When Mollie Sheiman was a little girl in the Polish town of Soklov, she saw her uncle Yacov taken to jail for being a Communist. Years later in America, she would go into hiding and her husband would go to prison for the same reason. But her years as a crippled child in a small town’s highly Orthodox Jewish community, which was barren of everything but religion, offered few other clues to the life ahead.
How could she have foreseen that one day she would become a lover of classical music? And travel all over the world? And adopt a child of her own who’d become a highly successful lawyer? That little Polish shtetl dweller with a painful limp could not have imagined that she would have two husbands and several lovers and a long and passionate career as a political organizer and labor activist. Nor could she foresee that at the age of 77 she’d look back on it all from a comfortable Chicago high rise overlooking the lake.
The women Mollie watched every day–her mother, grandmother, and aunts–were illiterate household drudges. Her grandmother got up at 4 AM to fetch the bread from the bakery and other staples that she and her husband sold in their little shop. Her husband would be in the synagogue, making his morning prayers, the first of his several visits each day to the house of worship while his wife ran the shop.
No one in Mollie’s crowded home except Uncle Yacov took any interest in politics–though she does remember talk of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian American anarchists who were hanged in Massachusetts, after a trial that was protested so widely news of it even reached Soklov. She also remembers hearing, during Russia’s civil war, cries of “The Whites are coming!” and “The Reds are coming!” Both sides used northern Poland as a corridor.
Her relatives and neighbors were kept too busy for politics trying to stay alive, and Soklov was too remote. There were no radios–and no newspapers or secular books for the few people who could read. During her childhood, Mollie saw the big city–Warsaw–just once, during a quick trip with her mother to obtain a visa to emigrate to the U.S. “I remember being intrigued by the stoplights. I never saw another one until I came here,” she says.
Soklov had no running water or central heating. Water came from a pump at the end of Mollie’s street. Her family heated their house and cooked with a pot-bellied wood stove that took up half the room it sat in. “If you wanted to get really warm, you sat on the ledge of the stove,” she remembers. The women carried the wood. They went to bed shortly after sundown and got up with the sun, although there was some electricity. “It came on only at certain times and then just went off again, very unreliable, so we always had candles.” Their bathroom was an outdoor privy plus a chamberpot for emergencies. Laundry was done with rainwater.
Mollie recalls “opening a basket of dirty clothes and the whole top was covered with lice. It wasn’t that we weren’t clean, it was the whole problem of sanitation. If you wanted to take a bath you went to the public bath. Not the kids, though. I don’t know. I guess my mother washed us. And we had lice in our hair. You would stand over the table and they would comb out the lice. But we didn’t know any better. It was the way we lived. Now, when I read about what goes on in the third world, the way people live, I have a revulsion. It is more severe than the way we lived but that was pretty darn severe.” As Mollie recalls these things we are sitting in her eighth-floor apartment on North Sheridan Road. It is filled with mementos of a life fully lived–diplomas, plaques, labor posters, paintings and sculptures by old friends, photos of her family and many friends.
Even today, chicken is Mollie’s favorite food. It was the special treat–the filet mignon–of her childhood, served in any quantity only on Yom Kippur eve when the shlogn kapores was performed. An ancient tradition opposed by rabbinical authorities as far back as the Middle Ages, the shlogn kapores continued to be observed by Polish shtetl Jews until World War II and it may still be performed by the very orthodox. The ceremony involves waving a chicken over someone’s head while repeating three times a prayer that allows the person’s sins to be passed on to the scapegoat fowl. The chicken is then slaughtered and eaten. There was always plenty of chicken to eat, Mollie says, after the kapores was performed.
Most contemporary Jews have never heard of this custom.
Food was usually scanty in Soklov. There was bread, occasionally jam, tea, soup, potatoes in all forms, a little piece of meat once in a while. “We would buy the head of a cow to make soup and have a little meat,” Mollie remembers.
Her dressmaker aunts made the family’s clothes. “The winters were very harsh. I remember wearing felt boots under rubber boots, heavy coats, and lots of sweaters. I had a couple dresses, but the only times we got anything new was for the holidays [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur]. For years, I couldn’t get over the mentality that my mother drummed into me. ‘It’s for yontif,’ the holiday. I still find it hard to wear new clothes until I have a special occasion. I never had the special shoes I needed because of my limp and as a result I have hammer toes. I was in agony.”
