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PORTRAITS OF GASTONIA: 1930s MATERNAL ACTIVISM AND THE PROTEST NOVEL
PATRICIA R. CAMPBELL
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Patricia R. Campbell
To my mother, who died never knowing a world beyond childbearing and poverty.
To my children, Jarret and Cherish, who taught me about mothering and motivation.
I thank the chair and members of my supervisory committee for their mentoring, the staff
at the University of Florida and Lake Sumter Community College libraries for their research
assistance, and the staff and faculty at the University of Florida' s Department of English who
offered their support. I also thank my partner Tracey, my family, and my friends whose love and
encouragement motivated me toward the completion of this dissertation.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. ...............4.....
T ABLE OF CONTENT S............... ...............5
AB S TRAC T ......_ ................. ............_........7
1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............9.......... ......
Maternal Representation as Discursive Strategy .............. ...............9.....
Writers Go Left, Go South, Go Away ............... .... ........... ...............16....
"Proto"-Feminist Politics and the 1930s Protest Novels ................. .......... ................1 9
Theorizing a Visibility for the Undervalued............... ..............2
Protest Narratives and Matemnal Activism............... ...............28
2 MARY HEATON VORSE: UNCOVERING THE MATERNAL MILITANCY IN
STRIKE! ................. ...............37.......... .....
Labor Correspondence and Leftist Conversion .............. ...............37....
A Life of Contradiction: Militancy and Maternity .............. ...............42....
Socially Conscious Plot and Matemnal Plight .............. ...............45....
Maternal Veil of Ignorance ................. ...............50................
Maternal Ballads of Union Solidarity ................. ...............53........... ...
Maternal Muse of Militancy ................. ...............57.......... ....
3 GRACE LUMPKIN: LABORING WOMEN AND THE POLITICS OF LABOR IN TO
M~AKE MY BREAD ................. ...............64................
Mother Work and Mill Work ................. ...............64........... ...
A Mill Writer' s Artistic Intervention. ................ ................. ........ ......... ...._66
Mountain Myth and Material Reality .............. ...............69....
Cradles, Kin, and Maternal Caretaking .............. ....... ...............7
Grinding Bones and Making Bread from Matemnal Bodies............... ...............82.
4 DOROTHY MYRA PAGE: WEARING THE RADICAL RED SHOES OF
MATERNAL SOLIDARITY IN GA THERING STORM: A STORY OF THE BLACK
M atemnal M memorial .............. ...............90....
Shield of Southern Tradition .............. ...............92....
Radical Red Shoes ................... .. .... ..............9
Maternal Legacy of a "Fightin' Spirit" ......................... ...............100....
Maternal Challenge of Racial Bigotry in the Black Belt ................. ...._ ................106
Maternal and Material Contradictions ................... .......... ... ...............110 ....
Maternal Solidarity: Marge Crenshaw and Ella May Wiggins ................. .....................117
5 OLIVE TILFORD DARGAN: A VIVID RED MATERNAL VISION INT CALL HOM~E
THE HEAR T ............ ..... .._ ...............124..
Envisioning Vivid Red .............. .. ...............124...
An Inheritance of Maternal Resistance. ....__ ......_____ .......__ ...........12
Marital Resistance and Material Reality............... ...............133
Maternal Solidarity in a Celestial Dystopia. ....__ ......_____ .......___ ..........13
Mountain Utopia of a Maternal Collective ....__ ......_____ .......___ ............4
6 CONCLUSION............... ...............15
Maternal Militancy .............. ..... ... ..............15
Maternal Solidarity as a Feminist Vision .............. ...............159....
W ORKS CITED .............. ...............163....
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............_...... .__ ...............166...
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
PORTRAITS OF GASTONIA: 1930S MATERNAL ACTIVISM AND THE PROTEST
Patricia R. Campbell
Chair: Stephanie Smith
Major Department: English
This dissertation examines how the novels of Mary Heaton Vorse, Grace Lumpkin,
Dorothy Myra Page, and Olive Tilford Dargan invoke and revise the glorification of domesticity
and motherhood to articulate an operative model of maternal activism. The works of these
authors are analyzed as proletarian social novels where the authors' underlying motives are to
move their readers toward a working-class sympathy through their identification with maternal
The four female-authored novels include: Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! (1930), Grace
Lumpkin' s To Make M~y Bread (1932), Dorothy Myra Page' s The Gathering Storm: A Story of
the Black Belt (1932), Olive Tilford Dargan' s Call Home the Heart (1932). This body of
proletarian fiction illustrates how female authors relied upon the depiction of the maternal body
to represent and reveal a discursive strategy of female political activism and a lived history
within the material and political realities of the Depression era. Based on the 1929 strike at the
Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, each novelist depicts Gastonia as a seminal event in
unionism by revising the events surrounding the life and the death of Gastonia' s balladeer and
maternal martyr, Ella May Wiggins.
By examining how these authors' Eictional representations of a maternal figure, like
Wiggins, is a discursive strategy of realism, a fictional attempt to represent the actual events at
Gastonia, my argument hinges, in large measure, on Nancy Chodorow' s The Reproduction of
Mothering. Chodorow' s model offers a theoretical lens for understanding the maternal-based
female socialization among the southern millworkers living and working within the Southern
Piedmont region of the United States.
This study offers a valuable contribution to the body of literary research of Depression era
Section. The Gastonia novels epitomize how female authors manipulated an "acceptable"
maternal role, where a woman's primary motivation for resistance was rooted in securing the
survival of her children, in order to create a space for a woman's political voice.
Maternal Representation as Discursive Strategy
Ella May Wiggins, a union activist, balladeer, and single mother, was shot and killed on
September 14, 1929, in Gastonia, North Carolina. She was traveling in the back of a truck with
twenty-three other union members on her way to a rally to protest the substandard wages and
conditions of the textile workers at the Loray Mill. While several arrests were made and motives
were debated as issues of communist infiltration, working-class revolution, or the race politics of
the "Jim Crow South," no one was legally prosecuted and the murder still remains unsolved
(Salmond 127-129). While the accounts of Wiggins' death, union activity, and personal life vary,
most reporters and historians identified Wiggins as a "mother of five," or as a "mother of nine"
to include her deceased children, or as a "maternal martyr," as well as the composer of the union
protest ballad, "Mill Mother' s Lament." Her ballad reflects both the material reality of her
situation as well as the motivation of the workers that led to "bloodiest strike" in history: "It
grieves the heart of a mother,/You everyone must know,/But we cannot buy for our children,/Our
wages are too low" (Salmond 133).
As the lyrics of her ballad show, Ella May Wiggins' sense of self was grounded by
poverty--her wages of nine dollars a week could not provide even the most basic needs for
herself and for her children. Her ballad not only illuminated the plight of the Southern
millworkers, but her lyrics also immortalized the historic resistance demonstrated by the
millworkers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia.
Gastonia historian John Salmond contends that the shooting of Ella May Wiggins "had
made her a martyr, a symbol of the deeper meaning of the Gastonia struggle" (131i). The search
for this deeper meaning begins with her lived historical experience. Despite the humility of her
heart-rending if somewhat sentimental ballad, biographical studies of Wiggins' life reveal a self-
sufficient, independent woman whose philosophy of union solidarity and racial equality were
considered, by the police and by her friends to be the primary motives for her murder.
According to Salmond, Ella May was bomn in Tennessee in 1900 and her early years
reflect the transient existence of the May family: she and her mother moved from logging camp
to logging camp earning money by doing laundry. She developed her talent for music, singing to
the loggers at night. While in her teens, she married John Wiggins and began working in the
textile mills. Little is known of John Wiggins outside of his inability to hold a job, leaving his
wife to be the primary breadwinner. The couple and their growing family moved from mill to
mill throughout the Southemn Piedmont until he finally abandoned her in Bessemer City shortly
after the birth of their eighth child. After his departure, she reclaimed her maiden name of May;
birthed her ninth child, that of her lover, "Cousin" Charlie Shope; and was pregnant with her
tenth child at the time she was murdered (Salmond 51-58, 166). Although Shope was listed as
the child' s father on the birth certificate of May's ninth child, there is no record of a formal
divorce between Ella May and John Wiggins. To date, most accounts of May's life include her
married name of Wiggins.
Vera Buch Weisbord, in her autobiography A Radical Life, remembers Ella May Wiggins
as a striker who lived in Stumptown among the African Americans and came to Gastonia for
union meetings. Weisbord had arrived in Gastonia as second in command with Communist
organizer Fred Beal. Weisbord remembers Wiggins' contributions to union organizing and
credits her as being instrumental in recruiting her black neighbors for the union. Wiggins advised
Weisbord, "I know the colored don't like us. .. But if they see you're poor and humble like
themselves, they'll listen to you" (208). Ella May Wiggins recognized her black neighbors as an
integral part of union solidarity and brought union cards to their homes. Weisbord also
remembers a threat on Wiggins' life about a month after the first walkout at the Loray Mill that
may have been racially motivated. One morning Wiggins discovered that the spring that she and
her family depended upon for their water supply "looked blue and had a chemical smell" (218).
After Wiggins was fatally shot, Weisbord confirmed, "I am certain it was as an organizer of the
Negroes that Mrs. Wiggins was killed" (260). While the poisoned water was one incident within
a wave of terror against the millworkers, aligning the incident with Wiggins' murder on
September 14 suggests the possibility of a specifically political vendetta against Wiggins dictated
by racism. Weisbord's memoir names Horace Wheeler, an employee at the Loray Mill, as
Wiggins' murderer. Despite the testimony of more than sixty witnesses to a murder occurring on
a public highway in broad daylight, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Weisbord's
autobiography memorializes Wiggins' life as a [b]rave heart, songstress of millworkers, pioneer
organizer of the blacks" whose death earned "her [a] place among labor' s martyrs" (Weisbord
The story of Ella May Wiggins and the events surrounding the strike at Gastonia inspired
six novels: Mary Heaton Vorse' s Strike! (1930), Grace Lumpkin' s To Make My Bread' (1932),
Dorothy Myra Page' s The Gathering Storm: A Story of the Black Belt (1932), Olive Tilford
Dargan' s (Fielding Burke) Call Home the Heart (1932), Sherwood Anderson' s BeyondDesire
(1932), and William Rollins' The .\hadw,~l Before (1934). Although each novel depicts a unique,
Eictional reconstruction of the strike at Gastonia, only those fictions written by women create a
version of"Ella May Wiggins" as a mother who could represent, as a fictional compound Eigure,
the collective experience of Southern female millworkers.
While most contemporary studies of Depression era Siction acknowledge the use of
maternity as a trope for representing female unity among women, only a few studies specifically
address the fiction of Gastonia written by women, and the representation of Wiggins as a union
activist, motivated in part by her motherhood. For example, in her examination of the Gastonia
novels, critic Laura Hapke argues that the representations of "feminine solidarity via the Ma
Joad model" diminish the effectiveness of the fictional representation of Ella May Wiggins by
creating a "female militant palatable to the dominate culture" (Daughters 172). Such a
compromise, in Hapke' s view, reinforces a patriarchal interpretation that regards Steinbeck's Ma
Joad's maternal role as a traditional nurturing and protective mother rather than as an active
What I intend to argue in this study is that although the Gastonia (women) novelists
represent motherhood as nurturing and protective, in order to unify a female collective, they also
rely upon presenting a Wiggins-like Eigure to suggest a more active more militant image of
motherhood could exist. In other words, I seek to reveal how a woman character, like Wiggins
herself, manipulated an "acceptable" maternal role, where a woman's primary motivation for
resistance was rooted in securing the survival of her children, in order to create a space for a
woman's political voice. Motherhood legitimized the women strikers' motives both for working
at a time when women were facing hostility for taking j obs from men and for protesting
substandard wages and working conditions at a time when most of the country's population was
facing a phenomenal rate of unemployment.
As these novels strive to demonstrate, women millworkers could recognize as Wiggins
did, that they were not alone and isolated in their oppression; this sense of unity motivates them
toward their active participation in collective, unionized resistance. My inquiry focuses on the
novels of Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan as a "proto"-feminist body of Depression era
Section that relies upon a figure like Ella May Wiggins to demonstrate why working women's
oppression specifically as mothers might give these women particular and crucially gendered
motives for striking. Although a Eigure like Wiggins appears complicit with her oppression in her
adoption of a traditional maternal role, she is in fact, using the ideology that oppresses her to
inspire union solidarity among the Southern millworkers.
The fictional representations of Ella May Wiggins in the Gastonia novels not only reflect
a unifying identity of a female collective, but they also offered a means by which a female
readership could identify with female workers in the seemingly safe domain of fiction. Readers
were offered a traditional and sentimentalized character with whom they could identify, yet also
be shown how a social consciousness might arise out of a specifically working-class experience.
In her introduction to her study of multi-ethnic labor stories, Labor 's Text: The Worker in
American Fiction, Laura Hapke emphasizes a need to examine the lived histories of working
people whose lives were shaped by their presence in a politicized time and place:
[W]hile there is no unitary working-class experience; there are observable lived histories of
workers, from seminal events of unionism to the everyday stories of the 'apolitical'
communities and work cultures shaping the outlooks of working people. .. My
assumption throughout is that labor novels and stories originate in a specific time, place,
and ideological milieu that shape their meaning. (7)
Hapke's claim is central to this study, insofar as the Gastonia (women) authors attempted
to reconstruct the everyday life of Wiggins as a working-class "character" whose life reflected
the lives of a community where women were not only oppressed by childbearing, but also
oppressed by their economic role of providing for the survival of their children. Historically, the
Loray Mill employed both men and women; but the demonstrations of resistance were
predominantly led by the female millworkers. The overwhelming presence of female strikers
shocked the community and as Cora Harris reported in the Charlotte Observer, "If Gastonia has
never realized that militant women were within its bounds, .. it certainly knows it now"
As Hapke notes, there is no unitary working-class experience, but this study asks: what
unifying experiences could explain the collective resistance at Gastonia as a "seminal event" in
women's participation in unionism? Why would middle-class white women write about
working-class women? What kind of lens did the female authors of Gastonia use to reveal their
historical depiction of female working-class resistance? At a time when women' s wage work
could be justified only by their visible poverty, how did the female authors justify working-class
resistance? How were the material realities and the Leftist politics of Gastonia reflected in the
narratives as gender, class, and race? In sum, how do the female-authored depictions of Gastonia
articulate stories of a gendered, lived history of the working-class resistance in Depression era
The primary goal of this dissertation is to illuminate how Vorse, Page, Lumpkin, and
Dargan' s use of motherhood as a trope helps to answer the above questions. By examining how
these authors' fictional representations of a maternal figure, like Wiggins, is a discursive strategy
of realism, a fictional attempt to represent the actual events at Gastonia, my argument hinges, in
large measure, on Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of2~othering. Chodorow' s paradigm is
a valuable tool for me, because she interprets the social bonds between women as an extended
pre-Oedipal experience, which, she explains, is a sociological bond that creates a sense of unity
among women. Chodorow contends that an exclusive feminine pre-Oedipal experience
establishes a relational continuity between mothers and daughters that results in women
producing daughters who also have a desire to mother. Chodorow also suggests that the lack of
differentiation in the pre-Oedipal experiences of females produces more flexible ego boundaries
among women in their adult lives; as a result, many women seek to triangulate their heterosexual
relationships with additional female relationships (Chodorow 92-100).
Although Chodorow's model of cultural replication is criticized for its ethnocentricity, it
provides a plausible explanation for understanding a maternal-based female socialization among
groups sharing a common identity. The continuity of the mother-daughter relationship into
adulthood and the integration of female friendships suggest both a psychological need and a
sociological expectation for a woman to create a maternal-based social bond with her female
community. Chodorow' s reproduction of an internalized cultural view of mothering also
highlights the cultural reproduction of a traditional division of labor where women are relegated
to a domestic sphere while men tend to a public sphere. Indoctrinated into a domestic tradition,
rural Southern Appalachian women formed bonds with their community through acts of
nurturing and caretaking through the rituals surrounding birth, illness, and death.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, in Like a FamFFFFFFFF~~~~~~~~~ily: The Making of a .Sambal~ n Cotton M~ill World,
notes how women brought the tradition of female social bonding into the mill villages. Hall
contends that the women "performed rituals that reaffirmed the cohesiveness of the
neighborhood. When a child was born, women showered the mother with gifts and boxes of
second-hand clothes." Moreover, the maternal caretaking in the mill villages also extended to
childrearing where the millworkers believed that the childrenrn belonged to the community as
well as the family," and mill mothers shared in the care of infants and toddlers (Hall et. al.169-
170). These interdependent female relationships translated into a model of solidarity rooted in
motherhood among the workers within the mill. Hall also notes that the workers' sense of
solidarity was understood as a "multi-layered and deeply-felt" family relationship. The
millworkers' understanding of family was not describing "their dependence on a fatherly
employer so much as they were explaining their relationships with one another" (Hall et al.
xxiii). Hall's study of the southern millworkers not only illustrates how their feelings of
solidarity emanated from a sense of community, but it also reveals their feelings of solidarity
were fostered through a shared sense of motherhood.
By 1929 southern female workers constituted 60% of the total number of textile
millworkers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia (Salmond 30). Large portions of these women were
also mothers who were not only bearing a burden of dual labor, but also depending on their
wages for the survival of themselves and their families. The motivation for female militancy had
very little to do with the politics of the Communist Party. The political unity of the female
millworkers extended beyond their shared historic time and place to what they held in common,
their poverty and their experience of motherhood.
Writers Go Left, Go South, Go Away
In January 1929, Michael Gold, editor of the New M~asses, commanded young, emerging
proletarian writers to "Go Left, Young Writers" (Foley 222). In the May 1 issue, four weeks after
the April 1 walkout at the Loray Mill, Gold redirected the geographical course of his Leftist
writers. The Southern Piedmont region, according to Gold, was the site of a working-class
revolution where "[t]he battle in the tent colony in Gastonia symbolizes the advance of a new
contingent of the American Proletariat--the working class of the South; .. liberals who
continue to deplore the use of the term 'class-warfare' should go down to Gastonia and reality"
(qtd. in Cook 52). Michael Gold's 1929 directive points toward a global political communist
perception that counters the western perception of capitalism. In the 1930s, the politics of the
Left reflected an ideology that condemned the ownership of private property and advocated an
economic system of collective ownership. Hinging on the works of Karl Marx and the world' s
perception of the Bolshevik' s overthrow of provisional government as the political rise of the
working-class, in the Russian Revolution of 1917, I use the term "the Left" to span a broad range
of political identities within the United States in the early part of the twentieth century including:
socialism, anarchism, and communism, in the same way Gold used the term.
Gold, a socialist who later j oined the Communist Party, advocated for a working-class
revolution in the United States that mirrored the Russian Revolution. For Gold, as well as for
many other writers and artists who supported the propaganda coming out of the Communist
Party in Soviet Union, believed in party's vision of a working-class revolution. Interpretation of
revolutionary change, however, was as diverse as the political ideologies that claimed to be the
definitive cures for the economic malady brought on by the Great Depression.
