From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger

Never Again Just A Woman

Women of the Auxiliary and Emergency
Brigade in the General Motors Sit-Down
Strike of 1937

Janice Hassett

Senior Thesis
Andrew Workman, Mar 11, 1994

Forty years after the momentous United Automobile Workers of America sit-down strike against General Motors, union representatives, many of them veterans of the 1937 campaign, gathered in Flint Michigan to celebrate that significant victory. Genora Johnson, one of those veterans who founded the Women’s Auxiliary Number 10 of the UAW and its "military component,” the Women’s Emergency Brigade, was asked by the Anniversary Planning Committee to speak to the UAW crowd; just prior to that gathering, her invitation to speak had been withdrawn because she had refused to attend a GM-sponsored luncheon held in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the strike, her refusal offended both company management and union leadership. It appeared that there would be no representative to speak for the women who had played such an important part in that 1937 conflict.[1] Women from the Women’s Emergency Brigade, showing their unity by wearing the group’s distinctive red berets, demanded that Genora Johnson take the podium and be heard. With banners reading “1937-1977 THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES,” “AN E.R.A. IN THE UAW” unfurled, and with a chant from the audience, “The UAW needs an E.R.A.,” Genora Johnson was finally allowed to speak.

Ten years later, at the fiftieth anniversary of the General Motors strike, that same Genora Johnson again addressed the anniversary gathering, this time taking to task the speaker who had appeared just before her, Henry Kraus, author of The Many, and the Few, the first book written about the strike of 1937. Johnson accused Kraus of male chauvinism in his depiction of her at the Battle of Bulls Run as “hysterically castigat[ing] the police.” She also took the opportunity to set the record straight as to why the battle had been won that night. According to Johnson, the battle was won when the women stepped between the guns of the police and the strikers inside the plant; unwilling to shoot women, the police had withdrawn.[2]

The patronizing picture Kraus drew of the women who had participated in the 1937 strike is not uncommon. Sidney Fine, author of Sit-Down, the most comprehensive and objective book about the strike, asserts: “The Auxiliary and the Emergency Brigade... had a ’rallying effect’ upon the men in the plants.... But the participation of the women in the strike was probably more important for them than for the men.”[3]

Women have often been marginalized in labor histories, perhaps because the work of auxiliaries has traditionally been viewed as simply an extension of women’s conventional domestic roles. Auxiliaries ran strike kitchens, did office work, organized social activities, developed educational programs for women and children, and supported their men in the labor struggle. While it is recognized that these organizations had the potential to challenge, and perhaps even change, traditional gender roles through the labor movement, ultimately the women in these organizations were stopped short of such radicalization by the prevailing expectations of women at that time. Thus, the women’s stories have fit neither into labor history nor feminist history, with its emphasis on a transformation of gender roles.

In her essay “Where I was a Person”. The Ladies’ Auxiliary in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strikes,” Marjorie Penn Lasky suggests that auxiliaries were exploited by the union as a tool to provide services typically considered “women’s work.” Like most citizens of their time, the women were conventional in their views of “woman’s place.” They were willing and able to confront injustice and unfairness, but there was no widespread inclination to challenge the male-dominated order. Working class women were untouched by the rarely voiced feminist ideas. The very unions that had spawned the auxiliaries constrained the women from making demands that were outside the existing order.[4]

Until historians more clearly understand the role of the auxiliaries throughout the labor movement, Lasky’s views will probably prevail among those who write of labor history, and although such an attitude may be generally accurate, it is not so for the 1937 GM sit-down strike. To some degree, the Women’s Auxiliary Number 10 of UAW local 156, and the Emergency Brigade, a “military branch” of that auxiliary, fit into Lasky’s views; there were no conscious attempts by these organizations to upset traditional gender roles, except for the short-term purposes of the strike. However, the Auxiliary Number 10 and the Emergency Brigade did radically transform the women who participated in them. Despite this retreat from the threshold that seemed to offer the possibility of developing a working-class ideology of women’s liberation, and despite Genora Johnson’s denial that the Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade were intended to challenge traditional gender roles, participation in the strike was a personally transformative experience for many of the women who participated; an experience which needs to be considered in the history of women’s rise through and beyond traditional gender and class restrictions.

Why are the UAW Auxiliary Number 10 and the Women’s Emergency Brigade unique in the history of women’s support organizations within the labor movement? There is no suggestion that the Women’s Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade were self-consciously participating in any “women’s movement;” as Genora Johnson has said, a working class women’s movement at this time was “historically immature.”[5] However, the uncharacteristic accomplishments of the Auxiliary and the Emergency Brigade, including their organizational development outside either male leadership or direction from the union, their development of a paramilitary structure to intercede between the police and the strikers, or their decisive role in the winning of the strike, were not typical of women’s behavior according to expectations and stereotypes of the day.

Such uncharacteristic accomplishments were possible only due to an auspicious historical moment; Genora Johnson, then a young and talented socialist leader, took advantage of a window of opportunity, (the immature UAW had no protocol for organizing a women’s support organization), and formed the independent Women’s Auxiliary and Women’s Emergency Brigade. These new groups influenced the outcome of the strike, and they profoundly affected the women who participated in that strike. That window of opportunity was effectively closed following the Flint victory; the Women’s Auxiliary and the Women’s Emergency Brigade became an anomaly of the labor movement.


