This week marks the 80th anniversary of the 2nd annual convention of the Illinois Women’s Auxiliary of the Progressive Miners of America (IWA). Why commemorate the 2nd annual convention? Because it marked a decisive moment in the formation of the union and the role of women within that movement.
Founded in November, 1932 the IWA’s first president was the visionary and determined Agnes Burns Wieck. In that tumultuous first year, Agnes escaped perilous violence, confronted government indifference, humiliated iconic labor leader John L. Lewis while upsetting the gender applecart within her own union – much to the consternation of the male leaders of the Progressive Miners of America. Historian Caroline Waldron Merithew notes: “…the PMA was one of the few movements in which non-wage-earning women became leaders in organizing an industry that employed only male labor.” 1
However, Agnes Burns Wieck’s determined and energetic leadership came at a cost. The conditions of her childhood in the southern Illinois coal fields taxed her health and the perpetual danger, violence and conflict of the first year of the Illinois mine war was exhausting to say the least.
Yet Agnes did not fight alone. While term limits and her physical limitations necessitated Agnes departure from the IWA presidency, she and her peers faced a serious question. Would the militants retain leadership of the IWA and risk fracturing the fragile, nascent movement? Or would they surrender power to more conservative and male-dominated control, effectively agreeing to subordinate the role of PMA women to the men?
Well you’ll have to listen to the feature-length audio documentary to learn the answer to that question. But here’s an excerpt from Agnes. On her exit from the presidency, returning to her southern Illinois farm, she laments the lost opportunities of the previous year in a letter to friend and labor activist, Tom Tippett. Agnes is read by the stellar actor, Diane Pritchard.
1 Caroline Waldron Merithew, “‘We’re Not Ladies’ Gender, Class, and a Women’s Auxiliary Battle For MIning Unionism”, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 18 No. 2, page 66.
click play to listen