Rabinowitz contends that female interpretations of working-class experience written
during the Depression era resist the boundaries of genre set by the 1930s identification as
"proletarian" because much of "women' s revolutionary writing" was fostered by rebelliousness
of the 1920s. In the 1920s writers "revolted" against gendered Victorian ideals, as well as from
the "muckraking naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (3 8-39). The
novels of Vorse, Page, Lumpkin and Dargan clearly fit into Rabinowitz' s category of
"revolutionary" because these novelists were not working-class writers, but rather middle-class
women who were drawn to literary radicalism in the 1920s by a vision of a sexually liberating
culture and inspired by the revolutionary politics of the 1930s. Revolutionary fiction, for the
Gastonia novelists extends beyond the narrative of a masculine proletariat leading a working-
class revolt against capitalism. Vorse, Page, Lumpkin and Dargan use the protest of a working-
class mother and a female collective to reveal the social injustice of gender, race, and class
Much of the literary legacy of Leftist novelists has been recovered and analyzed by
Daniel Aaron, David Madden, Ralph Bogardus, Fred Hobson, Alan Wald, and others, but critical
attention to female-authored proletarian literature, until the late 1980s and 1990s, has been
sparse. Critical attention to the female-authored Gastonia was fleeting. Bill Mullen and Sherry
Lee Linkon, in Radical Revisions, note the publication of Tillie Olsen' s Yonnondio as the first
step toward breaking the silence of the "unsung story of women of the depression and emergent
women' s voice of the 1970s feminist movement" (1). In 1983, Feminist Press responded to the
need for recovering women's writing and reissued Olive Tilford Dargan' s Call Home the Heart.
Four years later, Feminist Press released Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz' s Writing Red:
An Anthology ofAmerican Women Writers, 1930-1940, which revived the poetry, fiction, and
reportage of thirty-six working-class female writers. As part of the series, The Radical Novel
Reconsidered, the University of Illinois Press reissued of Vorse' s Strike! in 1991 and followed
with Lumpkin' s To Make M~y Bread in 1 995. Page' s Gathering Storm: A Story of the Black Belt
is the only female-authored Gastonia novel still out of print. The literary recovery of these works
and the ongoing effort to recover even more of the work of marginalized writers provides the
impetus for a growing body of scholarship in proletarian literature focusing on the representation
of gender as well as the representations of race and ethnicity.
The recovery and critical analysis of women' s Depression era literature has sparked
multiple descriptive identities to discern authorial commitment or sympathies with left-wing
values and goals. Despite Michael Gold's mantras directing writers to "Go Left" or "Go South"
or "Write your life," he advocated for individual creativity. Michael Denning, in Cultural Front,
contends that Gold maintained the diverse interpretation of revolutionary fiction and claimed,
"proletarian literature is taking many forms. There is not a standard model which all writers must
imitate, or even a standard set of thoughts. There are no precedents. Each writer has to find his
own way. All that unites us, and all we have for a guide, is the revolutionary spirit" (qtd. in
Denning). Gold' s definitions for the genre of proletarian fiction open a broader area of
interpretation for working-class narratives. Vorse, Page, Lumpkin, and Dargan, like many other
writers, were guided by the political spirit of an era that inspired them to write the life of Ella
"Proto"-Feminist Politics and the 1930s Protest Novels
The recovery and critical reviews of the female-authored Depression era fiction by
feminist critics not only provides the impetus for critical analysis, but also implies a critical
historical link between Gold's revolutionary leftist politics and feminist politics. Vorse,
Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan were initially drawn into political activism because of their concern
for social justice. Yet, as their novels attest, the revolutionary spirit of these Gastonia novelists
was informed by the political culture of the early part of the twentieth century that embraced a
wide variety of political ideologies. Although their political choices evolved throughout their
adult lives within the leftist political milieu of the Depression era, their revolutionary spirit and
collective identity as progressive women who came of age in a period when female suffrage and
early feminism were at their peak, lies at the core of their social activism.
Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan were all born in the latter nineteenth century. By the
time they were writing their narratives of Gastonia, they were mature college-educated women
whose political foundations developed within the women's suffrage movement. Female
militancy, to these authors, extended beyond the pursuit of women' s franchise to encompass the
social concerns of a historical period. Many contemporary historians refer to this period of social
activism, in the United States, as the Progressive era when franchise served as a platform upon
which women could participate in social and political reform.
Nancy Cott states that many of the female reformers during this period were privileged
women seeking "cross-class alliances" whose activism "represented not simply victims to be
assisted but a vanguard to be emulated" (33). The model of social reform for this female
vanguard was grounded in women's roles as mothers and as moral guardians. l use the term of
maternal-based activism in my study of the Gastonia novelists, to represent an ideology of social
motherhood practiced by women who crossed class boundaries and provided nurturing and
caretaking as a model of activism for economic and political reform. Mary Heaton Vorse, for
example, dedicated her time and her writing skills to a female collective whose maternal
concerns led them to organize and implement a pure milk proj ect in New York which provided
milk for the infants of the immigrant textile workers. At the time, Vorse was a single mother
struggling to raise her own children. Vorse's apartment was not far from the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory where young immigrant mothers worked long hours and could not return home to feed
their infants. Vorse' s dedication to this proj ect was motivated by her identification with the other
working women whose childcare needs were similar to her own.
In the examination of the early activist vanguards who fostered the activism of the female
authors of Gastonia, my study also acknowledges the historical roots of feminism as the core of
the women's suffrage movement within the United States. While the term feminism appears as a
broad, if not modern, term, the feminism that emerges out of the historical struggle for franchise
was grounded by the practices of female solidarity and activism. Feminism, as Nancy Cott
contends, was at its peak in the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century when the
term feminist articulated the unified goals of progressive women who moved from their domestic
sphere to advocate for "civic rights, social freedoms, higher education, remunerative
occupations, and the ballot" (3).
As Cott, Weigand, and other feminist theorists concur and the Gastonia novelists
confirm, the feminist activists did not disappear after the ratification of the nineteenth
amendment in 1920. Franchise was only the first step toward a political voice for women. The
goal of feminists in the early twentieth century was a "complete social revolution" (qtd. in Cott
15). Living within the historical moment when women's political activism was modeled through
a culturally prescribed role and at a time when women had gained political franchise, the
Gastonia novelists envisioned the possibility of a maj or ideological shift in society's social
consciousness that reflected a female working-class vision of social change.
In his 1985 article, "Proletarian Literature and Feminism: The Gastonia Novels and
Feminist Protest," Joseph Urgo was among the first to examine the Gastonia novels through a
feminist critical lens. Urgo contends that the female authors express a feminist protest and
expose patriarchal oppression by showing "female subjugation through the realities of
childbearing, sexism, dominating males, and a societal structure which assumes male primacy"
(83). Urgo's article focuses specifically on the female-authored Gastonia as a feminist portrayal
of gendered experiences of survival and resistance. However, Urgo resists addressing the
representations of motherhood in the female-authored Gastonia noting that the "complexity of
the female novelists' portrayal of motherhood might indicate the contradictory emotions that
function produces in women" (82). As Urgo notes, the maternal representations are both
complex and contradictory. However, viewing this complexity as compound depictions of
motherhood as a discursive strategy of realism reveals a salient area for expanding a feminist
analysis of the representations of motherhood as militant.
While the story of Ella May Wiggins' survival and resistance as a southern millworker
illustrates the burdens of maternity, the authors' characterizations also suggest that maternity was
also recognized as a mother' s authority within her domestic sphere. As Urgo argues, the
physiological and economic effects of childbearing represented a harsh reality, but Vorse, Page,
Lumpkin, and Dargan had lived among the women of Appalachia and understood that these rural
women also took great pride in their reproductive role of childbirth and of caring for their large
families. Alice Kessler-Harris contends, by invoking an idealized as well as institutionalized
maternal image, progressive women drew upon the only authority granted to them by a
patriarchal system, power within their domestic sphere (50). Additionally, the use of a
reproductive body as a political body, according to Kate Weigand was a pattern of many
progressive women of the 1930s who "defined themselves and their interests around the family
and adopted a maternalist style of activism that valorized features of traditional femininity" (5).
Although maternal authority has been historically subjugated by paternal authority, it has
nonetheless, been perceived culturally as the domestic core of social order and the enforcement
of moral and social values within the family structure.
However, Rabinowitz cautions that theorizing the valorized maternal trope "verges on
essentialism because it invokes women's biological capacity to bear children without
interrogating the cultural platitudes surrounding motherhood" (123). In this study, the legitimacy
of female working-class activism hinges upon the foregrounding women' s reproductive ability as
its perceived, as well as its valorized, cultural interpretation as a "natural" vocation. The cultural
perception of motherhood as a natural, as well as social, "right" legitimizes women' s political
work or wage-earning work as her moral and social contribution to society. Moreover, the female
Gastonia novelists also shift the focus of working-class consciousness from the similarly
valorized rhetoric of masculinity, depicting the experiences of an individual revolutionary male
proletariat, to the working-class feminist consciousness of a working-class collective,
emphasizing the cultural perception of the feminine as both maternal and relational.
My study examines the novels of Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan as "proto" feminist
discourses of social protest fostered by the political milieu of the Depression era. The Gastonia
novels advance the Left' s revolutionary spirit through working-class activism. While Barbara
Foley highlights some components of Eictional autobiography, collective novel, and
bildungsroman within these novels, the underlying focus hinges on the strike at Gastonia as a
depiction of class struggle which supports a social novel. Foley defines the social novel as one
that "focuses on a strike or some other event in the class struggle and stresses confrontation over
apprenticeship" (362). The social novel blurs the boundaries between the other components of
proletarian Eiction. Underpinning the social novel, however, is the goal of the author to move
their readers toward a working-class sympathy through their identification with specific
characters (Foley 362). Vorse, Page, Lumpkin, and Dargan draw their readers' sympathies
through protagonists who are mothers as well as active participants in a historical moment. The
Gastonia novels, in this dissertation, are analyzed as proletarian social novels which narrate the
lived history of a southern working-class female collective and their confrontation of class
oppression as demonstrated by the strike at Gastonia.
Theorizing a Visibility for the Undervalued
In her introduction to Better Red, the late Constance Coiner calls for a kaleidoscopic
social Hield of inquiry for theorizing radical women' s working-class writing (5). Coiner
illustrates her kaleidoscopic inquiry as an interdisciplinary approach into the lives and the works
of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur, which includes feminist literary criticism, cultural studies,
social history, labor history, and biography. Although Coiner recommends expanding areas of
critical inquiry, she also cautions researchers:
[C]ompensatory criticism "ignores or glosses over weaknesses and contradictions in
writing by women, people of color, and members of the working class as a way partly to
compensate for its exclusion. Our task is not simply to promote, but to understand the
undervalued. Failing to engage the problems of working-class writing leads us away from
its historical complexity (6)
Following Coiner's advice, I expand my areas of inquiry to include interdisciplinary bodies of
critical work focusing on the biographical, cultural, historical, and political milieu surrounding
the Depression era and the strike at Gastonia. Although Mary Heaton Vorse, Grace Lumpkin,
Dorothy Myra Page, and Olive Tilford Dargan suffered decades of exclusion as radical writers,
my intent is not to gloss over the weaknesses and contradictions within their novels, but to
understand how the working-class writing of these women was historically informed by the
culture, the time, and the place. The working-class experience of a strike in the Southern United
States in 1929 differs radically from the working-class experience of a strike in the Northeast or
the Midwest. While Coiner' s ground-breaking study was one of the first to illuminate the writing
of Olsen and Le Sueur, it also illuminates the presence of other women whose Depression era
narratives were marginalized because they focused on female experiences such as pregnancy,
birth control, and child care as well as working for wages. This study examines how Depression
era southern culture, history, and politics specifically shaped the lives of working-class women
in their compliance as well as in their resistance.
In "Gastonia: The Literary Reverberations of the Strike" Sylvia Cook Jenkins contends
that in creating a proletarian hero from a "quaint southern peasant," the Gastonia authors relied
"on the sensationalism of atrocities--rather than an analysis of [the worker' s] causes--to
produce a 'correct response' (64). Although the authors replicate the sensationalism that
pervaded the news reports, their re-exposure of the brutality also served to remind their socially
conscious readers of their participation in the oppression of the working class. The impact of the
literary image of working-class exploitation evokes a sense of accountability for those who buy
the fabric without any consideration of the life blood that was lost in its manufacture.
Cook also insists on an analysis of "the sociological realities of the massive migrations in
the South from cotton field to cotton mill" (50). She suggests a theoretical need to look beyond
the sensationalism and examine the sociological realities of the strikers as a response to their
material reality rather than a response to the political ideology as a method of mass conversion.
All four of the Gastonia novelists address the sociological realities of the migration of rural poor
to the mills as part of a material concern and a maternal concern highlighting the contributing
factors as rural privation and motivation for a better life for their children.
The migrations of the rural poor into the cities occurred in the wake of the Civil War,
when the Reconstruction of South brought about industrialization through the opening of
railways, coal mining, logging, and the textile industries. Rural Appalachia proved to be a source
of abundant, cheap labor that could be lured into industry by the promise of modernity. The
migration of many families was motivated by a mother' s concern for the basic human needs of
her family such as food, clothing, homes with electricity, and education for their children. Once
at the mill, the rural poor discover that the promises of modernity that guarantee food, shelter,
clothing, and education, are priced higher than the wages they are paid.
Studies by Hall, Salmond, and others illustrate that in some ways, the workers colluded in
their exploitation through their conservative, evangelical religious beliefs that emphasized
obedience and their passive acceptance of a paternalist factory system whose benevolence was
reinforced each Sunday in church while their exploitation continued throughout the work week.
While Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan realistically portray these sociological factors, they
also challenge the negative stereotypes that pervaded previous literary depictions of an ignorant,
rural southern poor. The strike at Gastonia is a seminal event of unionism that debunks the myth
of southern millworkers as docile and ignorant pawns in an ideological battle between
Communism and capitalism and illuminates the motives behind the strikers' response as a
collective response to their material reality and to the paternalistic systems that oppress them.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall also confirms the motive and the collective ideology of the
southern millworkers as the collective concern for their families. Like a Family confronts the
perceived rural ignorance as well as the material reality of the southern millworkers by
illuminating the complexity of the cultural transformation of the southern millworkers through
the testimonies of over 200 interviews conducted in the Southemn Piedmont region of the
Carolinas. Like a Family provides a sociological definition of family as both an image and an
institution. The image of family is rooted in a rural, patriarchal southern tradition steeped in a
deep evangelical religious base. The institution of family reveals a gendered division of labor
and a structure of extended kinship that includes blood relationship and church family. The
image and the institution of family play across the Gastonia novels as both motive and collective
ideology linked to a maternal figure who assumes the responsibility for the material well-being
of her household while she works for wages and guards morality.
Hall explains the interdependency of the rural poor as a social system where groupop
solidarity served as a buffer against poverty and, above all, represented a realistic appraisal of
working people's prospects, .. casting one's lot with family and friends offered more promise
and certainly more security than the slim hope of individual gain" (172). Most families were
acutely aware of their "lot" and the destiny of their children, most of who by the age of twelve
follow the path of their parents and become millworkers. The millworkers cling to their shared
identity as family, which was universally understood and easily translated into class solidarity in
their transformation from the cotton field to the cotton mill and from docile to militant.
In his praise for Paula Rabinowitz's study of female militancy, Labor and'Desire:
Women 's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America, Leftist scholar Alan Wald notes that in
bringing to the foreground "the issue of gender--especially female sexuality and maternity,"
Rabinowitz opens new areas of inquiry (52-55). More specifically, Labor and Desire prompts
the focus of this dissertation as an inquiry into how the maternal representations of Ella May
Wiggins reflect collective female militancy in Gastonia. Rabinowitz contends that the maternal
body is the central trope in most of the women' s revolutionary novels of the Depression era
because it connects women through experience and reinforces the relationship between the
individual and the collective.
Drawing upon LeSueur' s assertions of female historical experience as "written in the
book of the flesh," Rabinowitz theorizes that the female narratives of the Depression era are
embodied and textualized as both labor and desire (qtd. in Rabinowitz 2). In her comprehensive
study of more than forty Depression era authors, Rabinowitz genders the bodies and the texts of
the working class insisting:
The body of the working-class man of the 1930s--and to an extent its text--is hungry, an
empty space once filled by its labor; the body of the working class woman, as well as her
text, is pregnant with desire for 'children' for 'butterfat' to feed them, and most
significantly, for 'history' to change the world for them. (3)
Rabinowitz calls for the revision of scholarship that reflects the material conditions of the 1930s
as a female embodiment of both labor and desire. This study illustrates how the depiction of Ella
May Wiggins' labor and desire significantly changes a history that is "written in the flesh." The
maternal bodies at Gastonia not only birthed their infants, but also bore hunger, disease, eviction,
and violent acts of castigation committed in the name of the law as a consequence for their
protest against substandard wages and living conditions.
In support of her theory of gendered historical experience, Rabinowitz also draws upon
the approach of labor historian, Joan Scott, who challenges traditional historical study by
insisting the interrelationship of history and literature are both "forms of knowledge, whether we
take them as disciplines or as bodies of cultural information" (Scott 8). Rabinowitz validates the
narratives of working-class women as depictions of experiential knowledge and contends that
"[t]he only way we know history is through the retelling of accumulated stories that are narrated,
either literally or metaphorically, by and through the bodies of gendered subj ects" (9). The
atrocities depicted in the Gastonia novels are, in fact, literal historical realities reproduced within
the fictional narratives and serve as testimony to women's participation in what Gold refers to as
"class-war." Specifically, in the novels of Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan, the
representations of Ella May Wiggins as both an activist and a martyr, historicize the subj activity
of the women at Gastonia.
Protest Narratives and Maternal Activism
My dissertation is divided into four sections with each section focusing on the specific
work of Mary Heaton Vorse, Grace Lumpkin, Dorothy Myra Page, and Olive Tilford Dargan.
Each provides a brief biographical history showing how the personal and political experiences of
each author inform her working-class writing. The balance of each chapter frames the individual
novel as a feminist body of Depression era fiction that relies upon the maternal representation of
Ella May Wiggins as a discursive strategy for challenging the prevailing political ideologies and
inspiring solidarity among the southern millworkers through a working-class activism which
used motherhood as a rallying cry.
While the novels of Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan attempt to represent the lived,
material experiences of the Depression era southern millworkers, these novels also reflect the
political engagement of four white, privileged, middle-class authors with their working-class
subj ects. Like their subj ects, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan were women who were bomn and reared
in the South, and their life experiences reflect their acceptance as well as their rej section of
southern cultural traditions. Although Vorse was born and raised in New England, she arrived in
Gastonia not only as a seasoned labor j ournalist, but also as the working single mother of three
children who understood the historical impact as well as the maternal desperation of the striking
female millworkers risked the loss of their wages. Additionally, all four authors experienced at
least one pregnancy resulting in abortion or birth. In their recreations of Ella May Wiggins, they
depict an accurate historical and gendered account of the female working-class experience that
they had both observed and experienced as women living in a specific place and time.
In framing the historical activism of Gastonia' s female authors, this study is deeply
indebted to the biographers of Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Dargan, whose documentation of the
authors' lived histories has helped to construct the relationship between writer and subj ect.
Dee Garrison' s Mary Heaton Vorse: Life ofan American Insurgent depicts Vorse as the epitome
of the labor j oumalists, whose life experiences chronicle the first half of a century of the history
of labor. Vorse's experience as a labor reporter began with the strike in Lawrence in 1912. Her
biography reveals a life filled with "matemal guilt" as a single mother, living in Greenwich
Village and struggling to support her children as a writer and a labor joumalist (Garrison xv).
Vorse was fifty-five years old and a seasoned reporter by the time she arrived in Gastonia and
began writing Strike! while she was sending dispatches to Harpers and the Federated Press.
Vorse spent more than six weeks in the Southemn Piedmont covering the wave of strikes through
the neighboring mills that began with the strike at the Loray Mill. While in Gastonia, she shared
a room and established a close friendship with Communist organizer Vera Buch Weisbord.
