Journalist and activist Mary Heaton Vorse was a woman who broke the sound barrier: at a time when women were silenced, she traveled the U.S. and Europe for decades, using her words to write about the dirty corners of the industrialized working world, the costs of war, and the right to vote. She was shot by a vigilante, widowed twice, and supported three children.
Vorse came of age in the late 1800s when America was still emerging as a place of its own, with all the knots of adolescence: cars were being manufactured, women could not vote, child and sweatshop labor were rampant in many industries. Born to a wealthy family, she turned to social justice causes and the pen to mark her life and many others.
While silent films were making their debut, Vorse was anything but quiet. She showed up at the mills in Massachusetts to write about working conditions and the Lawrence textile strikes; she traveled to Moscow and Germany as a correspondent in two World Wars, she covered the steel strikes and brought food for striking miners in Kentucky; and she wrote about crime on the waterfront. She pushed her way past personal struggles and societal limitations to become a journalist, novelist, labor activist, advocate for women’s suffrage, and civil-rights proponent.
“She was the greatest labor journalist of this century, and no one yet has risen to take her place,” said journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in a 1989 article in the New York Times. Ehrenreich reported that Vorse’s activist writing began in earnest after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire at a factory near her home in Greenwich Village, where she ran toward the horror when she heard the screams of workers jumping out windows to their death to escape the locked building. She went on to report about the textile mill strikes in 1912, led by the Industrial Workers of the World and representing workers from 40 nationalities — about half of them women and children who stopped the looms to strike for better working conditions and pay.
With March designated as Women’s History Month, Vorse is being honored by New York State United Teachers, featured on her own poster.
To order or download the poster, visit www.nysut.org/publications.
In her time, Vorse supported women’s rallies in both Europe and America, and if she were alive today, she’d be the type of woman who would be marching and wearing a pink knit hat. Throughout her life’s work, she showed up in places where women were generally not expected, and often not welcome — including World War I and II, the four-month-long Midwestern Great Steel Strike of 1919, the Russian famine of 1921, and the often-violent coal mining uprisings in Harlan County, Kentucky. And, most of the time, she did so with the constrictions of wearing dresses and heels.
“Her unique contribution to the journalism of her time was to give consistent attention to the special concerns of women and their role in the labor movement,” according to Dee Garrison, author of “Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent.”
According to the American Biographies book “American Social Leaders and Activists” written by Neil Hamilton, Vorse was wounded by a bullet in 1937—shot by vigilantes at an Ohio Steel Strike.
In 1962, at the age of 88, Vorse became the first recipient of the United Auto Workers Social Justice Award for her work as a labor journalist in the 1920s and 1930s. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and novelist Upton Sinclair attended the award ceremony.
She was one of the founders of the Woman’s Peace Party and was a delegate for the New York Woman Suffrage Party, traveling to Hague by ship.
As a young woman, Mary Heaton married journalist Albert White “Bert” Vorse, with whom she had two children. They traveled to France and then to Venice, both of them writing, and then moved to Provincetown, Ma. After he died, she married Joe O’Brien, whom she met at the Lawrence Textile Strike. They had a son together, but O’Brien died three years after they were married.
In her career, she wrote for the New York Post, New York World, McCall’s, Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, The Masses, New Masses, New Republic and McClure’s Magazine, along with news services. Witnessing a census being taken of homeless people at a shelter in New York City during the Great Depression, Vorse wrote: “There are other sides to the avalanche of despair. As a part of the widespread slump, the people who thought themselves secure have been thrown into it. The people who have been able to have a college education suddenly find themselves out of a job. No one can take the census of this misery. It doesn't walk the street. It sits and shivers in cold houses. It hides itself.”
Later in her career, she covered issues of migrant workers, crime on the New York-New Jersey waterfront, the U.S. Department of Justice ‘Palmer’ raids, and automobile strikes. Her books include “Time and the Town,” “Strike,” “The Ninth Man: A Story” and “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman.”
Author Garrison described Vorse as: “The foremost pioneer of labor journalism in the U.S. and a prominent participant in the women’s universal suffrage movement… Vorse spent her life actively struggling for libertarian socialism, feminism, and world peace.”
Vorse is recognized each year by the Metro Labor Communications Council of New York City, which presents its highest journalism award in her name.
She was a longtime resident of New York and Provincetown, where she was involved with the well-known Provincetown Players theater group, who set up their theater in Vorse’s fish house on the wharf. She is buried in Provincetown, and her house there is marked with a plaque. Her work and papers are available in the Walter Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Union Affairs, in Detroit, MI., donated by her children.
While she was up against profound despair at different turns in her life, Vorse was an insider of life itself.
“I love my golden wings,” Corse said in 1896, according to Garrison. “And I want to fly right into the sun until they are draggled and battered.”