The UAW was barely a year old when it began to organize the then-anti-union citadel of Flint Michigan in 1936. Flint was a General Motors company town, GM owned everything from the courts to the banking system; the police, city commissioners, and newspaper editors were all influenced by the company, as were the schools and churches. The union held no status in Flint; as of June, 1936, the United Automobile Workers of America, founded in 1935, had only 150 members there.[6] The Flint auto workers, unlike their comrades in other cities who had large immigrant populations, were predominantly a white, native-born force, most of whom came from Michigan, the Midwest, and the South, and who were skeptical of the union.[7] Many workers and their families lived in homes which had no hot water, while some had no running water at all; over twelve percent were without a toilet, and many with no central heating.[8]

In June of 1936 the organizing of Flint auto-workers into the young UAW began. Scornful of the lay-off system and of the arbitrary actions of management, indignant over the rate and method of pay, and especially hostile to the speed-up system which plagued the industry at the time, workers responded to the UAW’s organizing efforts, and in October of 1936 brief sit-downs were staged in the Flint plants to protest the actions of management. Such strikes were just the incentive workers needed to join the union, and by the end of November 1500 workers were signed up in the UAW; by the end of 1936 membership had risen to 4,500[9] On December 30, 1936, at the peak of a wave of UAW-sponsored sit-down strikes throughout the country, the workers of General Motors Fisher #1 and Fisher #2 body plants at Flint, Michigan, sat down and shut down manufacturing. What was to have been a well-planned UAW-CIO sponsored strike in January of 1937, became instead a spontaneous but major strike, begun in December of 1936, and lasting forty-four days.[10] This sudden worker-originated strike not only surprised the national leadership of the UAW and the CIO, but radio broadcasts announcing it brought the news into homes where many of the worker’s wives and families were equally surprised. The successful shut-down of Fisher #1 and #2 brought supporters into the street outside the striking plants for a celebratory dance on New Year’s Eve, 1936. For some women however, it was not a night for celebrating. Genora Johnson recalls women shouting to their husbands and sweethearts to leave the plant immediately, and in some cases threatening them with divorce. Some men did leave the plant, despite the embarrassing boos from their co-workers. That night Genora Johnson realized that women were an essential component to the success of the strike, if women could break the union, they could also make it. That night the first Women’s Auxiliary of the developing UAW was born.[11]

Despite the surprise nature of the strike, and the lack of a well organized union local prior to the strike, an infrastructure soon developed that maintained itself through 44 days of surprise, chaos, and danger. The sit-down strikers in Fisher fl and #2 developed a comprehensive organization among themselves inside the plants, including committees for security, rumor control, sanitation, education, information, food, recreation, postal services and contact with the outside.[12] Outside the plant, the Women’s Auxiliary organized a speakers’ bureau, it held classes in labor history, parliamentary procedure, and public speaking, it set up a first aid station and a child-care center, it recruited other women to support the strikers, it raised funds for the strike, and it walked the picket lines.

Anxious to get production moving and the strikers out of the factory, on the afternoon of January 11, 1937, thirteen days into the strike, General Motors turned the heat off in the Fisher #2 plant; the temperature outside that day was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. That evening, when volunteers arrived with food for the strikers, they were barred from their usual entrance through the main gate, leaving the men inside hungry and cold. When the strikers broke open the front gate, “...[t]he captain of the company guards phoned the Flint police that he and his men had been ’captured’ and that the strikers were ’crowding the door and were threatening,’ and then the guards ingloriously took refuge in the ladies’ rest room, from whence they did not emerge until the next morning, after the fighting had ended.” [13]

The Battle of Bulls Run, as it was affectionately named by the strikers, erupted with squads of police firing tear gas at the outside picketers, all of whom were male, and at the strikers inside the plant. The sound car, which directed the actions of strikers and picketers, ordered the strikers to use fire hoses, door hinges from yet-to-be assembled automobiles, bottles, stones, and other objects which would act as missiles to repel the police. Gunshot wounds, overturned cars, flying door hinges, beaten journalists, 3,000 spectators, all added to the chaos resulting from the melee of the evening.[14]

Well into the battle, the voice of a woman boomed from the sound car’s audio system. Genora Johnson, the wife of striker Kermit Johnson, vice president of the Auxiliary, mother of two young boys, and a socialist, had asked Victor Reuther for a chance on the sound car. Knowing that women could turn the tide of this battle, she appealed to the women in the crowd of spectators to “... break through those police lines and come down here and stand with your husbands, and your brothers, your sons and your sweethearts.” She challenged the police to fire into the “... mothers of children.... “ To Genora Johnson’s joy, the women responded, marched in between the police and the strikers, and, according to Johnson, “... wound up the battle that night.” [15]

This daring and unexpected act during the Battle of Bulls Run was an epiphany for the women who participated. With the sense that they were as “courageous and as capable” as any man, they formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade, to place themselves between their striking husbands, fathers, brothers, sweethearts, co-workers, and the violence with which the “authorities” opposed them.[16] To meet this demand, the Emergency Brigade was organized into a paramilitary organization, with a hierarchical chain of command from the Captain, Genora Johnson, to Lieutenants and the rank-and-file.

The Brigade came to figure significantly in the upcoming union tactic to seize Chevy plant #4, the most important plant in General Motors production, since it was the only plant to manufacture engines for all Chevrolet cars. With scant union membership in the plant, and its geographic relation to Plant Police headquarters, Chevy #4 would not be easy to shut down, and it required that a diversionary action be taken elsewhere in order to allow the men inside to take control of the plant.