While conducting interviews, Vorse established relationships with Ella May Wiggins, the female
strikers, and other the female organizers. Vorse's Strike! is the first of all the Gastonia novels and
by far the most historically accurate in its depiction of the events of the strike and the life of Ella
Vorse establishes three points of view through the observations and experiences of three
distinct classes of characters: the obj ective j oumalists who report the events; Mamie Lewes, the
fictional Ella May Wiggins, who witnesses the brutality; and a Sictionalized Vera Buch Weisbord
as a female union leader who steps in for an ineffectual Fred Beal to implement organized
demonstrations of resistance. The plot of Strike hinges on the development of the social
consciousness of a young journalist and the developing militancy of her fictional Ella May
Wiggins. Wiggins' observations reveal the specific historical atrocities such as the police
brutality against women on the picket lines; the raid of a vigilante group on the relief store; and,
ultimately, the union rally where Wiggins loses her life.
As a Northemn reporter, Vorse appears to be separated from her southern sister-novelists
as well as from her southern subj ect. However, her radical social consciousness has it origins in
her own maternal activism at previous historical demonstrations of female resistance. Vorse is
motivated by her social consciousness as well as her maternal experience, and her lived history
aligns her with her subj ect through an empathic relationship. In her fictional portrayal of Ella
May Wiggins, Wiggins represents the eye witness as well as the core of a working-class
collective whose maternal-based activism inspires union solidarity and documents a realistic
portrayal of historical female participation in the 1929 strike in Gastonia.
In her introduction to Grace Lumpkin' s To Make My Bread, Suzanne Sowinska offers a
brief but comprehensive biography. Although born into an upper class, Lumpkin grew up in a
post-Reconstruction period of economic desperation where she can recall picking cotton on the
family farm. Prior to living in New York as an active member of the Communist Party, Lumpkin
worked as a home demonstrator and taught the children of the southern poor as well teaching at a
night school for southern millworkers. At thirty-three, following the death of her mother,
Lumpkin left the South for New York City where she shared a house and her idealistic vision of
the Communist Party's platform for social change with Esther Shemitz. Lumpkin and Shemitz
met their future husbands, Michael Intrator and Wittaker Chambers while they worked for the
Party at the strike in Passaic. Although there is conflicting data as to whether Lumpkin and
Intrator were actually married, there is a record of the marriage between Chambers and Shemitz.
Scandalizing their neighbors, all four shared the house on Eleventh Street (Sowinska xvi).
Sometime in the mid to late 1930s, Lumpkin became pregnant with Intrator' s child. Friends
believe that Lumpkin' s abortion was the result of pressure from Intrator. Her relationship with
Intrator proved detrimental professionally as well as personally. Intrator's expulsion from the
Communist Party as a Lovestoneite in 1929 resulted in Lumpkin' s alienation from her friends.
She was not only abandoned by her friends, but Intrator also left her soon after her abortion. By
1948 Lumpkin adamantly denounced her affiliation before the House Committee on Un-
American Activities and retreated back to her southern agrarian tradition living in South Carolina
as a religious witness "exposing the evils of Communism" (Sowinska xix-xxi).
Lumpkin's fictionalized Ella May Wiggins originates from a period that Lumpkin refers
to as her "Communist Phase," earning her the 1932 Gorky Prize as best labor novel of the year
(Sowinska viii). As Barbara Foley suggests, To Make My Bread is structured as a proletarian
bildungsroman which traces the parallel political development of male and female children by
contrasting their growing awareness of class consciousness (330). Lumpkin also integrates her
personal experiences as a government home demonstrator and teacher among the southern poor
by depicting Ella May Wiggins as a composite of two women, a mother who represents the rural
mountain woman driven to the mills out of economic necessity and a daughter who depicts the
mill mother who inspires union activism.
To Make M~y Bread' is divided in half with the first half illustrating the sociological
structure and the material realities of southern rural Appalachia. The first chapter opens with an
infant Bonnie in a cradle and the maternal body of a widowed Emma McClure separated from
her female community by a snowstorm while in the throes of a long and painful childbirth.
Lumpkin aligns her proletarian bildungsroman with the characters of Bonnie and her new
brother, John. The encroachment of the logging industry and the personal tragedies that force
Emma and her family to flee from the mountains to the mills fi11 the first half of the novel. The
second half of the novel documents the oppression of mill upon the bodies of both Emma and
Bonnie McClure. At the novel's end, Bonnie dies, a militant maternal martyr on the union
platform, leaving her brother lives to carry on a maternal-based solidarity and assuring
Lumpkin's readers that "pain .. accompanies birth--pain and sometimes death" (Lumpkin
Christina Looper Baker' s In a Generous Spirit: A First-Person Biography of2~yra Page
portrays the lived history of a radical writer whose political idealism led her to the Communist
Party during the interwar era and through the persecution of the McCarthy era. Dorothy Markey
adopted the pseudonym of Dorothy Myra Page to protect her family from embarrassment and
later from political persecution. Born in Newport News, Virginia, Page challenged the traditions
of her southern upbringing that resulted in her belief that she was "held up by tradition and held
by tradition" (author' s emphasis, qtd. in Baker xxiii). Page's biography reveals a history of
frustration where she was thwarted by her gender as well as southern tradition. Inspired by her
fervent belief in social justice and the goals of the Communist Party, Page created Gathering
Storm: A Story of the Black Belt as her artistic intervention. The novel was both criticized and
commended for its adherence to the Communist Party platform. Page's Ella May Wiggins
transgresses cultural boundaries and offers answers to questions of class as well as to the
"Woman Question" and the "Negro Question." Page's resistance to southern tradition is reflected
through the resistance of her fictional subj ect to gender, class, and race oppression.
Dorothy Myra Page was the youngest and the most educated of the female Gastonia
novelists. Actively involved in the Communist Party, Page and her husband delayed having
children until 1934. Although Page was in Russia at the time of the actual strike in Gastonia, she
drew upon the material of her doctoral research from the summer of 1926 when she studied the
female millworker's attitudes about children and work. While Page' s advanced degree positions
her in a more comfortable economic situation, her doctoral research also reveals much of her
heartfelt empathy for the southern millworker as well as revealing her political and feminist
sympathies for the southern millworkers at Gastonia.
Page's Gathering Storm begins in the mill village rather than the mountains and relies
upon a maternal grandmother' s narrative for the sociological history of the family's rural
migration. The grandmother sabotages her husband's potato patch so that the family can escape
from rural privation and the children can get an education. Like Lumpkin, Page pairs her female
protagonist with a brother and throughout the novel, and both develop a social consciousness.
However, Page's male proletariat travels north for his educational experiences in union
organizing and racial equality. Page's female protagonist, Marge Crenshaw, remains in the
South; and Page documents a lived history of female subjugation with yearly pregnancies and
capitalist oppression at the hands of the mill managers. Page also parallels the Crenshaw family
with the African American Morgan family. Martha, the Morgan's eldest daughter is raped and
murdered by the mill owner' s son, and the historical events that reveal the ingrained racism of a
Jim Crow South subsequently lead to the massacre of the entire Morgan family and mass exodus
of the black families who live in the Back Row, the segregated area for African Americans.
Martha' s rape and murder are depicted as Marge' s first lesson in racial equality, and
Marge carries this memory throughout the novel. Despite her oppression, Marge, female
millworker, finds her voice as maternal militant who defends the union stand on racial and class
equality. Marge shares the union platform with Page's version of Ella May Wiggins. Page uses
Wiggins' maiden name, Ella May, to depict the lived history of the strike's balladeer. Marge
Crenshaw and Ella May are linked as sisters and comrades, sharing similar experiences and
supporting each other' s union activism The death of Ella May, however, does not end the novel.
After Ella May is shot and dies in the arms of Marge Crenshaw, Crenshaw j oins the ranks of
union organizers and goes north to attend an even larger union rally and emerge as a female
organizer inspiring working-class solidarity among her sisters.
Sixty-six-year-old Kentucky-born playwright and poet Olive Tilford Dargan chose the
male pen name Fielding Burke and emerged from her isolation in the North Carolina hills to
create her version of Ella May Wiggins as a working-class maternal heroine in Call Home the
Heart. In the novel's Biographical Afterword, Anna Shannon notes that the gaps and
inconsistencies in Dargan's biographical record may be attributed to Dargan herself, who "may
have conspired in the destruction of the evidence of her political activities and contacts during
two of the periods of political repression through which she lived" (433). In a letter to her friend,
she implied that leftist ideology inspired her vision of social change. Dargan claimed she was
"perusing the Daily Worker regularly and assiduously" and that she was "still vivid red"
(Shannon, Biographical 440).
Although much of her personal correspondence was destroyed in fires occurring in 1919
and in 1924 as well as during the Red Scare of the 1950s, the papers that were treasured and
saved along with her earlier works offer striking evidence of Dargan' s feminist activism.
Shannon contends that much of Dargan' s correspondence reveals "a network of women
providing one another with their primary source of identity and energy" (434). The voices of
Dargan's supportive network included feminists like Rose Pastor Stokes, a fellow socialist and
one of the founding members of the American Communist Party; Alice Stone Blackwell,
daughter of women' s' rights pioneer Lucy Stone; and Anne Whitney, a lesbian sculptor.
At age forty, when Dargan learned she was pregnant, she sought the support of her friend,
Rose Pastor Stokes. Dargan left her husband behind in the Carolina Hills and spent the summer
in the Stokes' home. Dargan' s daughter was born prematurely in May 1907, living for only two
hours after her birth. Shannon's biographical study reveals that Dargan's summer with Stokes
not only helped her to heal physically and emotionally from her loss, but the Socialist
atmosphere of the Stokes' home also strongly influenced Dargan's politics (Afterword 437).
In Call Home the Heart, the maternal body of Dargan' s fictional Ella May Wiggins
represents and reveals Dargan's feminist philosophy as a sharp contrast to the material reality
and the cultural traditions of the working-class poor of the Appalachian South. Dargan' s story
begins with an adolescent Ishma Waycaster' s early resentment of the rural patriarchal traditions
that circumscribe her life as a woman. Dargan's protagonist runs the family farm that supports
her mother, sister, and shiftless brother-in-law as well as a brood of hungry children. Ishma soon
marries; as she begins to replicate the cycle of yearly pregnancies of her sister, the farm fails due
to a series of disasters. Out of frustration, a pregnant Ishma escapes with an ex-beau to a mill
town in the valley. Mentored by the town's Marxist physician, Ishma Waycaster evolves from a
volunteer home health-care provider into a maternal activist. Dargan "saves" her fictional Ella
May Wiggins by returning her to the mountains just as the violence of the strike begins to unfold.
Ishma returns to her husband and together they plan to convert the family farm into a retreat that
will offer a healthy environment for the children of the millworkers. Ishma' s call home to the
mountains is more than a nostalgic call for a return to the past; it is a militant maternal call to
provide for the future generations. At the same time, Dargan's feminist message is carried back
to Cloudy Knob as an epilogue written upon the recalcitrant reproductive body of Ishma
Waycaster who claims that she "couldn't go on living like an old cow. Fodder in winter and
grass in summer, and a calf every year" (393). Although Dargan returns Ishma to the mountains,
she also provides her protagonist with the knowledge to control her yearly reproductive destiny.
In Labor 's Text, Laura Hapke contends, some of the most important texts of worker
fiction came from three radical women writers who told the mother' s-and their mothers'--
story. .Whatever their leftist biographies, Olsen, Smedley, and Le Sueur radicalized the
maternal plot by documenting the work conditions of the blue-collar domestic sphere" (231). It is
important to make visible four other female writers whose novels also radicalize the maternal
plot and document a working-class domestic sphere. Mary Heaton Vorse, Grace Lumpkin,
Dorothy Myra Page and Olive Tilford Dargan depict of a Depression era Gastonia in which a
Sictionalized "Ella May Wiggins" serves as a (female) catalyst for working-class activism that
will change the world for the future of all children.
MARY HEATON VORSE: UNCOVERING THE MATERNAL MILITANCY IN STRIKE!
Labor Correspondence and Leftist Conversion
Published in the early fall of 1930, Mary Heaton Vorse' s Strike! emerged as the first of
six novels inspired by the strike at Gastonia. As a reporter for Harpers, Vorse had spent almost
six weeks among the female workers and had developed a friendship with Ella May Wiggins. Of
the four female authors who portrayed Wiggins' s life and focused on the role of women in a
fictionalized version of Gastonia, Vorse was the only author who experienced the events first
hand and knew Wiggins personally. On the day Wiggins was murdered, according to Dee
Garrison's biography, Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent, both Vorse and
Wiggins were en route to the same union rally. Vorse's car was blocked by an angry mob, but
police intervention saved Vorse and the car's other occupants At the same time, some distance
past Vorse's vehicle, the truck in which Wiggins was riding was also blocked by another group
of vigilantes; guns were fired and Wiggins was fatally shot (Garrison, Introduction 229).
Hearing the news of Wiggins' murder, Vorse recalled Wiggins' last words to her: "I
belong to the union because of my children. I haven't been able to do anything for them. .. But
when they grow up, they won't have to work twelve hours a day for nine dollars a week ...
They would have to kill me to make me leave the union" (Garrison, Introduction 229). Though
Vorse sent dispatches to Harpers and the Federated Press, the reports appear to have fallen short
of conveying the maternal motives of the murdered woman. Vorse' s reports also fell short of
conveying the story of the maternal activism that drew Wiggins toward union solidarity and that
fateful journey to the rally.
Along with writing her dispatches, Vorse also began writing her novel, Strike! Vorse
integrates the actual historical events occurring in Gastonia as well as in neighboring mill towns
throughout the Southern Piedmont. The historical reality within Strike! extends beyond the
reported acts of oppression and demands a class-based accountability. Vorse reveals Wiggins'
murderers as the class of "comfortable people"(12) who resort to mob violence out of ignorance,
rather than a nameless capitalist system. Vorse's novel specifically focuses on Wiggins, not as a
singular protagonist or victim, but as the core of a female collective whose activism was
motivated by her desire to earn a living and create a better life for her children and whose death
was a class-based political act of violence.
As a labor journalist and freelance writer, Mary Heaton Vorse arrived at Gastonia with
extensive experience in documenting strikes and an acute understanding of the concerns of
working mothers. Vorse was the mother of two when she arrived at the Lawrence Strike in 1912,
and her career in labor j ournalism reveals a sweeping historical chronology of the labor
movement including the 1916 Mesabi Range Strike; the 1919 National Steel strike; the 1920
Amalgamated Clothing Workers' strike and the 1926 Passaic Strike (Garrison Mary xiii-xvi). In
addition to her reportage, Vorse produced a massive collection of articles and stories, as well as
two plays and sixteen books, all of which Garrison notes, are marked by Vorse' s "consistent
attention to the special concerns of women" (Mary x). Vorse' s understanding of women's
concerns came from her personal and her professional experiences as a working mother.
Despite the recognition and critical acclaim of her career as a radical writer, Vorse
struggled with an intense sense of failure in her attempt to balance her professional role as a
labor activist and reporter and her personal role as a wife and a mother. Garrison states that the
professional and personal contradictions of Vorse' s life experiences give her life its "greatest
poignancy" (xvii). In 1922, following her disastrous affair with Robert Minor, Vorse suffered a
miscarriage and fell into a dark depression. Focusing on her "neglect" of her children, Vorse
draws a self-defeating portrait of maternal guilt:
My failure is that of almost every working woman who has children and a home to keep
up, whether she scrubs floors, or works in mills, or is a high-priced professional woman.
It' s nearly impossible to do both j obs well. So most women fail in either or both. .. Are
two things possible? Must there always be a double failure? (qtd. Garrison, Mary xv).
Vorse's sense of double failure reflects a distinctly female conflict between the demands of
mothering and the demands of working for wages. In her inclusive description of "almost every
working woman," Vorse implies a collective maternal experience that unites working women
and stretches across class boundaries spanning the most menial to the most prestigious of
professions. Vorse' s focus on the roles of women reveals an attempt to negotiate the conflict
between a woman's reproductive role and her professional role.
As part of a larger proj ect of examining the relationship of maternal representations used in
women' s revolutionary fiction, this chapter explores Vorse' s fictional representation of the life
of Ella May Wiggins as a maternal activist whose narrative voice reflects the professional and
personal struggles of the working-class maternal collective in Gastonia. This chapter briefly
addresses how the contradictions between the personal and political experiences of Mary Heaton
Vorse inform her fictional representation of Wiggins' maternal activism in Strike! The balance of
the chapter focuses on Vorse's fictional portrayal of Ella May Wiggins as the core of a working-
class collective whose maternal-based activism inspires union solidarity and documents a
realistic portrayal of historical female participation in the 1929 strike in Gastonia.
The plot of Strike! is loosely based on the radical conversion of a young naive reporter,
Roger Hewlett, into a man with a working-class consciousness. Hewlett is closely mentored by
an older more seasoned reporter, Ed Hoskins, who provides an informative summary of
Gastonia' s local history and culture, as well as the historical background of working-class
resistance. Hoskins' narrative of experience spans Vorse's own career in labor j oumalism
beginning with the Lawrence strike in 1912 through the Passaic Strike in 1926. In the novel's
introduction, Garrison contends that the characterizations of Hewlett and Hoskins are
representative of the various stages in Vorse' s career in j oumalism, as well as representing a
more authoritative voice in a profession dominated by men. Additionally, Garrison suggests that
the political conversion of Hewlett reflects the development of Vorse' s own working-class
consciousness (Introduction xv).
Most critics concur that the plot of Strike! relies upon the presence of Hewlett and Hoskins
for its unity and its message of political conversion. However, viewing the novel from a maternal
lens reveals historical moments of female activism at the core of the reporters' consciousness-
raising narratives. Although the journalists observed, reported, and were transformed by the
strike, the heart of Vorse' s novel lies in the collective strength of the women who experienced
the physical, emotional, and economic brutality. Strike! illustrates the message of maternal
solidarity in the strike at Stonerton through the character of Mamie Lewes. Lewes' participation
and eye-witness accounts document the experiences of a female collective whose maternal-based
activism not only inspires working-class militancy, but also portrays a history of injustice meant
to inspire a social consciousness within the hearts of the middle to upper classes.
Joseph Urgo notes that upon its release, Strike! was highly praised by reviewers for its
truthful depiction and its "moral purpose," however, the novel was also criticized as a "second-
rate piece of Eiction" (68). In his 1930 review for the Nation, Sinclair Lewis concurs with most of
Vorse's contemporaries and contends that Strike! is more a "statement of facts than a novel"
(qtd. in Urgo 68). Strike! did not meet the expectations of the reviewers in the 1930s because it
defied the formulas for both bourgeois and proletarian Eiction in its lack of a specific singular
protagonist. Although Vorse's historical facts appear to overshadow the literary quality of her
novel, the female testimonies beneath her historical reportage reveal an in-depth coverage of
In her contemporary study, Barbara Foley notes that Vorse's extensive use of historical
facts reflect a "documentarism" that is characteristic of a collective novel. According to Foley,
the documentation of facts "links the text' s collective protagonist to historical actuality by
multiple threads of reference." Moreover, Foley asserts that a collective "novel has no hero
because reality has no hero" (420). The strike at Gastonia extends beyond traditional
representations of northern and western industrial strikes with the heroic revolutionary male
proletariat because the strikers were predominantly female. Written from a journalist's
perspective, there is no single protagonist to act as a heroine. Vorse posits her fictional Wiggins
within the historical events as part of the collective's resistance. Therefore, Vorse depicts the
strike at Gastonia through the multiple threads of collective female experiences of the striking
In the opening chapter, Vorse confronts the limits of journalism and suggests the
possibility of a story behind a story through her characterization of Roger Hewlett. The
reporter' s questions highlight how even the most realistic documentation of collective human
experience cannot be reduced to the space of a headline or a summary lead in a newspaper.
