97
[v] Rising, p. 20
[vi]  “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties,” (1935), translated by Richard Winston, in Galileo, translated by Charles Laughton, edited by Eric Bentley (New York: 1966) 
[vii] Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems, edited Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: 1960)
[viii]  Rivington Street (New York: 1982)


Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.