That diversionary action took place in Chevy #9, where workers initiated a sit-down strike on February 1, 1937. Company police had been tipped off by spys inside the union who were known by the union leadership and deliberately misinformed that a strike would be attempted in Chevy #9. When the sit-down in Chevy #9 occurred, all of the General Motors police force were on the scene. GM police exchanged blows with the strikers, and used clubs and tear gas to move them to the back of the plant. The Emergency Brigade, “always ready for emergencies” was on hand, and used their own clubs to break the windows and let air into the factory. Ultimately, the strikers were defeated, physically and morally, not understanding that the their participation in the coup had gone off just as planned.[17]

While strikers were being beaten and tear-gassed in Chevy #9, unionists, led by Genora Johnson’s husband Kermit, were hurriedly trying to secure Chevy #4. Their most difficult job was to convince workers that they should sit-down and strike; many workers were needed to secure the plant, and as a result, some were threatened in order to insure that they would join, but still it was initially difficult for Kermit Johnson to get enough men to take over the plant.[18] Genora Johnson, knowing of the secret plan, took some of her lieutenants to Chevy #4, and received orders from the struggling unionists inside to guard the gate and prevent the police from entering. “We strung ourselves across that gate, and we hung, we grabbed ahold of each other... We kept talking back and forth [with the police] ’til we stalled for time.” The women’s spontaneous tactic worked; the men secured the plant inside and the participants from Chevy #9, still smarting from the tear gas, marched down the street toward Chevy #4 singing the official strike song “Solidarity!”[19]

That evening governor Frank Murphy ordered the state militia to take control of the situation. Flint was a city under siege, some parts held by the National Guard, others by striking unionists. The 126th Infantry of the National Guard was sent in to secure the area from anyone wanting to enter Chevy #4 or Fisher #2; they sent word that they were “occupying all points of advantage with rifle patrols and machine guns.” [20] Despite the presence of the National Guard, the strikers had successfully taken another GM plant; that same day Judge Gadola issued an injunction against the strikers. The injunction ordered the occupation of the plants to cease, and for the strikers to evacuate. Failure to do so would mean that the union would be penalized by a fifteen million dollar fine applied to the “lands, goods and chattels” of the strikers.[21]

The strikers refused to heed the injunction; their refusal heightened the already considerable tension in the city. The union called in supporters from throughout the region to gather in Flint on February 3, which had already been designated “Women’s Day” by the strike leaders, an action that increased the number of supporters by the hundreds. Women in Detroit, Toledo, Lansing, Pontiac, Saginaw, and Bay City, following the lead of the women in Flint, hastily organized their own auxiliaries and Emergency Brigades to address the strikes, and potential strikes, in their cities. Organizers claimed that six or seven hundred women from these auxiliaries and Emergency Brigades attended “Women’s Day” in Flint; they were a significant contingent of the ten thousand pickets and spectators.[22]

The jubilant congregation of pro-union women and men on February 3 aroused fears of civil war in the citizens of the town. City manager John Barringer, frustrated by the desire of the national guard and state police to lie low while strike-ending negotiations were occurring, deputized a five-hundred person vigilante force, men who were frustrated with the success of the strikers, to the city police force. The intent of the vigilante group was to recover the town from the strikers by forcing them out of the factories. Rather than risk a riot in the streets between strikers, national guard, local and state police, and the newly organized vigilante group, leaders of each met to negotiate and avoid the potential riot. Though this meeting was successful, and violence was avoided, tension in the city remained.[23] Meanwhile, strike negotiations continued in Detroit; pressured from the White House, the Governor of Michigan, and by the economic factors caused by the virtual halt of automobile production, General Motors recognized the UAW as the collective-bargaining agent on February 11, 1937. The strike was over, the UAW was victorious.[24]


The sit-down strike of ’36 and ’37 forced General Motors Corporation to sign its first union contract, it established a partnership between the United Automobile Workers of America and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and it sent shock-waves of sit-down strikes across the nation. It also created a controversy, which lasts until this day, over the nature of women’s participation in the strike.

At the very beginning of the strike Genora Johnson, described by the Detroit Evening Times as a “... slender, dark haired, 23-year-old mother of two young sons” arrived at the union headquarters in the Pengally Building to volunteer her services.[25] Ignorant of her talents in organizing and public speaking, strike leaders at first relegated Johnson to the strike kitchen. Genora Johnson would have none of that, she declared, “look, you’ve got a lot of little skinny thin men that aren’t capable of going out and standing, marching around the picket lines, and they can peel potatoes just as well as we can.”[26]

What the union officials did not know was that Genora Johnson, with her husband Kermit Johnson and her father-in-law Carl Johnson, both GM workers, was a founder of the Flint chapter of the Socialist Party of America, was self-taught in Marxist ideology, and had been developing her leadership skills for just such an occasion as the UAW strike against GM. Before the UAW was even organized, the active Flint Socialist Party recruited autoworkers and collectively studied the labor struggles of the Molly Maguires, Knights of Labor, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. When the UAW was formed in Flint, Carl Johnson became an active member, anticipating the eventual workers’ struggle in which the local and national Socialist Party would play a significant role.[27] It was Genora Johnson’s commitment to socialism which prompted her involvement in the strike, “... it was my goal to try to get somebody to recognize what capitalists were doing to the poor workers, you know, what was happening at the bottom end of it.”[28]

But it was not only socialism that influenced Genora Johnson’s desires to recruit women to participate in the strike; her personal feminism was another influence. Though at the time she did not know the term, many years later she declared that, “... I’ve always been a feminist from the time I’ve been a little kid at home.... It was a rough period on women.” This statement reveals much about Genora Johnson’s childhood, and offers a significant insight into her self-developed feminism. Johnson’s father emotionally and physically abused her mother, “so I know that unconsciously, I was always trying to express the women’s point of view... and I think my father was responsible for it.”[29]

