The end of WWI was a disaster for the working class. Mass layoffs, brutal Red Scare repression, anti-syndicalist laws, and Supreme Court rulings jailed organizers, decimated unions, broke the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and led to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of militant organizers, anarchists, socialists, and communists.
Despite retaliation for the WWI wildcat strike waves that I documented in my book, When Workers Shot Back (Haymarket, 2019), workers went on the offensive in the coal mines, steel mills, and on the railroads. The history of the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia is well-known. Yet, another little-known strike wave enveloped the state of Kansas at exactly the same time.
The Kansas miners’ strikes had all the elements of early 20th century struggles with militant direct action industrial unions battling mining corporations, local elites, and repressive new labor laws designed to strangle organized workers. Unlike most of the other struggles of this era, this strike rested on the firm backbone of the women of the mining families and communities who continued the fight when the men were beaten and jailed and the strike near defeat. These mostly immigrant women, dubbed the “Amazon Army” by the newspapers, had a well earned name. (Schofield, 1985) For a few days in late December 1921, one hundred years ago, the Amazon Army controlled a good portion of Kansas. Over two brief months, the Amazon Army carried out an extraordinary hit-and-run campaign of marches, protests, and reportedly armed attacks on the mines to defend the men who had wildcatted across the state against the companies, the state, and their own United Mineworkers Union (UMW) international leadership.
While the strike was ultimately lost, the Amazon Army left a legacy that deserves to be celebrated. If not for the decades-long efforts of Kansas historian Linda O’Nelio Knoll and a couple other labor history scholars to recover and document the Amazon Army, it would have been lost to the dusty confines of forgotten local archives. Knoll’s research (which stretches back to 1986 and can be found on her Army of Amazons archival website) and the Franklin, Kansas Miners Hall Museum she helped found include march information, newspaper articles, performances of her play, and research into the women involved in the march and who had been arrested or interviewed. Other than Dave Loewenstein’s poster in Celebrate People’s History Poster Series1MacPhee, Josh, 2010, Celebrate People’s History Poster Series, The Feminist Press at CUNY. few outside of Kansas knew anything about this strike or had ever heard of it. I didn’t know about it until I first saw his poster and then tracked down Knoll.
The struggle of the miners and the Amazon Army appears in no major labor history book. I decided to leave it out in my first book When Workers Shot Back2Ovetz, Robert, 2019, When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921, Chicago: Haymarket Press. due to the lack of documentary evidence to write an entire chapter on it. This oversight is a mistake. The Amazon Army has much to teach us today about the interconnected struggle between waged and unwaged workers, immigrant and native labor, productive and reproductive labor, industrial unionism and organizing for power on the shop floor, and the use of labor law and unions as a strategy for managing and suppressing class struggle.
Industrial Peace by Court Injunction
The 1919-20 coal strike turned Kansas upside down and unleashed both overt and subtle forms of repression at both gunpoint and with labor law. The National Guard, which included specially recruited armed college students, was mobilized to put down the strike. The greatest threat to the miners came not just from the barrel of a gun but also in the form of a law. In 1920, the state legislature passed the Court of Industrial Relations Act (CIRA) which outlawed strikes and required mandatory arbitration for all labor disputes at the Kansas Industrial Relations Court (KIRC). The law also authorized the state to take full control of troubled industries as well as those facing disruptive strikes a feature that would eventually spell its end.3Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 206–23.
To manage the explosion of wildcat strikes during WWI, the Wilson Administration haphazardly concocted a temporary emergency labor-planning state primarily managed by the short-lived National War Labor Board.4Ovetz, Robert, 2019, When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921, Chicago: Haymarket Press, pp. 369-454. The labor-planning state used mandatory mediation, investigations, wage settlements, and nationalization to put wildcatting workers back to work in the eastern defense industry. The strategy was short-lived and was almost entirely dismantled as soon as the war ended in October 1918. The WWI wildcat strikes, not the Great Depression as is mistakenly claimed, gave birth to the labor-planning state in which labor law was designed not to protect workers but to control, manage, and suppress class struggle. The labor-planning state became the basis for a new field of “labor relations” which began to proliferate at the end of the war, most prominently with the passage of the CIRA that went even further than the Wilson administration was willing to go.