There was not enough of anything but people. In the little three-story house owned by Mollie’s grandfather about 20 people lived, mostly relatives but also a few boarders who included a watchmaker and a man who played the violin. Mollie, her mother, her father (until he left for the United States), her younger brother, her grandparents, and two uncles all lived together on one floor. Some had beds, some straw pallets.
“I could never sleep at night because people were getting up at all hours. I could see their shadows on the wall as they passed my bed. I could always hear them walking around. I was always scared at night,” Mollie remembers.
When she was born, her mother had typhoid fever. “Because she was so ill, she had a very difficult time with the birth. There were no doctors, only midwives. They pulled the femur out of the socket in my hip. Of course, no one noticed it until I started to walk. Then they knew something was wrong, but they said, ‘She’ll grow out of it.’ But I grew into it. The bone was outside the socket and rubbing against it and was very painful.
“So I had a very miserable childhood. I had no childhood. First I had the terrible pain. And second I had a limp, and you tend to develop an attitude about that, a feeling of terrible inferiority. I was sure I would never get married, sure that no one would ever love me. The kids teased me. I couldn’t do very much, though I did what I could. I went to school and walked around and went to different events, weddings and things, and I was so envious of the older kids who danced and sang and everything that I couldn’t. But while I was very self-conscious about my limp and I was in pain, I’ve always had a characteristic that I don’t want to be left out of things.”
Mollie remembers walking up and down the main street of Soklov admiring the large, wonderful shops. She laughs. “When I went back there in l970 I was shocked to discover that those shops were just tiny holes in the wall and this big wide street was a narrow passageway.” She also remembers arriving in this country and being overwhelmed. Everything was so big, so lavish, so new.
“When we arrived in Milwaukee, where my father was living with his uncle, that uncle, who was a wonderful man that I loved, came to the station and brought us a huge box of candy. To get one piece of candy at home was such a big thing you can’t imagine.”
When Mollie came to this country in 1929 at the age of 13, she spoke German, Polish, and Yiddish (which still spices her conversation). Her father found his family an apartment in Chicago, and Mollie entered a new school where her three languages didn’t cut much ice. She was put back into first grade because she didn’t know any English, or a lot of other things American kids learn in grade school. “The only thing that I could use was a little bit of geography and the arithmetic, though it took me years to learn to count in English. I would calculate in my head in Yiddish and translate it into English.” After a year, Mollie understood enough English to go on in school; but she says, “Except for some Far Eastern or Arabic languages, English is the hardest to learn. It was just so hard.”
Mollie didn’t experience the pogroms carried out in much of rural Poland in which peasants and soldiers randomly killed, raped, and destroyed the property of the Jews. “But we were always warned not to go beyond a certain area and not to be on the street during the Christian holidays, especially Easter. The holidays were bad times in Poland for Jews.”
When she returned to Poland in l970, Mollie visited Treblinka, a death camp in which an estimated 800,000 Jews were killed during World War II. As many as 60 members of her family perished there. She also lost her maternal grandfather, who was tied by his beard to a wagon and dragged along the streets until he died. But a number of relatives managed to emigrate to what was then Palestine, and a few came to this country or to South America.
Mollie says that her mother was a “very sad woman who couldn’t do much for anyone.” Her grandmother and aunts were helpful, even loving at times, but her mother was too trapped in her own tsuris (troubles) to give to Mollie. Although her marriage had been arranged and was not a happy one, Mollie’s mother was bereft when her husband left for America. A woman in her culture was nothing without a husband, even a husband she didn’t care for.
For nine years Mollie’s father sent money and gifts back to Soklov. Mollie isn’t sure why her mother kept failing to get the visa that would allow the family to follow. Possibly it was because her mother couldn’t pass a literacy test, possibly because her brother was always sick. Not until 1929 could the family reunite in America.