Flint, along with most of the rest of the country at that time, had no women’s movement. “There might be some little middle class women’s... art institute, but they were all middle class, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with just this rough type of woman that didn’t have clothes to wear.... Even in the socialist movement, there was no emphasis on women.”[30] While Genora Johnson’s interest was primarily to develop a class consciousness among women, she acknowledges that though she did not articulate it at the time, she was promoting gender equality as an “organizational concept.”[31]

Johnson’s “organizational concept” was developed in part due to her experiences and knowledge of the role that women in other auxiliaries had played in the labor movement. With great contempt she recalls the Ladies’ Auxiliaries whose main purpose was to organize social events to raise funds, such as box lunches which women would decorate and men would bid on. It was not only the lunch that the men were bidding on, but the “lady” who had made up the lunch would become the purchaser’s lunch companion as well. Following the event, the women “would come out giggling and tittering... “ about who they had eaten lunch with. They were the “ladies” who “... [drank] tea with the little pinky up.” Johnson hated this demeaning role, which was exacerbated by the obvious lack of intellectual respect the men felt toward these women. Gender bias was rampant in the labor movement of the 1930s, and Johnson’s intent was to neutralize such bias by developing women’s organizations, which would define new roles for women within the labor movement.

But while Johnson harbored a personal feminist ideology, it had not yet emerged fully from her overriding class consciousness; her efforts were primarily focused on the workers and their strike. Nevertheless, a desire to lift the burdens of women’s lives was clearly evident. The occasion of the strike was right for Genora Johnson to develop her organizational concept of gender equality by organizing the first female auxiliary to be autonomous and free of male leadership.

She explains that the automobile union in 1936-1937 was in the process of formation, “[t]here was no established constitutional UAW with a contract... or anything.” She adds, “there wasn’t anything that they could do to us, because... [the union] hadn’t yet organized.” The precedent of male domination over the actions of women had not yet been established in the young UAW, as it had in the auxiliaries of other unions; this allowed the auxiliary to maintain decision making power solely within its female membership; the first such decision was to self-consciously title themselves the “Women’s” (not “Ladies’”) Auxiliary.[32]

That very first decision of the Auxiliary carried far more importance than might at first seem apparent; it was a turning point in the history of union auxiliaries, and it was a significant event in the history of women in labor. Lasky’s thesis substantiates the notion that auxiliaries, in general, had never before been autonomous; she asserts that the conduct of women in the labor movement, until that time, was both “initiat[ed]” and “defined” by men. The significance of the Women’s Auxiliary’s first decision, and of subsequent decisions during the strike, is even more profound, considering that immediately following the strike local 156 was divided into three different locals by the international, ... and they had pretty strict control [over the auxiliaries].”[33]

This autonomy was protected by the women, and it was used to support the radical programs they developed. The democratically elected officers and members of the Auxiliary rejected the infiltration techniques of the UAW when it did show an interest in the women s activities. Bob Travis, the UAW strike organizer, sent Dorothy Kraus, wife of Henry Kraus, author of The Many and the Few, to the Auxiliary with a notice that she was to become their International Representative. The women were incensed over the arrogance thus shown by the UAW, an organization not yet as well organized as they, in attempting to unilaterally assign such a position. The Auxiliary, proud of its autonomy, “filed” that letter, “... [Dorothy Kraus] got nowhere fast with that one.”[34]

Dorothy Kraus, a long-time labor activist, was a prominent woman in the strike even though she did not live in Flint. The UAW asked her to run the strike kitchen, a responsibility usually relegated to the Auxiliary. But the UAW Auxiliary Number 10 had nothing to do with the strike kitchen; to the empowered Auxiliary, their concept of the women who worked in the kitchen was of women who had no voices. “... [T]hese women never attempted to voice any expression of what the union should do or what it shouldn’t do. They didn’t have any opinions, and they didn’t think it was their place to have any opinions about what was happening.... It was just ’rah, rah, rah, rah, our men! ’”[35]

The members of the Auxiliary believed they had something greater to offer the union than working in the kitchen. But Genora Johnson suggests that in order to survive and be effective she consciously used phrases such as “working for our heroes” and “supporting our men,” phrases of the sort used in a less manipulative way by the women in the kitchen. That was the unchallenged tradition up to that time; had these women not used such rhetoric, “... [they] would have been talking to the wall...”[36] Nevertheless, the actions of the Auxiliary, though couched in such adoring terms, were lending themselves to the development of women’s activism.

Their activism translated into programs which included the speakers’ bureau, child care center, classes in labor history, parliamentary procedure, public speaking, and a first aid center.[37] One of the primary programs of the Auxiliary was the recruiting of more women into the organization, and the classes in public speaking and the speakers bureau were invaluable for this program. Auxiliary members so developed their speaking and leadership skills that they could soon approach other women, often hostile to unionism, and convince them of the need to organize. Genora Johnson’s strength and self confidence become clear as she recalls her intentions behind instructing women in these skills:

You can’t take a person who’s been in a jail, jailed up in their home for the time she’s been a little girl,... you can’t pull her out of that background and take her out in public and say “ok, now we’ve got to do this and we gotta do that...,” without giving her a lot of instruction first, and then a plan of action.[38]