Four hundred miners launched a wildcat strike at the news of the passage of the the CIRA. To the disappointment of the strikers, union president Alexander Howat ended the strike when the state Attorney General threatened to prosecute anyone who violated the new law. The union wasn’t willing to yet defy the law, but neither was it willing to allow miners to cooperate with the court. According to socialist journalist James Cannon, who was sent to report on the miners’ struggle, “The miners union statute provides heavy penalties against members who may recognize the state Industrial Court statute.”5Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928. Any miner or union official who appeared before the court would be fined between $50 and a hefty $5,000 by the union. Howat and four other officers refused the order to appear before the court and were cited by a county judge, found guilt of contempt, and sentenced to jail for refusing to cooperate.
Within two days of the sentencing, miners from thirty-three locals wildcatted again, shutting down ninety percent of the mines in Kansas. As Cannon reported,
when the union orders a strike and the court orders no strike, the miners are not troubled by a divided loyalty. They lay down their picks and go home until further orders from the union. This looks like a new philosophy which regards a union as an authority higher than any other institution. It is a philosophy which not only turns gray the hair of Kansas employers, but also shocks the sense of propriety of the national heads of the United Mine Workers of America.”6Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
The court expanded its reach to target other locals as the wildcat strikes spread. Officers of twenty-three of the locals were called to testify. When they refused warrants were issued for their arrest, they were prosecuted, and several were convicted. The Kansas Supreme Court and later the US Supreme Court upheld the convictions. Howat refused United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) president John Lewis’s order to send the thirty-three locals back to work. The commission Lewis sent to Kansas to investigate agreed with the mine companies that the union had violated their contract. Despite the determination of the union commission, Howat continued to refuse the Executive Board’s order to send the miners back to work.
A court order was obtained that put the union under the control of three receivers recommended by the governor and appointed by the court. The coal companies choose one receiver, one represented “the public,” and the last one came from the UMWA. This is what Cannon called “a sort of coalition government of industry” that reflected “the weakness of Socialists for bourgeois cabinets.” Socialist Willard Titus, a member of the UMWA’s District Executive Board, was appointed the union representative on the Board of Receivers, although he tried to resign. It did not escape the miners that the strikebreaking board included a member of their own union, “the United Mine Workers of America, which was the only body authorized to call off a strike of miners.”7Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
In late 1921, the UMWA suspended Howat, who had been an officer of the union for nineteen years, and revoked the charters of eighty-one locals. Howat’s attempt to enjoin Lewis in federal District court to prevent the suspension and revocations failed.8Perlman, Selig and Philip Taft 1935, History of Labor in the United States, 1896–1932, Volume IV: Labor Movements, New York: MacMillan, 473–76. Later that year, the UMWA also suspended the entire District 14 Executive Board over the slim pretext that forty miners had refused to arbitrate a dispute about working conditions and froze strike benefits. The suspensions were supported by the UMWA convention in September 1921 just before Howat was jailed for violating the 1920 KICA. Howatt spent the rest of the decade fighting his expulsion.
The entire labor movement was soon to learn what was happening to the miners of Kansas. As Cannon reported,
Last winter the Industrial Court summoned Alexander Howat, as district president of the union, to come before it to testify in a labor dispute. Not only did he and his Executive Board refuse to appear, but Howat published a statement denouncing the Industrial Court for attempting to interfere with the affairs of the miners union and to ‘chain men to their jobs like slaves.’ For this Howat and the other officers of the union were sent to jail for contempt of court. The coal miners of Kansas went out in a mass on a protest strike until their representatives were released on bond.9Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
Howart’s militancy made him an enemy of the UMWA leadership. He had been suspended just after being re-elected running unopposed and received the largest number of votes for any candidate in any election the District’s history.10Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 215. That miners in Illinois sent District 14 $100,000 in donations to support the strikes while the International sent nothing, an act of solidarity that demonstrated his growing popularity beyond the state. When Howatt had earlier run for the UMWA vice presidency he was defeated by ballot box stuffing and opposition from union organizers, board members, and other officials campaigning on behalf of Lewis. A few month later in February 1922, Lewis barely survived a challenge by Howatt at the UMW convention.
