I’m somewhat obsessed by thoughts of a whole realm of movies that don’t exist—oral-history ones, interview-centered documentaries from th...
I’m somewhat obsessed by thoughts of a whole realm of movies that don’t exist—oral-history ones, interview-centered documentaries from the early days of talking pictures, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. No one bothered to record people telling their stories back then; but the filmmaker Lorraine Gray, in her documentary “With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade,” released in 1979, offered an ardent compensation. Gray’s film (streaming on YouTube and other sites) is centered on a strike at General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan, in the winter of 1936-37. For the fortieth anniversary of the strike, she brought together—and filmed the discussions of—the women, now elderly, who had been involved in forming and leading the “women’s auxiliary,” later the “emergency brigade,” to support the strikers. The organization lent support to local men who were demanding that General Motors recognize the United Auto Workers union. But in Gray’s documentary, before the subject of the strike is addressed, the women (there are half a dozen or so at each of two gatherings) discuss their own experiences in the workforce during the Depression, and their accounts are harrowing.
These women—a racially integrated group—also worked in the G.M. plants, and they explain that they were often hired to replace men who had been fired, on the assumption that they’d be cheaper and more docile. The women describe the complete lack of safety measures at machines and on assembly lines, and the efforts of supervisors to conceal on-the-job injuries. (One woman recounts finding gruesome evidence of such an injury when she reached her work station.) They also speak of what was then called “women’s work,” in the needle trades and in candy factories, where the supervision (including of bathroom breaks) was stringent and the pace of work was cruelly relentless. (After seeing Gray’s archival footage of women wrapping candy at a conveyor belt, it’s hard to laugh uninhibitedly at the celebrated 1952 episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance do so to antic effect.) Women were also commonly subjected to the sexual depredations of male supervisors, with demands ranging from casual on-the-job pawings to after-hours sexual submission, under pain of firing, and sometimes with devastating consequences. Moreover, ministers and priests, as one participant recalls, counselled these women to bear their worldly miseries and await their posthumous rewards.
Instead, the women who worked for G.M. and its subsidiaries in Flint joined male workers in secretly signing union cards, and, when some were fired for doing so, they joined the men in the strike, which began on December 30, 1936. It was called a “sit-down strike” and would now be called an occupation of the factory; the women were ready to remain in the plant throughout, too, but were ordered home by male strikers on the grounds that their presence would lead to rumors of sexual impropriety among the strikers. Nonetheless, the women refused to be sidelined from the movement, and the film details the various kinds of support that they lent the strikers—from material assistance to public demonstration, and from coördinated strategizing to forming the front lines of resistance against police violence. At crucial moments of the struggle, these contributions proved effective, even as officials labelled the strike a riot and a “revolutionary situation” and called out the National Guard, which, along with police, confronted the strikers with guns and tear gas. (The women tell the story of how they faced the police down—and to what surprising effect.)
Some of the more remarkable specifics that the women discuss (such as a protest during which they wielded two-by-fours to break factory windows after the men inside were teargassed) are accompanied by archival documentary footage showing the very same incidents in amazing detail. The film clips and photographs that appear in the film also provide a fascinating portrait gallery of nineteen-thirties people. One of the familiar experiences of looking at photos from decades back is the different repertory of facial expressions, gestures, and postures—yet those of the women in “With Babies and Banners” look shockingly modern, almost like twenty-first-century faces planted in archival settings. It’s as if their ideas and their principles, now common coin, overrode fashions and manners to link disparate eras and lives.
The women’s political principles remain current, too. One interviewee draws a connection between the rise of labor unions and the establishment of the social safety net, from unemployment insurance to Social Security, which didn’t exist at the time of the strike. In a speech that Gray filmed at a 1977 United Auto Workers’ assembly in commemoration of the strike, the leader of the women’s groups of the thirties, Genora Dollinger, links the women’s brigade to the feminist movement—and calls for the increased representation of women in union leadership, with an eye to specific policy changes of the sort that remain on the agenda even today.