Even Henry Kraus recognized the development of women’s leadership. “If on undertaking any work a woman showed some leadership, her development was pushed and fostered. She was given more responsible tasks and encouraged to speak at meetings.”[39] And, so too, was the development of leadership heralded as a primary task of the Auxiliary after the strike; an article in the United Auto Worker, written by an auxiliary member in May 1937 indicates that the Auxiliary was “... a place for our membership to meet in, to work in and to train themselves for leadership.... making it possible for all women who show such capacities to express themselves fully within the ranks of the Women’s Auxiliaries.”[40]

Empowering women with the skills to understand and talk about the union, through the study of labor history, and through public speaking classes, was an effective tactic for recruitment, especially for the poorest of Flint’s auto-workers, those who had migrated from the south. Genora Johnson recalls that women from the south were especially reluctant to consider that they might play a role in unionism; their husbands considered it ... none of [their] damn business... “ Yet, when convinced by Auxiliary members that the union was indeed their business, those southern women became hard workers in, and advocates of, the Auxiliary. Rather than relying upon the child-care center in the Pengally building, which was far from their homes, they developed a cooperative child-care system for themselves, and a cooperative transportation system to bring them to strike headquarters, where the programs and support efforts of the Auxiliary were carried out.[41]

The Women’s Auxiliary, in its role as a strike support system, offered the UAW local 156 the benefits of their self-developed organizing skills. On January 11, 1937, during the Battle of Bulls Run, that supportive role expanded into a central active role, as women willingly put themselves between the strikers and the threat of police violence. Genora Johnson was the only woman within the line of fire when the Battle of Bulls Run erupted, and it was the first experience she had had of “... people... firing buckshot and rifle shot at [me].” Had she not been wearing a leather helmet, the buck-shot she received would have hurt much more than it did; but the shot did shock her into realizing “... this is for real!” Johnson knew how the union could get out of the situation successfully—get women to participate. “Tell them that there’s women, there’s mothers of children down here getting fired on, and that will fire up all kinds of people.”[42]

Johnson’s decision to encourage women to come out of the assembly of spectators and help protect the strikers proved to be a decisive factor in the battle that evening. Genora Johnson recalls that,

“... that was the victory, that was the reason for the victory that night.... When history was written by men, they didn’t remember that.... So from that point on, we decided women could play a helluva lot more important role in the actual fighting then they had up to that time just walking a picket line with signs.[43]

The very next day, fifty women signed up to be members of the Emergency Brigade, the first paramilitary organization of union women to deliberately declare their intention to stand between guns and strikers. Membership in the Emergency Brigade was restricted to only those women “... who could be ready in a moment’s notice, and who could stand the sight of blood without falling to pieces.”[44] By the end of the strike over three hundred women, mostly wives of strikers, but also a significant number of women workers who were not allowed in the striking factories, were members of the Brigade.

Though it was a branch of the Auxiliary, the Emergency Brigade was not a democratic organization. The chain of command began with Captain Genora Johnson, went through her five lieutenants, including Teter Walker, and GM autoworkers Ruth Pitts and Nellie Besson, who were not allowed to participate in the strike, down to the female rank and file.

If something was happening that was an emergency, you had to have the brigade there bingo, and you didn’t have the chance to take it up democratically.... If you ask me today [1994] “how did I take over a dictatorship like this?” I just know it was a necessity, if there was a necessity we did it. It didn’t matter what.[45]

The militancy of the Emergency Brigade was also defined in ways other than this organizational structure. The women adopted an official uniform of a red beret and a red arm band bearing the initials E.B. Mary Heaton Vorse, and the Auxiliary newsletters deny that this “red” uniform was symbolic of anything such as communism or socialism. “... the only red flag these women have seen is the red flag which means ’Men at Work.’ Wanting a badge so that they could distinguish themselves in a crowd, they hit upon the practical device of a red tam.”[46] However, Genora Johnson reveals that as well as being the brightest color to see, “[i]t was the red flag, it’s a socialist color.”[47]

Though its organizational structure, and its socialist association define the Emergency Brigade as undeniably militant, the deliberate use of weapons was the Brigade’s most revealing expression of that militantism. The most celebrated weapon of the Emergency Brigade was the heavy club, that many of the women displayed for a newspaper photograph distributed by Times Wide World, and which drew headlines from the New York Times following the riot at Chevy No. 9.


Group of 20 is Doubled After Fighting Begins,
Some Young and Some Middle-Aged


They Hold Off Police Detail, Girl in Teens Telling
Them They May Not Enter Plant [48]

This headline captures the determination and intensity of the women who participated in the Emergency Brigade. Genora Johnson described one of the participants, Lieutenant Teter Walker as “a little bundle of dynamite, [she] used to always wear jodhpurs and high laced boots, and... she and Ruth Pitts from Fisher Body had been given black-jacks woven by the sit-downers in the plant.” Walker recalled, “... we had a wristlet that we could put that under our arm, and we bring that up under our coat. All we have to do was just give our arm a snap and it was down in our hand. We had a weapon right there and nobody knew where it come [sic] from.”[49] But the most effective weapon of the Brigade was not the club or the black-jack: “... our main weapon was... a bar of hard milled soap ... put in a sock and you swing it like that at somebody s head, it can knock them for a loop.”[50]

The Emergency Brigade, by moving beyond “supporting” the strike, into actively participating in it, gave women a greater sense of responsibility for the union’s victory, and a greater stake in the class struggle. “The red-beret woman became a symbol of a different... type of woman, who was ready to sacrifice her life, as the men felt they were, in gaining the victories that we finally won from the worlds largest industrial corporation.”[51]

The women of the Auxiliary and of the Emergency Brigade were a curious phenomenon in 1937, and while they did not receive as much publicity as they deserved, the national, local, and union press were all interested in defining this “new type of woman.” The press was especially interested in the militaristic nature of the Emergency Brigade, and in creating a framework from which to understand the nature of the organization.

