From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger

It is quite true that there are no
limits to masculine egotism in ordinary
life. In order to change the conditions of life we
must learn to see them through the eyes of a women.
--Leon Trotsky, Problems of Life

I Want to be a Human Being and Think for Myself

by Genora Dollinger[1]

Isn’t this a great honor? Isn’t this a tremendous tribute to the women who played such an important role in the winning of one of the greatest victories that working people ever had—in the history of the world—the great GM sitdown strike of 1937?

To witness our union granddaughters paying honor to the Emergency Brigadiers, who have now become a famous symbol of all courageous women of Flint—represents also a triumphant victory over those male writers and historians who have, for 40 long years,—ignored or buried the reports of women’s actual role in that historic strike.

In 1970, at the invitation of Staughton Lynd, I addressed a large group of historians at their convention in Los Angeles, who were championing the oral-history method. The historians were both pleased and excited to hear the story of the Women’s Auxiliary and the 1937 Women’s Emergency Brigade of Flint. But, at that point, nothing appeared in print so that young women could know about their past history.

It took a young University of Michigan student, Pat Yeghissian, writing her honors thesis, to ferret out and piece together some of the history of the Women’s Brigade of 1937. Believe me, she had a hard time of it. She came out to see me in California, and together we found material in the UCLA research library to substantiate much of the information she got from me and some other interviews. Pat won the top award of the U of M History Department in 1974—and the word began to spread among women.

The Women’s Auxiliary of Flint had recorded the names of at least 1,000 women by the time the strike was settled.

Without an office, without a telephone or operating funds provided for us, we set up a women’s speakers bureau; a hall committee and classes in labor history; a child-care center; a contact committee; and we set up a first-aid center with trained nurses on duty from 9 A.M. to 12 midnight. (This is where the less seriously injured men were treated following the battle at plant #9.) Bertha was in charge, and she looked great in her white starched uniform—and her red beret! Fania Fish (now Fania Reuther) made, in her own words, “mountains of baloney sandwiches” to go with the hot coffee always on hand in the Pengelly building. To raise money, some of the women conducted a raffle and sold tickets. They organized a couple of Saturday night dances.

Now, please remember, all this was carried on in addition to the outside picket-line duties and the organizing squads dispatched to other spots where workers were trying to organize—A.C., Redmond’s, Standard Cotton, Owosso, Penney’s, Saginaw— and who remembers the other trouble spots?

Events moved so swiftly, and yet we did this without any outside help—completely autonomous and independent of the male leadership.

Our plans of action were dictated by General Motors and the support we could give to the embattled union men.

Unlike the men’s organizing efforts, the leaders of the Women’s Auxiliary were elected, with a minimum set of by-laws and minutes kept of meetings. We even had our own original theme song!

Now can you imagine anyone writing about any major event without the name of one leader, one organizer or one elected official connected with the event?

This is exactly what was done in the case of the Women’s Auxiliary #10 of the United Auto Workers and the Women’s Emergency Brigade of ’37—even though articles appeared in the daily newspapers—The Flint Journal, the Detroit papers, The New York Times, etc.

The first book on this historical development appeared 10 years after the strike was over. Published in California in 1947, it was called The Many and the Few—and its author is our previous speaker, Henry Kraus.

This book has been labeled an historical novel. It is undocumented and is filled with facts mixed with fantasies, distortions, character assassinations, and the puffed up, magnified role of the author himself.

One can read it through and find only chauvanistic references to leaderless union women performing spontaneous acts of courage. Much of the time he calls us “the girls."

You can read about a woman picket who, at The Battle of Bull’s Run, "grabbed the mike and hysterically castigated the police: ’cowards! shooting unarmed and defenseless men!’"

Were the men that night hysterical, too? No, according to Henry, only that woman.

Thanks, Henry. If you were there, as you claim, then you know that woman was me and I was the president of the auxiliary #10 and I was not hysterical. Though the men tried to shoo all the women to safety when the shooting started, I was there from the beginning of that crisis and all night long.

Then— your book was vagueness itself on how the battle ended. You refer to the “large crowd of onlookers on both ends of the street (who) witnessed the entire battle . . . as those in the sound car directed a steady appeal to join the pickets, many began coming over.” end quote (pg 136)

That battle ended by that “hysterical” woman asking other women to break through the police lines and stand beside their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons!

And the women did just that—and the men followed them—and the police didn’t shoot them in the back. That is when the police got their orders to withdraw!

And the women who marched down through the line of police that night never forgot it! Without that daring act of pushing past those armed police, our women truly believed the battle would have been lost. The odds were so terribly uneven, and GM wanted that plant at all costs.

