A NEW POLITICAL WEDGE
From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II
THE WAY ST. LOUIS WOMEN DROVE A NINE-HOUR DAY INTO THE LAW
BY INIS H. WEED
It was the evening before the state primaries--a sweltering
first of August night in the tenement district of St. Louis, where
the factory people eat their suppers and have their beds. Men
in shirt-sleeves and women with babies sat on the steps for a
breath of air, and the streets were a noisy welter of children.
Two of the most enthusiastic girls in the Women's Trade
Union League stopped before the group silhouetted in the gaslight
at No. 32 and handed the men in the group this card:
It is the Women and Children that are the Victims of Manufacturers
and Manufacturers Associations
and it is the
WORKING WOMAN AND CHILD
that demands your protection at the
PRIMARIES, TUESDAY, AUGUST 2nd
Secretary St. Louis Manufacturers Association and run by them on the
Republican Ticket for the Legislature in the 1st District Comprising
WARDS 10, 11, 2,13, and 24. Precincts 14 of the 15th WARD. Precincts 1,
2, 3 of the 23rd WARD. Precincts 1, 2 of the 15th WARD. Precincts 6, 7,
10, 11, 12, 13 of the 14th WARD. Precincts 1, 4, 5 of the 9th Ward
"So yez would be afther havin' me scratch Misther Troy?" Mike Ryan ran
his fingers through his stubby crop with a puzzled air. "Oi'm always fur
plazin' the loidies, but Misther Troy, he's a frind o' mine. Shure, he
shmokes a grand cigar, an' he shakes yer hand that hearty."
So Mike belonged to the long, long glad-hand line. Well, _personal_
arguments were necessary in his case then. That was the way the girls
sized up Mike Ryan.
"But this ticket has something to do with your oldest girl."
"It sure does, Mr. Ryan. Didn't I hear your wife tellin' what with the
hard times an' all, you'd be puttin' Briddie in the mill this winter as
soon as ever she's turned fourteen? Wouldn't you rather they worked her
nine hours a day instead o' ten--such a soft little kid with such a lot
o' growin' to do? There's a lot of us goin' to fight for a Nine-Hour
Bill for the women and children this winter, an' do you think a
manufacturers' representative, like Troy, is goin' to help us? Look at
his record! See how he's fought the employees' interests in the
legislature! That's a part of his job! _He_ won't vote for no Nine-Hour
And the two girls went on to the next tenement.
They were only two of the hundreds of Trade Union girls who were "doing"
the First Electoral District (about one-third of St. Louis) on the eve
of the primaries. They were thorough. They had the whole district
organized on the block system, and they went over each block house by
_A new move, is it not, this carefully organized effort of factory women
to secure justice through the ballot-box?_
How have St. Louis women attained this clear vision that their
industrial future is bound up in politics? It is a three years' story.
Let us go back a little.
St. Louis is essentially a conservative city. First, it was an old
French town; then a Southern town; then a German tradesman's town. With
such strata superimposed one above the other, it could hardly be other
than conservative. In addition, St. Louis was crippled in the war
between the states. She lost her market. This made her slow.
In the 'eighties, this old French-Southern-German city began to recover
from the ruin of her Southern trade. Little by little she took heart,
for the great Southwest was being settled. There was a new field in
which to build up trade. To-day St. Louis is _the_ great wholesale and
jobbing depot, _the_ manufacturing city for that vast stretch of
territory known as the Southwest.
Since 1890, great fortunes have been amassed--most of them, indeed, in
the past ten years. There has been a rapid growth of industry. The old
Southern city has become a soft-coal factory center. A pall of smoke
hangs over the center of the city where the factories roar and pound.
In the midst of this gloom the workfolk are creating rivers of beer,
carloads of shoes and woodenware, millions of garments and bags, and the
thousand and one things necessary to fill the orders of hundreds of
traveling salesmen in the Southwest territory--and in the South, too,
for St. Louis is winning back some of her old-time trade.