The Kansas miners could not be intimidated by labor law, UMWA retaliation, or judicial repression of Howatt and other strike leaders. “Since the passage of the anti-strike law, it has been the custom for the miners to walk off the job when occasion demanded, without waiting for a formal strike order from the Executive Board.”11Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928. In their October 2, 1921 strike declaration, District 14 miners vowed to not “dig another pound of coal until the doors of the Bastille…shall be opened.”12Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 211.
Thus began the Kansas miners war that would pit the miners and their families against not only the mine companies but also the state and their own national union.
The Birth of Labor Law
It is little understood today that labor law was intended to serve the interests of capital by transforming the state and unions into tools for disciplining insurgent workers. Although today we commonly demand changes in labor law to facilitate organizing and protect workers, labor law was never intended to serve the interests of workers and still doesn’t. Labor law was designed and continues to serve as a brake on worker organizing and class struggle by suppressing, diffusing, or redirecting it away from the shop floor into lengthy hearings, investigations, arbitration, mediation, lawsuits, and legal battles fought by experts, labor lawyers, and judges. Then, as now, labor law was a tool for dis-organizing, not organizing, workers.
Nothing demonstrates this more vividly than the 1920 CIRA. Under the guise of protecting the “public interest” from disruptive strikes, rather than corporate exploitation, the CIRA set up the KIRC composed of three judges empowered to investigate and settle labor conflicts,13Governor Allen had promoted the KIRC as a response to the nationwide 1919-20 coal strike. The court was designed to empower the state to intervene in class struggle to protect “public interests” which at that time meant the welfare of business and the state. Today, the “public interest” means something very different and is understood to mean the “people” rather than business and government. See p. 3 in Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. effectively a system of compulsory arbitration.14Berman, Edward March 1928, “The Supreme Court and Compulsory Arbitration: An Analysis Based on the Kansas Cases. The Present Status of the Kansas System of Compulsory Arbitration,” American Economic Review, 18(1): 19–20. The court was empowered to subpoena witnesses, issues orders, fix wages, and have its rulings enforced in the state courts. The KIRC enshrined into law some of the very tactics used by the Wilson administration to suppress the waves of WWI wildcat strikes. It banned picketing, strikes, and lockouts as a conspiracy of union members to impede operations and take over operations. This last accusation was no less than hypocritical since the state and mining companies were now empowered to take over the union.
In less than two years, the KIRC heard thirty-three cases, thirty-two of which were brought, ironically, by labor unions or unorganized workers who wanted a different outcome than what either the law intended or they expected to receive.15Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. According to Cannon, the KIRC was an innovative new strategy to channel and suppress workers’ struggles.
This alone went far to bring about the famous Kansas contribution to statecraft. The legislature was called into special session for the purpose of passing the Industrial Court law, which forever puts an end, legally, to all strikes in the state of Kansas. Unions are permitted, of course, but they must be strikeless unions. Disputes between employer and employees are legally to be settled by three judges of the Industrial Court appointed by the governor. Thus the function of the state, “to moderate the collisions between the classes,” reaches its ultimate in the state of Kansas. Even on the organized industrial field there shall be no active class struggle. An Industrial Court shall settle disputes ‘with justice to all concerned’ and without stopping production.16Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
Governor Allen gained court sanctioned control of the mines, taking over direct control of Pittsburg mines. He then called out a National Guard regiment, although no disturbances had yet occurred, and had National Guard General Leonard Wood set up a camp with six hundred men.17Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.: 31, 33 Kansas also borrowed a tactic from the 1917 Bisbee, Arizona deportations of IWW miners and sympathizers from the state by banning the refusal to work. In January 1922, the state Attorney General made it illegal to refuse available work in the towns of Girard, Cherokee, Arma, and Mulberry, punishable by ten to thirty days’ hard labor.
The CIRA went even further than mandatory arbitration, putting the manufacture and preparation of food products, clothing, mining, fuel production, transportation, public utilities, and other industries directly under state control. For the corporate elite, this last feature of the law was a bridge too far. The CIRA was almost immediately controversial, facing court challenges by both the UMWA and corporations. In the 1923 Charles Wolff Packing Co. v. CIR case the US Supreme Court struck down the KIRC’s power to fix wages and removed the court’s authority in the packing sector.18Wolff v. CIR, 267 U. S. 552, 569.