I had no intention of speaking that night. Victor Reuther and his relief assistants were doing the best possible job. No one was better than Vic on the sound car. But on one of his relief breaks he came over and told us privately that the batteries on the sound car were running down, and he knew that he and the union defenders had done all that was possible to do up to that point. That is when I realized that a woman’s plea for help from other women might accomplish something.

It did! And that is the night we decided to form an emergency brigade of women.

On page 235 Henry writes, “. . . it(meaning the brigade) had originated after the Fisher #2 battle in which the women had engaged so courageously. The following day a petition on the table in the Women’s Auxiliary room gathered signatures: ’I wish to join the emergency brigade and be on call day and night.’"

"A petition appeared” . . . . “and it gathered signatures!"—What cavalier reporting of a major contribution by the women! It boggles the mind! It is so degrading of women!

There is no petition that appeared automatically or by magic. There was an emergency meeting of the auxiliary called the next day. Parenthetically, I might add that auxiliary members had to make 10 times the sacrifices that men made to participate in that strike. The men could get up to a prepared breakfast, put on washed and ironed clothes they wore, get a ride and leave for the day. A woman had to take care of the grocery shopping, the cooking, the laundry, find someone to take care of the baby and see the kids coming home from school—and cancel her plans if one of the kids got sick in that cold winter. A few brought their children to the Pengelly building where Wilma McCartney, herself seven months pregnant, would look after the children in the auxiliary child care room.

The emergency meeting called by the auxiliary for the next day had its largest attendance ever. The whole city knew about the gun battle and the attempts to rout the Fisher #2 men. At this meeting the women’s role in the battle of the night before was the main subject of our reports. And then we laid out our plans for the brigade. The women were given to understand that not all women could qualify for the brigade. The qualifications I outlined that day could easily have curdled the blood of most men. The brigadier must be ready for action 24 hours a day... she must not be the hysterical type. If her sister beside her went down in blood... she must accept assignments, no matter how dangerous and be prepared to stand in front of the men if shooting broke out. The pledge was designed to discourage all but the bravest and boldest.

And more, she had to sign such a pledge in front of at least three witnesses. We had seen union men get shot with buckshot and rifle bullets, and this was war and we meant business! We weren’t fooling around.

Fifty women signed up in that first meeting. I tried to discourage a 16-year-old and a 72-year-old great-grandmother from the copper country. Without success.

The appointed lieutenants were Ruth Pitts, Fisher Body #1; Nellie Besson, AC, Teeter Walker, Redmonds; Inez Chapman, Fisher #1; and Tekla Roy, a childless union wife of one of the first men fired for union activities at Chevrolet. These women were on duty all the time during the duration of the strike.

To understand Kraus’s condescending approach to women, read how he describes me and another woman who were part of a dozen pickets holding the line after the battle of Bull’s Run just in case of another surprise action against Fisher #2. He writes the two women were kept “occupied and happy" while he rushed off to the Pengelly building .. . where he and Victor discussed their “recent insanity” about evacuating the plant. (page 143)

I don’t believe this either because Victor knew that Fisher #2 men would not have agreed to it and he knew what a demoralizing blow that would have been at that stage . . . and Victor’s main contribution was in transmitting his own optimism and keeping the fighting spirit of the union men and women as his voice boomed out over the loudspeaker of the sound car.

Women...and some men...of today know how the majority of men considered and treated women 50 years ago. But Henry did not only have this handicap, he also had the handicap of having political differences with the main leader of the women and he proved it time and again in the Flint Auto Worker, our main source of Flint news at the time.

You see, like the three Reuther brothers and many other leaders with the goal of building the UAW, I was a publicly well-known Socialist in Flint. My family were pioneers of the city when it was a logging town—before the automobile industry developed. Streets and avenues are named after my family—is there still a Carpenter Road here?

In 1911 my grandfather, a Civil War captain and prominent town leader, campaigned for Mayor Benton, a Socialist. The following year the high and mighty of Flint mobilized behind C. S. Mott, who was elected in a vigorous campaign to replace the Socialist Benton.

Kraus was of a different political school, and his co-workers thought our women’s organization should be under the jurisdiction of the men, even though they had no elected leaders as yet and had their hands more than full fighting General Motors. One attempt was made to establish an international representative over the Women’s Auxiliary, but the women voted it down. I believe that is why the women were voted down in the pages of the Flint Auto Worker and The Many and the Few.

Where, for example, can you read of the five women who strung themselves across the Plant #4 main gate, holding off the armed Flint police at the crucial moment before union reinforcements arrived?...or of my directing the establishment of a large picket line circle in front of the entrance when reinforcements did arrive?