Mollie’s father was what she calls a luftmensch, “a man with his head in the clouds who makes a living out of the air. He sold things, I just don’t know.” He’d learned something about the restaurant business and then opened his own place, which failed, and he tried a number of other businesses that “turned to dust,” Mollie says. But somehow he managed to eke out a living and send money home, and when the family finally arrived here, he had rented a four-room apartment on the west side, which is where all the Eastern European Jews lived in Chicago. Mollie’s bright hazel eyes light up as she recalls walking into the spacious apartment. She had no idea what any of those things in the kitchen were–the gas stove, the icebox, the porcelain sink with hot and cold running water. “It was unbelievable.” And an old friend from Soklov who lived nearby had baked a cake for the family, a cake like nothing Mollie had ever seen before. Pink frosting!
“Coming to this country was so unbelievable. We were poor, but the contrast between what we had here and what we’d had was so dramatic it was almost too much to believe.” There has been a soft, sad, almost monotonic quality to Mollie’s voice as she’s talked about life in Soklov; now it fills with excitement. “In later years I could easily understand why there was so much dedication and devotion by immigrants to this country. It was l50 percent better than what they had had. I remembered how people who had left Soklov to come here and then would come back and they would show such a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence and a sense of well-being. They would never admit to us that their life was tough. They led us to believe that everyone in America was rich. Like Cinderella.” That was comparatively true. But Mollie feels a stern need to keep in mind certain realities of American life.
“Later,” she says, “when I went to the Soviet Union, where they also had these attitudes that America was filled with rich people, I explained to them about credit. They don’t know about that. I explained that the houses that Sears built in the Soviet Union, beautiful houses, a wonderful development, in l959, how any American worker could buy this house and the car–Sears put a Chevy in the driveway–and the furniture on time, but that people sometimes got dispossessed because they couldn’t keep up with the payments. But I couldn’t get through. They just didn’t understand. I told a group of them who were coming here to be sure and see everything, not only the tourist attractions. See where the workers live, the slums. But I didn’t get through. They were too filled with all those stories of riches.”
From the start, Mollie’s life in America had some qualities of a dream. After her year in grade one, she needed just one year more to graduate from the lower school, a school she could not have imagined–big, clean, well lit, with lots of books and paper. It was now l931, the Depression. She enrolled at the huge Marshall High School, at that time 95 percent Jewish, the school that graduated so many of the Jews later preeminent in the professions and in business in Chicago. Marshall had a fine orchestra, a strong academic record, tough football and basketball teams, lots of clubs and other extracurricular programs, and a goodly number of young radicals and their teacher mentors. Teachers being paid in coupons redeemable at some future time because the city was broke tended to be either cynical or Communist.
In her first act of political rebellion, Mollie rose in stenography class to criticize a teacher who’d chosen to dictate material that disparaged blacks. It was “ugly racist stuff!” Mollie recalls. “She read from something that said that when Negroes eat in restaurants, the help take the dishes in the back and break them.” Now Mollie’s voice is strong and dramatic, brimming with enthusiasm and warmth; her bright eyes are shining, she is talking politics. For her protest, Mollie was expelled from the class and threatened with a failing grade. She went to the principal, and after several teachers defended her she received a grade good enough to pass. She graduated, but she never learned shorthand.
Mollie was taught political rebellion by progressive teachers and on her neighborhood’s streets. The unemployed gathered on corners to discuss the state of this country and the workers’ state in the Soviet Union. Under socialism there could never be such an economic catastrophe, they said along Roosevelt Road, which Mollie calls “my street.” It was the capitalist system that had put millions of hungry workers out of work, out of their homes. Mollie listened and believed.
“It changed my life, that street,” Mollie says. “Our recreation was to be outside. And there was great turmoil, fights between the Communists, the Social Democrats, and the Trotskyites. I was still naive about it all, but I was learning about the trade union movement and all kinds of social problems. It was still possible to walk the streets. We would just walk and go in and have an ice cream or a corned beef sandwich and talk and listen. We would just shpatzir [wander about]. It was a real community like you don’t see today. It gave meaning to my life.”
The French horn helped make Mollie a Communist (to this day she wears a French horn pendant around her neck). One day during her sophomore year of high school, when she still knew only the klezmer music of the shtetl, Mollie encountered a girl in the corridor carrying an instrument case. Mollie asked what was in it and the girl said a flute. She said she played in the school orchestra. Mollie decided that she would also play the flute in the orchestra. “We have enough flutes,” the music teacher told her, and offered her a French horn instead. Mollie learned to play this difficult instrument well enough to perform a solo at her graduation. She might have become a professional horn player, she says, but politics took over.
