For pioneering journalist Bessie Beatty, women’s suffrage and the plight of labor were linked inextricably.
In 1907, twenty-one-year-old college student Bessie Beatty embarked by rail from Los Angeles to Goldfield, Nevada, a mining boomtown about 400 miles north. A journalist for the Los Angeles Herald, Beatty was traveling to report on the Goldfield Labor Wars, a series of important contests between mine owners and miners’ unions.
Animated by America’s last gold rush, Goldfield was a lively city, if singularly focused. “People have no time to be amused,” Beatty wrote, “and if they had time they would not care for it. The game they are playing is more fascinating than any man has ever devised.” For Beatty, that game was the contest between labor and capital. That year, the local Goldfield mining union, a partnership between the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), won two major victories, securing higher wages for skilled and unskilled laborers and a voice for the union in workplace policies concerning theft. Labor’s boosted morale was short-lived; later that winter, federal t
Beatty was transfixed by the events of Goldfield. They shined brightly, she wrote, in “the blackness and vast barrenness of the desert.” The sparkling city represented the promise of labor’s power, and her experiences there would shape the rest of her life’s work.
In 1908, Beatty moved back to California and was hired as a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, having gained the attention of managing editor Fremont Older, writes historian Lyubov Ginzburg. Her column, “On the Margin,” covered a variety of progressive topics, including women’s suffrage. In 1912, she published a collection of her articles under the title, A Political Primer for the New Voter, which was advertised as a handbook for the recently enfranchised, including California women, who had won the right to vote the year before.
For Beatty, women’s suffrage was directly tied to the plight of labor, exemplified by the crusade for an eight-hour workday, a measure on the ballot in California. “To protect human life costs money. It cuts down on profits,” she wrote. “[T]he question for humanitarians to consider is not how to make it possible for women to work more than eight hours, but how they may secure sufficient wages for eight hours’ work to enable them to live.” The primer echoes with insights gleaned from Beatty’s time in Goldfield, where radical organizers like the IWW’s Vincent St. John had led the fight for workers while also portending the internationalist valence of the emergent radical suffragist movement in America.
For feminists like Beatty, the Russian cause was intimately tied to that of the suffragists. Historian Julia L. Mickenberg writes that in June 1917, the National Woman’s party (NWP) picketed outside of the White House as President Woodrow Wilson met with Russia’s provisional government to gain the country’s support in the fight against Germany in the First World War. “America is not a democracy,” their signs read. “Tell our government that it must liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally.”
Upon her return to the United States, Beatty continued writing on Russia, reflecting upon the meaning of the Revolution and publishing a collection of her reporting from Petrograd, titled The Red Heart of Russia. She later returned to the country in a 1921 trip for Good Housekeeping and Hearst’s International Magazine, interviewing Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, Georgy Chicherin, and Mikhail Kalinin.
Beatty’s interest in leftist politics and the American labor movement continued in New York City, where she assumed a position as editor at McCall’s Magazine in 1919. McCall’s publishers introduced her to readers as part of “the front rank of the progressive women on the Pacific Coast,” endowed with a vital international view. “Miss Beatty’s ideas on what women and children want are based not only upon what she knows of the West; she has lived with the women of Sweden and Norway, of China and Japan, of our North and our South and our East–she knows women and children everywhere,” they wrote.
In 1920s Greenwich Village, Beatty became acquainted with a new radical feminist set, the Heterodoxy club. The group included well-known writers, artists, and activists, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Susan Glaspell and labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The group met “every other Saturday for forty years to enjoy each other’s company, to share information, and sometimes to act upon issues including labor, civil rights, birth control, suffrage, and pacifism.” According to historian Joanna Scutts, several other members of Heterodoxy had also traveled to Russia during the revolution. Like Beatty, they were reluctant to condemn the Bolsheviks, who in 1918 passed the Family Code; it “liberalized divorce laws, allowed access to abortion, and offered paid maternity leave to married and unmarried women alike.” The Bolsheviks offered new political objectives for American feminists (especially white women). In the long run, however, “The turn to Russia by American feminists who embraced the ‘radical international women’s movement’ ultimately backfired,” writes Mickenburg, “both because the Soviets’ promised gains for women proved illusory and because the taint of Bolshevism served to narrow the meaning of feminism in the United States.”
The interwar period secured Beatty’s position as part of the artistic and intellectual left. She became involved in the theater world, writing for MGM and co-writing a Broadway play; during the Great Depression she volunteered for the Actor’s Dinner Club, an organization that provided meals to struggling actors and playwrights in New York City. She assumed a position with the National Label Council, promoting union-made goods, and in the last years of her life, took on a gig hosting a popular radio show for WOR New York, where she interviewed figures including Eleanor Roosevelt and conducted war bond drives for World War II.
From the deserts of Nevada to F.D.R.’s New York City, Beatty spent her adult life participating in the important intersections and evolutions of feminist and socialist thought that marked the transition from the Progressive years to the New Deal Era. And while the relationship between labor and women’s movements were at times fraught, Beatty never stopped advocating for the worker’s role in advancing the rights of women, at home and abroad.