Henry Kraus, editor of the United Auto Worker and author of The Many and the Few, described the Brigade “as one of serving as a bulwark of defensive femininity against any violence that might threaten their husband.”[52] “Defensive femininity” is not the term the members of the Emergency Brigade would have used to describe themselves, since they had appropriated the most masculine and militaristic of all rhetoric and tactics. The New York Times was more accurate when they reported that the women of the Emergency Brigade “... did not content themselves with passive resistance but used clubs the size of baseball bats, whittled down at the end to make them easy to swing and handle.”[53]

Unfortunately, that same article, whose headline had made famous the Emergency Brigades “heavy clubs,” reported that, “In the rioting at No. 9 they used heavy clubs to break windows in the plant, so that the union men inside could see what their friends outside were doing and vice versa.” The article misrepresented and diminished the actions of the women when it suggested that the windows were broken in order to allow the strikers to see what their “friends” were doing outside. In fact, tear gas thrown into the plant was suffocating the men; the windows were broken to allow air into the building. The article goes on to declare that the women arrived at Chevy #4 “... just at the end of the trouble..."; the women described the scene quite differently, and believe that their tactics had been instrumental in stalling the police outside while the strikers inside successfully secured the plant.[54]

Such descriptions of the women’s actions effectively tended to marginalize the significant role they played in the strike; so too are these female labor activists marginalized by their own union’s press, the The United Automobile Worker, which gave little attention to the Auxiliary during the strike, except for just one issue which dedicated two full pages, headlined “Great Role of Women in G.M. Strike” to the women’s role. Though several short articles were written applauding women’s participation in various strikes, only two discussed the women in Flint, one focused on a seventy-two year old member of the Auxiliary, and the other on “Women’s Day” in Flint. No articles gave any serious consideration to the role of women in the Flint strike or any other strike, except for “A Few Proposals for Auxiliaries” in which Dorothy Kraus suggests appropriate actions for auxiliaries to take in “peace time.”

This “women’s page” became a regular feature in the United Auto Worker, although significant in that it verifies that the union was willing to recognize the participation of women, by creating a “women’s page” the United Auto Worker could relegate all issues concerning women into this special section, probably to be skipped by most male readers. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of analysis of gender within the labor movement, or of any serious consideration of women’s issues. Instead, articles focused on individual or group experiences in strikes, on auxiliary social events, and on the election of officers.

Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade members were further doomed to be relegated to the fringes of strike activity by the media’s description of the women; newspaper reports emphasized such factors as hair color, eye color, age, or physical shape, factors not usually used in descriptions of men. The New York Times saw fit to describe Johnson and others in even more elaborate terms:

Mrs. Johnson is a slim, short, frail looking young woman weighing about 120 pounds. She has been in delicate health. She dresses plainly but in good taste.... She is American born and is said to have lived in Flint a long time. She is the mother of two children. Another member of the battalion, a Mrs. Lamb, has nine children, including married daughters. The color bearer today, carrying a large American flag, was a stout woman with glasses.[55]

In the Henry Kraus Collection at the Wayne State Labor Archives, there is what appears to be an original submission for a column sent to the United Auto Worker by B.E. Little of West Side Local 174 of Detroit; he made the following observations of the women in Flint:

... mighty sweet... Sweet, gracious, and so-oh feminine ... I mean feminine... they all wore breeches, boots and boyish jackets... the friendliest, the most untiring and earnestly helpful and sincere... one of the grandest personalities... has the loveliest eyelashes in Flint.[56]

Even Mary Heaton Vorse, whose articles appeared in such journals as the New Republic, and who is quoted in the communist Daily Worker seems intent on proving that the women of the Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade were not “flaming-eyed Joan of Arcs.”

“They are strikers’ wives and mothers, normally homebodies. Ma and the girls in fact.... I should judge the majority of the Brigade have been to high school, and all are neatly and carefully dressed. There isn’t a flaming-eyed Joan of Arc among them. One and all are normal, sensible women who are doing this because they have come to the mature conclusion it must be done if they and their children are to have a decent life. So they are behind their husbands as long as there is need, with the same matter-of-fact capability—and inevitability—with which they get the children off to school.”[57]

Such newspaper descriptions of the women were helpful in dissipating fears of a gender revolution by reinforcing the notion that expectations of women’s role as wife and mother were not being threatened. Yet Vorse also recognized a subtle but distinct difference in the women who participated in the Flint strike. She describes the women of Auxiliary Number 10 as having a “... completeness about them, the satisfaction and wholeness that people have when they are using all their powers instead of letting four-fifths of their potentialities rot unused as in the case with so many womenon [sic] who life makes only the demand to live like a lady... “[58]

Genora Johnson expands on this description of the women, and challenges the stereotypical role into which most of the media had framed them. In an article for the Socialist Call, Johnson offers no assurances that women were not “flaming-eyed Joan of Arcs,” when she wrote, “Women from 16 to 65 went into action that would have made a cattle stampede on a ranch look like an afternoon stroll.... Yes, we women are as brave as our men any old day, and they’ll fight to the finish and so will we.” But even Johnson, despite such rhetoric, couches her militancy at the end of her article by revealing that “[s]ix hours a day means happier homes to us.[59]

The media had confined women to stereotyped roles; articles in the auxiliary newsletter for the most part reinforced such confinement. Women were subjected to constant propaganda by the union and by the Auxiliary, propaganda designed to foster family support, critical to a union victory. Domestic unrest could wreak havoc on the movement. Those constant messages effectively defined women’s role in building a union: nurture a pro-union home environment, maintain, don’t upset, traditional duties of a woman.