In 1934, with money tight, the school board threatened to cut music, art, and gym from the curriculum. “All the things that make school really enjoyable they were going to cut out,” Mollie recalls. “Because I was already a bit radicalized I decided that we should call a strike. We got a committee together and were getting organized. The night before the strike, when we were in the street, collecting our banners, getting everything ready, the whole strike committee was arrested.
“We were taken to the Fillmore police station. It was about midnight. The sergeant asked, ‘Why are they here?’ and the arresting officer told him, ‘They were distributing literature.’ And the sergeant asked, ‘How do you spell “literature”?’
“Because I was the leader I was taken to the Audy Home [now called the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center]. That was the radicalizing experience of my life. That was the one and only time in my long history of strikes, demonstrations, and so on that I was ever arrested. OK, so I’m in the Audy Home overnight and I learn the most fundamental lesson about what happens to children who in one way or another come afoul of the law. When I got in there, I saw all these little kids, seven, eight years old. The place was absolutely terrible. Locked doors everywhere, matrons walking around patrolling like guards.
“The kids started asking, ‘Why are you here?’ and I said I was fighting for education. They didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. They didn’t know much of anything, they were little kids. They were arrested for some little thing like stealing some bread and got put away there. What would they be when they came out? What would they learn in there? Just criminality!”
Mollie was kept overnight at Audy. Her father refused to come and get her out. They had been feuding over her politics, even though according to Mollie he took no other interest in his children. He was an ardent Zionist, an anti-Communist. Her mother and a neighbor came to get her. “My mother was so frightened. Such a poor frightened woman,” she says.
And so the French horn introduced Mollie to classical music and radical action. To continue to play the horn–a borrowed horn, as she didn’t have the money to buy one–she helped organize the Cultural Collective, which consisted of an orchestra, a dance group, a theater group, and a choral group, all of which met in a loft on Roosevelt Road and performed regularly at various rented facilities. The collective, especially its orchestra, was Mollie’s preoccupation for several years.
But always there was politics, a politics that in hindsight some might call simpleminded. Mollie and her comrades wanted to build a movement that would take over the government of the country and convert it to socialism.
Life was an endless series of meetings, among them the meetings of the “current events club” at the Jewish Peoples Institute, the huge community center on Douglas Boulevard. “We had to use a subterfuge, call it a current events club, because the management would never have tolerated the Young Communist League in the building,” Mollie recalls laughing.
This activity led to Mollie’s participation in the infamous “Memorial Day Massacre” of l937. “What happened was that Little Steel [the smaller steel companies] refused to sign a contract with the union and the strike was going on and on. The union sent out a call to the community to come to a rally in South Chicago to support the strike. A few of us got a car and went out there. The rally was held in back of a saloon. I led the singing–we sang the great union songs–and there were all kinds of speakers and then we all lined up to walk toward the factory gate. To show that there was absolutely no meaning other than sympathy with the strikers, people were there with kids and picnic baskets. We were in a very optimistic mood, inspired by the turnout, feeling quite jovial, there were thousands and thousands there. I was in the front of the line. Nobody had a stone or a stick.
“When we walked up to the Inland Steel gate, we saw an incredible line of police with their rifles drawn and on the roof there were others with machine guns. And as we walked, without any warning, they released some tear gas and began to fire their guns. Well, you can imagine, it was absolute panic. People started pushing back. I was knocked down, there were several people on top of me. When I was finally able to get up I had lost my glasses, my watch, and I was absolutely bewildered. All around me was a battlefield. It was the first and only time in my life when I saw anything like that. I was just standing there and all of a sudden someone came up behind me and said, ‘Get off the field or I’ll put a bullet through your head.'” Ten persons were killed that day and more than l00 injured.
To celebrate Memorial Day, the Young Communist League had planned a dance in the roof garden of the JPI. “When we got there,” Mollie says, “we transformed that dance into the first protest meeting of the Memorial Day Massacre, and people have told me since that the speech I made that day was my definitive speech. I’ve made a lot of speeches since then, but I was so chilled with the horror of this experience and was able to express it.”