In the 1926 Dorchy v. Kansas case1947 Sup. Ct. Rep. 86 brought by the UMWA, the Supreme Court found the court unconstitutional as it pertains to fuel, food, and clothing but maintained its authority over compulsory arbitration in transport and utilities and left in place the bans on strikes, picketing, and lockouts in all industries. The Supreme Court defended its intervention by arguing that “Neither the common law, nor the Fourteenth Amendment conferred the absolute right to strike.”20Berman, Edward March 1928, “The Supreme Court and Compulsory Arbitration: An Analysis Based on the Kansas Cases. The Present Status of the Kansas System of Compulsory Arbitration,” American Economic Review, 18(1): 22. By the time of the ruling the CIRA was already a moot point. On March 10, 1925 the Kansas legislature had abolished the KIRC and transferred its powers to Public Service Commission which retained the ban on strikes and picketing.
The short lived KIRC furthered the momentum for a national system of mandatory arbitration that long preceded the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the system of boards to regulate disputes between capital and labor in the private sector. Kansas’s experiment with mandatory arbitration got the attention of President Warren Harding who proposed a federal court of industrial relations to regulate unions in his 1921 annual message to Congress.21Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.: 121-22; Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 209. Harding recommended a prototype for the NLRA that included a “Judicial or quasi-judicial tribunal for the consideration and determination of all disputes which menace the public welfare.”22Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.
Mining in Kansas
While today Kansas is not thought of as a center of mining, a century ago the industry was large and growing rapidly. About 230,000 tons of coal was mined in 1895, growing to between 4.5 to 8 million tons in 1920. By 1914 Crawford & Cherokee counties in southeast Kansas were mining one third of the nation’s coal, primarily soft, sulfur heavy, bituminous coal.
Dominated by 10 large mine companies, most of the coal was used by the railroads and for domestic use.23Schofield, Ann 1984, “The Women’s March: Miners, Family, and Community in Pittsburg, Kansas, 1921–1922,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 7(2): 161. Mining work in Kansas was as contingent, insecure, deadly, and dangerous as elsewhere. In 1920 alone there were 21 fatalities and 1011 non-fatal accidents. The 7562 men employed as miners were idle for one-third of the year and worked an average 181 days per year. Women were banned from mining and there were few Black workers. It was these dangerous working conditions and corporate domination of the state that made District 14 a respected leader of the working class in the state.
One of the closest allies of the miners was the growing Socialist Party which had some presence in the mining communities. In 1911, the town of Arma had all socialist officials and Dunkirk had an all socialist school board. This was hardly unique in the area which had a number of other elected socialists in office. The growth of democratic socialism in the area was due to the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason being based in Girard, Kansas. The paper had national circulation and was quite influential until it was suppressed during WWI, when the government banned it from the mails, and became increasingly conservative in the 1920s. Social Party leader Eugene Debs even lived in Girard for a few years.
Between the rise of populism in the 1870s and the later spread of socialism in the 20th century, Kansas a very different place than it is today. This history of populism and socialism laid the foundation for a strong union movement that inculcated the miners with a militant preference for self-organizing and striking not only to improve conditions on the shopfloor but also to change society. One contemporary observer hyperbolically described the miners at “one hundred percent unionized.” “During recent years prior to that time, December, 1920, in the Kansas coal fields there had been more than a hundred strikes a year, counting all that had occurred at all the small mines.”24Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.: 28–9 While these figures have yet to be verified, the record of strikes confirms that Kansas was a state wracked by open class warfare even during the reactionary turn of the 1920s.
The Amazon Army Marches
Despite District 14’s suspension by the UMWA and Howart languishing in jail, the strike continued in Fall 1921 under an unlikely new leadership pursuing an even more militant strategy of direct action for sustaining and expanding the strike.
Things looked dire. The UMWA had helped the state and mine companies’s effort to break the strike wave. By mid-November, the mines were operating at half capacity after some miners began returning to work when strike benefits were cut off.
