lizcommotion: A black-and-white photo of a Victorian woman (victorian lady)
[personal profile] lizcommotion posting in [community profile] poetree
Hello! I'm [personal profile] lizcommotion , I comment here a lot apparently, and today I'll be writing about historical context for Julia Stein's poem Downtown Women. For background, I have a degree in history and a love-hate relationship with the Progressive Era (see below).

I set out to try to write a history post about "Downtown Women," and realized there was so much historical context that I didn't know whether to go broad or specific. I've gone broad in the hopes that if any of this interests you, you can search out the specifics from the poem yourself. Perhaps someone will also follow up with a more in-depth post about Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and the labor movement.

The poem is set in the early 1900s, an era known as the Progressive Era. "Progress" was seen as a steady march from "barbarism" and "savagery" to the "civilization" of the WASP upper-class society. A whole set of problems emerged from this, such as Eugenics (the forced sterilization of those who were deemed to have poor genes that would set the race back); Questionable Anthropology with Unfortunate Results; not to mention being used as a justification for the horrors of colonialism (i.e. "we are uplifting these poor backward savages and civilizing them").

The Progressive Era was not all bad. There were a number of much-needed reforms in what was called the "Progressive Movement". For example, as a result of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle the US government developed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate what goes into sausages and medications &c. (Never mind that Sinclair was also trying to write about the dehumanizing working conditions of the "downtown" workers in the meat-packing industry, which was largely ignored by the "uptown" people who read his book.) People with mental illnesses were actually beginning to receive treatment; prison reforms began; efforts were made to fight graft and voter fraud; poverty was a large concern.

This was also the heyday of so-called First Wave Feminism. (As distinct from Second-Wave Feminism in the 1960s/70s and Third Wave Feminism of the 90s and today.) First-wave feminists - a prominent one of whom was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, referenced in the poem - were largely concerned with obtaining the right to vote for women, which mattered a lot to "uptown women." They were less receptive to calls from "downtown women" to focus on workers' rights (as most "uptown women" did not face the reality of sweatshop labor), thus creating a rift between "uptown" and "downtown" women. (Don't even get me started on how little First Wave Feminists cared about listening to what women of color wanted to do.) 

Meanwhile, many "uptown women" attempted to "uplift" some of the "downtown women" from their situation of poverty by bringing them baskets of food and clothing rather than by addressing underlying inequalities or forming coalitions with the "downtown women." Thus, Stein's reference in the poem to:
and when the uptown ladies came downtown
with their charity baskets
I told them, "Go to Hell"

An intense labor movement was beginning to brew in the United States, brought about by vast inequalities between social classes (see The Jungle above); the theory of Socialism and the establishment of a Socialist Nation in 1917; unsafe working conditions, such as in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in which 146 garment workers died because they were locked in during working hours when the building caught fire. This event sparked such outrage that the first workplace safety regulation was passed. Stein has also written a rather devastating poem about the fire, one particularly potent section reads:

"This is not the first time girls have burned
alive in this city. Every week
I must learn of the untimely death of one
of my sister workers." This is not the first time,
not the first time, every week

There were also pressures not to participate in the labor movement. One such was the "blacklisting" referenced in the poem is what happened when a worker spoke out too often (or even once), whether for attempting to unionize, protesting working conditions, or standing up against sexual harassment in the workplace. Your name was added to a "blacklist," you were fired from your job, and no one would hire you. Managers and business owners used a host of techniques for blocking unions, etc., but I feel I've gone on rather too long already.

All of this forms a context for the poem "Downtown Women" - the pressure cooker of social expectations to be "civilized"; social change and resistance to it in the Progressive Movement; a fight for who would dictate the terms of what those reforms would be - "uptown" or "downtown" people.

If you're interested in reading more about the Progressive Era and don't mind non-fiction that can be a bit dense (and also heavy), I highly recommend Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the 20th Century and Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917.I haven't read as much on labor history, but if you want to understand Socialism more, then David Harvey (a much better anthropologist than the ones above) has an excellent series of podcasts on Reading Marx's Capital. For fiction, I am in love with Mary Sharratt's Summit Avenue , which is about a "downtown girl" who just immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and works a variety of awful jobs before an "uptown lady" hires her to translate folk stories. The book interweaves folk stories with the plot, which SPOILER ALERT has some QUILTBAG relationships in it. I <3 that book so much, it is one of my favorite traditionally published QUILTBAG books ever. So yes. Note that there is also some potentially triggery sexual and physical abuse scenes in the book as well (typical of how women were treated at the time) but they do not take up huge swaths of the book. However, if that is a Thing for you then I would give Summit Avenue a pass.

Date: 2012-09-11 11:25 am (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
Excellent overview, and you did a very nice job of continually linking it back to the text of the poem. :o)

I'd like to add for those looking for more poetry on the subject of the Triangle Fire that Ms. Stein edited Walking Through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry (ISBN 1-930903-57-X).

Date: 2012-09-11 11:44 am (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
If there are some further thoughts you'd like to share re: a close reading of the poem, you're free to leave a comment to that effect on yesterday's post! I'd like to get some discussion going re: people's initial impressions, but the post was already fairly lengthy to begin with and it didn't seem appropriate to seed it with some opening questions.

Date: 2012-09-11 06:07 pm (UTC)
spiralsheep: Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society (Sewing Circle Terrorist Society)
From: [personal profile] spiralsheep
"This is not the first time,
not the first time, every week

Oh, that's good! Thank you, and thank you for the post.

Warning for depressing news

Date: 2012-09-12 09:21 am (UTC)
spiralsheep: Flowers (skywardprodigal Cog Flowers)
From: [personal profile] spiralsheep
And I've just seen the news that, on the day you posted this, over 100 people died in ONE garment factory fire in Pakistan because there were no fire exits and the windows had metal grilles locked over them. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Re: Warning for depressing news

Date: 2012-09-12 02:47 pm (UTC)
spiralsheep: Einstein writing Time / Space OTP on a blackboard (fridgepunk Time / Space OTP)
From: [personal profile] spiralsheep
::nods agreement::

Date: 2012-09-11 10:19 pm (UTC)
raze: A man and a rooster. (Default)
From: [personal profile] raze
This is a fantastic post. I have more thoughts but just wanted to throw that out there while I synthesize my thoughts. Thanks so much for the time/effort that went into this!

Date: 2012-09-11 11:21 pm (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human J.J. in red and brown inks with steampunk goggle glasses (red J.J. inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
I would enjoy reading more about your research on this time period - please do continue posting about it!


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