Throughout the late 19th century, women, like many marginalized groups, often found difficulty entering white, male-dominated spaces. Unions were no exception. Subsequently, women were often hired as strikebreakers, the only way they could enter the workforce and get employment in trades such as printing.
In the mid-1870s, the Working Women’s Union (WWU) was formed to rectify that exclusion and bring about a working party that incorporated woman’s suffrage and equal pay as central tenants of the labor movement.
One of the most outspoken leaders of the WWU was a woman named Lucy Parsons. She, like many leaders of the union, was what we would now call a syndicalist, in that she rejected a state or centralized political authority in favor of empowering trade unions.
Little is known of Lucy Parson’s early life. What we do know is that she was born in Texas around 1853, likely to enslaved parents. Around 1870, she met her husband Albert Parsons, an ex-confederate soldier and passionate Radical Republican (back when Republicans fought for the civil rights of Black people). Their marriage was not permitted under Texas’s anti-miscegenation laws. However, in spite of this, in 1872, as black codes began to emerge across the South, Lucy and Albert became very politically active.
The pair had been working diligently to register local Black men to vote when Albert was shot in the leg and threatened with lynching. Fearing for their lives, Lucy and Albert were forced to leave, fleeing to Chicago in 1873. Albert subsequently organized workers in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and Lucy began to write for radical publications, including The Socialist and later The Alarm in addition to joining the WWU.
The WWU promptly adopted the slogan “equal pay for equal work” as they understood that low wages for women meant unemployment for many, and lower wages for everyone, which meant it was in the best interests of both men and women to support equal pay between the sexes. Radical feminism, as we know it, was founded on working-class values, the analysis of women’s oppression as a function of capitalism.
In 1879, the Knights of Labor, the first significant national labor organization in the United States, passed a resolution to accept women into its ranks. Women like Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones organized women’s assemblies within the Knights of Labor almost immediately and the WWU was soon dissolved.
The Eight-Hour Workday
Lucy and her husband, now devoted radical leftists, soon became advocates for the Eight-Hour Work movement as Lucy made a name for herself as an exceptional orator.
Lucy was, like many socialists within the labor movement, initially unimpressed by the eight-hour work movement as it, by its very existence, conceded that the wage system was acceptable.
“I say to the wage class: Strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you earn (produce), be content with nothing less.”
In an 1886 interview, she went on to say:
“I do not believe that capital will quietly or peaceably permit the economic emancipation of their wage slaves. The capitalists of the world will force the workers into an armed revolution. Socialists point out this fact and warn the workingmen to prepare for the inevitable.”
Lucy was openly militant as she defended violence in class struggle and advocated for “military organization and the study of revolutionary tactics over political action.”
However, in the late 1880s, prominent members of the Knights of Labor took charge of the growing eight-hour work movement. They, along with the Federation of Organized Trade and Central Labor Union, convened in Chicago in 1884 and set May 1, 1886, as the date for a general strike to usher in the eight-hour work day.
Lucy Parsons and other women activists joined them, organizing workers across the city including railroad workers and sewing women to participate in the general strike. Albert Parsons, in addition to organizing workers, led an eight-hour workday rally hosted by the Central Labor Union. Banners in English and German read: “Eight Hours-Working Time May 1, 1886,” “Liberty Without Equality is a Lie,” and “Our Civilization- the Bullet and the Policeman’s Club.”
By May 1, 1886, several hundred thousand workers marched through the streets, effectively shutting down the city. More than 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in the mass general strike. Lucy and Albert led workers chanting and singing.
May 1 ended peacefully, just as it started, despite the prophecies of violence spouted by local media outlets. Albert Parsons planned to leave for Cincinnati to deliver a speech while Lucy remained in Chicago to continue her work with the sewing women.
The Haymarket Affair and the Aftermath
In the aftermath of the general strike, radical activists rallied 2,000 workers in Haymarket Square to protest the killing of four striking workers by police at the McCormick Harvest Works in Chicago.
On May 4, before leaving for Cincinnati Albert delivered a speech in Haymarket square challenging the ruling class to drive himself and other anarchists from the city. After receiving threats in the wake of the 1877 uprising, he was very clear with his language. He deliberately left no room for anyone to charge him with inciting a riot. He spoke for 45 minutes before stepping down and joining Lucy and their children. They moved half a block away, staying at a local hall.
A few hours later, a Chicago police captain, in defiance of the Mayor’s orders to allow the peaceable meeting to continue, marched 176 police officers into the crowd and ordered the attendees to disperse.
An unknown person hurled a bomb into the ranks of the police, which exploded, killing one officer and injuring several others who later died of their wounds. The police promptly pulled their revolvers and fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Fifty bystanders were injured.
Rumors soon spread that socialists destroyed city hall. Daily papers, without evidence, blamed anarchists for throwing the bomb and charged leftist leaders August Spies, Sam Fielden, and Albert Parsons as the ringleaders of the bombing and riot.
By noon, Lucy along with eight others were arrested and placed on surveillance in a bid to draw Albert out. Albert, at the behest of his wife before her arrest, went into hiding.
A grand jury found that the attack on the police was the result of a deliberate conspiracy. The first day of the trial, after months in hiding, Albert walked into the courtroom and surrendered himself in solidarity with his incarcerated comrades. The eight anarchists were tried together despite having varied degrees of connection to the event, only three of them had actually been at the Haymarket rally and Albert was a block away from Haymarket Square with his family when the bomb was thrown.