Shortly after she’d graduated from high school in 1935 and put in a spell as a factory worker, a job she hated, Mollie was given a job with the Farm Equipment Workers of America. This was one of the early CIO unions then being organized, many of whose first leaders were Communists. She and a comrade were told to open an office for the organizing committee. “It was in the back of a saloon on the southwest side. That was really my introduction to workers, although I learned later that for all its talk about the working class the party really didn’t know anything about the real lives of workers. I learned that only when I went to work in the printing trade.”
Mollie’s job for the farm workers’ union, as it would be for other unions later, was to run the office, write the letters, write and distribute leaflets, make signs, and persuade the community to support long, bitter strikes.
“It was up to us to get food and help for the families of the strikers and to get people to staff the picket lines. The workers couldn’t be there 24 hours a day.” In those early days of industrial unionization there were no such strike funds. And savings among the low-paid factory workers were practically nonexistent. Money for food and rent had to be raised.
Although the industrial workers were not Jewish, when they went on strike the Jews on the west side who had been unionized in the needle trades at the turn of the century gave them much of their support. Mollie turned to this home base for money, food, and picketers.
She also had to shore up the home front. “The employers would go to the families and say, ‘Your husband is on strike and what are you doing? Are you able to take care of your family?’ Trying to mobilize the women against their husbands. So those of us who were active also had the responsibility of buoying up the women and explaining to them. The men never explained to their wives. You know, they were wives–the kitchen, the bedroom, and the kids. We knew that and had to take care of it.”
Mollie joined the Communist party soon after her student strike failed. She was hired to work full-time as an organizer of the Young Communist League, working in strikes, organizing meetings, and recruiting new members. For all her speeches and growing recognition, much of what Mollie did, and most party women did, was scut work. “I was so busy I guess I just didn’t fight, and I was one of the big-mouthed activists who was recognized,” she says. “If there was a strike anywhere in the city I was there.”
In 1939, when she was 23, Mollie read in Life about a new surgical technique that might relieve her aching hip. Bone would be grafted from another part of her body. The operation eliminated most of her pain but not her limp, and the doctors decided to deal with that by shortening her other leg. Mollie stayed in the hospital in a full body cast for several months. While she was there she organized support among the nursing and medical staffs for the Republican victims of the Spanish Civil War. She recalls her doctor coming in one day leading a group of doctors whom he told, “We’re getting her all fixed up for Stalin.”
The second operation failed. It left her almost three inches shorter and still limping (although today her limp seems a very minor one). Nor was she entirely pain-free. A few years later she heard of a doctor in Boston who was an expert in hip disorders. She went to him. He told her that he was amazed the bone graft had worked as well as it had for her, that it was no longer done. “Don’t do anything else,” the doctor told Mollie. “Just continue to function as you have.”
It was advice, she says, that “kind of lifted a whole burden off my head. It was the beginning of a whole new attitude about my limp. I had done what I could. I had been determined to do something about it. But now I realized that I had done all I could and I just had to go on. Not that I thought I was going to be loved and have all kinds of men in my life, but it freed me of the phobia. I now thought of myself, I have a limp, other people have other things. I wasn’t exactly happy, but I was much freer.”
Free enough, in fact, finally to have a boyfriend. They met at a party newspaper in Chicago where both worked, she as secretary and he as a reporter and editor. They were friends and colleagues for a few months until “things just clicked between us” and they became lovers.
Karl was not the first man to show an interest in Mollie, but she had put them off. “I wasn’t going to get hurt. I had been hurt enough. I didn’t believe anyone could really love me. And then too, in addition to not believing I would ever have a man in my life I was fussy. There were a couple of men who really seemed interested, but I didn’t like them. Who says people are always rational. I certainly was not.
“The greatest tribute I can pay to Karl is that he truly healed me. After knowing him, and certainly after being married to him, I never thought of myself as having the limp. To him I was the woman he loved and admired and respected. It was just a miraculous healing. After Karl was killed I was able to have several other men and then got remarried and adopted my son.”
Mollie and Karl married in l940. Her father intended to shun this union of Communists, but ultimately was intimidated into being at the wedding by Karl’s very middle-class family from New York. Years went by before Mollie and her father were reconciled. When he moved to Israel she went to visit him, and in the 70s they traveled to South America together to visit relatives.