And the toil of their lifting hands and flying fingers has wrought a
golden age for the men who control the capital and the tools. The men
who manage have been shaking hands in their clubs for the past decade
and congratulating themselves and each other over their drinks. "Yes,
St. Louis is a grand old business town. Solid! No mushroom real-estate
booms, you know, but a big, steady growth. New plants starting every
month and the old ones growing. Then, when we get our deep waterway,
that's going to be another big shove toward prosperity.
"Nice town to live in, too! Look at our handsome houses and clubs and
public buildings. Never was anything like our World's Fair in the
history of men--never! Look at our parks, too. When we get 'em linked
together with speedways, where'll you find anything prettier?" Thus the
money-makers in this heavy German town.
But what about the employees--the clerks and the factory workers? Have
they been "in" on this "big shove toward prosperity?" Have they found it
a "nice" town to live in?
No, to each count. For the people at the bottom of the ladder--for the
people who tend machines, dig ditches, and stand behind the notion
counter--St. Louis is a smoky town, where people have gray lungs instead
of pink; a town where franchise grabbing and an antiquated system of
taxation have their consequence of more than New York city rents. A town
whose slums, says Lee Frankel, are the worst in the country. A town
where wages are low (in some occupations twenty-five per cent lower than
in New York City); where employment is irregular, the speeding-up
tremendous, the number of women entering industry steadily increasing,
and where the influx of immigrant labor is pulling down the wage scale
and the standard of living.
The average wage of the shoe-workers in the East is $550 per year. In
St. Louis it is $440 if work is steady--and rents are higher than in New
It must be remembered that this sum is an average, and that thousands of
shoe-workers earn, less than $440, for full-time work. The same is true
of thousands engaged in other kinds of manufacture and in department
Somehow the town looks different from the two ends of the ladder.
The government of Missouri and St. Louis has been about as little
adapted to the needs of the industrial worker as it well could be. Men
have been concerned not so much with social justice as with government
protection for money-making schemes.
Business opportunity has depended much on _pliable state and municipal
laws_. How the interests fought to keep them pliable; how St. Louis and
Missouri became a world scandal in this steady growth to riches, we all
We know, too, the period of political reform. People thought the killing
trouble in Missouri lay largely with the governmental machinery; and the
optimists' faith in a state primary law, in the initiative and
referendum as panacea, was white and shining. _They did not see that the
underlying problem is industrial_.
After the reform wave had spent itself, the crooked people who had kept
out of jail crept from their holes and went back to their old job of
beating the game. The only essential difference is that their methods
to-day are less raw and crude. They play a more gentlemanly game; but
the people are still robbed of their rights.
Thus it came to pass that when the cheerful optimist went to the
cupboard to get his poor dog a bone, why, lo! the cupboard was bare.
Meantime the dog has taken up the struggle for social justice on his own
account, not singly but in groups and packs. As yet, although a deal of
snuffing, running to and fro, barking, yelping, and fighting has been
done, little has been accomplished; for one reason, because labor has
lacked great organizers in St. Louis.
It has remained for the working women of St. Louis to make the
industrial idea effective and to reach out with united single purpose to
bend the political bow for their protection.
The Women's Trade Union League, whose real general is Cynthelia Isgrig
Knefler, the most dynamic woman in St. Louis, received its first impetus
only three years ago in the idealism of a brilliant young Irish girl,
Hannah Hennessy, who died at Thanksgiving, 1910, a victim of exhausting
work in a garment shop and of her own tireless efforts to organize the
working girls of her city.
Hannah Hennessy was sent by the Garment Workers' Union to the National
Labor Convention of 1907 at Norfolk, Virginia.
There she glimpsed for the first time the inevitable great world march
of women following industry as machinery takes it out of the home and
into the shop--saw these women, blind, unorganized, helpless to cope
with the conditions offered by organized capital. The vision fired this
Irish girl to a pitch of enthusiasm peculiar to the Celtic temperament.
Back she came to St. Louis with the spirit of the Crusaders, her vision
"the eight-hour day, the living wage to guard the home."
