Kim Kelly: What Does the Word Radical Mean? Addressing the Root of a Problem

Teen Vogue | March 22, 2022

By Any Means is a series about people who are working around the system to make change happen.

For nine long weeks in the winter of 1912, a group of fiery, determined radicals brought the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to its knees. They were fierce, they were militant, they were organized — and most of them were immigrant women and their children. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bustling mill town was the pride of the American textile industry and by 1912, half the city’s population over the age of 14 worked in the mills. Its development was shepherded by industrialists who saw an opportunity in the area’s proximity to a river (essential for running their massive power looms) and a large population of easily exploitable workers. Lawrence’s thunderous textile mills were owned by wealthy, white American men and powered by Germans, Italians, Syrians, Irish, Scottish, French, Portuguese, Belgians, Lithuanians, Canadians, Cape Verdeans, Finns, Turks, Poles, Greeks, Russians, and native-born, working-class New Englanders. The bosses counted on this linguistic and cultural heterogeneity to keep their workforce from communicating among themselves, a strategy that would become a favorite tactic used by the capitalist class to segregate and separate multiracial, multiethnic workforces. It failed then and continues to fail now.

The workers found ways to connect anyway, bonding over the daily misery of life in the mills, where wages were low, hours were long, and danger lurked everywhere. The last straw came on January 11, with a surprise reduction in pay. A group of Polish women at the Everett Mill walked out in protest, and as workers at other mills noticed that their own wages were slashed by 32 cents (no small hit when you’re making only about $8.76 for a 54-hour workweek), the strike spread. At its peak, 25,000 people joined the strike. Determined workers were treated brutally by local police, who violently assaulted women workers in front of their children and dragged them off to jail by their hair. A mill officer referred to these women as “radicals of the worst sort.” But what exactly was it about these women that so shocked onlookers, who clutched their pearls over Lawrence’s “unruly female elements” and sniffed in disgust at their pleas for bread and roses. What was so radical about these women asking for a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work, or demanding clean water, decent schools, and health care? And for that matter, what’s so radical about doing the same thing now?

“We hold that as useful members of society and as wealth producers we have the right to lead decent and honorable lives; that we ought to have homes and not shacks; that we ought to have clean food and not adulterated food at high prices; that we ought to have clothes suited to the weather and not shoddy garments,” the workers wrote in a public document titled “Proclamation of the Striking Textile Workers of Lawrence.” “That to secure sufficient food, clothing and shelter in a society made up of a robber class on the one hand and a working class on the other hand, it is absolutely necessary for the toilers to band themselves together and form a union, organizing its powers in such form as to them seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

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