This theme was expressed by women in articles that appeared in the Flint Auxiliary newsletter, Auto Women Advance, and in the Detroit Auxiliary newsletter, Women in Auto with titles such as “The Union Takes a Wife,” “Solidarity Begins at Home,” and Mary Heaton Vorse’s “The Union Had Come To The Home, And The Home In Its Turn Had Gone To The Union.”[60]

There is no greater duty to her family for the wife, the sister, and the mother of the worker than to become a member of the women’s auxiliary.[61]

The union is entering into every aspect of life, the home and the union is becoming fused.[62]

In the future wherever you see a union engaged in a struggle, there will you see the women urging the union on to even greater achievements. The Union is no longer fighting alone. It has taken unto itself a wife -the AUXILIARY![63]

In the home, the common meeting-place of the family, the wife and mother can offer moral support and courage. The men need all the encouragement they can get and if they feel that the home folks are behind them they can face more opposition on the outside.[64]

Some propaganda also blamed women if worker’s attempts to unionize were unsuccessful. An article in Women in Auto accuses non-union wives of being... “responsible for their husbands going to work as scabs during a long battle for the workers’ rights.” The article suggests that as a result of her husband’s being out of work, a wife becomes discouraged and isolated, but when she is organized with other women she will endure the long struggle. Such propaganda was used to recruit women into the Auxiliary, and bring the union into the home.[65] The media, and internal newsletters, framed the women’s participation as an aspect of what was already known to be “women’s work,” that is, being a wife and mother.


The emancipating influence of being at the heart of the action came to the women from their own militance; the reports of their participation always brought the focus away from action and emancipation and back to their femaleness, and to the inhibitions and obligations traditionally expected of women. Eve Stone wrote of herself and her fellow members of the Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade, “a new type of woman was born in this fight;” there were few voices from outside the organization willing to confirm what Eve Stone declared and what other members knew.[66]

The Auxiliary and the Emergency Brigade had initiated a consideration of issues beyond class analysis, issues that, whether consciously articulated or not, did indeed challenge traditional gender role limitations. Developing an agenda outside male labor leadership, self-consciously choosing their titles to distinguish themselves from previous organizations and to define their status, establishing a paramilitary structure, developing an internal structure to promote leadership skills among women, and in general boldly breaking into the male domain of unionism, all contributed to the challenges the Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade brought forth within the vibrant labor movement.

These organizations had the potential for establishing a working class ideology of women’s liberation, but such was neither the conscious intention nor the ultimate result of the Auxiliary and Emergency Brigade’s work. Rather than developing into a conscious feminism, their accomplishments were instead consumed by the class struggle.

Mary Handa stated, “I just felt so good, to think that I had a part in it [the strike] and got others interested, and we got to where we’re at.... [i]f I had to do it all over again I think I’d have more fight in me than I ever had to accomplish what women want to accomplish.”[67] Violette Baggett, who “... knew nothing and cared less about the Automobile Union,” discovered that after her participation, “[j]ust being a woman isn’t enough anymore. I want to be a human being.” This desire to be free from a diminished status is nearly always filtered through dedication to “... help men in their fight for decent wages and working conditions.”[68]

That the class struggle subsumed, but did not fully displace issues of gender equality is understandable, considering women’s condition during the 1930s. In her essay, “Challenging ’Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930s,” Sharon Hartman Strom suggests that:

To argue that working-class women could somehow have mounted a viable feminist movement on their own is to engage in the worst sort of wishful thinking. To perceive as an individual woman that one’s exploitation as a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee, and a unionist were all connected was one thing; to struggle collectively on occasion against one or more of these conditions was another; to band together in the face of women’s economic dependence on men and attack them all at once was impossible.[69]

Strom’s thesis confirms Genora Johnson’s contention that “women’s liberation” in 1937 was “historically immature.” Women did begin to feel their power in uniting to accomplish common goals, but they “... preferred to bring their mates along with them, without any gender challenge.” Social and economic independence was far less important to working-class women than was “organizing to get a washing machine in their home,... that was women’s liberation at that period.”[70]

Despite the fact that the efforts of the women were not expressed in a “woman’s movement,” gender issues were a salient feature of the 1937 strike. Genora Johnson emphasizes that “it was a radical change.... To give women a right to participate in discussions with their husbands, with other union members, with other women, to express their views,... that was a radical change for those women at that time.”[71] Also radical was the solidarity developed among women, penetrating the isolation women of flint endured prior to the strike; Mary Handa sums up that same sentiment in her observation that “[w]e wasn’t individuals any longer, we were part of an organization.”[72]

It was not a feminist action, and it was not a women’s movement-it was a labor and class dominated phenomenon, but the events of 1936-1937 did show the nation, and the women themselves that they were not just what they had been taught to be, that they were capable of concerted, orchestrated, and sometimes even heroic behavior. There is reason to believe that none of them was ever again “just a woman.”


[1] Genora Johnson has since remarried and now uses Dollinger as her last name. Because this paper is concerned with the period in which she was know as Johnson, she is referred to as Genora Johnson throughout the text.