While the miners looked beaten from without and within, the struggle was hardly over. The miners had widespread support, according to Cannon because
Pittsburg is a union town. The miners have assisted and inspired the organization of most of the other trades. The jitney drivers, the cooks and waiters, the streetcar men, the office workers, the telephone girls-all have functioning unions. The girls who work in the ten-cent store are organized and they went out with all the other unions in a one-day protest strike when Howat was first arrested. The spirit of the miners strongly influences the other unions of the town. They have learned to act together.25Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
On Sunday December 11, 1921, five hundred women met at the UMWA Union Hall in Franklin26Knoll, Linda O’Nelio, Army of Amazons, White Buffalo Press, 2000. and issued a statement condemning the “Alien Industrial Slavery Law” and the UMWA. The women adopted a resolution at their meeting that read
Whereas, Our husbands are striking against a law to enslave our children which is known as the ‘Alien Industrial Slavery Law’ supported by John L. Lewis, Van Bittner, George Peck, Thomas Harvey and other stool pigeons of the international organization, feel that it is our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with our husbands in this struggle.
They also denounced the “misleading untrue statements” in the local press and “the camouflage of Lewis testing the constitutionality of the industrial court for if he was in good faith he has had eighteen months to prove his spirit as a union man.”27Pittsburg Daily Headlight, December 12, 1921, “Women March on J-W No. 17”
At 4 am the next morning an estimated two to six thousand wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and partners of striking miners marched on the mines singing union songs. Marching to the music of what the Topeka State Journal dubbed the “girl’s band of Arma” on December 14, 1921, they proceeded from one to another of the estimated sixty area mines, sometimes splitting into sub-groups and columns. The women were of many immigrant ethnicities but no Black women were involved.
The women’s strategy was to disrupt and shut down the mines. They began with reasoning with scabs and mine officials but when that failed they quickly escalated their tactics into armed confrontations and even sabotage. They “resorted to more violent injunctions. Their mission was to stop the work that was breaking the strike” by using shame, force, and violence.28Schofield, Ann 1984, “The Women’s March: Miners, Family, and Community in Pittsburg, Kansas, 1921–1922,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 7(2): 165.
On the first day they blocked 120 workers from entering one mine. About two thousand attempted to do the same at four more mines the next day. At two mines, the women wrecked two motor cars with rocks. They tore the curtains off cars to see if scabs were inside and threw red pepper at the ones they uncovered. They might have gotten the idea of using red pepper from news reports of Polish women throwing red pepper at police during a meatpackers strike in Chicago just four days earlier.29Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 223. The women were reported to have sabotaged still operating mines, such as dynamiting a steam shovel at the Finely Coal Company mine, damaging cars, engaging in fist fights, and dynamiting and shooting at homes of scab miners.30Pittsburg Daily Headlight, December 12 and 13, 1921; Pittsburg Sun, December 15, 1921; Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 223. The Amazon Army clearly did not hesitate to escalate their tactics as needed.
At one mine, the women resorted to a show of nationalism and patriotism by forcing miners and mine operator Bob Murray to kneel and kiss the American flag, an extraordinary act considering that many of the women were immigrants. At other mines, the women dragged an operator from the tipple and knocked him to the ground 31Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 207., threw the Crawford County Sheriff into a pool of water, and dumped out their lunch buckets and coffee pots, an action that represented women “violently taking away the food that as nurturing women they had always given.”32Schofield, Ann 1984, “The Women’s March: Miners, Family, and Community in Pittsburg, Kansas, 1921–1922,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 7(2): 168. The Amazon Army was so widely supported that switchboard operators also conducted a one-day strike in solidarity with their campaign.
The women, now dubbed the “Amazon Army” by the media, after the mythical tribe of women warriors, fought with the tactics and in the space available to them and as a challenge to the dominant relations of ethnicity, class, immigrant status, and gender. The names of some of the women preserved in the historical record demonstrate their immigrant status. This was reflected in their choice of tactics such as attacking the food that nourished scabs, food undoubtedly made by the women of other miners’ families. They also turned the myth of patriotism that the operators and scabs wrapped themselves in on its head and used it to their own advantage to build their credibility and expand public support for the strike.