For the first time she saw the broken physical future of women who label
three thousand five hundred bottles of beer an hour, and accept their
cuts and gashes from the bursting bottles as inevitable; of women who
put eyelets on a hundred cases of shoes a day, twenty-four pairs to the
case; of women who must weave one thousand yards of hemp cloth a day to
hold their job in a mill where the possible speed of woman and machine
is so nicely calculated that the speediest person in the factory can
weave only twelve hundred and sixty yards a day; where the lint from
this hemp fills the air and is so injurious to eyes and throat that the
company furnishes medical attendance free.
To undertake the huge task of organizing these thousands of St. Louis
women would require not only vision but time and energy. Hannah's return
meant being engulfed in the vast roar made by rows of throbbing,
whirring machines, into one of which she sewed her vitality at dizzy
speed ten hours a day. Vision she had, but training, time, energy--no!
It was at this point that she met Cynthelia Isgrig Knefler, a
leisure-class young woman, who had been gripped by a sense of the
unevenness of the human struggle. Cynthelia Knefler was groping her way
through the maze of settlement activities to an appreciation of their
relative futility in the face of long hours, low wages, and unsanitary
Then the idealism of these two young women, born on the one hand of hard
experience, on the other of a gentle existence, fused, and burned with a
white light whose power is beginning to touch the lives of the women who
toil and spin for the great Southwest.
Both women possessed fire and eloquence. Hannah's special contribution
was first-hand experience; Mrs. Knefler's the knowledge of economic
conditions necessary to an understanding of our complicated labor
problems. Wise, sane, conservative, Mrs. Knefler not only helped Hannah
to organize branch after branch of the Women's Trade Union League in the
different industries, but set out at once to train strong, intelligent
leaders. She stimulated them to a critical study of labor laws with the
evolution of industry for background.
Night after night for two years Mrs. Knefler and Hannah were out
organizing groups of girls. Mrs. Knefler's friends finally stopped
remonstrating with her. Hannah, utterly self-forgetful despite ten hours
a day in the mills, hurled herself into the new work. Evening after
evening her mother protested anxiously, but Hannah, heedless of her own
interest, would eat her supper and hurry across the city to help groups
of new girls--American, Russian, Roumanian--a confused mass, to find
themselves and pull together.
One June morning in 1910 the papers announced that the Manufacturers'
Association and the Business Men's League had decided on E.J. Troy as
their candidate to the State Legislature for the First District. His
candidacy was also backed by the Republican machine. The papers went on
to say that E.J. Troy was one of "our ablest and most popular fellow
townsmen," that he had grown up in his district, had a host of friends,
and might be expected to carry the primaries by a big majority.
That evening at the weekly dinner of the officers of the Women's Trade
Union League at the Settlement, Mrs. Knefler hurried in: "Girls, have
you seen the morning papers? Do you know that we've got E.J. Troy to
contend with again?"
At the same moment in dashed Hannah Hennessy by another door, calling
out, "Girls, they're goin' to put Troy on the carpet again!"
To both speeches came half a dozen excited replies that that's just what
they were talking about!
Over the potatoes and meat and bread-pudding the situation was discussed
"Yes, 'twas him, all right, that thought up most of those tricky moves
when we was tryin' to get our Nine-Hour Bill before," reflected a wiry,
quick-motioned girl during a second's pause.
"Don't it just make you boil," began another, "when you think how he
riled 'em up at every four corners in Missouri! He had every old country
storekeeper standin' on end about that Nine-Hour Bill. He had 'em
puttin' on their specs and callin' to mother to come and listen to this
information the manufacturers had sent him:--how the labor unions was
tryin' to get a Nine-Hour Bill for women passed; how it would keep their
youngest girl, Bessie, from helping in the store when the farmers drove
in of a Saturday night; and how it was a blow at American freedom."
"E.J. Troy's got to be squenched at the primaries," said a third,
quietly and decisively.
"But how?" asked a more timid officer.
Bing! Mrs. Knefler got into action. There never was a woman for whom a
difficult situation offered a more bracing tonic quality. The business
meeting that followed fairly bristled with plans.