Henry, you weren’t there, but you did have a news clipping bureau which received copies of all major newspapers, including The New York Times. It was there... on page one of the Times And I show it to you.

Now anyone knows it has to be something important to get on page one of the world’s most important newspaper,... right?

On behalf of our courageous women, I was bitter about the paid public relations man of our union not even giving us a paragraph on page 4 of the Flint Auto Worker...and his stifling it altogether in his book of ten years later.

Let me give you another example of our daring actions which were excised from publication...Saginaw Gear and Axle and Grey Iron Foundry unionists were being systematically beaten up by vigilantes in a reign of terror. A carload of men from Flint were sent up to try to organize a union meeting.

They were driven out of Saginaw by the vigilantes and forced into a telephone pole and landed in the hospital. Bob Travis was determined that another contingent be sent up to Saginaw at once. He asked for volunteers. When no one rushed to respond, Mary Donavon Hapgood, Fania Fish (later Reuther) and I volunteered. The UAW educational director Merlin Bishop and organizer Kempton William provided the car and we left.

The Saginaw meeting was held in the basement of a square wooden building, and the few union men...and their wives...who showed up sat on planks placed between boxes. Four of the men wore’s head was bandaged.

While sinister vigilante faces appeared in the basement windows, we made our speeches as inspirational and optimistic as we could. We all pledged to fight to victory and sang solidarity. For protection, we left in groups for our cars, feeling good about the encouragement we had given them. And then a big black, new Buick, pulled in front of us and a second one in back, loaded with men. It was turning dark, and we were being paced, and we knew what was in store for us. Our car was held in position for miles. Then at one point Kemp Williams turned off the lights of our new Pontiac, shot out ahead of the first Buick and darted in and out of traffic at 70 miles an hour (top speed in ’37) in the darkness.

When we saw the lights of the A.C. factory we came out of our freeze and sang “When a scab dies, he goes to hell” in shaky voices.

Bishop reported this successful first meeting held in Saginaw to both Bob Travis and Kraus. File 13—it never appeared in print.

And this is what happened to the reporting of many other risky assignments taken on by the women of Flint.

I went to jail so that union men and women could distribute the Flint Auto Worker...and the Punch Press put out by Jimmy Kalemis and his crew, and so Mike Evanoff could prove the unconstitutionality of the city’s restrictive ordinance.

The women cannot be dismissed for their creative efforts, either. Who set up the sign painting department and painted the first picket signs in Flint?...A woman.

Who organized the children’s picket line that got publicity all over the United States and practically every country in Europe? The public was captivated by Kermit Johnson’s two-year-old son leading the picket line...I happened to be that woman because Bob Travis, like most men, didn’t know what else to do with the women but to assign them to the kitchen... and I had too much valuable organizing experience in the League for Industrial Democracy to go to the kitchen.

I am not denigrating the work of the strike kitchen squad of women, who also joined the auxiliary once it was organized. Under the leadership of Hazel Simons and Donna Devitt, they kept a most efficient strike kitchen going across from Fisher #1. I heard many compliments on their food and service. Anyone who could show a strike-duty card was given a good, nourishing meal, and that was a morale booster, too.

All of the leadership of the auxiliary, to the best of my knowledge, are dead. Of the nine women filmed so recently in the Academy Award-nominated documentary film...With Babies and with Banners... only four are still living. Nellie Besson is the sole survivor of the brigade lieutenants. She was 19 years old at the time. I have been informed that the records of the auxiliary were disposed of when the union left the Pengelly building.

My good friend Kenny Malone once told me, “History is made by the people who write it.” Even historians or professors taking oral interviews later can slant the material they obtain, omit or enhance the importance of roles according to their own lights.

But never before had I thought about people being written out of history at the very moment they were making it! Henry Kraus taught me that it could be done, with the Flint Auto Worker and his book.

I want to quote from a letter sent by Fania Reuther to the Searchlight, complaining that in the otherwise top UAW local publication, the accounts "printed of that period shortchanged is as if he was not there and did not exist. Some of this is politically motivated, some is malicious and some is ignorance or sloppy research."

Fania winds up her letter by saying, “There was enough glory in that strike to go around. Why is it being hoarded and why is history being rewritten?"

What can be gleaned now, after fifty years, of all the information that even I, at the heart of the action, can’t recall... the locale and time of physical encounters.... all the things that women were not expected to do 50 years ago and yet the brigadiers did them?

Did we know when we broke with the tradition of the old AFL unions with their Ladies Auxiliaries that it was something new in labor history to be proud to be called a Women’s Auxiliary?...No!