Between Pepper, Lunch Pails, and the Flag
It is difficult to separate fact from fiction about the Amazon Army. According to Knoll, “Those newspaper articles attributing the dynamiting of a steam shovel etc. may have been grossly exaggerated or plain untrue as headlines insisting the women ‘clawed’ and used their teeth like ‘tigresses,’ and ‘guerrilla warfare’ attributed military terminology to females who had no ‘weapon of any kind’ as organizer Mary Skubitz would comment.”33Knoll, Linda O’Nelio, email communication, November 15, 2021. Different newspapers “constructed the narrative of the march in strikingly different ways, reflecting political tensions between labor and capital,” according to Knoll. Some mainstream press accounts went so far as to impossibly claim men directed the army of fierce “amazons” while others denounced them as a mob of violent foreigners. In contrast, the left wing and labor press, such as the reports by Cannon, demonstrated sympathetic accounts.
The Amazon Army was a fearsome force whose history lies somewhere between legend and truth. State attorney general Richard J. Hopkins struggled to find prosecution witnesses after reports of one potential witness who refused to file charges for fear of further retaliation after being beaten by a group of women while driving to the mine. According to Knoll, “The fear of community sanctions seems to have superseded legal or police pressure. Reports of torn clothing, vandalism to automobiles and a mine superintendent who was allegedly dragged out of his office circulated.”34Knoll, Linda O’Nelio, email communication, November 15, 2021.
The marches were a resounding success. On December 17, the state mine inspector reported a significant drop in the number of working miners from about 3,000 before the Amazon Army launched its attack to only 702 miners working after the march began.35Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 217.
Not surprisingly, the provisional District 14 president Van Bittner, who had been sent to replace Howat, turned against the women. Van Bittner denounced them as a “wild attempt to destroy the United Mine Workers of America” and questioned their and their husbands’ ability to be American citizens, called the men cowards and the women “enemies of law and order within the United Mine Workers of America.” After the Appeal to Reason reported that Howat regretted the attacks, the men were barred from the next Sunday organizing meeting.
The Amazon Army clearly took inspiration from other struggles happening around the country. Marcher Fannie Wilmer wrote to the Pittsburg Daily Headlight that their march was a self-organized effort. “We are doing this on our own accord… We don’t want any bloodshed here in Kansas like there was in the Ludlow strike, and in Alabama and Mingo County, W. Va.” The Amazon Army was clearly the outcome of the women’s self-organized and autonomous struggle.
Three days after the Amazon Army began its revolt, the governor called out three troops of the Kansas National Guard Calvary, with a combined force of two to three hundred men, and stationed them in Ringo, Mulberry, and Franklin.36Knoll, Linda O’Nelio, Army of Amazons, White Buffalo Press, 2000. The troops arrived in Pittsburg on horseback and were later joined by machine gunners. The Crawford County sheriff deputized a force of one thousand men armed with shotguns and rifles and set up his headquarters in a hotel. The force included one hundred deputy sheriffs supplied by the vigilante group the Crawford County Taxpayers Association. Heavy repression soon followed with the sheriff banning public dances and sending in prohibition officers to raid the homes of immigrants, a clear use of prohibition laws to police immigrant working class families.
The sheriff soon arrested forty-nine women on charges of unlawful assembly, assault, and disturbing the peace and held them on $750 bond rather than the usual $200. Among the arrestees were women reflecting nearly all the ethnicities of the community. The sheriff had trouble identifying witnesses. The women’s lawyer, local socialist Phil Callery, successfully turned the patriarchal norms on its head by portraying his clients as weak women who neglected their womanly duties after they became susceptible to the mass psychology of the mob. They pled guilty and were fined $1.00 to $200, paroled, and ordered to pay court costs.
From the Home to the Mine
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Amazon Army’s insurrection was the impact of the failing strike on their ability to carry out the reproductive labor of caring for their jailed men and their families. Their struggle was a form of resistance to the mine company’s attack on the social wage. By escalating their tactics, first by leaving the home and then by carrying out armed attacks on the waged workplace, they connected waged mine work and unwaged work in the home that preceded the analysis of the 1970s Wages for Housework movement by nearly half a century.