With the $150 they received in wedding presents, Mollie and Karl bought a “houseful of furniture” for their three-room apartment on the west side. She was secretary to the Joint Council of the Dining Car Employees, an all-black union with headquarters on the south side. Karl was a party organizer on the west side. When the United States entered World War II Karl took a job in a foundry and helped organize the workers there. But he soon enlisted in the Army. “He could have gotten a deferment but he couldn’t stand to see all the men going in and leaving him behind,” Mollie explains.
On one of Karl’s leaves, Mollie became pregnant. In her eighth month the placenta separated from the fetus and she lost the baby. She also lost massive amounts of blood. There were no blood banks in those days. Mollie’s Communist comrades showed up en masse, about 250 of them. A nurse came into Mollie’s room and whispered, “There are a lot of Negroes to give blood.” Mollie says, “I was laying there dying, and I said, ‘What’s the matter with their blood?'” In the surgery that saved her life, Mollie also lost her uterus.
The Signal Corps had stationed Karl in a safe spot on the French Riviera. Too sick to write him of their loss, Mollie asked her friends to contact the Red Cross. But this effort to reach him failed, and the only news he got was on a friend’s Christmas card that said, “Sorry about the baby.” Frantic to know what this meant, Karl borrowed a car and started out for a nearby town where he could make a phone call. On the way to town he was killed in an accident. “Within one month’s time, I lost my baby, my ability to have another baby, and then my husband.”
Mollie had been told to stay home and rest for six months after the surgery. Weak as she now was, she decided to go back to work. “I couldn’t sit at home and grieve. I’ve worked ever since.”
In l948 Mollie married another party organizer, Jim West, whose name she still uses although they were divorced long ago. World events cast a shadow over this marriage, too. The wartime alliance of the Soviet Union and the U.S. had given way to the Cold War. American Communists, who had operated openly and safely during the 30s and 40s and especially in wartime, were now viewed as subversives. In l948 some of the party leadership was arrested under 1940’s Alien Registration Act, which made it an offense to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or knowingly to organize or belong to any group having such a goal. The Communists never explicitly advocated the overthrow of the American government, but their alliance with the Soviet Union clearly implied that. Many of the party’s leaders went underground to escape arrest.
In 1952, at the height of the McCarthy years, Jim and Mollie adopted a baby boy. A short time later they went underground. They lived with friends and moved from house to house, about 20 different places in all, while the party supported them. After two years the life became too hard for Mollie and she surfaced, renting an apartment and taking a job as a temporary office worker. Jim remained underground for three more years. During that time he was indicted in absentia for conspiracy to violate the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in l947 to reverse the prolabor laws of the 30s. Eventually he too succumbed to the strain and gave himself up. He was convicted, and after several appeals failed was sent to prison in 1961.
Mollie visited Jim regularly, first with young Steve and then alone when she realized the prison scene was making the boy ill. Her relationship with her husband had become uncomfortable–“He was married to the party,” Mollie says. “I was not. I never put the party before everything else.” But while Jim was locked up, she led a campaign to free him. “We built a terrific committee to get him out, including a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt protesting his imprisonment.” That was a very difficult time, Mollie says. “I was working, trying to take care of my son, and trying to conduct this campaign to get Jim out.” The campaign did not succeed; with time off for good behavior he served 16 months of his two-year sentence.
When she surfaced, Mollie needed work. The Communist party was not the place to look; it was taking a double beating then–from federal investigators on one hand, and on the other from the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s speech the same year revealing the sins of Stalin. Thousands of Communists were deserting the party in disillusionment. But Mollie could no longer work for the unions, which had begun to respond to Red hysteria by tossing Communists out of positions of authority. Mollie tried temp work while a friend’s mother watched Steve, but she wanted something more significant and steadier. Someone suggested the printing trade.
In 1960 Mollie found a job as a proofreader at Commerce Clearing House. She aspired to be more than that. As women were not accepted as apprentice printers she enrolled in night classes at Washburne Trade School, which would not permit her to operate its Linotype and Monotype machines. These were reserved for apprentices. But she learned enough other skills to join the Chicago Typographical Union in 1961, the year her husband went to prison.
Almost immediately she began taking an active role. Women had never asserted themselves in that male bastion, she recalls; at meetings they stood at their seats and meekly asked questions while the men went to the front of the room and made statements. Mollie decided to do as the men did, and do it on behalf of the women. In one early speech she noted that when union members had something to say they started out “Gentlemen” or “Brothers.” “I just got up and started by saying, ‘As a brother,’ and everybody laughed, and that opened the way for that tradition to end.”
