08.10.2017
  • United States

“She Battled the Capitalists Tooth and Nail”

Labor organizer Ella Reeve Bloor died on this day in 1951. Her life stands as a signpost for all radicals.

Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor in Omaha, Nebraska in 1935. Washington Area Spark / Flickr

For seventy years, Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor was a union organizer and women’s rights activist in left-wing political parties in the United States. Peripatetic in her search for the organizational path to socialism, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, she joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In the 1920s and 1930s, Bloor became the party’s most prominent female leader.

Largely forgotten today due to America’s ongoing anticommunist crusade, Bloor remained committed to women’s equality and uplifting working people — both of which she believed only could happen by advancing beyond capitalism. Her life story is as fascinating as it is educational.

Ella Reeve was born on Staten Island in 1862 during the Civil War. She grew up in middle-class suburbs but when her mother died during her twelfth childbirth, the seventeen-year-old Ella took over the care of her four youngest siblings. Bloor first became interested in political reform as a teenager, influenced by her great-uncle, who was an abolitionist, freethinker, and Unitarian.

While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, she read Marx and Engels and witnessed the brutal lives of Philadelphia’s working-class women and men, who struggled to survive while a small group at the top lived in aristocratic opulence. (Another future CPUSA leader, William Z. Foster, grew up in nearby South Philadelphia, where in 1895 he learned about class struggle by building barricades in solidarity with striking transit workers.)

She first married at twenty and had seven children, though three died in infancy — a tragic if common reality in her time. Then, “one day” in the late 1880s, as she wrote in her autobiography, “I suddenly realized that in spite of all the things I planned to do I was well on the way to become just a household drudge.”

She explored suffrage, prohibition, and, more generally, women’s rights while “searching for something to believe in.” She spoke at her Unitarian church and joined the reformist Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a leading advocate for both prohibition and women’s suffrage. In 1896, she divorced, moved to New York, and — to help support herself — authored the children’s books Three Little Lovers of Nature (1895) and Talks About Authors and Their Work (1899).

During this era, she married Louis Cohen, who shared her commitment to socialism. With him, Bloor had two more children before divorcing again in 1905. She chose to remain single — supporting herself and six children — until, in 1930, marrying one last time, to a communist farmer on the High Plains.

As Bloor later wrote, she increasingly “identified the political and economic inequalities of women with the oppression of the working masses” and came to see socialism as the solution to these twinned problems.

In 1897 Bloor became a founding member of the Social Democracy of America, established by her friends Eugene V. Debs, then the nation’s most famous labor leader, and Victor Berger, who later became the first Socialist ever elected to Congress.

When Debs founded a paper called the Social Democrat, he requested Bloor write its children’s column, which she did. Demonstrating an ever more militant streak, she soon joined the rival Socialist Labor Party (SLP), led by Daniel De Leon. While many, past and present, considered De Leon a divisive ultra-leftist, there was no dominant left party in the late 1890s. As Bloor recalled, “The Socialist Labor Party was a revolutionary party in those days and De Leon, its leader, was a brilliant theoretician and speaker, a courageous fighter against capitalism.”

She worked for its New York Labor News Company, publisher of revolutionary books and pamphlets. The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, the SLP trade union affiliate, elected her to its general executive board and assigned her to organize streetcar workers in New Jersey and Philadelphia. The SLP contained members of the old Knights of Labor and, in 1905, folded itself into the newly created Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), though this merger was short-lived, as the groups split in 1908. By this time, Bloor’s commitment to radical unionism and a political path to socialism appeared set, though her specific allegiances continued to shift.

In 1902, she joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA), in which she spent eighteen years organizing unions. She led strikes of hatters, miners, needle-workers, and steelworkers — all while raising six children. She also worked for both the SPA and various women’s organizations as a paid organizer on state and national campaigns for women’s suffrage. In 1910, she introduced an amendment at the Socialist Party’s congress in support of women’s suffrage.

When author and fellow socialist Upton Sinclair started researching “wage slavery” in the Chicago stockyards, she traveled there with another socialist, Richard Bloor, to assist in this investigation. They posed as a married couple so she used his last name, which for unknown reasons, stuck. In 1906, Sinclair published his best-selling, enormously influential novel The Jungle. In the 1910s, people started calling her “Mother,” a common honorific for older women, and, henceforth, she became known as Mother Bloor.

In 1913-14, Bloor traveled to Calumet, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, during a major copper miners’ strike to help the strikers and their families. Her later account of the shocking deaths of seventy-three strikers and their family members, called the “Italian Hall tragedy,” later became the basis of a famous Woody Guthrie song, “1913 Massacre.” Given her importance as an organizer, it is unsurprising that she also was present in 1914 when Colorado National Guardsmen brutally shot and killed at least thirty-six men (striking coalminers), women, and children in the Ludlow massacre, about which Guthrie also wrote.

During World War I, Bloor continued to organize for unions and women’s suffrage while opposing the war. During what now is called the First Red Scare, civil liberties increasingly came under assault, so Bloor raised money for and spoke on behalf of those arrested for opposing the war. Part of the left-wing of the SPA, she ran for lieutenant governor of New York.