Theirs was truly a form of struggle over the family, or “social wage,” as the Wages for Housework movement called it. “These women had their own reasons for wanting to fight. In the company towns and migrant labor camps of the West, people were oppressed as members of family units rather than as individuals.”37Meredith Tax in Schofield, Ann 1984, “The Women’s March: Miners, Family, and Community in Pittsburg, Kansas, 1921–1922,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 7(2): 168. In response to these interconnected struggles reformers introduced welfarism as a stabilizing force to reduce the tensions at home that could provoke militancy at the point of production. Just as the mandatory arbitration was introduced to control and manage class struggle between capital and waged workers, welfarism was introduced to manage the class struggle between the state and unwaged workers.38See chapters 3, 6, and 8 in Ovetz, Robert, 2019, When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921, Chicago: Haymarket Press.
The Amazon Army’s further escalation of the struggle emboldened the union. By directly confronting and disrupting the operations of the mines, the Amazon Army defeated the strategy of using labor law to suppress class struggle. After Howat and the other officers of the union were arrested, they still called for strikes in violation of the CIRA. At the trial in Pittsburg, Howatt was asked by the state Attorney General and local District Attorney if he would like to take the workers’ grievances to the Industrial Court. “No. I never did see any good for labor come out of courts,” he told them. According to Cannon, “Soon after the court adjourned I saw Howat, who told me: ‘Governor Allen said the Industrial Court law would stop strikes. We said it wouldn’t. And the fact that there is a strike now on in this district proves that it can’t stop strikes. The best they can do is to put men in jail.’”39Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
In short, District 14 saw right through the use of labor law as a strategy against the workers and refused to comply with the obligation to de-escalate their struggle in order to settle their conflict with lawyers, technocrats, and experts, instead preferring to settle it on the shop floor at the point of production. By doing so they also refused to transform the union into a harness for disciplining and managing class struggle.
Racial segregation proved to be a major weakness of the Amazon Army, like the miners union. Black women were missing from the marches and Black workers had trouble getting into the locals even though they were not banned from the UMWA. The companies used race to divide the strikers by hiring Black workers as strikebreakers. The Amazon Army did make some effort to flip the strikebreakers, reportedly convincing at least three to refuse to go into the mine.40Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 216.
The Strike Ends but the Legend Is Born
Ultimately, Howat called off the strike on January 12, 1922 and the Amazon Army soon de-escalated. While most of the army stopped marching or got involved in trying to defeat pro-KIRC candidates for office, small groups of women reportedly continued their assaults on the mines.41Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 221–22. Howat was released one month after the strike was called off and returned to the District 14 presidency nearly a decade later.
Although the strike was called off and the history of their struggle lost outside of Kansas, the miners and the Amazon Army were ahead of their time. Despite and attempt to use patriarchy and immigration to tarnish the women’s army as “amazons” the name stuck and became a source of empowerment. With the male leadership locked out, in jail, and expelled from the UMW, the women stepped up to lead the strike and flex their organized class power. In doing so, they made apparent the inter-relationship between the struggles of waged and unwaged workers, between spheres of production and reproduction, and between home and work.
Just as important was the struggle of the miners and the Amazon Army against the national union. The miners were not merely struggling against the mining companies but against the new labor planning state and the role of unions in it. They contested the harnessing of their union to capital and the state through mandatory arbitration and legal recognition of unions and collective bargaining agreements used to de-escalate strikes and suppress class struggle. Such legal protections as the right to organize and strike continued to evolve over the first three decades reaching its apex in the passage of the much heralded 1935 National Relations Act.
What the Kansas miners experienced, as did many other self-organized workers during this era, was labor law designed not to protect workers but for use as a weapon against them. District 14 resisted their own union’s complicity in its use even at the expense of their jobs, union local, and threats to their families. Ultimately, the miners bet on self-organized struggle from below which was viciously suppressed by the mining companies, the KIRC, the state, and the UMWA.
The Amazon Army not only brought the miners struggle to the surface but spread it throughout the community transforming it into a general strike that engulfed much of the state of Kansas during the dark winter months. In doing so, they demonstrated that applying leverage at key choke points can bring industry to a stop. The fire lit by the Amazon Army still burns bright today as workers continue to self-organize and challenge their unions, capital, and the state.
The author is grateful to Linda Knoll for teaching him about the Amazon Army.