The girls' first move was to go before the Central Labor Body and ask
them to indorse their objections to E.J. Troy. Definite action beyond
indorsement the girls did not ask or expect. This much they got.
One day a little later, when Mrs. Knefler's campaign was beginning to
take form, a representative of E.J. Troy called Mrs. Knefler on the
telephone. The voice was bland, smooth, and very friendly. Wouldn't
she--that is--ah--er--wouldn't her organization confer with Mr. E.J.
Troy? He felt sure they would come to a pleasant and mutually helpful
Mrs. Knefler explained to the mouthpiece (take it either way) that it
would be quite useless; that the stand of the League was taken on Mr.
Troy's previous record and on the "interests" he represented; that while
they had nothing against him in his private capacity, as a public
servant they must oppose him. All this in Mrs. Knefler's suavest
fashion. She feels intensely, but she never loses her self-possession.
That's why she is such a formidable antagonist.
It was the last week in June--they had just a month before the primaries
in which to rouse public opinion. The newspapers must help, of course.
Mrs. Knefler went to the editors. They were polite, they admitted the
justice of her stand, but they were evasive. Mrs. Knefler opened her
paper the next morning after she had made the rounds, to find not a
single word about the danger to the working woman's interests.
What could the papers do? Weren't they in the hands of the "big cinch,"
as a certain combination of business men in St. Louis is known?
Naturally they refused to print a line. You never step on your own toe,
do you, or hit yourself in the face--if you can help it?
One must admit that things looked bad for the League. How were girls who
raced at machines all day, who had neither money nor the voice of the
press, to rouse this sluggish, corrupt city to the menace of sending to
the legislature men like E.J. Troy, pledged body and soul to the
manufacturers? How could they waken the public to woman's bitter
necessity for shorter hours? The case looked hopeless, but Mrs. Knefler
merely set her teeth, and got busy--decidedly busy.
She planned a campaign that no other St. Louis woman in her class would
have had the courage to tackle. Mrs. Knefler is a member of the club
that is the St. Louis clubwomen's "holy of holies." They have a
club-house that just drips art, and they steep themselves in
self-culture. As a group their consciousness of the city's industrial
problems is still nebulous. The high light in which Mrs. Knefler's work
must inevitably stand out is intensified by this background of
self-culture women, with a few--only a few--rash daughters shivering
around preparatory to taking their first cold plunge in the suffrage
In such an atmosphere Cynthelia Knefler planned and carried out the
biggest, the most modern and strategic campaign for the working woman
ever waged outside a suffrage state. It was done simply because her
heart was filled with the need of the thousands of helpless, unorganized
girls for protection from the greed of organized capital.
There are moments when love gives vision and raises us head and
shoulders above our group. So it was with Cynthelia Knefler, brought up
in this conservative city, educated in a prunes-and-prisms girls'
school, steeped in the Southern idea that no "lady" would ever let her
picture or her opinions get into the newspapers, and that making public
speeches was quite unthinkable!
The press was silent, but at least Mrs. Knefler could speak to the labor
unions. She and two other women appealed to every labor union in St.
Louis with a speech against E.J. Troy. They fought him--not as a man,
but as a representative of the "big interests." Mrs. Knefler made
seventy-six speeches in that one month before the primaries. That meant
hurrying from hall to hall on hot summer nights and making two speeches,
and sometimes three and four, while her friends were wearing white
muslin and sitting on the gallery, to get the cool of the evening.
Mrs. Knefler's mind was working like a trip-hammer that month; seeking
ways and means for rousing the busy, unthinking, conglomerate mass of
people to the real issue. Money in the League was scarce. There are no
rich members. But out of their wages and out of raffles and
entertainments the League had a small reserve. Part of this they used to
print sixty thousand cards. So that when you went in to get a shave your
glance was caught, as the barber turned your head, by this red ticket
"Scratch E.J. Troy." When you stopped in for a loaf of bread, a red
ticket behind the glass of the case advised you to "Scratch E.J. Troy."
When you went in for a drink, there leaped into sight dozens of little
red tickets: "Scratch E.J. Troy."
