NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… FEBRUARY 22
1900 – Meridel LeSueur.
Writer and political activist. LeSueur’s written works include novels, short stories, essays, journalism, children books, and poetry. Born in Iowa and raised in Oklahoma, she was introduced to a radical lifestyle at an early age. Her grandmother was a temperance worker and her mother, Marian, a feminist socialist, left her husband and along with Meridel and her two brothers, moved to Fort Scott, Kansas. There Marian headed the English department at People’s College. Marian then married Arthur LeSueur, a former socialist mayor of Minot, North Dakota. Anti-socialist vigilantes burned the college down and the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. Their radical ways continued as they hosted meetings for anarchists, Wobblies, and union organizers.
At age 22 Meridel moved to New York City, lived in an anarchist commune and studied drama. A fellow commune member was Emma Goldman. From there she went to Hollywood where she was a stunt woman in “The Perils of Pauline.” Disgusted by Hollywood, Meridel left the film business behind and began writing. At the age of twenty-four she joined the Communist Party and wrote for “The Worker” and “New Masses.” Her writing mainly focused on the struggles of the working class. In 1939 she wrote a novel, “The Girl,” that wasn’t published until 1978. In it she depicts the lives of working class women of the Great Depression and the hardships that poverty brought upon them, including starvation and sexual abuse. One of her stories, “I Was Marching,” was inspired by the Teamsters Trucker’s strike of 1934 in Minneapolis. She also wrote for the national newspaper of the Communist Party describing the plight of unemployed workers and those on strike. Her left wing views got her blacklisted in 1947. Meridel had a commitment to the Midwest and some critics called her the “voice of the people.” From MNopedia.org “It is the land itself, however, that forms the foundation of her passionate love for the region. Her work brings together the poetic imagery of American Indian philosophies, feminism, Midwestern culture, politics, and the earth.” Meridel was rediscovered by left-wing activists and feminists in the 1970s. She continued writing until her death at the age of 96 in 1996. Her last work, “This With My Last Breath,” was published posthumously in 2012.
Two Meridel LeSueur quotes. “When the workers send for you, then you know you’re really good. Sometimes they would send money to pay the bus fare.” “I tell the young writers who visit: ‘Carry a notebook. That is the secret of a radical writer. Write it down as it is happening.’”
I had the opportunity and privilege to meet Meridel LeSueur one time. During the early 1980s after she had been rediscovered by a new and younger audience. As an early feminist from decades preceding them, she became the focus of younger women following her lead.
I was in a writing group that gathered weekly to share the scribbling designed to trampoline us into a world of fame and fortune. One cynic, dubbing us “a bunch of dreamers,” meant it as an insult but one we readily embraced as being accurate. Our group consisted of an equal number of women and men. One of the women, Phyllis, had become acquainted with Meridel. She inquired at one of our meetings if we would be interested in getting together with her. We said yes and being it was summer, Phyllis organized a picnic. We gathered in a park on a warm, sunny afternoon. A weekday, so not all our members were able to attend. Besides Meridel and Phyllis, Sheryl, Rick, Steve and I were there. Phyllis and Meridel were already at the park and when the rest of us arrived she did a quick double take, then began smiling. She said, “Men,” and then nodded. “I’ve become such a darling of the feminist movement that every place I go it’s all women. It will be a nice change to be around men.”
This took place a long time ago, so all I remember are the highlights. She told us a story from the early days of Hollywood and how the sexism and debasement of women existed from the very beginning. Disgust was still evident in her voice from an incident fifty years earlier. Hired under false pretenses and dressed as Indian maidens, she and some other young women arrived to find instead of a movie set, they were at a party. Turned loose into a large garden, they were set upon by a group of drunken movie moguls. Athletic, Meridel escaped, and climbed a tree where she hid. She remembered the coarse laughter of the men and the terrified shrieks of the young women being assaulted.
She also told us of the Teamsters Trucker’s strike of 1934 in which she participated. Nothing is of greater delight for me than to have read about some event in history and then meet someone who was there. It is as if I am touching history. There had been no movement of goods or trucks for months as strikers had completely shut down the city of Minneapolis. To break the strike, businessmen and anti-union forces formed the Citizens Alliance. Pitched battles took place on the streets as men armed with clubs, pipes, and bats fought. First aid stations and kitchens were established to help the strikers. Meridel was there, part of it. She described how at one point some men tore apart a banister to a staircase in order to get wood to use for weapons as they rushed off to fight. She told how children were used as runners, rushing to strike headquarters with information on where the Citizens Alliance or the police were gathering. Finally, at one confrontation, the police opened fire on the strikers, killing two and wounding sixty-seven. 100,000 people marched through the streets of Minneapolis in the funeral procession of one of those killed. I felt I was there as Meridel described the drama of that event.
AS the afternoon ended Meridel smiled and said, “Let’s go get a beer.” That was not a suggestion that would have received any objection from our group. Meridel picked the place, a bar she knew on West 7th Street in St. Paul. A workingman’s bar, a dive some might say, whose sole purpose was drinking and not other forms of entertainment. We sat in the dark, dingy bar sipping a beer, a shaft of sunlight reaching in through an open doorway, as Meridel told more stories. A perfect end to a wonderful day.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at email@example.com.
The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers:
We’d also like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image (Woman with Notebook) – Ivan Kruk / Shutterstock.com
* Meridel LeSueur (video) – Mike Hazard / YouTube.com
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com