Hewlett asks: "How can you tell people who have never seen a strike what it means to the people
who are striking? How can one indicate in the space of a few pages what makes people strike?
How are you going to make other people feel terror?" (17). In Strike!, Vorse lifts journalism's
obj ective and editorial veil to make people see, feel, and understand what motivates the
militancy of the millworkers. Vorse also lifts j ournalism's obj ective and editorial veil to make
the comfortable people feel the terror at Gastonia and recognize their accountability for the
brutality against the female millworkers and for the murder of Wiggins. Through her depiction of
Wiggins, Vorse reveals the story behind the headlines and illustrates the meaning of a strike as
the collective belief that "a strike is about life" and "life is more important than business" (14).
Vorse characterizes the lives of the Southern millworkers as a maternal collective who believe
that the lives of their children are more important than the textile business in North Carolina.
A Life of Contradiction: Militancy and Maternity
Vorse' s perceptions of motherhood and gender relations were diametrically opposed to her
mother' s Victorian ideals of femininity; her resistance resulted in severe economic
consequences. As a child born into an upper-class eccentric New England family who avoided
the society of Amherst, young Mary Heaton was surrounded with Hyve older siblings from her
mother' s first marriage. Vorse was youngest and only child of Ellen Marvin Heaton and Hiram
Heaton. Vorse' s mother inherited her first husband' s estate and maintained control of the
family's Einances as she steered her sons toward successful economic careers and her daughters
toward successful economic marriages. When Vorse defied her mother' s traditional ambitions
for her and expressed her desire for a writing career, her father cautioned her that he was
powerless and could not support her decisions. Hiram Heaton explained that he was not his
wife' s equal, but rather his position was one of servitude to "the Queen of Persia" (Garrison,
Mary 20). Vorse defied the "queen" and pursued her writing. The power of Vorse' s mother over
her husband and her children was painfully demonstrated through extended silences and finally
through disinheritance, leaving a widowed Vorse struggling to support herself and her children
for most of her adult life.
At eighteen, Mary Heaton met and secretly married Bert Vorse, a thirty-two year old
newspaper reporter and aspiring author, and moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village.
Shortly after the birth of their son, Mary wrote and sold love stories for women' s magazines to
supplement the family income while Bert struggled with his own writing career. As the marriage
floundered through her husband's defeats and infidelities, Mary "opted to ease [his] suffering
through maternal solicitude" (Garrison 35). Vorse set aside her writing, sweetly tended to her
husband's childish behavior and birthed a second child, Ellen. Yet, Vorse discovered another of
Bert Vorse's affairs and again, attempted reconciliation in an attempt to save her marriage. The
family's tour of Europe in 1909 appears to be the pivotal moment marking the end of the Vorses'
marriage as Bert returned to New York and Mary remained in Europe. Bert died on June 14,
1910 of a cerebral hemorrhage, freeing Mary from her marital constraints. The next day, June 15,
Vorse's mother died of heart failure, leaving Vorse without a penny of inheritance (Garrison
After the deaths of her husband and mother, Vorse wrote in earnest. According to
Garrison, Vorse's fiction reflects the transformation of a nineteenth-century Victorian ideal of
maternal love as a selfless form of female superiority to a "demonstration of men' s inferiority"
(Mary 41-44). In writing for women' s magazines, Vorse created narratives that exposed the
idealized marital myths. Vorse's fiction depicted mothers who were frustrated, bored, tired, and
even angry at meeting the ever-constant demands of motherhood. Vorse' s stories gained
popularity and helped to stabilize her Einancially.
Garrison's biography notes three transforming experiences that were pivotal in Vorse's
development of a class consciousness and that inspired her commitment to working mothers and
the politics of labor. In 1910, living in Greenwich Village as a single working mother, Vorse
joined the New York Milk Committee as a writer publicizing the need for pure milk. The
committee provided milk for the babies of the immigrant mothers who worked in the garment
district and could not take time away from their j obs to nurse their infants. Many reports
attributed the infant death rate to either inherent ethnic traits or flagrant neglect of the immigrant
mothers. Vorse responded to the accusations with passionate claims against the sale of
contaminated milk that risked the lives of working-class infants to make more money for the
wealthy (48). Vorse's concern for lives of immigrants' babies led her to yet another realization in
1911 when she witnessed the loss of the lives of the mothers who worked at the Triangle
Shirtwaist Company. According to Garrison's biography, Vorse ran eight blocks from her
apartment and watched in horror as women threw themselves from the windows of a burning
building because the exit doors were locked and the firemen's ladders reached only as high as
the sixth floor. Vorse stood helpless and in shock as she stared at the bodies of the mothers who
would not be returning home to nurse their babies at the end of their work day (Garrison, Ma'~ry
One year later, in 1912, Vorse's activism was again sparked by maternal concern when she
convinced Harper 's Weekly to send her to Lawrence where the mill owners had arrested fifteen
children and their mothers who were boarding a train to Philadelphia to escape the violence of
the strike. Although the beating and j ailing of strikers appeared to go unnoticed, deterring the
interstate travel of women and children to safety resulted in a public outcry and sparked a
national investigation (Garrison, Mary 48-61). While in Lawrence, Vorse met Elizabeth Gurley
Flynn, who became her friend and confidant, and Joe O'Brien, who became her second husband.
Vorse returned from Lawrence with a newfound career in radical journalism. In witnessing the
atrocities occurring in New York and Massachusetts, Vorse realized that she was she was
ignorant of injustices that surrounded her; she knew that she needed to be "on the side of the
workers and not with the comfortable people" (qtd. in Garrison 61). Although Vorse was born
into the class of "comfortable people," she believed that their indifference, like hers, was only
naivete. Vorse felt that her radical journalism and her maternal-based activism could enlighten
those who did not understand how the most basic comforts of human survival were denied to
working-class women and children.
In their first year of marriage, Vorse and O'Brien continued to actively work for the cause
of labor. After only three years of marriage, O'Brien fell ill with stomach cancer and died in
1915. Once again, the weight of the roles of mother and breadwinner fell upon Vorse (Garrison,
Mary 99). By this time, Vorse was in her mid-thirties and had three small children; yet, she had
emerged as leader among radical journalists. Vorse's working-class enlightenment arose from
her maternal identification with the working mothers of New York who unwittingly fed their
babies contaminated milk, from the immigrant women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company who
were struggling to feed and clothe their children, the mothers in Lawrence who just wanted to
save their children from the hunger and violence, and her own desperate struggle to support
herself and her children as a freelance journalist.
Socially Conscious Plot and Maternal Plight
The first chapter of Vorse's Strike! establishes three points of view through the
observations and experiences of three distinct classes of characters: the union leaders who
organize demonstrations of resistance, the journalists who report the events, and Mamie Lewes
who represents the material reality as well as the militancy of the millworkers. Hapke notes that
Vorse's attempt to "meld men's and women's experiences, male strategists and female rank and
file" contributes to the novel's flawed fragmented structure by alternating gendered experiences
"at thirty-page intervals" (157). Although the portrayal of male and female involvement appears
fragmented or divisive with regard to a formal plot or a singular protagonist, Vorse's intervals
reflect a structural technique that illuminates the development of the class consciousness of an
Class consciousness in a collective novel, as Foley attests, "consists in the development of
a new, more collective self, one that acquires identity through acknowledging rather than
denying its multiple extensions into others" (237). In alternating between the multiple and
gendered experiences within a singular historical event, Vorse's collective novel depicts realistic,
and perhaps more palatable identities, within a traditional division of labor. Vorse's readers were
comfortable middle-class people who could accept the need of a mother to work outside the
home, but accepting a militant working mother went against the grain of Southern tradition. Yet,
through the gendered intervals of factual reporting, Northern union organizers strategizing, and
maternal activists picketing, the naivete of the middle-class comfortable people is dispelled and
social consciousness emerges as part of a natural societal order. Vorse's experience on the Milk
Committee in New York proved that economically comfortable people understood the need to
provide milk for infants. Consequently, Vorse foregrounds the militancy of the collective as a
model of maternal activism that invokes and revises the glorification of domesticity and
motherhood to draw the sympathy of the comfortable people as well as to inspire solidarity
among both the female and the male members of the working-class collective.
When Vorse's young reporter, Roger Hewlett, first arrives to cover the strike in Stonerton,
he seeks out the location of a union rally where he expects to interview Fer Deane, the
fictionalized Communist leader, Fred Beal. However, Hewlett's first interview at the "speaking"
event is with Mamie Lewes, who emerges as the unifying character among the female
millworkers. Lewes' testimony reveals the effects of long hours and low wages upon female
strikers and also presents an abbreviated biography of Ella May Wiggins. Vorse closes the
chapter with a brief interval that offers an insight to the struggles of the union organizers. Fer
Deane admits his alienation and suggests the workers "would do a lot better if they had a
southern feller for their leader." Deane states, theyhy like me but I don't belong to them" (12).
Deane' s confession implies that as a Northemner, he falls short of understanding his rank and file
because he cannot identify with the regional and cultural experiences of the southern
Significantly couched between Hewlett' s introductory arrival and his interview with an
alienated strike leader, is Hewlett' s unofficial interview with a southern woman who meets all
but one of Deane' s qualifications: gender. In her introduction to her fictional Wiggins, Vorse
posits Mamie Lewes as a maternal voice of authority who belongs to the working-class and
enlightens a naive Hewlett to the plight of mill working mother through the course of his
informal interview. Where the character of Deane, similar to the real-life Beal, is consistently
absent from picketing demonstrations, Vorse' s narrative establishes the presence of Lewes as the
voice of the southern working-class collective.
After settling into his hotel and locating the union rally, Hewlett notices Lewes in the
audience and notes that she appears poor enough to be a mill worker but seems to distinguish
herself through her enthusiasm. Hewlett initiates a conversation with "a short curly haired
woman dressed in poor clothes, but there was something about her that was alert and gay and
extremely alive." He asks if she has j oined the union and Lewes responds, "No, I ain't jined up
yet, but I'm a goin' to" (5). Lewes explains how maternal responsibility conflicts with her
professional goals and that between working long hours at the mill and tending to her children,
she doesn't have time to get to the union headquarters before the office closes.
After discovering that Lewes has four children and lives with her kin in a two-room shack
almost two miles away, Hewlett also learns that Lewes earns "only eight dollars and forty cents a
week" and can'tt even afford to git a house on the mill hill" (6). The real-life Wiggins already a
joined the union and served as union secretary by the time Vorse had arrived in Gastonia (Hall,
et al. 227). However, Vorse alters this historical fact to depict how the promise of union
solidarity drew its membership from the southern millworkers. Vorse's fictional maternal
narrative echoes Wiggins' historical last words to Vorse and justifies union membership as
viable solution for working-class oppression. Vorse illuminates the workers' belief that the union
would help them to improve working and living conditions as opposed to the middle-class
perceptions that the workers joined the union as the result of a political decision to become
Unlike the other female Gastonia novelists, Vorse avoided any formal political affiliation
with organized labor or with the Communist Party. However, Vorse's reportage of strikes also
extended to her participation in labor politics through organizing, picketing, and advocating
union solidarity. More notably, Vorse had worked with her good friend, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,
as a co-leader in organizing the workers on the Mesabi Range strike of 1916. The union
recruitment of Lewes in Strike! not only illuminates Vorse's union advocacy, but also plays out
in the novel as the recruitment of Hewlett into a working-class collective of labor j journalists.
Hewlett' s interview with Lewes also reveals how the mill manipulates workers through a
system of reward or punishment through the assignment of shift work. Many mills permitted
female workers to take the evening shifts while their spouses worked the day shifts so that they
could be at home with their children. When Hewlett asks Lewes if she works nights, Lewes
continues her maternal testimony with "I couldn't git to work nights. I had eight children and
they took sick with dipthery. I cried and begged for thet sup'intendent to let me work nights so's
I could stay home and take keer o' the children daytimes, but he wouldn't me go. .. Four o' my
children died." Lewes voices her resentment at not being assigned an evening shift when she
requests the assignment and declares the superintendent to be "the sorriest man in the world" (6).
Hewlett' s question implies his understanding of the management' s past practice as a legitimate
request. Lewes' testimony suggests that the superintendent' s denial of any maternal
consideration is an intentional act of cruelty directed toward Lewes and represents mill
management's abuse of the collective.
Vorse also suggests that the superintendent' s denial of a night shift contributed to the
destruction of Lewes' marriage. Lewes sympathetically explains that her husband, Wil,
abandoned her and her children because he "got all discouraged like, havin' the chillen die. Plum
did take his ambition away. He went off to another town to git work and I never did yeah from
him no mo"' (6). Through Lewes' lack of bitterness, Vorse emphasizes how poverty affects the
male millworkers' perception of their traditional roles as providers. Moreover, Vorse' s own
experience attests to the disastrous effects upon her first marriage when her success as a writer
overshadowed that of her husband' s. In Vorse's biography, Garrison notes that in two separate
articles, "Working Mother" and "Failure," Vorse wrote: "Not many men will forgive their wives
for supporting them" (qtd. in Mary 33).
Lewes concludes her maternal testimony with her concern for her children's education,
"My little girl, she's eleven, and she heps me right smart. Don't none of my chillen git to school.
How could they? I wouldn't have no one to leave the little ones with, and ef I could, how would I
git clothen and shoes for 'em?" (6). Lewes testimony, again, reflects Ella May's lived reality
where her eleven-year old daughter, Myrtle, tends her four younger siblings whose ages ranged
from eight years to thirteen months (Salmond 129). Myrtle Wiggins and her siblings also reflect
the reality of the millworkers' children whose lack of education and opportunity perpetuated the
poverty of the mill worker and guaranteed the mill's supply of cheap and contented labor.
Hewlett offers no answer to Lewes' question of how to supply something as basic as clothing
and shoes as the fictional Wiggins "drifted away in the crowd" (6). Vorse shifts her reporter' s
attention toward the organizers, leaving the Lewes interview open-ended with the answers to
Lewes' questions left in the hands of the comfortable people who read her novel.
Maternal Veil of Ignorance
In her second chapter, Vorse introduces economically comfortable people as reproductive
bodies that reproduce class oppression. Drawing a sharp contrast to the interview with Lewes,
Hewlett stops briefly to chat with friends of his family who also live in Stonerton. Vorse depicts
a veil of ignorance skewing the perceptions of the middle-class comfortable people through the
maternal body of Mrs. Parker and her daughter, Jean. Similar to her own experience in growing
up in an upper-class environment and developing a class consciousness through her reportage,
Vorse links Hewlett' s ignorance with a maternal class inheritance. Vorse introduces the Parker
women as friends of Hewlett' s mother. Young Hewlett remembers the shared vacations with the
Parkers in the North East. The reporter' s escape to the home of family friends appears to provide
a brief respite for Hewlett who is initially overwhelmed by the harsh realities in Gastonia.
However, Hewlett' s visit to the Parker' s home illuminates a place of class ignorance within
himself and within the Parkers.
In contrast to the shack shared by Ella May Wiggins and her daughter, Mrs. Parker and her
daughter live on a street of "pleasant houses" Hewlett remarks that he is "back in a familiar
comprehensive world" (17). For Hewlett, comprehensive meant a familiar place outside of the
desperate world of the millworkers, where his inclusion in the world of middle class comfort
makes sense. Vorse j ars Hewlett' s sense of escape with a dose of class-consciousness and reveals
the malignancy of class ignorance through the naive exaggerations and oversimplifications of a
mother and daughter who represent "the grace and manner that people identify with the South"
(17). The feminine perceptions of the Parker women draw upon the southern tradition of
womanhood. The image of a southern lady, according to Ann Goodwyn Jones, is a
representation of "her culture' s idea of religious, moral, sexual, racial, and social perfection" (9).
Jones also asserts that the idealized virtue of southern womanhood is perpetuated through female
ignorance where a woman' s "goodness depends directly on innocence--in fact, on ignorance of
evil" (9). Mrs. Parker and her daughter represent Jones' model of a southern lady whose
perceived goodness depends upon what she reads in the newspapers and hears through the
As the Parker women chat with Hewlett, they not only reveal their ignorance of evil, but
they also reveal how they perpetuate the paternalistic system that oppresses the millworkers.
According to Jean and her mother The absentee mill owner, Mr. Schenk represents a man of
southern honor, as well as an economic savior who "bettered" the conditions of the ignorant
mountain people who "came from their mud-floored cabins" (18). Mrs. Parker claims, "We have
never had any trouble with our workers. .. They are far better off than when they left the
mountains" (19). Mrs. Parker' s comments mimic the antebellum justification of slave ownership,
as well as the separation of a class with "our workers." Mrs. Parker notes the generosity of Mr.
Schenk who provides "nice houses with electric light free. And lots of them have baths." Mrs.
Parker' s daughter immediately interj ects that the families "never use the baths" because theyy
just use them to keep things in"(19). Ironically, the Parkers are revealing the facts as they naively
understand them. They have no idea of the amount of rent Mr. Schenk charges the workers to
live in these nice houses or the mitigating circumstances that require the millworkers to use bath
tubs as additional sleeping arrangements in an overcrowded mill house.
Mrs. Parker also invokes a flawed economic comparison between a mountain family and
an unnamed college-educated cousin. Despite the thousands of dollars spent on a college degree
and study abroad, Mrs. Parker laments that Jean's cousin only earns forty dollars a week. Mrs.
Parker highlights the economic injustice as she explains, "Take a family of four mountain
people, each making eighteen-fifty a week, and that gives them an income of seventy-four
dollars a week" (18). Mrs. Parker' s flawed statistic suggests a class entitlement and implies that a
mountain family's income is almost twice that of the poor Parker cousin' s income. Mrs. Parker
not only reports an inflated salary level, but she also compares the wages of one worker to the
wages of four workers. Ensnared within their own naivete, the Parkers fail to comprehend that
even in the most ideal of situations, a mountain family of four would still be comprised of a
mother, a father, and two children working in the mill, which would deny the children the
educational opportunities available to the Parker' s cousin.
As Hewlett questions the women's wage estimates, the women respond with additional
evidence to validate their perception of how the millworkers selfishly spend their high wages by
consuming the choicest products from the local farmers. Mrs. Parker posits conspicuous grocery
consumption with, "Oh, lots of them are making much more, my dear boy. Why, the time when
farmers with eggs and vegetables and chickens used to drive up to the house all the time to sell
things. Now they never get past the mill village. The mill village buys up everything" (18). The
Parker' s resentment is rooted within basic human survival in a competition for eggs, vegetables,
and chickens. Hewlett recognizes that the epitome of resentment is rooted in real life within the
Parker' s home. Through her obj ective reporter' s two short interviews, Vorse documents class
contradiction between the lives of the Parker women and those of Mamie Lewes and her
Sitting in a comfortable parlor with two women, Hewlett makes a startling discovery about
class warfare: "Here was where the hate came from. .. Here was the home of the Mob. The
comfortable people, the well-fixed people of Stonerton felt fury and outrage at the mill hands'
revolt. .. Hate and Mob were a multiplication of the Parkers" (19-21). Through his reproductive
rhetoric, Hewlett creates an originary myth that implies that class hatred and mob rule are not
only reproduced through the Parker women, but also reproduced within himself through his
maternal inheritance. The individual identities of the Parker women and Hewlett' s unnamed
mother are replaced by a unifying collective maternal identity that not only reproduces a class,
but whose veil of ignorance contributes to the reproduction of class oppression. Hewlett, like the
Parkers and others of their class has not experienced economic discomfort, and his recognition of
his own ignorance is the first step toward class consciousness. Moreover, in Strike! Vorse
attempts to shift the consciousness of her economically comfortable readers through her
characterizations of the Parkers as a maternal ideal grounded in a tradition of ignorance resulting
in the exploitation of the working-class.