It was a long haul. “The men just didn’t like to have women in the union,” Mollie says. But when she retired in 1987 from the Daily Racing Form, where she’d worked nearly 14 years, several coworkers put together a front page honoring her.
In a strike during the 60s at the American Typesetting Company (now defunct), Mollie came up with a historic innovation. “The leadership was in there involved in negotiations but didn’t necessarily communicate with us on the picket line. I introduced the idea of the strike bulletin, a little newspaper that was secretly printed in one of the shops that wasn’t on strike. It had news of the negotiations and human interest news–who had a baby, who got married, who is sick. It became the hottest piece of material on the picket line.”
Mollie is very proud of the CTU. “It is a standout union for its democracy. We’ve had meetings that lasted for five hours while we discussed every little thing. Most unions are not democratic, they are autocratic, which accounts for a lot of the corruption. But not ours. And it was the first union in the country, founded in the l850s. They were afraid of their bosses so they turned their union meetings into churches, which is why locals are still called chapels. The chairmen were called fathers.”
Several years went by before Mollie completely sold herself to the CTU’s male leadership. But in l973 she was named a delegate to the Chicago Federation of Labor-Industrial Union Council, and a couple years later a delegate to the Illinois State AFL-CIO. She continues to be a delegate to both bodies. In l975 she was elected to the CTU’s executive board, and she’s still there six years after retiring.
One of her fondest moments as a speechmaker came on the union floor back in the 60s. At the time the CTU was asking for a ten-cent-an-hour raise from the Racing Form. News came that Walter Annenberg, the Form’s multimillionaire owner, had donated $l50 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “I support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Mollie recalls telling the union, “but why couldn’t Annenberg give $l40 million and give us our ten-cent-an-hour raise?”
Seeing how slow the unions were to join the women’s movement, Mollie and other women organized programs at union conventions in the late 60s and early 70s devoted to women’s issues. Little came of them, Mollie says, because there was no real leadership. But in l973 women from around the country met in Chicago to organize the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). Five hundred women were expected at a meeting in the Congress Hotel and 3,200 came. And Mollie points out that unlike other feminist groups, this one included hundreds of minority women.
Mollie helped organize the Chicago chapter of CLUW and served on its board. “CLUW was the training ground for all kinds of women, especially minority women who then were able to be elected to the leaderships of their unions and serve on the top boards,” Mollie says. CLUW won a long battle to expand the top board of the AFL-CIO to include persons who were not presidents of locals. All those presidents were men. CLUW also encouraged women to join the trades.
When Jim West left prison in 1962 the party advised him to get out of Chicago. He would be safer somewhere else. Mollie refused to follow her husband. “It was the tradition in the party that the wife went where her husband was sent no matter what her own wishes were. That may have been the first time in the party that any woman just put her foot down.”
Mollie was no longer active in the party, but she was politically active. “I just said, ‘My base is here. I’ve been through all kinds of things and people know me. It isn’t right for me to go somewhere where I would be a housewife and a secretary to the leader who is my husband. I’m not going anywhere else just because you’re sending Jim.'”
West stayed in Chicago but Mollie soon left the party. “It was the beginning of the end of the marriage,” she says, “though we stayed officially married for l7 years.”
While Mollie West refers to the Communist party as her university, there came a time in her life when that university wasn’t enough. She wanted the experience of a real college education. The Weekend College of Mundelein College (now part of Loyola University) gave her the opportunity. It offered a BA to be earned by intensive weekend classes plus credit for life experience. Mollie had plenty of that when she entered the program in l976. She was 61. When she graduated in l978 she urged the administration to invite her old friend Addie Wyatt, a founder of the old Packinghouse Workers Union, to give the commencement address. “It was the first time that a representative of labor gave the commencement speech. And she was very well received,” Mollie says.
Loving her first taste of college life, Mollie enrolled in Roosevelt University’s evening Labor Education Division and earned another BA in 1979. By then she’d already started a volunteer job for which her life and her schooling perfectly qualified her–secretary of the Illinois Labor History Society. Founded in l969, the society works to inform schools and other institutions about the history and function of the labor movement. “It’s not high-powered, but we do very important work,” Mollie says. Her retirement in 1987 found her becoming more active in the society, not less, and she and its president, Leslie Orear, a retired union journalist, pretty much run it together. Their money comes from members and donations.