There are always some men, though, who are moved only by the big, noisy
things of life. Only Schneider's band sounds like music to them; only
"Twenty Buckets of Blood, or Dead Man's Gulch" appeals to them as
literature; and the only speaker is the man who rips out Old Glory and
defies forked lightning. In a political campaign the little red ticket
is lost on that kind of man. Mrs. Knefler understood this. So one hot
July day huge posters in high, wood-block letters screamed from
billboards and the walls of saloons and barber shops and labor halls:
"Union men and friends, Scratch E.J. Troy."
All this printing and bill-posting was expensive for working girls. They
came back at the Central Labor body again. "Your sympathy is great, but
your funds are better," they said.
"You've tackled too big a job," the Labor leaders told the girls, with a
benevolent air. "He's the candy around this town--E.J. Troy is. It would
take a mint of money to beat E.J. Troy."
However, the Central body instructed the legislative committee of five
to give the girls every help, and they did good service. But the Central
Body didn't instruct the Committee to go down very far into the
July was wearing on. The League hurled itself upon the press once more.
Surely after so much speech-making and bill-posting the editors would
accord them some recognition merely as news. Silence--absolute silence
in the next day's papers, and the next.
How did they accomplish the next move? That is one of the secrets. Their
money was gone, the silence of the press had crushed them with an
overwhelming sense of helplessness, but nevertheless they turned the
trick. They reached the upper and middle class readers of the South Side
District, Troy's district, which the papers were determined to keep as
much in ignorance as possible. All one night, silent, swift-moving men
whipped the paste across the billboards of that section and slapped on
huge posters, so that when Papa Smith and young Mr. Jones and Banker
Green came out of their comfortable houses next morning on their way to
business, they neglected their papers to find out why they should
"scratch E.J. Troy."
The day of the primaries was almost come. Now to reach the dull fellows
who hadn't seen the cards and the huge posters, who use their eyes only
to avoid obstacles. One night, as the factory whistles blew the signal
of dismissal, the men in the lines of operators who filed out of shop
and mills found themselves mechanically taking and examining this ticket
handed them by League girls, who had gone off their job a bit early and
had their wages docked in order to work for the larger good.
The Committee of the Central Body was now openly active in their behalf.
Men as well as women were passing out the tickets.
Then came the eve of the election. Busy pairs of girls who had already
done ten hours' work were going over E.J. Troy's district, with its
sections of rich and poor and well-to-do. Throbbing feet that had
carried the body's weight ten hot, fatiguing hours hurried up and down
the blocks, climbed flight after flight of stairs, and stood at door
"Say, kid, ain't it the limit that a woman can't vote on her own
business?" said one girl too another after they had finished the one
hundred and forty-fifth family and tried to explain their stake in the
election to a bigoted "head of the house."
On the morning of the primaries Mrs. Schurz, as she took the coffee off
the stove, remonstrated with her oldest daughter, Minna. "Vat, Minna,
you ain't goin' to stay out of de mill today and lose your pay?
"Yes, I be, _Mutter_," retorted Minna, with a tightening of the lips and
a light in her eyre. "I'm goin' to the polls to hand out cards to the
voters. I'm goin'. I don't care if I lose my job even."
"Oh, Minna, dat is bad, and me wid four _kinder_ to eat de food. Where
is de _fleisch_ and de _brot_ widout your wages?" Mrs. Schurz's heavy
face wore the anxious despondence so common to the mothers of the poor.
The girl hesitated, then tightened her lips once more. "I've got to take
the risk, _Mutter_. It'll come out right--it's got to. Do you want the
rest of the children workin' ten hours a day too? Look at me! I ain't
got no looks any more. I'm too dead tired to go out of a Saturday night.
I can't give nobody a good time any more. I guess there won't be no
weddin' bells for mine--ever. But the kids"--pointing to the inside
bedroom, where the younger girls were still asleep--"the kids is a-goin'
to keep their looks."