In 1919, as the SPA split over Bolshevism, Bloor helped found the Communist Labor Party that soon joined the CPUSA. Like millions the world over, the Bolshevik Revolution inspired her to believe that a society prioritizing people rather than profit not only was preferable but possible. In 1921 and 1922 she traveled to Moscow for international gatherings. Back in the US, Bloor worked as a CPUSA organizer, riding the rails with working stiffs while writing articles for Communist papers, including the Daily Worker and Working Woman. She served on the party’s Central Committee from 1932 to 1948. In all these capacities, she made a point to highlight women’s issues.

Among her many assignments, she wrote for the Labor Defender, the organ of the International Labor Defense (ILD), a civil liberties organization affiliated with the Communist International’s Red Aid network. Most famously the ILD helped save the lives of the Scottsboro Boys — nine African-American boys and men wrongly convicted of raping a white woman — from a legal lynching in Alabama in 1931. Bloor’s writings and activism inspired other women, such as the “Red Angel,” Elaine Black Yoneda, who quoted Bloor on the need to protect those wrongly accused: “We must not fail these fighters, our defenders, those who go to the front.”

In 1929 the CPUSA dispatched Bloor, then sixty-seven, to work with struggling farmers in the Great Plains. In South Dakota, she worked as an organizer for the United Farmers League fighting bank foreclosures and organizing mass demonstrations, during which time she met and married Andrew Omholt. With her oldest son (also a communist), she promoted the Farmers Holiday Association, which engineered the Iowa Milk Strike of 1932. In 1934, while protesting on behalf of striking female chicken pluckers in Loup City, Nebraska, Bloor was arrested — one of more than thirty such arrests. After appeals failed, the seventy-three-year-old served most of her thirty-day jail sentence.

In 1937 Bloor made her fourth visit to the Soviet Union, this time to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Upon her return, she published Women in the Soviet Union (1938), a pamphlet praising the Soviet system of child care. In the 1930s and 1940s, the party began to celebrate her birthday and even hosted “Mother Bloor picnics,” further raising her status beyond the party.

It’s fair to ask whether Bloor had doubts about the Soviet Union, the then-leader of the communist project, and communism more generally. By the 1930s, Stalin had demonstrated an utter lack of concern for democracy or human rights, imprisoning and killing millions of his own people. Stalin, and Lenin before him, had also sought to destroy anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyists, and other on the Left who questioned Soviet policy, most notoriously in crushing the Kronstadt rebellion.

However, in the 1930s, the Soviet Union and Communist Parties around the world embraced the Popular Front. In the United States, the CPUSA seemed to act quite independently of the Soviet Union and attracted a great many to its ranks and countless more “fellow travelers” with its bold commitment to working people’s struggles during the Great Depression. Moreover, as demonstrated in the Scottsboro case, American Communists, white and black, boldly led the fight for racial equality and industrial unionism. Bloor, who referred to the CPUSA as her family, was hardly alone in excusing Soviet crimes in the hope that socialism was just around the corner.

In 1940, at the age of seventy-eight, she published her autobiography, We Are Many. In the book’s introduction, fellow Communist (and former IWW) leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote:

We love and honor this extraordinary American woman as a symbol of militant American farmer and working class, of the forward sweep of women in the class struggle and in our Party, as an example to young and old of what an American Bolshevik should be.

Bloor’s book also inspired Woody Guthrie to pen songs about rapacious capitalists willing to murder innocent women and children to defeat strikes in the nation’s copper and coal mines. Mother Bloor’s outsized role resulted in radical American soldiers writing letters to her from overseas during WWII.

In her autobiography, Bloor touchingly recalled how she knew Walt Whitman as a child, a product of regular visits to an aunt in Camden, New Jersey, discussing her love of riding the ferry between Camden and Philadelphia (decades before a bridge spanned the Delaware River). As she wrote, “Perhaps it was on those ferry-boat rides that the course of my life was determined, and that Whitman somehow transferred to me, without words, his own great longing to establish everywhere on earth ‘the institution of the dear love of comrades.’”

Despite her nickname, which may seem dated and essentialist, Bloor lived a modern feminist life. She divorced several men who didn’t bring her happiness and desired something better. She married several times for intellectual and political companions. She supported herself and her children. She fought for suffrage, the premier women’s rights cause of the 1890s, until women won the right to vote in 1920. She became a union organizer and socialist, getting to know every prominent leftist of her time and countless “ordinary” ones too.

By the 1890s, she concluded that women’s oppression included both patriarchy and capitalism. Committed to revolutionary change, she believed unions necessary to achieve her long-term goals as well as to improve the immediate lives of workers, women and men. Truly, she predicted the rise of “socialist feminism” in the 1970s.

Though some might indict such views for being restricted to middle-class white women — as Barbara Ehrenreich said in 1975, the term socialist feminism “is much too short for what is, after all, really socialist, internationalist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist feminism” — Bloor’s life remains a signpost for all: fight for equality and expect as much in one’s own life. Support unions and get others to do so. Strike, as needed. Take risks, even if that means getting arrested. Join the struggle while you can.

Ella Reeve Bloor died on this day in 1951 in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania and was buried in Camden, New Jersey. In tribute, Langston Hughes, the legendary African-American poet, declared, “Mother Bloor was in person as sweet and full of sunshine as could be — yet she battled the capitalists tooth and nail for seventy years.”