Over 100 years ago, in February 1912, Margaret Sanger played a small, but critical role in the Lawrence Textile Strike, traveling from New York City to Lawrence, Mass. to bring the children of striking textile workers to New York City. There the children would be cared for by sympathetic labor families, allowing their parents to continue holding out for better wages.
The Lawrence Strike began when a 1912 Massachusetts State labor law designed to limit the work hours for women and children from 56 hours per week to 54 was used by mill owners to reduce their workers’ pay. Within days 23,000 workers went on strike. Local organizers from the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World were on hand to organize the workers and publicize the event, demanding a 15% increase in pay for the 54 hour work week. The strike started peacefully on January 12, but by the 29th, it had turned violent, when IWW organizers Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested and charged as accomplices in the death of a striker. The Governor called out the militia to suppress the strikers.
In response, the IWW sent some of its most famous activists, among them William “Big Bill” Haywood, Carlo Tresca, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Understanding that strikers often were forced back to work by poverty, Haywood focused on raising funds to support strikers. He also summoned Margaret Sanger, a trained nurse and active IWW worker, to Lawrence to help out. The idea was to evacuate the strikers’ children from Lawrence, bring them to New York and other cities, where they could be cared for and thus relieve their parents worry and need to provide for them. It was also excellent publicity for the strikers.
On February 9, Sanger arrived in Lawrence with associates Carrie Zaikner, Oscar Mazzitelli, and John Di Gregorio. In her brief New York Call article, “The Fangs of the Monster at Lawrence,” Sanger described the tense scene:
As soon as you board the train for Lawrence at Boston, you are aware that war is going on about you somewhere not far off. Dozens of soldiers in uniform, relieved for a few hours of such laborious work as waiting for trouble are seen strutting in and out of the railway trains, pompous and important as defenders of the bosses and private property.
When you get to Lawrence, on every corner are soldiers with guns bayoneted, ready at a moment’s notice to plunge this deadly instrument into the living flesh of the working men or women who have rebelled against these degrading conditions of wage slavery which has reduced them and their families to human machines used only to pile up enormous profits for the bosses of the mills.
All of these soldiers were very young men, ranging in looks from 18 to 21 years of age, immature and unsophisticated, as characterless as any youth who longs for life and adventure at this age usually is. As they stood on the corners dancing up and down in the biting cold, it is hoped they may realize what tools they really are, and being hired assassins of the bosses is more adventure than they wish.
On February 10, Sanger and her associates examined the first 119 children to make certain they could travel. A few had active cases of chicken pox and diphtheria and had to be isolated from the other children and put under medical care in New York. When she was later called to testify about the condition of the children before Congress in Washington, DC, Sanger noted:
Sanger: . . . Out of the 119 children four of them had underwear on and it was the most bitter weather; we had to run all the way from the hall to the station in order to keep warm, and only four had underwear.
Mr. Foster: What was the character of their outer clothing; was it woolen?
Mr. Stanley: Were the people there working in a woolen mill?
Sanger: Yes, sir.
Mr. Stanley: Where they make underwear?
Sanger: Yes, sir.
Mr. Foster: How about the outer clothing?
Sanger: It was almost in rags; their coats were eaten as though they were simply worn to shreds.
Mr. Foster: Was it woolen clothing?
Sanger: No, sir. I do not think any one of them had on any woolen clothing; that is, to my knowledge.
Mr. Foster: What was their color? Did they seem to be well nourished?
Sanger: They were very much emaciated; every child there showed the effects of malnutrition, and all of them, or almost all of them, according to the doctor’s certificate that night had adenoids and enlarged tonsils. They were all examined at the station. We had a little time in the morning and they were examined before they left.
Mr. Foster: They all looked thin and pale?
Sanger: Yes. I would like to say that when they had this supper it would bring tears to your eyes to see them grab the meat with their hands and eat it.
The IWW was criticized for using the children to create sympathy for the strikers, and for parading them on the platforms of mass meetings. It does appear that they sought to have the children appear at a rally when they first arrived, one described “to make the reception of the strikers’ children in New York the most dramatic and significant event in labor history. But Sanger and the children missed their train from Boston to New York, arriving far later than expected. There was a crowd to greet the children at Grand Central Station, smaller than had gathered earlier in the day, though no less emotional, from Sanger’s description in “The Fighting Women of Lawrence,”:
Thousands of men and women stood waiting for the little ones to come, and many had been waiting since early in the afternoon, so when at last they did appear in the evening their enthusiasm knew no bounds. Shouting, cheering with tears in their eyes, hundreds of these men broke through the ropes. Tearing off their own coats they wrapped them around the cold and ragged little bodies, placed them upon their shoulders, and marched on with the throng.