In her retirement, Mollie goes to concerts and plays, travels–she’ll be in Alaska this summer–sees friends, attends a variety of political affairs, works regularly as a volunteer for the Labor History Society and WBEZ radio. When she was 74 she was the first representative of the labor movement inducted into Chicago’s Women’s Hall of Fame. Now 77, she’s being honored next month by the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. There’s no man in her life at present, but she’s had her share. The last man was a fellow resident of the handsome retirement home in which she has lived for several years. He died recently. Not a bad life for the little girl from Soklov who thought no one would ever love her.
Throughout my early interviews with Mollie, she instructed me not to reveal her identity as a Communist party member. She feared for the consequences within her union, of which she is a board member, and within the Chicago and Illinois AFL-CIO councils to which she is a voting delegate. The fear of exposure she had begun to live with in the late 40s, when the cold war began, still haunted her.
I went along with Mollie for a while, all the time wondering how I would write the life story of a woman who spent 25 years as a Communist without using the word. (She wanted me to refer to her as a “radical.”) Finally we discussed the problem for half an hour. The cold war is over, I said, and you left the party 30 years ago. She decided to allow me to tell the truth.
Reflect on your earlier views of the Soviet Union, I suggested. Her thoughts returned to October 1945, when the party named her to an American delegation that would attend the World Youth Congress in London and the World Student Congress in Czechoslovakia–both organized by the Communist party–and then visit the Soviet Union for six weeks.
“That was the time to see the Soviet Union and what that war meant to that country. Almost everybody you saw was missing a limb or something. All the troubles they’re having now you can trace back to that devastation. They got absolutely no help to reconstruct the country. It was a reinforcement of all my thinking of what really happens. I was there at a time when Stalin was worshiped. What he did was really not known.”
But millions of people had disappeared into the gulag. How could the people not have known?
They didn’t know, Mollie insisted. “During the war Stalin really galvanized the country, and it was his authority that won the war.”
Despite his having killed off the entire upper ranks of the army? A number of historians believe the war was won despite Stalin.
“Yes, but believe me,” Mollie said, “I don’t know of any leader except Roosevelt who was loved and worshiped as Stalin was.”
Mollie doesn’t defend the lies, but she told me with great passion, “I owe all my life to the Communist movement. It was my university. It made a person out of me. It not only broadened my scope of knowledge and interests but it gave me incredible compassion. A lot of people say now, ‘I wasted my life.’ Why would anyone say that? Those people probably would really have wasted their lives. Never did I deny it. I was always proud of being Jewish and being a radical and being a conscious person in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism and for justice. I will always be indebted to the party. And while I did leave the party and would not in any way give any kind of explanation that would give credence to the terrible things that happened, I never would deny that experience. I never lost my Jewish connections or my radical connections even if I was no longer in the party.”
I wondered whether Mollie thought that labor unions had become an anachronism. “I don’t make apologies for the corruption in the labor movement,” she said. “There is so much corruption in every aspect of American life and so much violence. Why would it miss the labor movement? But that’s not what’s important about the labor movement. The unions are what made it possible for the American workers to go into the middle class, to buy houses, cars, and everything, that ended the terrible working conditions and incredibly low wages that workers lived with before the unions changed it all. And these people who say the unions got too powerful. Or should go out of business. What about all the organizations like the chambers of commerce and the National Manufacturers Association and the American Medical Association? If all these bosses can have their organizations, why shouldn’t the workers have theirs? The conditions of millions of workers are still terrible, earning minimum wages, in terrible conditions. So my loyalty and my devotion to the labor movement is unyielding. I don’t apologize for that which is wrong, but on the other hand I know that without unions things would be terrible in this country.
“As for any violence there might be, I learned very early, at the Memorial Day Massacre, which was the most definitive, searing experience of my life, that the violence in strikes and demonstrations is always, always the police or the army or what have you, always. No one can convince me otherwise.
“I’m completely conscious that I am able to live so comfortably in my retirement, that I was able to educate my son and live decently all these years because of my union.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.