The ideological content of worker’s education

I had previously learned about the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, first when working on a disorientation guide with the Environmental Justice League my freshman year, and next in the biography of Rose Pesotta, an anarchist feminist garment workers organizer, who attended the school. Yet, even after reading the digital exhibit, I had no idea of the politics of the school, or “worker’s education” in general. Was it a creation of liberals attempting to groom women workers to work for reform instead of revolution, a charitable project, or an accidentally or purposefully radicalizing force, or a combination? As Hilda Smith noted, the phrase “worker’s education” scared many conservatives and even liberals. This is probably because it bears a striking resemblance to “political education”, what leftists called education meant to build class consciousness and propel revolutionary action. Some radicals, like the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, even believed that workers had to learn so that they could take over the factories, and the larger society, themselves. The 1930s proved an interesting period for the labor movement and radicals, as the country was pushed to the brink of revolution and the powers that be finally gave into some degree of reform. One can read FDR’s own letters for evidence of the general motivation to save capitalism from itself. With a place at the bargaining table, radical ideas seeped into the mainstream. The Bryn Mawr school seems like a good example of this. Before entering the school, many women were more antagonistic towards bosses and the bourgeoisie, but to their surprise the school incorporated a variety of ideas and values into the curriculum, mitigating some of these antagonisms. For example, Jennie Silverman wanted to start a Marxist study group, and then it became a class, part of a capitalist institution instead of working against it. On the other hand, the school provided women with new knowledge, often focused on labor issues, that propelled their organizing. Some, like Rose Pesotta for instance, did not become liberals and stayed firm revolutionaries. Ultimately the coalition between liberalism and radicalism could not last, as evidenced by Bryn Mawr ending the school after police brutality towards its students observing the 1934 Seabrook Strike.

One interesting aspect of the project was the role of race. M Carey Thomas urged Hilda Worthington Smith not to admit black women while admiring the concept of education women workers, perhaps because she envisioned the working class, and women workers, as white, and saw racial justice and equality for white women as mutually exclusive. This reminds me of the argument that the working class was constructed based on whiteness and through exclusion. This is one reason why the seemingly inclusive environment at the school is especially interesting. The school periodicals even published abolitionist poetry, and one poem in the documentary even addressed racism within labor unions. It seems like the school really represented one related important socialist principle, internationalism. The documentary even discussed how it was organized into multiple sections, each containing workers from different places and industries. This reminds me of the IWW’s idea of “one big union” and a larger trend towards internationalism during this period. This was also relevant to the liberal feminism that surely influenced women like M Carey Thomas and Hilda Smith, as many feminists used the idea of a common bond between women to campaign against everything from child labor to war. Yet, this often discluded women of color, especially black women.