However, despite glaring discrepancies in how the trial was conducted, including the jury being filled with known “anti-radicals,” and a testimony from the mayor himself exonerating the defendants, Albert was still implicated in the conspiracy.
Lucy, filled with rage and pride in her husband, toured the country distributing information about the unjust trial and gathering funds. Lucy spoke at socialist- and anarchist-sponsored events in front of crowds of up to 400 people advocating for Albert and the other seven men’s innocence. However, despite her vocal protest, on November 11, four of the anarchists, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and August Spies, were convicted and hanged. The rest were jailed.
Despite her husband’s wrongful execution in a trial many regarded as a show trial, Lucy Parsons remained a leading radical activist well into the early 20th century. The Haymarket defendants were immortalized as martyrs for the working class. As many as 200,000 workers attended Albert’s funeral led by Lucy and her son Albert Parsons, Jr.
Leave Politics to the Politician and Prayers to the Preachers
As a Black woman, Parsons recognized that men, women, and ethnic groups were pitted against each other to weaken the working class. She often encouraged Black workers to join those who sought economic equality. In response to the massacre of 13 Black people in Carrollton, Mississippi, Parsons wrote a column in the leftist publication “Alarm,“ “The Negro. Let Him Leave Politics to the Politician and Prayers to the Preachers.” In it, Parsons argued that Black Americans had to fight for their own liberation and take revenge for the massacre.
“You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known to show murderers and tyrants the danger line, beyond which they may not venture with impunity, cannot be wrestled from you.”
However, while Lucy Parsons believed that racism was used as a means to divide the working class, she maintained that Black Americans’ oppression was rooted primarily in their economic position, independent of their racial status. Parsons struggled with accepting her own identity, a consequence of internalized racism in which she continually denied her own Black ancestry. Parsons often went under many surnames such as Lucy Gonzales, claiming her heritage was Mexican. Her denial of her oppression as a Black woman limited her perspective on her social position short of her class. She thus mistakenly maintained that the abolition of capitalism alone could produce racial equality, a position that was critically revised and recontextualized by Black leftists in the mid-20th century.
She similarly held similar views on gender. She also argued that women were oppressed because they were economically dependent on men. In her eyes, by providing cheap, alternative labor, women reduced the living standards of the entire working class.
Industrial Workers of the World
By 1890, cities like Chicago were completely transformed across the United States. Chicago became the second-largest city in the United States reaching a population of one million. Forty percent of the city’s population was foreign-born, and an additional 38% were the children of immigrants. An additional 14,000 Black Americans had moved to Chicago from the deep South as part of the Great Migration. Most entered emerging unskilled labor roles as industry boomed.
1892 also saw a string of defeats for labor activists. The government had taken the side of corporations time and time again and employers could almost always file an injunction against strikers. Sound familiar? Socialists, syndicalists, anarchists, and labor organizers alike agreed that craft unions were an insufficient solution when faced with a rapidly growing economy. Rather, they found that industrial unionism was the most effective method to confront the emerging industrial system that heavily relied on unskilled labor.
Under industrial unionism, workers in the same industry would organize into the same union, regardless of skill or trade. This would give the workers better leverage when it came time to bargain with the boss or go on strike.
Following the formation of the Socialist Party of America, of which Lucy became a member, Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, and Eugene V. Debs were all summoned for the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) on June 27, 1905. Mother Jones was the first woman, and Lucy was the second to join IWW.
The IWW gave Lucy exactly what she had been searching for: a militant, thoroughly class-conscious, working-class organization that engaged in strikes and direct action rather than political campaigns. To Lucy, the IWW represented a platform from which a well-organized working-class movement could unify leftists and eventually seize the means of production.
She addressed the convention alongside prominent labor and socialist leaders such as Daniel DeLeon, Thomas Hagerty, and A.M. Simmons. As the only woman represented on stage, she took it upon herself to speak to the specific issues working women faced:
“We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it…but we have our labor…Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class uses women to reduce them.”
She went on to add:
“When we look around for cheap bargains…it simply means the robbery of our sisters, for we know that the things cannot be made for such prices and give the women who made them all fair wages.”
When the question of dues came up, Lucy spoke on behalf of women textile workers from Rhode Island who made only $3.50 a week. Lucy ensured that they and other underpaid workers could afford to join IWW.
By 1925, Lucy began working with the newly formed Communist Party, which she didn’t officially join until 1939. Once more, she gravitated towards a group that she believed was working toward revolution from a confrontational, class-conscious perspective.
Lucy worked with the coalition for International Labor Defense, the legal wing of the Communist Party, aiding with the Scottsboro Eight and Angelo Hearndon cases.
In 1942, Lucy Parsons died due to an accidental fire. Following her death, Chicago police officers raided her home and burned many of her works in the middle of the street.
In 1893, Lucy, grieving the loss of her husband, worked closely with the Pioneer and Support Association to erect a monument dedicated to the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago. It still stands to this day, honoring the sacrifices the eight made to ensure that working people had the most basic of labor rights.
Sources and Additional Reading
- Ashbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary. Haymarket Books, 2013. Pp 70-77, 80-94, 106, 109, 180, 202, 218, 221
- Andrews, Evan. “The Haymarket Riot: When a Protest against Anti-Labor Police Brutality Turned Violent.” HISTORY, 4 May 2016, https://www.history.com/news/remembering-the-haymarket-riot.
- Record, Wilson. Race and Radicalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964.