Did we know it was the first time in labor history that women organized on a para-military basis?...No!

We only knew we were fighting the world’s largest industrial corporation, and the men needed greater help than doing the cooking in a strike kitchen...or walking a picket line with our husbands and being shooed to safety when danger arose.

It was the women’s movement that discovered, years later, that these were “firsts” in history. For that we are grateful.

General Motors, and society in general, did not expect us, mothers and sisters and daughters and girl friends, to declare war in our own name and in our own way.

We did it. And we were proud to discover ourselves as new women born of those struggles. In one woman’s words, she said, “Just being a women isn’t enough for me anymore. I want to be a human being with the right to think for myself."

Young women of today can never know quite what that meant to us. At that time American women had just won the right to vote a short 16 years earlier. They still could not serve on jury duty. Sexual abuse of children in the home was a deep, dark secret. A divorced woman was considered “loose" and fair game for any male, married or unmarried. Property was in the name of the husband, and he made the important decisions. The woman was expected to be in the kitchen, the laundry, the bedroom or the nursery. Jokes about women were sickening for another woman to hear.

As you can see in the pages of Kraus’s book, we were so frequently referred to as “girls"...even “the Emergency Brigade girls.” (p217) And one of our brigadiers was referred to as “Bessie Garrison, no flapper, was a good housewife.” But men never wrote, “John Brown, no ladies’ man, was a good auto worker."

It took the women’s movement for liberation and equal rights to discover some of the roles women had played in the history of our country and of the world...and to discover that UAW women were...for that glorious moment... making our own decisions in that great fight for unionism in General Motors.

For those wonderful women of the UAW it took 40 years to have parts of their story recovered by other women... first Pat Yeghissian at U of M, followed by a documentary by the history department at the U of M, then a young woman came searching from BBC in England...and it resulted in the women’s role being included as an important and featured part of the documentary film called, The Great Sitdown Strike, which has become very popular in this country and in Europe...and you will be seeing this here today. And then the now famous film titled With Babies and Banners.

In my mind’s eye I can see the nameless faces of so many women I had the distinct honor and privilege of working with during those hectic, fast-paced days of the great sitdown strike. Oh! What a story all of them could have told! The feeling of emancipation, from man-making-the-decisions in the important national issues affecting their lives and the lives of their children, was indescribable!

In our first official magazine of the auxiliary in April, here is what the two top leaders of the Flint union had to say:

"The women of Flint have made their fame and are known throughout the world for their heroic stand during the great General Motors strike...

"Now, in the era of peace, their task continues as important as before. I wish to congratulate the Women’s auxiliary of Flint, who have just elected their new officers, on their splended work in the past, and their determination to carry on in the future

"May you go on spreading the gospel of unionism to the wives, daughters, and sweethearts of the union men of Flint.” Robert C. Travis

And from Roy Reuther:

"Greetings and congratulations to the new officers and to the members of the Women’s Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade.

"The automobile workers of Flint and America owe you a debt of gratitude for the part you played in the winning of the big strike and in building our international union.

"You are truly crusaders in this new American labor movement and your fighting spirit an inspiration to all workers!"

Ten years later we were mentioned in passing in the The Many and the Few— Mr Kraus obviously didn’t think so much of the women of Flint who had made their fame and become known throughout the world for their heroic stand—or that the workers of Flint and America owed us a debt of gratitude for the part we played in the winning of the big strike and the building of the international union.

In the last ten years the publications and films have at last told a part of the stories remembered of this wonderful organization of Flint women. Nellie Besson and I have been besieged with requests for appearances and lectures from universities, colleges, women’s organizations, unions and ethnic groups. Women have been thirsty for the news of long ago.

Why did it take so long for this history to become known? Was there any one person more responsible than the hired PR man who was on the scene at the time. The man who wrote the book ten years later, with all his materials on hand at the time? And did he not recognize that a very major attempt toward women’s rights and equality in ’37 had been thwarted by him when his book was re-published only a couple of years ago? He had a great responsibility to history and was not big enough to fill it.

Henry Kraus, when I was asked to be the speaker at this important gathering of the UAW pioneers, I drafted a lofty speech that sounded great. But when I was telephoned and asked if I would accept with you as a speaker on the same platform, I ripped up that speech.

For 50 years I have wanted to tell you, Henry Kraus, as a representative of hundreds of departed pioneers, what an injustice you have done to the women of America and the world. For a quarter of a century you were in Paris... But now that you are here, you know how some of us felt for all these years.

