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Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism

Author(s):Faue, Elizabeth
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (October 2003)

Elizabeth Faue, Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiv + 249 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3461-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Eva Valesh was different from most other women of her time. Born Eva McDonald in 1866 to a respectable but far from affluent working-class family, her Minneapolis public school education prepared her for that most traditional of American women’s professional occupations: teaching elementary school. But McDonald “didn’t like school teaching.” Instead her father helped her to submit her writings to a struggling reform newspaper where she then found employment as an apprentice compositor and occasional contributor. Thus began a career that would lead her in and out of the labor reform movement of the 1880s through World War I. As a journalist, traveling lecturer for the Farmer’s Alliance and Populist Party, owner of a Washington D. C. political newsletter, editor of the American Federationist, leader of the Women’s Trade Union League, and pioneer red-baiter: Eva McDonald led an extraordinary public life. And her private life was just as unusual.

Elizabeth Faue, a historian at Michigan’s Wayne State University, tells the story of this remarkable woman in an absorbing biography. Following her life chronologically, Faue recounts MacDonald’s early struggles to learn the compositing trade, her first writings on the condition of women workers in Minneapolis, and her involvement in an 1888 strike of Minneapolis garment workers. Her involvement in this strike launched MacDonald’s career as labor journalist, and she would write extensively on labor issues for the St. Paul Globe and, later, the Minneapolis Tribune. The strike also led to her work as lecturer for the Farmers’ Alliance, and her marriage in 1891 with a local labor leader, Frank Valesh.

At first a happy marriage of two dedicated labor activists, this marriage, and its progeny, Frank Jr., became an encumbrance to Eva Valesh’s growing ambitions. Faue reports that by the mid-1890s, Eva Valesh feared she had run up against the limits of what she could accomplish in the Midwest. She wanted to move East, to parley her talents into a place in broad national movements. But Frank wanted to stay. He had ties with the Minnesota labor movement; he had served as the first president of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor and was assistant labor commissioner for the State of Minnesota. He also suffered declining health and feared the fate of his brother and sister who died of tuberculosis within hours of each other in 1895.

Eva Valesh waited only a little while for her family before moving East in 1897. At first, she lived in the Washington D. C. home of Samuel and Sophie Gompers. But she soon moved out on her own. She used an earlier association with Minnesota Senator Nelson to secure an interview with President McKinley for the New York Journal; this story and a recommendation from Minneapolis Tribune editor William Murphy then led to a position at the Journal. After two years there, she borrowed money from Murphy to launch a political newsletter and publicity service. Next, Gompers recruited her to the American Federation of Labor where she worked for him as editor of the American Federationist. After eight years there, years longer than she had remained in any previous job, she quit to work as a free-lance lecturer and well-paid advisor to the silk-stockinged women in the National Civic Federation’s Woman’s Committee and the reform-minded New York Colony Club. Throughout she moved to the right, rejecting in turn the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party. Finally, in 1910 she burned her bridges to the labor movement by attacking the striking International Ladies Garment Workers Union, accusing its socialist leadership of prolonging the strike for their own “dangerous purposes.” Expelled from the Women’s Trade Union League, her relationship with the reform-minded club women also fizzled. Having formally divorced Frank Valesh in 1906, in 1910 she married Ben Cross, a wealthy playboy. Using his family money, the two ran a mildly successful women’s magazine for a decade. After that failed, they divorced and this remarkable woman, Eva Valesh, spent the next twenty-seven working as copy editor for the New York Times.

The chronological presentation makes Faue’s biography a page turner, a mystery where the reader wonders what MacDonald/Valesh will pull off next. But it also reflects an admitted bafflement on Faue’s part. She admits, looking “in vain for the moral to Valesh’s story. Abandoning the idealism of her working-class youth for the pragmatic adjustments of middle age brought her neither ultimate victory nor tragic defeat” (p. 195). In the end Faue admits that she sought only “to tell a good story” leaving it to the reader “to draw the rest of the conclusions yourself.” Well we might: and I would suggest three:

First, gender was a surprisingly permeable barrier to advancement. Prejudice did notably little to slow Valesh’s rise. Not only were the Populists and trade unionists willing to listen to a woman, they even paid to hear her. And so did the Twin-City newspaper-reading public. As she herself noted about Washington D. C., “If you had anything to offer intellectually, you were well received in Washington. It doesn’t make any difference if you’ve got a dollar to your name or not, and no one is critical of your dress” (p. 141).

If gender was not a barrier to Valesh’s advancement, it was because so many men stepped forward to help her. Eva Valesh’s successes show how important it was for a woman to have support from the men around her. And her men were remarkably helpful! Even after she deserted him, Eva’s husband Frank Valesh accepted legal responsibility for the breakup in order to let her out of the marriage without prejudice to her career. Also, to free Eva Valesh for her work, Frank cared for their son during the summer and paid for him to attend boarding school. Other men in Eva MacDonald/Valesh’s life were just as ready to support her. Her father helped her to become a journalist and compositor; longtime labor activist John P. ‘Jack’ McGauhey taught her to speak in public; Minneapolis Tribune editor William Murphy “put her through a course of analysis training that no college would have” and he “let me try everything on the paper.” Later, he recommended her for jobs and loaned her money to launch her newsletter. Repeatedly, Eva succeeded because she was helped by a succession of men who saw her potential and helped her to unlock it. One may wonder how many other women ever received such generous help.

In the end it was class, not gender, that cut off Valesh’s career. She rose to club woman status because she could interpret the class struggle for her upper-class friends as a member of the working class and participant in the labor movement. But this required that she walk a fine line between the demands of an increasingly radical labor movement and the moderate vision of her club friends. With one foot in each camp, it is not surprising that Valesh lost her balance. When the New York garment workers strikers rejected her mediation proposals, she had to explain to her upper-class friends why they turned down what she had presented as a reasonable compromise. Her attack on the ILGWU’s socialist leadership preserved her position with her rich friends, but at the cost of her position as a labor leader. But it was that position that made her interesting and valuable to her upper-class friends.

Elizabeth Faue has told a remarkable story, one with implications that extend well beyond Eva Valesh. Eva Valesh’s remarkable story shows what is possible in an society open to talent. But her life also shows the compromises that may be demanded of even a remarkably talented child of the working class. There may be a moral here after all.

Gerald Friedman is an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The author of State Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1999), he is currently preparing studies of the decline of the modern labor movement, and the development of modern economics provisionally entitled “Ambition and Ideals: Richard Ely and the Creation of Modern Economics.”

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII