by Brendan Maslauskas-Dunn/Love and Rage
This list of five revolutionary women from the Mohawk Valley was written in celebration of International Working Women’s Day, a holiday that has very radical roots in the labor and socialist movements, and in the tumultuous textile strikes that swept across New York City over a century ago. Today the holiday is most popularly known as International Women’s Day. The radical roots of the holiday – of resistance and revolution – have been whitewashed, denied, ignored. Similarly, our history of rebellion, a history of workers, dissidents, unionists, radicals, immigrants, women, soldiers who refuse orders, slaves who fight back, those who say “enough,” – a people’s history, to quote Howard Zinn, is largely unacknowledged or forgotten. That’s true on a national level and it’s true locally.
This article is the first in a series of articles that will elevate the rebellious, radical, people’s history of Utica and the Mohawk Valley. It is a history with an endless array of stories of socialists, anarchists, communalists, Oneida and Mohawk warriors and activists, political prisoners, Wobblies, feminists, union organizers, immigrants, refugees and abolitionists. It only makes sense to start this series with those who bring all life into the world, and those who are always on the front lines for radical social change. Although this list is incomplete, think of who should be added to the list, and think of how you can carry on the legacy of these women. And maybe, some day, you too will make a list just like this one. These are the women that give meaning to a day like International Working Women’s Day.
1. Laura Cornelius Kellogg – Oneida Visionary
Although Laura Cornelius Kellogg never lived in the Mohawk Valley or in the Oneida Nation in New York, this area was her ancestral homeland since many Oneida people were forced into exile and made into refugees by the U.S. government. Despite her geographical distance from this area, she played a major part in the Oneida, Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) and indigenous politics and sovereignty. Her grandfather was Oneida Chief Daniel Bread who found land in Wisconsin for the displaced Oneidas. Kellogg traveled across the U.S. and Europe in the early 1900s where she attended several universities, became a published author and started her work as an advocate and activist on behalf of various indigenous peoples. She advocated for the sovereignty and autonomy of indigenous people. She was not without criticism in her own community for a number of projects she was involved in, but she continued her activism to raise the issue of indigenous rights. She spoke before the League of Nations, was an advocate of the Garden City Movement, and pressed for tribal self-governance, upholding traditional culture and values in Iroquois society, and even fought tirelessly for an alternative to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency that helped in the project of the continued occupation of indigenous lands.
Kellogg pushed for indigenous rights during the height of the Progressive Era, when reform, populist, labor and socialist movements defined the political turmoil of the time. She vocally criticized the capitalist system, child labor, tenements and slums in urban centers, and the dismal working conditions of workers in factories and mills. At one time she proclaimed, “No, I cannot see that everything the white man does is to be copied.” Her main criticism however was over the treatment of indigenous peoples. Since the Haudenosaunee had been forced onto reservations, dispersed from their lands and scattered across the U.S. and Canada, Kellogg pushed for the reunification of the Iroquois confederacy and the Oneida. She tirelessly fought for the land claims of the Oneida, a struggle that is still being battled over to this day, and additionally assisted with land claim disputes of countless other tribes.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kellogg’s activism was her Pan-Indian vision. She was a firm believer in the idea that various tribes and indigenous peoples needed to unite together as one group in order to fight for their land, their culture, their rights and their sovereignty. She fits in a long tradition of Pan-Indian thought and action that includes Tecumseh’s Rebellion of 1811 which urged all tribes to unite and fight against the white American occupiers of their land and the American Indian Movement which rose out of the New Left of the 1960s. Her establishment of the Society of American Indians was critical as the group sought to unite all indigenous nations under one banner, independent of the U.S. government and the BIA. She wanted the BIA abolished, full rights for indigenous people and the full autonomy of tribes within the U.S. to determine their own affairs and run their own societies. This was actualized in a small way through the Lolomi Plan, which encapsulated these beliefs, and the Oneida Cherry Garden City in the Oneida Indian Nation in Wisconsin. Even as an exile from her traditional homeland, Kellogg tirelessly fought for the rights of the Oneida and for all indigenous people.
2. Helen Schloss – Wobbly and Revolutionary Nurse
Helen Schloss came to live briefly in Little Falls, NY where she not only worked as a nurse but also as an agitator and organizer for the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during the great textile strike of 1912. She was swept up in the great upsurge of labor and socialist rebellion that defined New York City in the early 1900s, especially with the Uprising of 20,000 immigrant garment workers in 1909, the largest strike of women workers the nation had ever witnessed. It was a time of mass rebellion and millions of people were looking to alternatives to the chaos, disorder, poverty and wretched working and living conditions that defined capitalism.
The radical IWW formed in 1905 to organize all workers into “one big union” and usher in a “cooperative commonwealth” where workers would run industry and society; essentially, a world without bosses. Unlike the conservative AFL which focused primarily on organizing white, male, skilled workers, Wobblies (as members of the IWW are called) organized industrial and agricultural workers, immigrants, women, Black and Asian workers. The IWW organized mass strikes, free speech fights, and passionately preached the doctrines of socialism, anarchism, syndicalism and industrial unionism. They even had a powerful presence in the Mohawk Valley, a major center for the textile industry. In 1909 the famed Bread and Roses textile strike was launched by the IWW in Lawrence, MA over wages, and terrible working conditions (because of the fibers workers inhaled in mills, the average life expectancy of many of the women workers was around 30). Workers across the textile industry followed their lead. In New York Mills workers went on strike – in response, the National Guard was deployed and martial law was declared. It was in this environment of class war that Schloss moved to the Mohawk Valley.
In addition to her labor activism, Schloss also worked as a nurse in Malone, NY and as a medical inspector with New York City’s Department of Health. It was this work that initially brought her to Little Falls on the invitation of the women’s social organization the Fortnightly Club. She was tasked with studying the causes of and treating tuberculosis which had killed hundreds of people in the immigrant slums of Little Falls over the years. She discovered that it was not just the living conditions but the dangerous, dirty sweatshop conditions that acted as breeding grounds for the disease. Workers could not take their deteriorating health, living and working conditions any longer and Wobblies in Lawrence had shown them a way out. Strike fever spread to Little Falls when workers were delivered a pay cut and a number of workers at various mills went out on strike. Schloss joined the workers and the union local they formed under the IWW.
Most of the workers were women, girls and immigrants. The IWW set up a democratic structure in the form of the strike committee where workers of every ethnic group and every mill on strike were represented. Schloss set up a soup kitchen for the striking workers, walked the picket line and traveled to other cities to raise awareness of and support for the IWW’s bitter strike. The police and strikers fought pitched battles in the streets that were initiated by police violence. Numerous people were arrested and thrown in jail for participating in a Free Speech Fight after speaking publicly when the city government put a ban on such practices. The Socialist mayor of Schenectady, George Lunn, also came to Little Falls to assist the Wobblies and was thrown in jail for speaking publicly. Schloss was also thrown in jail in the course of the Free Speech Fight. Other IWW organizers, including Matilda Rabinowitz, Big Bill Haywood, and Carlo Tresca visited Little Falls to assist in the strike. After months on strike, the management and workers of several mills came to an agreement and although some conditions improved and the wages increased, the battle between workers and bosses in Little Falls would continue. Seeing that she did all that she could in her capacity as a nurse, and Wobbly rabble rouser, Helen Schloss left Little Falls to continue fight in IWW battles and strikes elsewhere.
3. Juliet Stuart Poyntz – Communist and Revolutionist
Juliet Stuart Poyntz was a central figure in the upsurge of labor and revolutionary activism in the United States in the early 1900s. She was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1886 and entered Barnard College at the young age of sixteen. It was during college when she became involved with student government and activism. She was an enthusiastic activist in the suffragist and feminist movements and was the leader of her school’s chapter of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State which grew to include over 100 members. She was also one of the early advocates of women’s studies at colleges and eventually graduated as valedictorian of her class. She worked for two years as a Special Agent for the U.S. Immigration Commission, a job that put her in close contact with immigrants and the poorest of the working class in several cities. It was this job that not only sent her to live in Utica briefly but also pushed her in a more radical direction.
She became a labor activist and in 1917 organized with the Ladies’ Waist and Dressmakers’ Union, Local No. 25 of the Industrial Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). She also acted as the director of the ILGWU’s Worker’s University. It was at this time that she became an active member of the Socialist Party and the radical Rand School of Social Science. She later left the Socialist Party and became one of the early members of the Communist Party in the 1920s. In 1926 she ran for office on the Workers Party ticket for New York State Comptroller and again ran in 1928 for New York State Attorney General. She eventually became a sitting member of the Communist Party’s Central Executive Committee.
It was her activism within the Communist Party that led to her demise. Historian Theodore Draper referred to Poyntz as “a strong female personality and the only one ever considered a threat to the male monopoly in the top leadership” of the party. She was recruited to work for the OGPU, the Soviet military secret police (later called the NKVD), in Russia and traveled there during the height of Josef Stalin’s great purges of Trotskyists and dissidents within the Russian Communist Party. Upon her return to the United States she confided to friends that she became disillusioned with the Communist Party and was planning to write a book about the authoritarian nature and the immense repression within the party. It was in 1936 that she mysteriously disappeared in New York City, with many of her close friends convinced that Stalinist agents had kidnapped and murdered her. Her friend and anarchist revolutionary Carlo Tresca, who had come to Utica on several occasions to lead mass marches and attend Italian socialist gatherings, went to the press and appeared before a federal grand jury investigation to discuss his theory of her disappearance which, in his view, was a targeted political assassination. There was not enough evidence to indite or apprehend any suspects and her disappearance, to this day, remains unsolved.
4. Joanne Grant – Black Radical Author and SNCC Activist
Joanne Grant was a native of Utica, a published author and a Civil Rights activist who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She wrote the popular book Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analysis, as well as Confrontation on Campus: The Columbia Pattern for the New Protest. She wrote a biography of her friend, fellow activist and founder of SNCC Ella Baker called Ella Baker: Freedom Bound and produced the documentary “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker.” Before her critical role in the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles of the 1960s, Grant got her feet wet with political activism in the 1950s.
In 1957 she traveled to the Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow with 160 Americans, and later traveled to Communist China during the height of the Cold War in defiance of a travel ban created by the State Department. Over the years, her travels also brought her to England, France, India and Cuba.
Although she was the daughter of a white father and Black mother, Grant did not become conscious of racism and white supremacy until later on in life. After she became more conscious of the inequities and injustices of a deeply racist society, colonialism and war, she also became more critical of capitalism. It was at a gathering in Delhi, India where the president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, told her that “we coloured folks have to stick together.” It was around this time period where, in her words, she evolved from “black to red” in her consciousness. She worked as an assistant to the brilliant sociologist, scholar, author, founder of the NAACP, socialist and Pan Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois and later got a job writing for the National Guardian as well as directing the radical New York City radio station WBAI.
Her work as an author and journalist not withstanding, it was her activism with SNCC that would define some of the most exciting years of her life. SNCC was the leading, and for many years, the most militant Civil Rights organization. Founded in 1960, SNCC chapters sprouted up not just in the South, but in the North and in the West and Midwest. A SNCC chapter even existed in Utica for some time. Members of the multiracial group often clashed with the leadership style of Martin Luther King, Jr. since SNCC activists and Ella Baker advocated “group centered leadership” that was based at the grassroots, fierce, uncompromising, disruptive and radical. SNCC was one of the groups that gave rise to the concept of Black Power in its later years. It was during the summer of 1964 when Grant was deeply involved with the group’s Freedom Summer campaign that was launched. The campaign brought bus-loads of activists from the North into Mississippi to register Black people to vote and to establish Freedom Schools across the state as a liberatory and activist oriented form of education and action. Grant raised funds and awareness for this project and worked closely with Ella Baker, another powerful Black women whom Stokely Charmichael of SNCC credited as being the most influential leader and activist in that struggle. Joanne Grant is just one of many powerful leaders from the Mohawk Valley that many people have forgotten.
5. Sunithi Bajekal – Grassroots Pacifist
While it is interesting, exciting and inspirational to learn about women revolutionaries and radicals of every stripe from our area, it is also important to remember that these are not just stories of history, or in this case “herstory.” Many incredible women, some who are still with us and some who recently passed away, have been involved with the many struggles of today’s world. One woman I personally knew, who was a powerful activist as well as a personal friend was Sunithi Bajekal. She was born in Bangalore, India in 1933, worked as a journalist and eventually moved to the U.S. to attend school at Syracuse University. She earned her PhD, became a published author and later moved to Utica where she taught anthropology and math for years and as a social worker. She also was known to be a talented potter and painter.
She established so many organizations that I know I’m leaving some out, but I’ll take a shot at it. She formed the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, was the founder of the Interfaith Coalition, Parents, Families, Friends and Allies for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People (PFLAG) locally, the Womens Resource Center, Rape Crisis and Domestic Violence Center, and the Mid-York Aids Coalition. After the so-called War on terror was launched she helped found the Mohawk Valley Coalition for Peace. It was through our mutual activism in the antiwar movement work that I met her over ten years ago. At that time, the Utica police had also killed Walter Washington in front of his children and partner. They watched in horror as Walter bled to death. The local DA, city government, police and media covered up his murder. Sunithi assisted in the group that formed to find justice for Walter Washington. In recent years, she helped co-found the Mohawk Valley Freedom School. She fought, until her life abruptly ended in 2014, for the rights of the poor and oppressed, for racial, economic and social justice.
She died but her spirit to fight for a better world lives on through the various social movements and struggles today. Sunithi Bajekal, Joanne Grant, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, Helen Schloss and Laura Cornelius Kellogg were all powerful women and fierce fighters for social justice, women who dedicated their lives so that not just other women, but all people could live in a better world. In a word, these women were revolutionaries. It would be in our best interest in celebration of Working Women’s Day to carry on their struggle in the hope and conviction some day, and some day soon, we will all be free.