Maternal Ballads of Union Solidarity
The day after his interview with the Parkers, Hewlett witnesses his first working-class
demonstration of resistance with the picketing of the Manville-Jenkes Mill. Vorse relies upon the
narratives of her reporters, Hewlett and Hoskins, to proj ect a voice of social consciousness and to
reveal the maternal-based activism as the legitimate motive for working-class resistance. In
aligning the observations of Hewlett with Hoskins with the narratives of Lewes, Vorse
foregrounds the experiences of the working-class collective and its desire for a better life for the
children. The collective "workers' parade" in Stonerton is described by Hoskins and Hewlett as a
scene of solidarity and maternal activism: "Here were people, men and women and children
walking together, rank on rank of young millworkers walking along bearing banners that read
'we want schools.' .. There were smaller children marched with banners-'Must we go to the
mill? '" (26). The banners reflect the common goal of the collective as concern for the children,
but the observations of the reporters lend credibility to the messages on the banners by creating a
vivid image of maternal-based solidarity for a skeptical readership.
Vorse also depicts the emotional connection between the j journalists by narrating Hewlett' s
response: "he felt unexpectedly moved. He wasn't ashamed to say as much to Hoskins." Hoskins
then responds, "they get me too. I can't help remembering they're the docile one-hundred per
cent Americans. ..[T]hey've been docile and one-hundred-per cent so long" (26). Vorse
suggests that the reporters are emotionally "moved" because they personally identify with the
workers and their children as Americans like themselves. The shared identity of the reporters
with the southern mill worker invokes both a paternal and a patriotic unity that differs from the
emotional affiliation with the labor demonstrations of the North where the strikers were
immigrant workers. Vorse also emphasizes the industrialization of the South as built upon the
backs of the southern working-class who also share a historical sense of regional affiliation.
Vorse moves from the observations of the sympathetic reporters to depicting the
developing social consciousness of Lewes. Lewes' reflective observations shift from a sense of
isolation to a sense of collective affiliation and purpose:
She had lived alone and isolated. She made so little since her husband left that she couldn't
even live on the mill hill. She knew few people. Now she was part of something--she was
part of the parade. Yesterday she had joined the Union .. She felt part of the crowd.
They were all keeping time to one thing. They were all absorbed in something bigger than
they were--something that brought them all together and merged them in something
outside themselves. I reckon this is the solidarity that they's always talking' about, thought
Mamie Lewes, feeling she had made a valuable and novel discovery. (27)
Until the working-class demonstration of solidarity, Lewes and her co-workers passively
accepted their wages and conditions because they were silenced by their isolation and
vulnerability. Entirely dependent upon a patriarchal system of exploitation, workers feared for
their livelihood and could not risk voicing their singular resistance. However, Lewes' affiliation
with a "parade" shifts her perception as an individual voice toward "something bigger" a
powerful collective voice against social injustice. However, Vorse contrasts Lewes' discovery of
solidarity with the prevailing opinion of the middle-class people. According to Hoskins,
"Americans don't understand the philosophy of demonstration"(27). Rocks are thrown, a fight
breaks out, and the governor calls in the militia. While the power of demonstration of a large
organized contingent of union members appears to be a genuine threat to the economically
comfortable Americans, for Mamie Lewes, the right of the collective represents the power to
resist an oppressive patriarchal tradition.
Despite the presence of the militia the next day, Lewes leaves her children at home and
joins the picket line to prevent scabs from entering the mill. When a union leader asks if she
could leave her children, Lewes answers, "reckon ef I kin leave 'em to work I kin leave 'em to
picket" (35). Vorse illuminates part of her own personal conflict between wage work and mother
work through Lewe' s comment. The parallel of Lewes' responsibility to the union and her
responsibility to her children also mirrors the concerns of many who, according to Vorse, are
"the mothers of small children [who] have to work at night to keep their families in food and
necessities" (47). As the only breadwinner, Lewes' commitment for better wages is a
commitment to the survival of her family. Vorse illustrates how a woman' s sense of commitment
to her family is inseparable from her commitment to her work. At the same time, the conflict
between picketing and child care also reflects Vorse's own sense of "double failure" and the
compromises needed for her to leave her children to report labor uprisings across the United
Although Lewes experiences her revelation of solidarity at the first picket parade, Vorse
draws upon the solidarity among women to further Lewes' understanding of collective identity
and dedication to the union. Before appearing on the platform at union meetings, Lewes writes
and sings her ballads while she is working at the relief store with other women who are
distributing food staples such as comn meal and lard to the families of the strikers. Lewes rises to
the union platform to sing only after Old Ma Gilfillin assures her, "Weall admires fer to hear you
sing your song-ballits" (52). Ma Gilfillin' s assurances convince Lewes that she is part of the
maternal collective and her voice is a viable part of the union voice.
To emphasize Lewes' sense of maternal solidarity, Vorse, like the other three female
Gastonia novelists, draws upon the voice of Ella May Wiggins and the lyrics of her powerful
ballad, "Mill Mother's Lament." Written in first person plural, "Mill Mother' s Lament" affirms
Wiggins' commitment to the union and to matemnal-based activism. Vorse reproduces four of the
six stanzas within her novel to illustrate how Lewes' is an integral part of a female collective and
to invoke the power of maternal tradition as a means of evoking the sympathies of the middle-
class comfortable people who subscribe to the paternal tradition of southern womanhood. Lewes
stands on the union platform and sings "easily and without effort" at the union rally: "We leave
our homes in the moming,/We kiss our children good-by/While we slave for our bosses,/Our
children scream and cry. .. /It is for our little children/That seem to us so dear,/But for us nor
them, oh, workers, the bosses do not keer" (53). Invoking maternal tradition, Wiggins' ballad
employs the plural "we," which represents a biological unity of women, as well as the paternal
responsibility of men and implies a matemnal-based solidarity. Lewes' comfort in singing before
a crowd from the union platform also suggests the developing social consciousness of the female
millworkers as maternal activists in, "it is for our children." The ballad emphasizes the shared
responsibility of the collective for taking care of "our" children implying a moral and social
obligation for both women and men to care for the small and helpless.
Vorse affirms how Lewes' ballad inspires a unified response: "It was their own story, put
in incredibly simple terms. Every one had lived through this. There was no piece of sentiment; it
was the history of every one there put into song" (53). The response of the collective reveals a
sense of maternal solidarity for "every one" in the all-inclusive lyrics of Wiggins' ballad. Vorse
implies a collective identity through shared experiences reflected in "their own story" and
suggests that "every one there" at the union rally identifies with the struggle for subsistence
survival and a mother' s concern for her "dear little children" who suffer from capitalist
exploitation. The "Mill Mother's Lament" highlights the social injustices inflicted by the
comfortable people through the depiction of the children of the millworkers and justifies the
resistance of the working-class through maternal activism.
Maternal Muse of Militancy
Although Lewes' ballads inspire maternal solidarity within the collective, the character of
Lewes resists the heroic identity as the muse of the millworkers. Rather, Lewes' view of the
union as her muse implies that the lyrics of her ballads are a reflection of a collective voice.
Lewes claims "[t]he songs just seem to come to me now that the union came" (166). The arrival
of the union also coincides with the arrival of Lewes' social consciousness and the recognition of
Lewes' as dedicated to union solidarity. The reporters comment upon Lewes' dedication and
note that the scabs continue to return to the mill instead of maintaining the strike. The scabs
excuse their actions with maternal concerns claiming that "sickness in the family and a new
baby" force them to violate the picket line. Hoskins claims the scabs don't understand the
meaning of solidarity and states, "these folks here haven't got it yet." Hoskins clarifies his
definition of solidarity as "that real heart of it, that 'all for one and one for all'." However,
Hewlett contends that Mamie Lewes "certainly got it" (109). With Hewlett as her witness,
Lewes' ballad writing, relief work, picketing, and militant resistance plays out in the novel as
heart-felt acts of union solidarity inspired by a commitment to the union' s maternal collective.
In addition to her portrayal of female militancy within the maternal collective, Vorse also
depicts union solidarity through maternal care taking. Although Lewes escapes much of the
physical brutality that inflicted upon Vorse's other characters, Lewes is ever-present sharing in
the operation of the relief store, rushing to the aid of the wounded and the evicted, and helping in
the packing over three hundred homeless strikers into make-shift "homes" in a tent city. Vorse's
portrayal of Lewes counters the perceptions of the middle-class who believe the union a
challenges the southern tradition of white supremacy; represents anarchists, Communists,
Bolshevists and socialists who promote free love; and wants to "kill people and incidentally
destroy the State and industry" (Vorse 153-158). Vorse depicts the heart of militancy as the heart
of a maternal caretaker who is dedicated to peaceful demonstration for social justice.
In response to their fears, the comfortable people reinforce their police force by forming,
the Committee of One-Hundred, a vigilante group to defend American decency. Vorse
documents the terror of this organization through vivid descriptions of their attacks upon the
maternal bodies in the break up of picket marches and the destruction of the relief store and tent
city. Vorse depicts each brutal incident with children screaming and crying in the background
and women being beaten, choked, and black acked. After the raid of the Committee of One
Hundred on the strikers' tent city, seventy-two females along with nine males are arrested and
charged with the murder of Chief Humphries, the fictionalized Chief O.F. Aderholt. The number
of females arrested in Vorse's fictional portrayal affirms the historical reality of a militant
collective that consisted largely of female activists. Although the women are released in
Gastonia, as well as in Vorse' s Stonerton, the judge' s declaration of a mistrial leads Committee
of One Hundred, once again, down a path of brutal revenge upon the maternal activists that
results in the murder of the union's ballad singer.
Vorse alters the historical events surrounding the murder of her fictionalized Wiggins to
emphasize her portrayal of Lewes as the core of a female collective whose death highlights the
maternal-based activism as the motive behind the strikers' militancy. Vorse foreshadows the
murder through the character of Dewey Bryson, a weaver and local union organizer who appears
as Lewes' love interest, who "got up Saturday with a feeling of execution. A death house
feeling" (201). En route to the meeting, Bryson and a group of strikers are delayed in Stonerton
by a confrontation with the mob and by the time they arrive in Tesner, the rally had already been
broken up by vigilantes. As Lane notes, Lewes' murder occurs during a union rally as a singular
event as opposed to the actual historical event during which Wiggins was shot en route to the
rally (86). With Bryson delayed and no other union leaders are present at the event, Vorse places
Lewes in a union leadership position.
The absence of the organizers foregrounds the maternal presence of Lewes, whose ballads,
to this point, had consistently followed the oratory of the male leadership. Vorse locates the
event in Tesner, rather than Stonerton, where Lewes worked and lived, suggesting the
geographical expansion of the strike and positioning Lewes as calling forth the membership to
hear her message of solidarity. Bryson confirms Lewes' presence as central to the rally through
her taunting lyrics: "Come all ye scabs ef you want to year/The story of a mean millioneare
/Basil Schenk is that millioneare' s name-" (201). Lewes' message is cut off when Bryson and
the vigilantes arrive at the same time and the millworkers flee in fear. Lewes stands on the back
of a truck, along with other departing millworkers, and confirms her attempt to hold the rally
telling Bryson, "We tried to hold [the rally] ennyway, Dewey." Lewes then completes the ballad
that had signaled the event with the last line of her lyrics: "He cain 't buy the thrion 0I ithr his
money and frame!" (author' s emphasis 202). The song that depicts the end of the event where the
collective has gathered also represents the end of Lewes' life. A report of gunshot follows and
Lewes collapses and utters her final words, "Oh Lawdy, they've hit me." Bryson confirms the
death of the ballad singer screaming, "Mamie Lewes! She's daid! Mamie Lewes is daid!" As
Bryson helps to carry Lewes' body to a neighboring house, the death of union solidarity pervades
his every thought: "'It's over!' he thought. 'It's over!' .. She and her 'song ballits' had been
the very core of the strike" (202). Bryson confirms that Lewes is the "core" of the collective and
her death occurs as an act of maternal activism in the presence of her maternal collective.
Bryson's testimony extends beyond that of a grieving lover to a grieving comrade who
recognizes the heart of the maternal resistance has literally and figuratively stopped beating.
Vorse's depiction of Lewes' funeral mirrors the funeral of Wiggins. In addition to the
attendance of Lewes' children, family, and co-workers at Lewes' funeral, Vorse' s narrative
confirms with historical accuracy that reporters from "[a]ll the big metropolitan newspapers"
appeared with photographers who took "pictures [that] would go to workers all over the country,
and all over the world." Vorse ends the rituals with the voice of a mill worker from Tesner who
offered Lewes' ballad to the workers of world and sang, "How it grieves the heart of a mother! "
(204). In her final hour, Lewes emerges as a world renowned "mill mother" whose lament led
her to a core position of leadership where she gave her life for cause of the maternal collective.
Vorse's documentation of the arrests and trials in Stonerton reflect the same futility of the
arrests and trials in Gastonia; No one was prosecuted for the murder of the ballad singer. Yet, in
the final thirty pages of Strike!, Vorse portrays the historical repercussions when the murder of
Wiggins at Gastonia sparked widespread demonstrations among the millworkers within the
Piedmont region. The final strike of Vorse's fictional Stonerton memorializes Lewes, as well as
the participation of the female collective who gather together in maternal solidarity in another
tragic demonstration that claims the life of Fer Deane and four male strikers.
Despite the death of Lewes, the fictional mill owners, like the real mill owners, still did not
keep their promises. Vorse reveals the impact on the six female and two male workers: "There
was discrimination. Ma Gilfillin and Daisy West could get no work. Nor could Jolas or Binney
nor any other of the Jolas girls" (215). In a report to Fer Deane, a striker notes the readiness of
the millworkers for another picketing demonstration: "When Mamie Lewes wuz shot, we all tuk
an oath we'd not rest till we'd got 'em out ag'in. .. The women's ben takin' a part. Mis'
Cuthbert and some of the Trent wives ha' ben organizing right smart amongst the women (213).
The mill worker invokes Lewes as the maternal martyr who motivates more women to take an
even more militant role in resistance. Moreover, the death of Lewes inspires women to make a
sacred pact to unite and resist as a memorial from the heart of the maternal collective.
The final strike results in the deaths ofFer Deane and five male millworkers, as well as the
death of the resistance of the maternal collective. John M. Reilly argues that in her historical
alteration of the fate of the fictionalized Beal, Vorse martyrs Deane rather than revealing Beal's
defection to Russia (153-154). Reilly's comment suggests that the martyrdom of Deane
overshadows the martyrdom of Lewes and the participation of a female collective. Vorse's
fictional alteration of shared union martyrdom, however, supports her portrayal of the multiple
and gendered experiences of the collective and emphasizes the significant participation of female
activists. The shooting of the male millworkers and the funeral scene following the death of
Wiggins are taken from another workers' demonstration in Marion, outside of Gastonia. Beal's
fate depicts a final act of solidarity among union brotherhood and the subsequent end of the
Conversely, the death of Lewes symbolizes the death of a maternal martyr who inspires the
militancy of the entire collective. Lewes is not only the first to die a martyr' s death, but her death
inspires Deane to j oin the picketing workers in their final demonstration of resistance.
Throughout the novel, Deane, fearing assassination, hides safely in his room, as well as in
neighboring towns, leaving the organizing of the demonstrations to his assistant, Irma Rankin,
Vorse' s fictionalized Vera Buch Weisbord. Joseph Urgo suggests that Rankin' s name is a play
on words implying "rank and file" (69). Reading Rankin from a maternal lens, her gendered role
aligns her with Lewes, as well as with the other female strikers and relief workers whose
positions as "rank and file" were the real backbone of the strike. Lewes unites the rank and file to
represent a collective whose maternal activism sustained a militant working-class resistance.
In Strike! Lewes is immortalized as a maternal whose death inspires the radical conversion
of Vorse's young naive reporter to a working-class consciousness. Del Evans, a mill worker from
Stonerton, tells Hewlett, "We're agoin' to bring solidarity to the whole South. We cai't lose no
time. .. so's they all, an' Mamie Lewes too, won't have died fer nothing (235). Vorse narrates
Hewlett' s epiphany as a heart-felt affiliation to reporting for the union's cause: "And he had to
go on too. He had lost his own class; he could never belong in their class of workers. He was
without country now, and yet wherever they went, what ever their destination might be, he had to
go with them" (23 5-23 6). Roger Hewlett' s conversion reflects Vorse' s own life' s j oumney.
Inspired by Wiggins and "almost every working woman," who balanced work and family, Vorse
also had to "go on" as a labor j ournalist from Lawrence, to New York, to Philadelphia, to
Passaic, and to wherever there was a "spontaneous uprising" of workers. Vorse' s Strike! not only
reveals maternal solidarity as the heart of collective human experience through her fictional
portrayal of Ella May Wiggins, but she also delivers a message of maternal-based activism to the
GRACE LUMPKIN: LABORING WOMEN AND THE POLITICS OF LABOR INT TO M~AKE
Mother Work and Mill Work
In reporting the murder of Ella May Wiggins in the 1929 textile mill strike in Gastonia,
North Carolina' s News and Observer linked the union-organizing activism of Wiggins with her
maternal need to supply bread for her hungry children. The summary lead read: "The state of
North Carolina stands shamed and disgraced by this inhuman crime... The humble woman sought
to improve the conditions under which she worked sixty hours a week to find bread for her five
children" (qtd. in Salmond 129). Where most of the newspaper reports questioned Wiggins'
"morality" as a single mother, the lead of the News and Observer evoked a sense of shame from
the entire political body of the state of North Carolina. The report of News and Observer
emphasized the inhumanity of murdering a woman whose labor was measured in both her wage-
earning hours at the mill and in her maternal responsibility for the care of her children. Although
the motive for the murder was never clearly established, Wiggins' death legitimized working-
class protest by inspiring a social consciousness across class distinctions, not only in North
Carolina but across the United States.
In To Make M~y Bread Grace Lumpkin moves her readers to a working-class sympathy by
recreating the life and the death of Ella May Wiggins through two generations of women who
labor in mother work and mill work. Lumpkin's fictional Wiggins, Bonnie McClure, and her
mother, Emma McClure, portray the experiences of women who left rural privation in the
Carolina mountains to work in the mill villages. Through her female protagonists, Lumpkin
articulates a revolutionary model of maternal-based activism where the nurturing and caretaking
of a woman's family in the rural Appalachian Mountains extends into mills and inspires a model
of working-class solidarity.
By the time Lumpkin was writing To Make My Bread, she was a loyal member of the
Communist Party. Like many revolutionary writers in the 1920s and 1930s, Lumpkin believed
that the party offered a cure for the social and economic ills that plagued the United States; she
also believed that she could be a part of the "artistic intervention" that could help to spread hope
to the working-class (Sowinska vii). This chapter briefly addresses how Lumpkin's personal and
political experiences inform her revolutionary writing. The balance of the chapter focuses on
Lumpkin' s fictional recreation of Ella May Wiggins as a maternal representation of two
generations of women who left the rural mountains to work in the Carolina cotton mills. In To
Make My Bread, Lumpkin recreates her fictional Gastonia and depicts a revolutionary model of
maternal-based activism through a mother and daughter, Emma and Bonnie McClure.