[2] Genora Johnson Dollinger speech given at the UAW 50th Anniversary Pioneers Reunion, Flint Michigan, UAW Local #659 Hall, August 2, 1987. Genora Johnson Dollinger Collection, Wayne State Archives, Detroit Michigan. [Hereafter “Dollinger Paper”] This document seems to be mislabeled. The title is “A Talk with Genora Johnson Dollinger, a Founder of Industrial Unionism” which suggests that it is the text of she Skylar film by the same name. However, the text is of the speech noted above.

[3] Sidney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969). pp. 201.

[4] Marjorie Penn Lasky, “’Where I was a Person’. The Ladies’ Auxiliary in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes.” in Women. Work. and Protest. ed. Ruth Milkman (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985). pp. 183.

[5] Author’s interview with Genora Johnson Dollinger, Los Angeles, California, March 19-20 1994. [Hereafter noted as Author’s interview with GJD.]

[6] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 108-109.

[7] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 102-103.

[8] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 105.

[9] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 117-118.

[10] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 144.

>[11] Authors interview with GJD.

[12] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 158.

[13] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 3-4.

[14] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 4-6.

[15] Genora Johnson Dollinger Speaking in with Babies and Banners: The Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Dir. Lorraine Gray. Women’s Labor History Film Project. 1978. [Hereafter noted as With Babies and Banners.]

[16] Genora Johnson Dollinger speaking in With Babies and Banners.

[17] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 269.

[18] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 270.

[19] Genora Johnson Dollinger in With Babies and Banners.

[20] National Guard records in Fine, Sit Down. pp. 272.

[21] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 276.

[22] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 279-280.

[23] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 281.

[24] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 304.

[25] Detroit Evening Times Wed. January 20, 1937.

[26] Author’s interview with GJD.

[27] Fine, Sit Down. pp. 221.

[28] Author’s interview with GJD.

[29] Author’s interview with GJD.

[30] Author’s interview with GJD.

[31] Author’s interview with GJD.

[32] Author’s interview with GJD.

[33] Author’s interview with GJD.

[34] Author’s interview with GJD.

[35] Author’s interview with GJD.

[36] Author’s interview with GJD.

[37] GJD 50th Anniversary Speech. pp. 2.

[38] Author’s interview with GJD.

[39] Henry Kraus, The Many and the Few: A Chronicle of the Dynamic Auto Workers. 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985). pp. 240.

[40] “Task of Women’s Auxiliary in Aiding the Union Discussed,” United Auto Worker. May 15, 1937, pp. 5.

[41] Author’s interview with GJD.

[42] Author’s interview with GJD.

[43] A Talk With Genora Johnson Dollinger—A Founder of Industrial Unionism. Producer Kathryn Kish Skylar. 1987.

[44] Author’s interview with GJD.

[45] Author’s interview with GJD.

[46] Mary Heaton Vorse, miscellaneous description of the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Mary Heaton Vorse Collection, Box 109, Wayne State Archives. No date given.

[47] Author’s interview with GJD.

[48] New York Times February 2, 1937.

[49] Genora Johnson Dollinger and Teeter Walker in With Babies and Banners.

[50] Author’s interview with GJD.

[51] Genora Johnson Dollinger in With Babies and Banners.

[52] Kraus, The Many pp. 235.

[53] New York Times February 2, 1937.

[54] “Women’s Brigade Uses Heavy Clubs,” New York Times February 2, 1937.

[55] “Women’s Brigade Uses Heavy Clubs,” New York Times Feb. 2, 1937.

[56] B.E. Little, “To the Girls of Toledo” and “Little Looks at Life,” Henry Kraus Collection, Box 9, Folder 23.

[57] Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Emergency Brigade at Flint,” The New Republic Feb. 17, 1937, pp. 38.

[58] Mary Heaton Vorse, “Emergency Brigade,” Mary Heaton Vorse Collection, Box 109, File Flint Sit-Down Strike, Wayne State Archives, 1937. pp. 2.

[59] Genora Johnson, “Women’s Brigade Gives Militant Aid to Auto Strikers,” Socialist Call Feb. 3, 1937. pp. 12.

[60] Because the Flint strike was so significant, and because there were smaller strikes in many other cities at the same time, information and support was exchanged between locals and auxiliaries. The Detroit newsletter contains much information on the Flint Auxiliary, as does the Flint newsletter of the Detroit Auxiliary.

[61] Margaret Cowl. “Auxiliary Marches On,” Women in Auto Newsletter of the Detroit City Wide Committee Women’s Auxiliary, United Automobile Workers of America. Vol. 1 No. 1 February, 1937. pp. 9.

[62] Mary Heaton Vorse, Untitled. Mary Heaton Vorse Collection, Box 109, file Flint Sit-Down Strike, Wayne State Archives. pp. 6.

[63] Margaret Nowak, “The Union Takes a Wife,” Women in Auto Feb. 1937. pp. 5.

[64] “Our Appeal to You” Auto Women Advance April, 1937. pp. 12.

[65] Mae Blake, “Solidarity Begins at Home,” Women in Auto Feb. 1937, pp. 13.

[66] Eve Stone, “When Auto Women Advance,” Auto Women Advance April, 1937. pp. 5.

[67] Mary Handa in With Babies and Banners.

[68] Mary Heaton Vorse, “She Came Angry, Stayed to Help,” Mary Heaton Vorse Collection Box 109, Folder Flint Sit-Down Strike, Wayne State Archives. 1937.

[69] Sharon Hartman Strom, “Challenging ’Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930s.” Feminist Studies 9:2, (1983) pp. 379.

[70] Author’s interview with GJD.

[71] Author’s interview with GJD.

[72] Mary Handa in With Babies and Banners.

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