Women's Emergency Brigade
WOMEN'S EMERGENCY BRIGADE
The Flint Women's Emergency Brigade, formed on January 20, 1937, was a militant expression of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Women's Auxiliary movement. Reporting on the formation of the Brigade, the Associated Press quoted Brigade founder Genora Johnson: "We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire then they'll just have to fire into us." Starting with fifty members who were wives, mothers, and sisters of strikers, the Flint Brigade grew to 350. Brigades were also formed in Lansing and Detroit. The Brigade used military titles to show its readiness for combat. They wore colored berets and armbands with "EB" inscribed on them; the Flint Brigade's berets were red, Detroit's green, and Lansing's white. On February 1, 1937, the Flint Women's Emergency Brigade played a crucial role in a battle that enabled UAW members to seize control of the plant that produced all General Motors engines. The New York Times headline read "Women's Brigade Uses Heavy Clubs," and it accompanied a photograph of Brigade members with the long clubs they used to break factory windows to counter the teargassing of workers.
The first UAW Women's Auxiliary had been established in December 1936 during the sit-down strike at Detroit's Midland Steel Company. Its focus was the preparation of food for the strikers. The Flint Women's Auxiliary was formed after a New Year's Eve dance in front of Fisher Body Plant 2. It fed the strikers, staffed picket lines, and ran a first aid station, a speaker's bureau, and a daycare center.
Hundreds of members of the women's auxiliaries and women's brigades from several cities paraded in Flint on February 3, 1937, a day the UAW designated Women's Day. The women's militancy and support activities helped the strikers to victory. The UAW incorporated support for the women's auxiliaries into its formal structure at its convention in August 1937. Although the brigades received significant attention in the daily press and journalist Mary Heaton Vorse highlighted their story, they proved to be a temporary formation.
Although the UAW's male leadership appreciated women's support, it neglected women auto-workers. UAW Local 155 had established the Midland Women's Auxiliary as a vehicle to involve women workers whom it had neglected to consult prior to the strike. The pattern of neglecting women workers and suggesting they work with the auxiliary occurred frequently. Discrimination and the problems of women workers on the job went unchallenged. Although women workers organized at plants where they were numerous, they were not promoted into union leadership positions. The women's auxiliaries proved to be one of the few voices within the union that spoke out for the needs of women workers. As support organizations, however, they did not offer a challenge to the union's gender hierarchy. But the militancy and advocacy of female independence and strength that was articulated by participants in the women's brigades provided a germ of a radical feminism that would flower in a later period.
Fine, Sidney. Sit-down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937. 1969.
Foner, Philip. Women and the American Labor Movement, Vol. 2: From World War I to the Present. 1980.
Gabin, Nancy F. Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975. 1990.
Gray, Lorraine, director; Lorraine Gray, Lynn Goldfarb, and Anne Bohlen, producers. With Babies and Banners: The Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade. Women's Labor History Film Project, 1978.
Zimmelman, Nancy A. "The UAW Women's Auxiliaries: Activities of Ford Workers' Families in Detroit, 1937–1949." M.A. thesis, Wayne State University, 1987.