Everywhere were men with tears streaming down their faces, tears of joy and gladness at this wonderful demonstration of working class solidarity; at this glorious slap in the face to capitalists in general, and charity organizations in particular; at this great fact that no matter what our nationality or creed, no matter what our methods of gaining our goal, the working class will take care of its own. Italian men carried Polish children, German men carried Italian children; Scotch, English, Polish, Italians and French, were one and all carried upon the shoulders of class-conscious men, who felt only that every child was a workingman’s offspring, and as such has to be tended and cherished.
A second pilgrimage of children was organized for February 24, but because of the negative publicity that the mill owners had gotten during the first move, the Lawrence police boarded the train to Boston and removed 40 children from the train and held them. This led to widespread Socialist condemnation, and Congressman Victor Berger used the publicity to open Congressional hearings on the strike.
Sanger’s testimony at the hearings, held on March 5, covered the conditions of the children and the question of whether they were exhibited in public. Her words were taken seriously, and she kept her comments limited to what she had seen or done, a far cry from her Feb. 15 Call article, in which she complained of the state militia:
The time has come to educate these boys, to remind them to what class they belong, and when they realize this they will refuse to murder their working brothers, to serve as hirelings to prop up the profit system, which bases its existence upon the tears and blood of the famished workers.
The Lawrence strike is no ordinary strike. The mill owners realized this. They could see that it contained the essence of revolution, and knowing that, no time was wasted in sending the militia to the spot at once.
After a break, one Congressman questioned Sanger further about the shoddy clothing worn by the children, suggesting that their parents might have dressed them that way in order to win sympathy.
Sanger: My candid opinion is that the first consignment of children were not in the best condition, because they were simply plucked out of their homes without any preparation, and I do not believe that is true. They were simply taken out of their homes, being told the night before that they had to start on the early train. Some of the fathers and mother brought them to the station with their own clothing wrapped around them to keep them from the cold.
Mr. Wilson: Do you think that same children, when going to New York, wore their poorest clothing, thinking that they would be replenished when they got in New York City by your friends, and that they left their better clothing at home for the purpose of getting more out of it than if they had taken their other clothing?
Sanger: I thought of that at the time, and I asked the children if they had any better clothing, and not one of them had. They wore the best clothing they had. They all tried to look their very best. The girls wore their best ribbons.
The Congressional hearings had an immediate impact on the strike as mill owners capitulated rather than have Congress continue examining their labor practices. On March 12, 1912, they offered a 5% increase in wages, which the Lawrence workers accepted on the 14th.
Margaret Sanger’s role in the Lawrence strike may have helped clarify her interest in birth control. She was already interested in sex education and in asserting that the working-class had the same rights to information as the wealthy, but had not yet found her focus. With the Lawrence strike, she saw firsthand how having a large family made it extremely difficult for wage earners to strike for better wages and conditions. By 1920, Sanger had made these conditions into yet another plank in her multi-tiered arguments for birth control:
When a workman of superior strength and skill, protected by his union, manages to maintain a large or moderate sized family in a degree of comfort, there always comes a time when he must strike to preserve what he has won. If he is not beaten by unorganized workers who seek his job, he still has to face the possibility of listening to the cries of several hungry children. If the strike is a long one, these cries often drown the promptings of loyalty and class interest—often they defeat him when nothing else could. (Woman and the New Race, 1920)
For more on Sanger’s thoughts on the Lawrence Strike, see “The Fangs of the Monster at Lawrence,” Feb. 15, 1912 (New York Call), “The Fighting Women of Lawrence,” Feb. 18, 1912 (New York Call), “Statement on Ettor and Giovannitti Trial,” 20 May 1912 (New York Call), “Lawrence Defense Conference Active,” 11 Jun 1912 (New York Call). and her complete testimony before Congress on March 5, 1912 (published in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Vol. 1: the Woman Rebel, 1900-1928.)