And now, my friends assembled here, join me in a memoriam to three of out top strike leaders who have passed on:

Robert C. Travis: “Bob” to us—came to Flint fresh from the victories in the Chevrolet plant in Toledo. Flint accepted him with open arms.

In Sidney Fine’s documented book, Sitdown, he describes Bob thusly:

"Travis had a winning smile and a tremendously attractive personality. He was energetic and ebullient, knew the problems of the shop, and was able to inspire confidence in insecure workers."

By his tireless efforts, day and night, Bob inspired others to give more of their time energy and devotion to the cause. It was a good day when Bob Travis came into Flint to help us win our fight.

Roy Reuther—I could find no greater tribute to Roy than the one given to him in a letter sent to him air-mail special delivery from Bob Travis right after the victory. I have a copy of it in his own handwriting. It is dated February 23, 1937:

"Dear Brother Roy;

"It has been such a privilege working with you and realizing what a wonderful job you have done in Flint. I can hardly come to include myself in the activities.

"Realizing the sacrifices you have made to build a labor movement in Flint shall not go unheralded. From this distant point I can now realize what you have contributed to this labor movement. It will always be with pleasure when the story of Flint is told that I may, with the greatest of pleasure, tell all and reveal you as the bulwark to which many of us clung.

"Earnestly, Roy, I admire you and your courageous brothers to the utmost, and it will always be a pleasure to be known as your associate.

Yours for continued success,


Bob Travis “

Kermit Ferdinand Johnson:

Kermit Johnson, in conjunction with the workers’ educational classes taught by Roy Reuther in 1934 and ’35, was involved in pre-CIO efforts before union organizers were assigned to Flint by the UAW board.

When the Fisher plants went down, Kermit served on the city-wide strike strategy committee. Kermit was an excellent speaker at mass meetings and had a large following. Kermit received buckshot wounds in the battle of Bull’s Run, shrugged off the oft -made threats against his life, and was an example of courage to those working with him.

But his major contribution was, that it was Kermit, as the only Plant #4 member on the strike strategy committee, who drew up the original plan for the taking of that plant. This I can swear to because he brought it out of the plant after the Chevrolet back-to-work movement...on a greasy scrap of paper.

After the decision was made and plans finalized to take Plant #4, he was elected the strike chairman. After the victory Kermit was elected the first president of the Chevrolet Division of Local 156—before separate locals were chartered. Kermit was a leader.

And, of course, these men couldn’t do it alone. It took a whole lot of men and women with a dream and the courage to fight against great odds for that dream.

We are grateful to the committee for the fine job they have done in organizing this 11th annual pioneer union-builders’ reunion, but we must, with a wink, remind them that the great idea of these reunions was started 11 years ago by women—Nellie Besson, Laura Hayward, and Helen Hauer, now deceased. Our numbers have declined a few, but it has permitted many of the pioneers to relive the memories of those exciting days.

Today women are on the march...just as the industrial union movement was 50 years ago. Our tasks are even bigger and more difficult, but we are determined to take our rightful place in the affairs of humanity.

Bothers and sisters, our country is in serious trouble... the world is in serious trouble... and the problems magnify with each day. Women have had very little input in the decision-making process....

Oh, we’ve got a couple of men-dominated women as window dressing, such as the iron lady, Maggie Thatcher. But now history dictates that we must become conscious of the other, unused half of the brain power of this world. Especially, those of us in the auto centers know that a car can’t function on only half its cylinders.

Well, that’s what we have been doing all through written history. It’s time now to develop and use the other half of the world’s brain power. And soon, before its too late and before we are drowned in our own pollution or blown off the face of the earth!

These younger women and their daughters will be marching into the city councils, the state legislatures, the halls of congress and into the very top administrative positions of our country—Black, Brown, and White women—united as never before.

It is not our generation of women, the septegenarians, to play a leadership role in this wonderful development. But it is for us to give them every support and to see that they have whatever pieces we can give them of women’s history... which they have been denied by male writers.

All the male writers swallowed the publicity we gave out to the press... that we were only defending our men in the strike of ’37...and failed to see that we were also demonstrating our own capabilities and talents for all the world to see and judge.

Remember the unnamed women of 50 years ago who said, “I want to be a human being and think for myself!"

The modern man is joining us in our fight for equal rights... We welcome their help...shoulder to shoulder... side by side... our independence will make us both stronger in fighting together for a better world of tomorrow.


[1] Speech by Genora Dollinger, August 2, 1987, at the 50th anniversary celebration of the sitdown strike in Flint, Michigan. The Pioneers reunion meeting was addressed by Henry Kraus, Genora Dollinger, and Victor Reuther in the UAW Local union hall.

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