The first half of the novel traces a widowed Emma McClure' s struggle to take care of her
daughter, Bonnie; her three sons; and her aging father in a small rural farming community in
Southern Appalachia. Lumpkin's narrative reflects the experiences of most women in the
Piedmont Region who, out of economic desperation, were forced to abandon their rural farm life
and seek work in the mills. The novel opens with an unseasonable spring blizzard and Emma
birthing her youngest son, John. Isolated from her female community, Emma relies upon her
father to assist in her delivery. The newborn is placed in the cradle with an infant Bonnie,
Lumpkin' s fictionalized representation of Wiggins. The cradle sharing links Bonnie and John in
a parallel childhood as well as political development. By the time Bonnie is thirteen, her mother
will have taken in an unwed mother into their already crowded cabin, her grandfather will have
been arrested for bootlegging, one older brother will have been murdered, and the eldest brother
will have sold the family farm to a lumbering company and abandoned the family entirely. Out
of desperation Emma is forced to pack up her two youngest children and her aging father, join
the family of her husband's brother, and seek work at the Wentworth Mill.
The second half of Lumpkin' s novel focuses on the experiences of the McClures, who
discover that the mill offers no respite from poverty. When Emma is stricken with pellagra and
can no longer work at the mill, Bonnie and her younger brother, John, begin working so the
family can remain in mill housing. Along with their adolescent development, Lumpkin traces the
development of Bonnie and John' s social consciousness. While her brother' s union militancy
occurs soon after his employment, Bonnie marries; like the real-life Wiggins, her labor is
interrupted by yearly childbirth. After her mother, husband, and daughter die of malnutrition and
lack of medical care, Bonnie j oins John in advocating for the union cause. Speaking for herself
as well as for the other mill-working women, Bonnie composes maternal ballads that invoke
motherhood as a social responsibility. Just as she steps up to the podium with her mother-
millworker message, Bonnie is shot and killed leaving John to carry on the message of union
A Mill Writer's Artistic Intervention
Living most of her life in rural South where the cotton mill industry had firmly established
itself since the 1880s, Lumpkin witnessed the effects of long hours and low wages on the
millworkers. Born in Georgia in 1892, Lumpkin was the ninth of eleven children in a family that
clung to their religion and their southern Confederate identity. Although the Lumpkins were
better off than most of their neighbors, they felt the economic impact of Reconstruction after the
Civil War, and Lumpkin's father moved the family from Georgia to South Carolina in the hope
of economic recovery. Lumpkin attended school with the children of sharecroppers, whose
poverty was far below that of the Lumpkins. When her father died in 1910, the family was left
destitute and Lumpkin borrowed money to attend college. She completed a two-year certification
program in one year and began her teaching career in Georgia and later, South Carolina.
Historically, Lumpkin' s college experience reflects a time in the early 1920s when progressive
reformists focused on adult education as a means of societal reform (Heller 214). In running a
school that offered evening adult education for the farming families of Southern Appalachia and
working for the federal government as a home demonstrator, Lumpkin combined her belief in
adult education with her social consciousness and actively sought solutions for the rural poor.
Sylvia Cook notes that Lumpkin spent summers in the mountains of North Carolina staying with
families who worked in the cotton mills (52).The relationship between Lumpkin as the mill
writer and the mountain families as millworkers is one of historical experience and a socially
conscious sense of shared identity born of economic struggle.
Lumpkin's political consciousness also led her to work for a year for the YWCA in France
with an organization for French working girls. After Lumpkin returned to the family home, she
worked for the YWCA in South Carolina. During this time she realized that "the workers could
only better their lives by means of unions" (qtd in Sowinska x). Following the death of her
mother, Lumpkin pursued her career in New York City in 1925 writing for a "pacifist and mildly
socialist" publication, The World Tomorrow. The sparks of Lumpkin's proletarian conversion
were ignited when she covered the first Communist-led strike in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1926.
While in Passaic, Lumpkin first met the man who would become her lover and husband, Michael
Intrator, who was a member of the Communist Party during this period. During the picket
sponsored by the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1927, Lumpkin was arrested with
other members of the party.
By the late 1920s Lumpkin was an ardently committed Communist "scoundrel" and j oined
the writing staff of The New M~asses. Lumpkin was sent South by the party to investigate
lynchings, help organize the African American sharecroppers, and participate in the Communist-
led resistance in the Piedmont region of the Southern Appalachian Mountains at Gastonia.
Lumpkin was instrumental in bringing race relations and the need for interracial solidarity to the
forefront of the Communist Party's agenda. (Sowinska xi-xxi). To Make M~y Bread emerged
from Lumpkin' s leftist loyalties winning the praises of the Communist Party as well as the 1932
Gorky Prize as best labor novel of the year (Salmond 188).
Although Lumpkin's experience with the Communist Party inspires a story of maternal
solidarity, her break with the party reveals another maternal-based story in which Lumpkin
aborts the pregnancy that resulted from her relationship with Michael Intrator and sinks into a
life of rural isolation. Although the leftist ideology had inspired her prize-winning novel, her
conservative southern religious upbringing, which she portrays as the moral conscience in her
novel, imposed its own death sentence upon Lumpkin's creativity as a revolutionary writer.
In New York Lumpkin and Intrator scandalized their neighbors by sharing an apartment
with Esther Shemitz and Whitaker Chambers. The defections of Intrator and Chambers from the
Communist Party created animosity among Lumpkin's friends, who chose to separate themselves
from the factionalist politics of the party. By the late 1930s, feeling abandoned by her friends,
Lumpkin sought an abortion and left Intrator. No one can guess whether Lumpkin' s defection
from the Communist Party was prompted by her own sense of shame brought on by her abortion,
the defections of Intrator and Chambers, or the pressure of the Chambers-Hiss espionage and
perjury trials. Lumpkin reconstructed various versions of her involvement with the party during
her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Despite the conflicting
evidence, history records Lumpkin's intellectual and political struggles as a catalyst to her most
creative period as a writer, or what Lumpkin herself refers to as her "Communist Phase"
(Sowinska xviii-xx). Lumpkin's novel stands as testimony to a woman's life when love,
pregnancy, and an intellectual struggle for a shared sense of identity inspire a working-class
social consciousness. Armed with first-hand experience of the plight of the southern rural poor,
liberal Leftist philosophies, and her own maternal experience, Lumpkin not only reported
women' s historical place on the picket lines, but she also crossed the boundary lines of gender
and race to tell a story of a maternal-based working-class solidarity.
Mountain Myth and Material Reality
Lumpkin devotes the first half of To Make M~y Bread to establishing the interrelationship
of a mother and daughter, Emma and Bonnie McClure, and how they function in a cooperative
female community as a basis for survival in an environment where males are either absent or
ineffectual. In the second half of the novel, Lumpkin maintains the cooperative interrelationship
of the mill families as a maternal extension of a communal class consciousness. For generations
of pioneering farm families, worker solidarity, was understood as the shared labor of all family
members who lived and worked on the family farm. Larger families were an advantage in that
many hands shared in the planting and harvesting; thus, the yearly pregnancy experienced by so
many women was a source of pride in producing more hands for working the farm. southern
rural women were also socialized to assume a sense of social obligation to other women in their
community by supporting each other during births and deaths. When families migrated from the
mountains to the mills, their interdependent kin relationships then translated as multi-layered,
deeply felt relationships of solidarity with other millworkers.
Both the labor of mill work and the labor of domestic work were gendered and rooted in
rural mountain tradition. The mills replicated a gendered division of labor assigning the more
physical manual labor to males and the repetitive less physical labor to women and children.
When women began working in the mills, they replicated mountain tradition of their double duty
of farm labor and domestic labor. Therefore, solidarity among women was also understood as
family relationship where their labor of wage-earning extended into the social labor of the
caretaking of their families as well as their fellow wage workers. As its title reveals, To Ma'~ke M\~y
Bread is Lumpkin's story about a Depression era struggle of survival represented through a
socialized network of maternal laborers. The female millworkers not only labored in bread-
winning, but they also labored in bread-baking, childbearing, child burying, and community
bridge-building for creating and sustaining political activism among the working-class.
In the first chapter of To Make M~y Bread, Lumpkin reveals the impact of economics and
patriarchal oppression upon the maternal experience through metaphors of nature and gendered
labor. Lumpkin locates the economic centers of the rural mountain community, Swain' s General
Store and Barren She Mountain, as masculine space. In Swain' s, a small group of men sit around
a potbellied stove smoking pipes and sharing gossip about Possum Hollow. When the steers
begin to bellow outside the store, Sam Wesley "remembered that his woman must have meal for
supper." As he departs the store, he cautions his friends, something'sgs a-happening up yonder"
(9). The steers appear to sense the fury of the impending blizzard, and their restlessness reminds
their owner of the need to bring home cornmeal for bread baking. Steers are castrated bulls that
are raised for beef as well as for farm work. These steers appear to symbolically bellow a
warning of economic castration, which represents the impotency of the mountain economy.
Lumpkin does not narrate any exchange of money for the cornmeal, implying that Wesley, like
most mountain families, would be charging it to an account at Swain's General Store.
Using the unpredictability of weather as the topic of male concern, Lumpkin foreshadows
the economic devastation upon the mountain families as a threat to masculinity. Swain sells his
store to a lumber company; the lumber company will dupe the families and take their land. The
government will also legally dismantle the last remaining vestige of mountain economy,
moonshine business up on Barren She Mountain. However, Lumpkin also foreshadows hope for
the working-class with the reproductive labor and birth of the McClure infant which is also
happening "up-yonder" on a ridge above Possum Hollow. Although the father of the infant died
of a fever, the birth of his heir, Emma's son, plays out in the novel as the originating story of a
revolutionary proletariat who will lead the working-class resistance. Not only does Emma's
reproductive labor deliver hope for a working-class revolution, but Lumpkin also posits the
maternal body of the proletariat' s mother within the storm as a resisting force against economic
In the public space of Swain' s General Store, Lumpkin also genders the labor of men who
run the bootlegging business up on "Barren She Mountain." Read metaphorically, the feminized
mountain that is both "barren" and a "she" represents an illicit space outside of the patriarchal
law where an illegal alcoholic beverage is produced as well as a space which fails to produce
legitimate heir from the seeds that are sown into its soil. The mountain's barren soil and lack of
marketable crops symbolize the impotency of the southern farming economy. The betrayal of
Barren She Mountain is further compounded by the illegitimacy of moonshine economy. Not
only is the mountain reproductively barren, but any economic production from the mountain is
also rendered illegitimate by patriarchal law within the capitalist system.
As a trope of nature, the snowstorm that is stirring up in the mountains also represents the
industrialization that will sweep through the mountain range. In recreating a contradictory nature
as a nurturing pastoral replete with naive mountain folk and as a destructive storm, Lumpkin also
emphasizes the contradictory nature of her maternal characters where the bodies of mountain
women represent both relational caretaking and organized resistance. Lumpkin's snowstorm
occurs on April 19, 1900, a date, which in the Appalachian region of the North Carolina,
corresponds to the season of spring and a metaphorical rebirth. Yet Lumpkin's storm permeates
the public masculine space of the local store and reduces the men to a state of helplessness and
inadequacy when they attempt to return home.
In Swain' s General Store any danger of the storm "coming up hard" is dismissed by Jim
Hawkins, who voices a symbolic rural naivete of the danger of industrialization with, "If it was
winter, I'd be making tracks for my cabin" (7). The men resist returning home and continue
puffing their pipes around a public stove. Their silence is broken by the entrance of Young Sam
McEachern, who is searching for Granpap Kirkland so he can "get his help in the business they
carried on" (7-8). Granpap's absence from his usual community of men suggests that he, too,
disregards the threat of the storm and tends to the business up on Barren She Mountain rather
than making tracks for his cabin. The silence is again broken when one man is seen shivering
against the cold and Sam McEachemn asks, "A rabbit run over your grave?" Sam's superstitious
question about a rabbit is rooted in rural folklore. It is both reproductive and destructive as a
metaphor of an overly abundant reproductive ability and a foreshadowing of death. Moreover,
Sam's reference to the grave plays out in the novel as his denial of paternal responsibility in the
pregnancy of an unmarried woman and his murder of his rival, Emma' s son, Basil. Ultimately,
Sam McEachern himself is murdered as the fictional recreation of the only deputy sheriff to be
shot at Gastonia. Thus, the threat of a snowstorm in early spring and the symbolic fertility of the
rabbit folklore contradict their associations with the sentimental pastoral nature and imply of a
more threatening beast. Conversely, any sense of safety is implied through the domestic space of
Despite their dismissal of the early warnings of a snowstorm, Lumpkin' s naive males are
forced to face the blizzard in order to rescue the farm animals that were not sheltered. Lumpkin
does not narrate the storm's impact on the men or on the livestock. Rather, the impact of the
storm literally rages violently and wreaks its force upon maternal bodies. Lumpkin narrates the
physical impact of the blizzard through a nameless female community, "Women stood outside
the doors with snow stinging their faces like wasps and called to their men, or crawled to meet
them, trying to make their shrill voices heard above the wind" (10). Lumpkin's maternal
caretakers are concerned for the safety of their husbands and sons, who are blinded by the
blizzard and unable to find their way back to their cabins. The women not only stand outside
their cabins and bear the impact of the "stinging" violence of the storm, but they also reduced to
crawling into the direction of the blizzard and guide their husbands and sons toward the safety of
The storm repeats its violence at the McClure cabin: "Emma stood outside the door and
screamed to them. She could not stand long against the strong wind. It blew her against the wall
of the cabin with the force of a strong man' s fist" (10). The storm's rage is compared to an act of
male violence against a female when the physical force of the storm throws Emma' s pregnant
body against the wall. Lumpkin personifies the storm as male: "The wind slapped against the
cabin and snarled down the chimney. Snow blew in under the north door and spread over the
floor in a hurry and flurry like an unwelcome guest who is trying to make himself at home" (12).
However, Emma rises in resistance and continues to call to her father and sons, who seek a
direction toward safety. When Emma and her female community confront the blizzard, they are
risking their own lives to protect the lives of their families. Although the impact of the storm
threatens the lives of the male kin because they are exposed to the elements, the intensity of
storm's violence is actually less destructive. The impact upon Lumpkin's male characters is
illustrated with, "They came crawling on hands and knees" (10). Although a male reduced to
crawling implies a humbling experience, the brutality of a man's fist represents a violent attempt
at complete domination. In constructing two parallel versions of the brutality of the storm against
the mountain's female community, Lumpkin constructs a symbolic shared experience and
emphasizes a need for unified resistance against the threatening elements of industrialization.
The onset of Emma' s birthing labor begins only after Emma has accomplished the
caretaking labor for her father and sons. Emma is acutely aware that the storm is separating her
from the female community who would assist her in her delivery. In spite of her isolation she
continues the care taking of her family as "between the pains" she pours hot coffee to warm her
father and relays instructions for cutting the umbilical cord. Emma disregards the storm and
focuses upon her delivery, wishing "in herself there was a woman who would know what to do
without telling" (12). Lumpkin illustrates the isolation of Emma from her community of women
in the absence of another woman to act as midwife. Emma approaches parturition and seeks her
bed in a corner of the cabin:
Sitting up on bed she pressed down slowly with her hands over the great lump stirring
inside. Others had done this for her before to help the child come. She found that she could
not do this for herself. The hot pulling cramp forced her to lie back and scream again. A
bear was gnawing at her belly, pulling at the muscles with its strong teeth. She felt its fur
on her face and beat at the fur with her arms. It was Granpap's beard. (12)
Lumpkin emphasizes Emma' s wishing for the presence of someone who knows how to
assist in delivery by pressing on her abdomen. Emma has gained this knowledge from "others"
through her experiences in childbirth, but discovers that her pain prevents her from performing
this procedure. The only adult presence within the cabin is Emma's father; in response to his
daughter' s screams, he takes on the role of midwife.
Theorist Joseph R. Urgo notes the violent imagery surrounding Emma' s birthing scene and
contends that her father' s "delivery of her dead husband' s son underscores the complete
domination of her body by males" (72). Although Urgo's argument confirms the literal male
presence, the absence of Emma's dead husband also reflects the absence of male dominance
within Emma' s domestic sphere. Additionally, the male-personified storm does not defeat the
maternal caretakers in their rescue of their male kin, nor does it intrude upon the cabin where
Emma labors to deliver her infant. Additionally, Emma's father, Granpap Kirkland, a man
scarred from a battle with a she-bear and a Civil War battle, actually resists the role of dominator
because "he had known fear and dread in the last few moments since he knew that some time in
the night he must deliver Emma of her child" (11i). Emma' s birth experience is an exclusively
female experience where Granpap has no control outside of cutting the umbilical cord. Granpap
further demonstrates his lack of power over the birth experience when he fails to follow his
daughter' s directions on how to cut the umbilical cord at an appropriate length. Lumpkin
illustrates the reproductive authority of Emma and her community of women as exclusively
female knowledge when Emma's son later reveals, "The protruding navel .. had something to
do with his birth and the fact that Granpap had cut the cord instead of some woman who knew
her business" (53). Emma' s father' s lack of skill is not only reflected through a permanent scar
on a future proletariat, but the grandfather is also feminized through his grandson's comparison
to a woman who would have had skill and knowledge that surpassed that of the elder patriarch.
Granpap is not a fearless dominator because the birth experience proves more
overpowering than the bloody battles between men and the battles with maternalized raging she-
bears. Lumpkin parallels Emma' s female experience of birthing with her father' s performance in
his hunting experiences; Emma's resistance to male domination is evident in her courageous
reproductive labor experiences. Lumpkin' s description of Emma' s labor pains resembles her
father' s description of his "she-bear" as she feels a "bear gnawing at her belly, pulling at the
muscles with its strong teeth." When Emma realizes the fur of the bear is really her father' s
beard as he bends close to "tell her to keep covered," she pushes him away because "[i]t was not
possible to bear the agony of one hair touching her" (1 1-12). Pushing her father away enacts a
resistance to her father' s presence in her reproductive experience, and Emma defeats the beast by
bearing her child through her body's own natural process of giving birth.
Although Emma depends upon her father' s assistance in the delivery of the infant, her
response to his concern for Victorian modesty can also be read as an act of resistance to male
domination. Isolation from her community of women, Emma faces her reproductive labor as a
solitary act. Emma refuses domination and focuses upon her own mind and body: "There was no
Granpap and no children now. Nothing mattered but herself and the pain" (1 1-13). Emma
maintains the ownership of her body, her pain, her space, and her birth process by effacing both
her father and her family.