So at six o'clock Minna joined the relays of working girls who--many of
them, like Minna, at personal risk and sacrifice--handed out cards all
day to each man who entered. Thus the men were reminded at the last
moment of the working woman's stake in the election. "Scratch E.J. Troy"
was before their eyes as they crossed their tickets.
Every moment of the day there were alert girls to make this final quiet
appeal for justice. They were serious, dignified. There was no jeering,
no mirth on the part of the men at the novelty of this campaign--nothing
to make any woman self-conscious.
The girls were quiet enough outwardly, but the inner drama was keyed
high. Had all their speech-making, placarding, bill-posting and the
canvassing of factories, blocks, and primaries--had all their little
savings, their risk and personal sacrifice accomplished anything? That
was what the girls asked themselves. The thermometer of their hope rose
and fell with the rumors of the day. The fathers of the Central Labor
Body patted them on the head benevolently and tried to ease their fall,
if they were to fall, by saying that anyway it would be something to
make Troy run third on his ticket.
Seven o'clock, and the girls were leaving the primaries in twos and
threes, tired but excitedly discussing the situation. Between hope and
despondency the comment varied on the streets, at the supper-tables, and
in the eager, waiting groups of girls on tenement steps and stairs.
At last came the authentic returns. E.J. Troy ran _3,338 votes behind
his ticket. With a silent press and practically no money, the working
women had defeated one of the most popular men in St. Louis._
A man pledged to the interests of labor legislation won his place. That
made the outlook better for the Women's Nine-Hour Bill, and thousands of
working girls tumbled into bed, tired, but with new hope.
Every newspaper in St. Louis failed to comment on the victory. The
slaves who sit at the editorial desk said they couldn't--they weren't
"let." _So the most hopeful feature in St. Louis politics has never been
commented on by the American press._
As for Hannah Hennessy--she had been too ill to share in the active
work of the campaign, but her influence was everywhere--a vital force, a
Week by week her cheeks grew thinner, her cough more rasping. But after
the campaign against Troy was over, she turned with the same intensity
of interest to the National Convention of the American Federation of
Labor which was to meet there in November. For a year she had been
making plans, eager to make this convention a landmark in the history of
women's labor. But in November she was in bed by the little grate fire
in the family sitting-room. And when convention week came with its
meetings a scant three blocks from her home, she could be there in
spirit only; she waited restlessly for the girls to slip in after the
daily sessions and live them over again for her.
On Thanksgiving Day, between the exhausting strain of high-tension work
and the zeal of the young reformer, her beautiful life and brilliant
fire were burned out. The committee for the prevention of tuberculosis
added her case to their statistics, and the League girls bore her into
the lighted church.
In the winter of 1910-11 the leaders of all the labor and social forces
of St. Louis, all the organizations for various forms of uplift, united
under an able secretary and began their custom of lunching together once
a week to discuss the pending social legislation. They played a good
game. First, there was the educational effect of their previous
legislative campaign to build on. Then there was all the economy and
impetus gained from consolidation. They knew the rules of the game
better, too. Their plans were more carefully laid and executed.
With a more wary and sophisticated eye on the Manufacturers' Association
and a finger in the buttonhole of every legislator, the socially awake
of St. Louis have secured _more humane child labor legislation, and the
Nine-Hour Day for women and children with no exception in favor of
Knowing the sickening fate of industrial legislation in certain other
states when tried before judges whose social vision is fifty years
behind the times, the winners of this new bill began to wait tensely
enough for its testing. So far, however, the Women's Nine-Hour law has
not been contested. It has also been exceptionally well enforced,
considering that there are only four factory inspectors for all the
myriad shops and mills of this manufacturing city of the Southwest, and
only seven factory inspectors for the whole state of Missouri.
Meanwhile St. Louis's new political wedge, the Women's Trade Union
League, continues to be a perfectly good political wedge. When there is
legislation wanted, all kinds of organizations invariably call upon this
league of the working women, whose purpose is a wider social justice.
St. Louis is another American city where the working women are
discovering that they can do things if they only think so.
* * * * *
Illustrated by two pen-and-ink sketches made by a staff artist.
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