After Emma delivers her son, her father separates himself from his imposed caretaking role
and transfers the maternal responsibility to the only other female in the cabin, Bonnie. Granpap
covers his daughter, who is lying on the "exhausted on the dry side of the bed," and places his
new grandson "in the cradle with Bonnie to keep it warm until Emma would come to and let it
suck" (13). Bonnie is the only other female in the cabin and the heat from her body serves in
keeping a newborn infant warm. In sharing her cradle, Emma's daughter is symbolically initiated
into what contemporary theorist Nancy Chodorow refers to as the reproduction of mothering
where "the early mother-infant relationship creates both a foundation for parenting in children of
both genders and expectations that women will mother" (7). In her perception of her role as a
maternal caretaker, Bonnie's sense of a shared female reproductive consciousness is rooted in
her social role as opposed to her biological role. The cradle-sharing also foreshadows a symbolic
maternal-based solidarity between Bonnie and her brother as well as between Bonnie and a
gendered working-class. At chapter's end the metaphorical snowstorm is replaced by two hungry
infants who lie quietly awaiting the sleeping maternal breast. There is no resistance from the
female child in the cradle and her shared role with her mother as an infant caretaker and nurturer
marks the beginning of the cycle of matemnal-based solidarity for Bonnie as a fictionalized
Cradles, Kin, and Maternal Caretaking
Bonnie's cradle-sharing indoctrination into mothering extends into the second chapter
when six years later she rescues her cradle mate from a rattlesnake. Again, Bonnie's body bears
the maternal burden of caretaking, which is reminiscent of her mother' s experience in rescuing
her brothers and grandfather from the snow storm: "She caught the back of John' s j eans and
clumsily jerked him against her. The impact of his body on hers brought them down on the slope
together, and they rolled down hill until a rock stopped them" (16). Bonnie not only pulls her
brother down a hill to safety, but her body cushions his fall and results in Bonnie being bruised
and bleeding, John escaping unscathed, and their mother believing that Bonnie merely fell while
playing. Bonnie and John do not reveal the details of their snake experience to Emma; their
secrecy implies their understanding of maternal authority and the consequences of their
confession. Bonnie's actions also allude to a gender expectation that as an older sister, she shares
maternal responsibility for her younger brother and, even at age six, lifts some of Emma' s
Along with the maternal care of her younger brother, Bonnie also learns about the
gendered boundaries imposed upon women by a patriarchal cultural tradition. As Emma' s sister-
in-law, Ora, and cousin, Jennie Martin, are gathering around Emma' s loom, Emma' s first
narrated conversation with her daughter reveals the reinforcement of traditional gender roles.
Emma exposes Bonnie' s her gendered transgressions as well as those of Ora' s daughter, Sally,
by referring to them as "boy-girls" who "Always wanted to run around like boys instead of
helping [their] Mas." The reprimand is immediately understood and articulated as a single shared
thought between Emma and Bonnie. Emma first responds to Bonnie's inquiry about the absence
of Ora' s eldest daughter with, "Sally's got to stay home." Bonnie concludes Emma' s sentence
with, "To work for her Ma" (24). Emma' s "got to" not only implies that there are no other
options for Sally, but also suggests that those carefree days of Bonnie's and Sally's boyish
freedom have now ended. The split identity of a "boy-girl" privileges the term "boy" by placing
it first, thus subordinating the identity of"girl." In finishing her mother' s sentence, Bonnie
articulates her respect for the authority of her mother as well as her own understanding of her
subordinate position as a female within a caretaking community of the mothers and daughters
who understand their domestic responsibilities.
In contrast to Bonnie's carefully mentored maternal training, Lumpkin portrays a young
woman whose lack of proper mothering results in the social death of Minnie Hawkins. Minnie' s
mother, as well as the moral guardianship represented by a mother, is absent. Lumpkin describes
Bonnie' s unsexed female body as "little and slim" compared to the body of daughter of Jim
Hawkins who is slightly older and "plump." Minnie' s sexualized body attracts the pursuit of the
local boys and results in Minnie's social damnation as a devalued, sexualized obj ect who tempts
the local boys toward the sin of fornication. When the rural women notice the boys and men are
eyeing the "prettiest girl around the valley," they are filled with a distrust which Lumpkin
succinctly explains as, "Then, they remembered her mother" (42). The community of women
must strain to remember the time when Minnie's mother was present. There is no memory of any
immoral action outside of her abandonment of her duties as wife and mother.
Lumpkin further emphasizes the moral contrast between Bonnie and Minnie in the spiritual
coming-of-age ritual of baptism down by the river in Possum Hollow. The preacher immerses
Bonnie and she is "saved" from mortal damnation. However, when Minnie glances at Emma' s
son, she slips from the hands of the preacher as well as slips from baptismal saving grace. In the
eyes of her community of onlookers, Minnie' s lack of salvation leaves her with the stain of the
original sins of her mother. The ill-timed presence of Emma' s son riding a horse through the
baptismal waters fails to evoke any community scorn. However, Minnie's questionable "baptism
was the subj ect of many discussions for years afterward, especially when Minnie herself later
became the chief subject of talk in the community" (64). Lumpkin implies that Minnie' s lack of
a maternal bond also indicates a lack of a mother' s moral training. Minnie reenacts her mother' s
fall from patriarchal religion's grace when she, too, abandons her infant. Minnie's lack of a
mother also implies her lack of the social ability be a part of the maternal caretaking within her
However, Minnie's lack of a maternal influence and her social alienation from her rural
community serve as Emma' s lesson to Bonnie in female solidarity when Minnie conceives a
child of unknown paternal origin. As a social pariah bearing an illegitimate child, Minnie is cast
out of her father' s home and left to fend for herself. Although rumor suggests several
possibilities which include both of Emma' s sons and Sam McEachemn as possible fathers, Emma
McClure believes that the possibility of the child being a McClure is enough to warrant her
embracing Minnie as family. Emma takes Minnie into the already overcrowded cabin where
there is barely enough food available for the McClure family to survive.
Surrounded and supported by the McClure women, Minnie's reproductive labor is
contrasted with Emma's birthing experiences. Emma describes her own labor by saying, "Mine
all came hard." Lumpkin announces Minnie's labor and delivery a single sentence: "A few
moments after Ora arrived Minnie groaned a little, and there was a baby" (93). Minnie's ease of
labor suggests that the pains of childbirth appear to have very little to do with questions of
morality or legitimacy. Emma' s maternal embrace of Minnie suggests that acceptance by other
women who share the knowledge and experience of childbirth can ease the burden and the pain
for other women. The knowledge of the women who assisted in Minnie' s childbirth is the
knowledge of shared female experience where women extend their nurturing and caretaking of
children to the nurturing and caretaking of each other.
Lumpkin also draws upon Minnie's pregnancy and parturition to emphasize Bonnie's rite
of passage into womanhood as well as into a culturally-reproduced sense of maternal solidarity.
The onset of Bonnie's menstrual cycle and her surrogate motherhood of, and maternal separation
from, Minnie's infant symbolize the severe economic desperation that forces the rural families
out of their homes and into the mills. The menstrual event is narrated through Emma' s maternal
reflections: "Bonnie was getting older and it had come upon her. For herself, Emma could do
with any rags that came along, but for Bonnie she wanted the soft cloth. If she went to the store,
Hal Swain would probably give the cloth on credit" (author's emphasis 109). Both Bonnie and
Emma share the universal, yet unnamed, experience of "it." Despite the secrecy, mother and
daughter share an exclusive female experience through their mutual identification as
reproductive menstruating bodies.
In combining menstruation as both a shared female experience and an economic hardship,
Lumpkin illustrates a sense of social consciousness that is understood as an exclusively female
experience of economic desperation. Emma' s hope for her daughter' s economic future is also
revealed through their bodily functions where Emma wants to nurture her daughter as a woman
and provide a soft cloth to take care of a woman's reproductive cycle. Where Emma' s menstrual
and childbirth cycles are marked by rags and agonizing labor symbolizing poverty and pain,
Emma' s desire for a soft cloth implies her hope for a softer and easier life for her daughter. Yet
the link between mother and daughter is overshadowed by the need for more credit at the general
store. Lumpkin's representation of Bonnie's menarcheal event within the novel was
revolutionary, implying the possibility of female bonding through the shared experience of a
female coming-of-age ritual and the possibility of female solidarity through a shared
understanding of how economic desperation affects women' s bodies.
The economic desperation that finally forces the family to leave the mountain parallels
Bonnie' s separation from her nurturing role as the surrogate mother of Minnie' s infant. Shortly
after her delivery, Minnie leaves the supportive community of the women in the McClure
household, and Bonnie assumes the role of surrogate mother to Minnie's abandoned infant.
Lumpkin emphasizes a surrogate maternal nurturing: "Bonnie couldn't be budged from the baby
inside [the cabin]. She wanted to hold it continually" (94). When Minnie's father hears that the
McClures are leaving the mountains to work at mills located in the valley, he comes to claim his
grandson. Bonnie' s painful maternal separation is also parallel to the painful separation of the
McClure family from their land. In the silence that follows the grandfather' s request, Bonnie
cries out, "Hit's mine...I raised it. .. Bonnie cried all the way down the valley..." (139).
Bonnie believes the baby belongs to her because she was responsible for the caretaking and
nurturing of Minnie' s son. Similarly, the McClures believed in their ownership of their
inheritance because they, too, nurtured and cared for their land. The senselessness of the
separation of an infant from a nurturing community represents the separation of the working-
class from their livelihood, and Lumpkin posits the need for a return to a matemnal-based
solidarity as a viable model of caretaking ownership as well as activism for unifying a working-
Grinding Bones and Making Bread from Maternal Bodies
Scarred by a maternal separation and a lack of rags for her menstrual flow, Bonnie' s
coming of age marks the turning point in the novel that symbolizes the economic deterioration of
an agrarian tradition. Out of desperation, the McClure family moves toward the industrialized
modernity of a mill town. Trusting in promises of high wages, education for their children, and
homes with electricity, the McClures journey to what Lumpkin refers to as the "outside."
However, the outside reneges on its promises, and Lumpkin symbolizes this harsh reality
through a child's fairy tale in which an ogre consumes dreams as well as maternal bodies.
Bonnie reads the grim fairy tale to the children, who are too young to attend school. What would
appear to be a nurturing scene of maternal caretaking in reality foreshadows the fate of the
millworkers: "And the ogre said, 'I'll grind your bones to make my bread'" (219). Since the
millworkers struggle to make enough money to buy bread, the ogre embodies the monster of
industrialization, which grinds their bones with low wages and physical exhaustion.
Lumpkin illustrates the ogre' s grinding wrath through Emma' s maternal body. In
sacrificing the health of her physical body through hunger as well as hard physical labor, Emma
develops pellagra and her maternal body becomes the sacrificial bread for the capitalist ogres.
While Emma works for wages to feed her children, protein for her is in short supply. She
deprives herself of nutrition so that there is more food on the table for her children. Lumpkin
illuminates how survival for the millworkers in the Depression era was a gendered hierarchical
structure with the bodies of mothers and children bearing the brunt of the brutality.
Lumpkin undoubtedly witnessed cases of pellagra and noticed that it struck maternal
bodies with great frequency. Contemporary medical studies now show that while young children
seem to be affected the hardest by pellagra, the bodies of female millworkers were ten times
more likely to succumb to this vitamin deficiency than male workers. This statistic implies a
hierarchical favoring of bodies when meat or dairy products were available (Hall, et al. 150).
Lumpkin reveals a traditional agrarian life pattern where men were engaged in manual field labor
and women worked in the home. Based on physical needs, men required more sustenance to
support their manual activity so the dinner table reflected a nutritional pecking order.
Additionally, most women favored their children over themselves in the division of nutrients.
The agrarian tradition of male privilege and maternal privileging at the table carried over into the
urban environment, and the bodies of the female millworkers bore the resulting pellagra.
Lumpkin contrasts the deterioration of Emma' s body with the maturing of Bonnie' s body
as well as with the development of Bonnie's maternal-based working-class consciousness.
Bonnie marries Jim Calhoun, who immediately departs for the war, leaving a pregnant Bonnie
behind to care for her invalid mother in addition to working long hours in the mill. Bonnie's
infant, Little Emma Calhoun, silently appears in the same way Bonnie appeared in the first
chapter, as a presence in the cradle. Bonnie "was soon up and waiting on the baby and Emma
together, and then back in the mills at her frames" (283). Inspired by her hungry infant and her
sense of justice, Bonnie confronts the mill boss and requests time off "to nurse the baby." Bonnie
"was so sure that what she wanted was a good and natural thing, there was no thought in her of
being denied." Bonnie's maternal request is not a request for privilege. She expresses her
willingness to "lose the money while the machines are idle." Mr. Burnett responds, "If I let you,
.. I'd have to let every young woman who's got a young baby do the same. And there are
plenty of babies in this village, Bonnie." Bonnie's anger is sparked and she responds, "And
plenty of them dies. .. It was the first time she had said such a thing to anyone in a long time,
and the first time she had spoken that way to one of the higher-ups" (283-284). Framed as
maternal consciousness and fueled by a sense of social justice, the resistance of Lumpkin' s
protagonist transgresses both the boundaries of gender and the boundaries of class. Lumpkin
dares a conscious literary expression of female resistance within a patriarchal culture as both a
reproductive consciousness and a social consciousness.
Bonnie's role as the maternal breadwinner is challenged further after Emma' s death when
her caretaking extends to her husband who escapes injury in the war but loses his hand in a mill
accident. Jim's health deteriorates along with his ability to function in the role of husband and
provider. Bonnie minimizes her husband's failure in his traditional role and states: "He had
become careless about everything, and uninterested. He had never been the best sort of husband,
but Bonnie understood him and had learned early not to expect too much" (315). Ironically,
Bonnie reverses the expectations of gender roles. When her husband fails to be a good provider,
she compensates by having lower expectations and working harder as a maternal caretaker and
In contrast to Bonnie's maternal self-sacrifiee, Jim Calhoun subscribes to a separate
standard for survival. He is also the child of a single woman who was abandoned by her husband
and worked in the mills. The lack of a father also represents a lack of a model of paternal
responsibility, and Jim reproduces his father' s behavior pattern by abandoning Bonnie. Bonnie's
forgiveness and compassion for her husband are illustrated through the language of a maternal
reproductive body: "Loving was as natural to her as the breath she took into herself without
thought, so she had a child every year" (315). Lumpkin illustrates how many rural women
understood their reproductive destiny by equating sexual passion with "loving" and, inevitably,
with childbirth. Bonnie's perception of her reality is relational. Bearing the burden of a husband
who has been emasculated and crippled by both the war and the mill demonstrates her love as
much as bearing an infant yearly demonstrates her love.
After Jim Calhoun abandons his family, Bonnie demonstrates her resistance to cultural
traditions which closely parallels the historical resistance of the real-life Ella May Wiggins and
her subsequent death: Bonnie' s outward defiance of the southern tradition of race segregation
and her union activism ultimately lead to her death. At first, Bonnie's choice to live in
Stumptown, a predominantly African American neighborhood, is a pragmatic choice rather than
an act of defiance. In her position as a single mother, Bonnie no longer qualifies for mill housing
so she makes an economic choice to move into "a cabin that had been lived in by colored
people." Living outside of mill housing. Bonnie is further away from any community support
and again makes an economic choice where duringig the day, she left the children at home with
five-year old Emma" (317).
Like her mother and her grandmother, little Emma is culturally indoctrinated into the
reproduction of mothering and a sense of separation. Lumpkin illustrates the shared
responsibility between mother and daughter: "Each morning [Emma] rose at four, made her own
breakfast, and left coffee and a pot of hominy with flour gravy on the stove where little Emma
could reach them when the children awoke" (3 17). Yet in spite of the little Emma' s caretaking,
her infant brother dies. On the day Bonnie buries her child, she realizes that little Emma is still a
child herself. Bonnie makes another pragmatic choice and embraces the friendship of a "colored"
co-worker, Mary Allen. Mary sends her fifteen-year-old daughter, Savannah, to help Bonnie with
child care. Bonnie's relationship with Mary Allen and Savannah emerges as a climactic point in
Lumpkin's novel where Bonnie faces her own racial prejudice with "shame" and recognizes that
she, Mary, and Savannah share a matemnal-based bond. Lumpkin illustrates a mutual maternal
understanding that crosses the boundaries of race:
Bonnie's terror about the other children left alone had been made so much greater by the
death of one. And Savannah's presence during that week made her anxiety less. It was her
need to have that anxiety lightened when the new grave had just been covered up that Mary
Allen understood. (321)
Regardless of racial difference, Bonnie is supported by Mary Allen and Savannah because
Mary not only "understood" the loss of the child in the grave but also understood the terror and
the burden of maternal guilt for leaving the remaining children unattended.
The Allen women also understand that their own maternal roles are caretaking roles
without race or class. The support of the Allen women suggests the possibilities for a maternal
solidarity that can extend into a cooperative maternal-based activism where Bonnie's goals as a
union organizer also benefit Mary Allen and her family. Lumpkin argues for racial equality
through Bonnie: "The colored people work alongside of us, .. I can't see why they shouldn't
Eight alongside us, and we by them" (350). At a time in the Jim Crow South, when African
American families were one step lower than poor white trash, the "family" relationship that
existed among the workers at the mill was racially determined according to southern tradition.
Yet Lumpkin draws the millworkers together in maternal solidarity for the union cause. The
"Hight" is for something as basic as the human need to survive. Until the death of her own infant,
Bonnie does not understand that her relationship to an African American woman is an instinctive
bond of survival. The death of a child draws them both into a shared maternal experience where
a human act of charity crosses cultural barriers and illuminates a matemnal-based activism.
By entering Bonnie's home and offering service, Mary Allen's actions are not outside of
any racial boundaries because her act of charity originates from a position of servitude in
southern tradition. However, through Bonnie' s acceptance of Mary and the African American
community of millworkers and her physical presence within the African American neighborhood
where she and her neighbors share in a struggle to survive, Lumpkin reveals the revolutionary
possibility of racial integration.
When Mary Allen becomes a part of the mill's reduction of workers and is "given her
time," Bonnie attends her first union meeting. By the following week, Bonnie also receives her
notice of termination and she begins union organizing among the female millworkers. Like her
historical counterpart, Bonnie not only transgresses racial boundaries by making her home in
Stumptown, but she also transgresses gendered boundaries by recruiting as union members her
African American community of neighbors who also need a livable wage. Lumpkin represents
Bonnie's union appeal to her African American co-workers as a need for bread as well as a need
for maternal-based solidarity. Bonnie relates the shared bond of survival: "She felt a sympathy
for them, since, like her, they were poor and only wanted to make their bread..." (359). For
Bonnie the cry for bread is also a cry for worker solidarity across racial barriers.
Bonnie's cry for bread no longer mimics the teacher in the mill school who reads tales to
children about ogres; she fights the ogre of industrial exploitation who devours the bodies of
herself and her children and j oins the workers on strike at Wentworth Mill. Bonnie believes the
strike will defeat the ogre, and she listens attentively to the promises of the union organizer who
"had a message that was founded in the facts of her everyday life." The organizers promise
enough food and better education for the children. The strike organizers advise, "Be true to
yourself and your own, and you can't go far wrong" (340). Following the advice of the union
organizers to be true to herself, Bonnie writes her mill mother's ballad: "How it grieves the heart
of a mother/You everyone must know./But we can't buy for our children'/Our wagers are too
low./It is for our little children/That seem to us so dear./But for us nor them, dear workers/The
bosses do not care" (345-346). Bonnie's ballad reveals the truth for her and for her own children.
Bonnie's song inspires a mass walkout leaving the Wentworth Mill "almost empty of workers"
(348). Lumpkin's millworkers identify with the working-class solidarity that is born in the heart
of a grieving mother whose everyday life is rooted in maternal care taking.
Bonnie's next ascent to a union platform as a maternal activist revises historical reality
when Lumpkin's fictional Wiggins dies on the union platform rather than on the back of a truck.
In locating Bonnie on the union platform, she is located in a subj ect position and her death
reflects the silencing of a mother' s lament as well as the silencing of a reproductive body. As a
political agent, Bonnie delivers a message of revolutionary consciousness as she would deliver
an infant, as a labor of love. Although Bonnie dies, her message of maternal solidarity lives on
through the lyrics of her ballad. Inspired by Bonnie's message and martyrdom, the strikers
descend upon the fictional Wentworth Mill just as they did upon the Loray Mill in Gastonia.
Although the first shot of the working-class revolution was fired upon a maternal body standing
on a union platform, Bonnie's death reflects the martyrdom associated with death in childbirth.
Bonnie died giving birth of a reproductive social consciousness.
As a fictionalized representation of Ella May Wiggins, Lumpkin' s Bonnie McClure-
Calhoun demonstrates a model of maternal solidarity as she gives birth to social consciousness
and dies as the lyrics of a maternal ballad and the dream of working-class revolution live on. At
the end of the novel, Lumpkin implies the possibility of a working-class revolution by claiming,
thishs is just the beginning" (3 84). Despite the tragic ending, Lumpkin suggests that the story of
Ella May Wiggins is a story of beginnings. While Lumpkin was in her "Communist Phase," she
planted the seeds of revolution, through the militancy of the martyred maternal body of Ella May
Wiggins as well through the stories of the female southern millworkers in North Carolina.
Lumpkin depicted a maternal-based model working-class protest that inspired a social
consciousness across class distinctions. As historical testimony of female agency and subj activity
during the Depression era, the life and the ballads of Ella May Wiggins reflect more than just a
sentimentalized "Mill Mother's Lament." Grace Lumpkin invokes Wiggins' militant lyrics as a
millworker' s maternal cry for bread for hungry children, and creates To Make My Bread as a mill
writer' s cry for a working-class sympathy and a maternal-based solidarity.
DOROTHY MYRA PAGE: WEARING THE RADICAL RED SHOES OF MATERNAL
SOLIDARITY INT GA THERING STORM: A STORY OF THE BLACK BELT
Early in 1993, Dorothy Myra Page, a radical 1930s novelist, essayist, feminist, and
communist, was asked by her biographer how she wanted to be remembered. Page chose her
traditional gender identities over her political activist identities and said that she wanted to be
remembered as "a good mother and a good wife" (qtd. in Baker xxiii). Christina Looper Baker' s
biography, In a Generous Spirit: A First Person Biography ofhyra Page includes extensive
interviews with Myra Page, who shares her maternal experiences as well as her professional
experiences as a writer. Page's dedication to her children was also balanced by her dedication to
her career. Page told Christina Looper Baker "the woman who works is a much better mother for
her children. She is more a part of the real world they're growing up in if she takes her j ob
seriously" (Baker 174). Because she shared a sixty-six year marriage with John Markey and
raised two children, as well as living the tenets of her socialist ideology, it is clear that Page took
her all of her jobs seriously. Yet, Page's focus on the importance of her own maternal identity
offers a valuable insight into the characterizations in her writing. In 1932 Page privileged the
maternal identity of another working mother when she fictionalized the life and murder of Ella
May Wiggins in her novel, Gathering Storm: A Story of the Black Belt. Page recreates the
maternal body of Wiggins as well as the maternal bodies of the women who worked at Loray
Mill as political bodies invoking a traditional gendered role as a model of maternal activism that
would create a better world for working-class women and their children.
This chapter briefly addresses how Page's personal and political experiences both resist
and embrace tradition and inform her revolutionary writing. The balance of the chapter focuses
on Page' s fictional portrayal of the psychological and physiological experiences that shape the
lives of the female millworkers through her protagonist, Marge Crenshaw and a fictionalized Ella
May Wiggins. In recreating the lives of working-class women in a fictional Gastonia, Page
presents a viable model of maternal activism that inspires working-class sympathy and female
Page, like many other female writers of the 1930s, relied upon her own experiences as a
woman to write about the experiences of other working-class women. Although the working-
class feminine rhetoric of the early 1930s focused heavily on motherhood as debilitating, Page
and the other female Gastonia novelists viewed the maternal body as a political body. The
maternal body invokes the power of a traditional gender role as a woman's means of challenging
the social injustices of her real world. In Red Feminism, Kate Weigand uses the term
"maternalist style of activism" to refer to the recreation of traditional gender roles as activist
roles (5). In telling the story of Ella May Wiggins, Page relied upon the maternal body to
represent and reveal a model of model activism that not only inspired the resistance of the
working-class, but also inspired the sympathies of her readers' for motives behind the
The real-life Ella May Wiggins was a mother, motivated by her concern for the survival of
her children, who actively worked for the unionization of the millworkers and their protest
against substandard wages and working conditions. Wiggins, inspired working-class solidarity
among the southern millworkers and evoked the sympathies of an upper class by invoking her
traditional maternal role in her ballad, "Mill Mother's Lament." She urged workers to fight for
higher wages because "it is for our dear children" (Page 336). Wiggins was a single mother who,
after she was abandoned by her husband, reclaimed her maiden name of May and fought for
better wages and working conditions. Wiggins lost her life on the way to a union rally in
Gastonia where she had hoped to inspire maternal-based solidarity among the workers who
would strike for their dear children. Her death inspired a wave of strikes across the Carolinas.
Although the strike at Gastonia failed, the Labor Defender dedicated its October 29, 1929,
edition as a memorial to Ella May Wiggins who would be remembered as a woman who died for
the cause of labor and became a "martyr for an organized South" (Salmond 156).
Six years after Wiggins' death, Page, pregnant with her first child, wrote an article for the
Labor Defender reminding her readers of the promise made in their 1929 edition, "We'll not
forget you, Ella May" (qtd. in Baker 144). On April 21, 1935, the same day that Page was
writing her memorial article to a maternal martyr, she became a mother, giving birth to her
daughter, May Markey (Baker 144). While Baker's biography attests to Page' s success as a
mother and wife, it also accurately attests to Page' s success as a radical voice of the 1930s who
dared to write about Ella May Wiggins as a good mother and a good unionist. Page also
remembered Wiggins six years later as a mother who gave her life for maternal activism as well
as for union solidarity.
Shield of Southern Tradition
Baker' s biography also reveals Page' s private journey toward her radical social
consciousness as a young woman, Dorothy Gary, whose goals went beyond marriage and
motherhood. Dorothy Gary's goals were so far outside of her family's southern tradition that she
adopted the pseudonym of Dorothy Myra Page to shield them from embarrassment and from
knowing about her affiliation with the Communist Party. Page asserts that throughout her life she
was a woman who was "held up by tradition and held by tradition" (qtd. in Baker xxiii, author
emphasis). Nonetheless, she transgressed those boundaries of tradition by challenging the
southern traditions of her upbringing in Newport News, Virginia, and embracing the new and
revolutionary ideas of the American Left through her membership in the Communist Party.
Page' s exposure to the real world of the working-class and southern tradition came early in
her life. As a child, she accompanied her father, Dr. Gary, a physician in Newport News, on his
house calls where he tended both white and black patients. Page's mother, Willie Alberta
Barham Gary, devoted herself to the traditional "obligations of white southern womanhood"
(Rosenfelt 248). Despite her more liberal upbringing, which permitted cross-class friendships
with the children of the dock workers, Page quickly learned that her family had more traditional
expectations for her. Her brother was expected to carry on her father' s medical practice and she
was expected to follow her mother' s example: marry, oversee the house, and produce children.
She resisted the family's expectation of marriage, broke her first engagement, and left Newport
News to attend West Hampton College, the women' s branch of the University of Richmond.
Discouraged from pursuing a medical degree, Page maj ored in English as an undergraduate
student, but her college experiences led her toward a doctorate in sociology as well as toward
leftist ideologies. As an English maj or, Page struggled with her writing and was advised to write
about the things she knew. However, what Page knew and experienced in growing up in the
South made her angry. Page she told her biographer, "I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn't
ready to write about the South" (Baker 38). Although Page could not understand how some
people in the South were held back from equality through gender discrimination, class
distinction, and racial segregation, she had no solutions to the social ills that plagued the South,
only resentment of the inequities.
Instead of writing, Page took a teaching position in Newport News for a year and then
entered Columbia University in pursuit of her master' s degree. In 1919, while studying at
Columbia, Page was introduced to working-class consciousness and the Leftist movement at the
Rand School in New York. There she attended lectures by Scott Nearing, who later befriended
Page and her future husband through their shared interest in the Communist Party. Page also
attended lectures by Anna Louis Strong, who presented her personal account of the political
changes occurring in Soviet Union. Page also met the radical labor reporter, Mary Heaton Vorse,
at the Rand School. At Columbia, Page was inspired to j oin the Social Studies Club, which led to
her political involvement in the strikes of 1919 as well as reaffirming her beliefs in leftist
ideology (Baker 45).
After finishing her master' s degree, Page worked briefly as the YWCA' s industrial
secretary at a silk plant in Norfolk, but she was forced to resign because of her outside political
activities. Page contends that "preaching unionism and socialism" offended the Board of the
YWCA as well as the "lawyer' s wife" and other "women [who] came from protected
backgrounds .. none [of which] had ever worked outside the home or had any real idea of what
the world was like" (Baker 52). Page was acutely aware that she, too, came from a privileged
background and had been protected from the real world. Despite her family's protestations, Page
moved north to work in the factories in Philadelphia and New York because she believed that
startingig at the bottom in a factory would help [her] to study the working people as one of
them" (Baker 54). Despite her efforts in menial sweatshop positions, Page discovered that she
could not transcend her privileged position. Unlike the workers at the bottom, Page did not
depend upon her salary for subsistence, and she could not communicate with her fellow workers
who were "foreign-born girls who spoke little English" (qtd. in Baker 56). Attempts to strike
failed because the workers had no other means of financial support and lacked the
communication skills to make their needs known. Page learned how the experiences of the
working-class were dramatically different from the experiences of the privileged class, and the
recognition of the growing disparities between the classes proj ected her toward her goal of
education for workers.
Page received a fellowship for doctoral study in sociology at the University of Minnesota.
In 1925, while in graduate school, she met and married John Markey. Page kept her maiden
name, Dorothy Gary, after her marriage. By 1927, both Page and Markey had joined the
Communist Party. Although Page admits to being more radical than her husband, she kept her
affiliation with the party hidden from her friends and family who were unaware of her work as
Dorothy Myra Page (Lane 158). It was shortly after their marriage in April that Page left her
husband in Minnesota to conduct her doctoral research among the female textile workers in
North Carolina. Page's sociological study on the behavior patterns of southern textile workers
was directed toward the attitudes of female millworkers about children and work. Page returned
to Gastonia in the summer of 1926 to continue her research, sharing a room in a boarding house
with a millworking mother and her young daughter. Living on the "hill" in mill housing and
teaching night school, Page was accepted by the workers; she gained better insight into the lives
of working-class women and the need for union organizers to accomplish worker solidarity in
order to improve working and living conditions for their families.
Radical Red Shoes
Although Page earned her doctorate in June 1928 with a double minor in economics and
psychology, the Great Depression and sexism thwarted her career opportunities at the university
level (Baker 92). She then directed her writing toward reporting on labor issues and the struggles
of textile workers, sharecroppers, and miners. Page's writing, like most reportage of the era, was
polemical and militant. Page believed that the Communist Party of the interwar era offered what
seemed to be a viable solution to the social and political ills that plagued the United States, and
her leftist views permeated her work. In reporting how the Soviet Socialist Republic was
designing a classless society, Page believed that she possessed a voice of advocacy through her
writing. In addition to her visit in 1928, Page lived in the Soviet Socialist Republic for a period
of two years where she worked as a full-time correspondent writing for the Daily Worker, the
.ambnrlllI Worker, Working Woman, and the M~oscow News (Baker 121).
In Russia, Page witnessed a system of socialized medicine that guaranteed sick pay and
granted women workers a four-month paid maternity leave, and she envisioned such a system in
the United States. Her faith in her vision was not only fostered by the Party, but it was also
inspired by the revolutionary changes she was witnessing in the lives of women who appeared to
be benefiting from the political and economic changes within the Soviet Socialist Republic. With
the changes in health care, Moscow's infant mortality rate had dropped 50 percent; under the
collectivist system, every family was guaranteed at least one room per person in apartment
housing that also provided child care and laundries (Baker 121-128). Only in retrospect did Page
discover that most of the Russian population did not enj oy the benefits of the socialist visionary
radical reform. Like so many other disillusioned leftists, she saw only what the Russian
government wanted her to see. Yet, under her pseudonym of Dorothy Myra Page, she presented
what she believed to be the truth as well as a viable solution for social injustice. Page also
believed that the political ideal of a classless society that embraced gender, race, and class as part
of a collective identity was still in its infancy; and with maternal caretaking, the political dream
could become a reality in the United States.
Page returned to the United States in 1934, ready to inspire social radical reform by
attacking the racism and sexism of the South that were so much a part of her own internalized
resentment. Page wrote about her own childhood discovery of racial segregation in "Beyond the
Color Line" which was published in Crisis (Baker 110). Page opened her story with the
forbidden friendship of a little African American boy named Tom, who just wanted to play with
a child who was white; and the story of Belle, the family's cleaning woman who could not
support her family on three dollars a week. Page ended the story with Ethel, who graduated with
honors from Columbia but could not get a job. Tom, Belle, and Ethel were all African American;
and the anger and shame of southern tradition poured into her writing (Lane 160). The story of
Tom's forbidden friendship plays out again in Gathering Storm as the forbidden friendship of
Charlie and Myrtle Morgan and Billy and Sam Crenshaw. Page also published .kidenrlll Cotton
Mills and' Labor as a non-academic version of her dissertation in the hope of appealing to a
working-class audience. .winrlrelin Cotton M~ills and Labor became the foundation for Gathering
Storm: A Story of the Black Belt and the underpinning of Page' s political vision of racial, gender,
and class equality.
Page was the most educated of all the Gastonia novelists, and her dissertation study
focused on the working mothers and their children, a topic that not only professionally and
intellectually stimulated her but one that had evolved from years of researching working mothers
and their children. In spite of its literary flaws and blatant didactics, Gathering Storm expressed
Page's vision of a collective and classless society. Her first novel accomplished precisely what
she had intended as a scholar, a teacher, an organizer, and a mother--the presentation of a model
of maternal activism that would inspire workers to j oin in this revolutionary vision. Of the few
reviews that Gathering Storm received in 1932, most criticized the novel as "too propagandistic"
or "political and agitational"; yet, one reviewer praised the Page's theoretical base as an
"understanding of one who has studied Marxism and Leninism" (qtd. in Urgo 74). Gathering
Storm did not garner literary favor with contemporary critics Sylvia Jenkins Cook and Laura
Hapke. Both concurred with the early reviewers and faulted the novel as extreme propaganda.
However, Page did not wish to be among the "partisans who pushed politics ahead of art" (Baker
1 16). Page's novel is an artistic expression of historical events evolving from her life experiences
as researcher, woman, wife, and mother.
On the other hand, Barbara Foley countered the accusations of her contemporaries by
recognizing some merit in Page's depictions of Gastonia. Foley equated Gathering Storm with
Clara Weatherwax' s arching!Ma~rching! as "offer[ing] more encyclopedic summaries of the
party program than do any other novels of the decade" (242). Gathering Storm clearly emerged
as Page's "encyclopedic" contribution to the Party's "Black Belt" resolution of 1928 in her
recreation of the atrocities committed against her fictionalized African American family.
Gathering Storm also emerged as Page's testimony to the gender inequities in the Depression era
South in the 1930s and her belief that solidarity would help create a better world for children,
regardless of race or gender. Foley also attested that unlesss we cynically refuse to take [Page
and Weatherwax's politically-based] testimonies at face value, we should acknowledge most
Depression-era leftists' fervent belief that altered relations between men and women would be
one of the most valued benefits of the 'better world' for which they were fighting" (245). The
female authors of the Left were not naive, but rather fighting with what Foley refers to as the
Communist Party's "visionary conscience" (246). Like so many other leftists of the 1930s, Page
was living the tenets of her ideology, and her vision of a better world was rooted in the socialist
ideals professed by the Communist Party. Page sincerely believed that the Communist Party
offered a cure for the economically-based race and gender oppression, and she wrote Gathering
Storm: A Story of the Black Belt as an artistic model of a better world made possible through
In Gathering Storm Page's protagonists, Tom and Marge Crenshaw, are the two oldest of
ten children and already entrenched in the long hours for low wages at the Corey Mill in
Riverton Before he is sixteen, an angry and frustrated Tom leaves to find work in the North. In
New Jersey, he discovers that his African American neighbor, Fred, has also escaped the Back
Row. After some painful lessons about racial equality, Tom and Fred develop their working-
class consciousness, join the Communist Party, and become union organizers. At Marge' s
desperate request for help in forming a union, Tom, returns to North Carolina to help organize
the millworkers of the Corey mills.
Conversely, the social conscience of Page' s female protagonist, Marge, develops in the
southern textile mill towns as she shifts from mill to mill in her attempt to find better wages and
better working conditions. By the time young Marge reaches Riverton, North Carolina, she has
lost her grandmother, her mother, two children, and her husband to disease and lack of nutrition.
Marge is inspired and supported by her co-worker and fellow union organizer, Ella May, who
has also lost children and struggles to provide a healthy life for the ones remaining. Marge
Crenshaw and Ella May are drawn together in maternal solidarity by their desperate desire for a
living wage that would support them and their children and a union that would guarantee
equality for all regardless of race, gender, or class.
Although the character of Ella May does not appear until later in the novel, the story of
Marge's personal and political development parallels the story of the real-life Ella May Wiggins
and characterizes most of the female textile workers whose lives are circumscribed by their
yearly reproduction of another mouth to feed and the most meager level of subsistence. By the
time Ella May steps onto the union platform, Marge is at her side as a fellow union organizer and
another maternal voice of solidarity. When May is shot, Marge cradles the head of her dying
comrade. Although Marge becomes the primary caretaker of May's children, the novel returns to
the actual historical events, and the state removes the children from Marge's custody. Shortly
after the death of Ella May, Page again alters the historical facts and Marge, along with the male
union organizers, is arrested for the murder of the real-life police chief in Gastonia, Orville Frank
Aderholt. Released on the grounds of a mistrial, Marge departs with her brother for a union
conference in the North where she meets other maternal activists who are seeking a better world
for their children. Educated as a union organizer and affirmed by her socialist vision, Marge
Crenshaw emerges as a union organizer for the Communist Party and a voice of maternal
Maternal Legacy of a "Fightin' Spirit"
In Gathering Storm Page introduces maternal activism through an oral history narrated by
Ole Marge Marlow, the grandmother for whom the protagonist, Marge Crenshaw, is named. At
her fourteen year-old granddaughter' s prompting, Ole Marge begins her story at the point when,
as a young mother concerned for the health and welfare of her children, she tricks her husband
into leaving the mountains for the cotton mills. While Ole Marge's narrative relies upon maternal
concern for the future of children as justification for female activism, Page also positions the
grandmother as a model of maternal activism for young Marge. Living in rural privation, Ole
Marge listens attentively to the recruiter from the cotton mills who contends that "some of the
city folks heerd how bad off the hill folks was since the war, 'n they be studying' a way to helpen
you, 'n themselves at the same time. So they's building' the mills, 'n helping everybody all
around" (15). The recruiter implies that the growth of the textile industries in the South is a result
of the mill owners' concern for families rather than a concern for profit. He lures the mountain
families with a call for help that reflects a collective social responsibility for resolving the
economic ills that affect everybody. As a mother, Ole Marge is drawn into the recruiter' s rhetoric