“In Vain, My Attempts to Be Reasonable”

The struggles of socialist single mother Matilda Robbins in the 1920s are surprisingly relevant right now.

Courtesy of the Matilda Robbins Papers

Courtesy of the Matilda Robbins Papers

“I WAS 29 YEARS OLD when I decided to have a child.”

Radical firebrand Matilda Rabinowitz had already led an extraordinary life by age 29. She was an elected Socialist Party leader, an IWW [International Workers of the World] organizer; a key figure in a textile mill strike in 1912.

Taube Gitel Rabinowitz, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, arrived in America in 1900, age 13, with minimal education and no money. With self-confidence and grit, she transformed herself into Matilda Gertrude Robbins, a liberated, politically engaged woman. Her trajectory was tied to the turbulent times she lived in. But when it came time to balance her work—bringing about revolution—with starting a family, the obstacles Robbins faced will be familiar to any woman today. Yes, even our socialist foremothers struggled to have it all.

We know about her daily struggles thanks in part to Robbins’s newly published memoir, Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: a Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century (Cornell ILR Press, 29.95). Echoing up through the years, her words shed light on so many problems we still see: the tensions between the time it takes to pursue meaningful work outside the home while being a caretaker, the casual indifference of male revolutionaries to the plight of their female comrades, and the feminist movement’s alienation from any class struggle.

Robbins was caught at the intersection of class oppression and gender oppression; her lively description of what this looked like can be a guidepost for today’s left, as so many feminists and progressives alike have been reinvigorated in pushing for policies that uplift women, like expanded free childcare, an increased minimum wage, and—especially—universal health care.

Just before Robbins turned 30, she underwent a change: “There came over me a strange mood, an overwhelming, unconquerable desire to have a child. In vain my theories about economic insecurity, in vain my attempts to be reasonable,” she wrote in an unpublished article from 1927, “The Life of a Wage-Earning Mother.”

Today we would say that her biological alarm clock went off. When Matilda decided to have a child in 1919, she was unmarried. The father of her baby was a fellow IWW activist and, it’s safe to say, a young man of poor judgment. Ben Legere would eventually have four wives and many children, none of whom he did much to support. Robbins knew Legere would not support her emotionally or financially, and in fact it was Robbins who often supported the feckless Legere, paying his rent so he could pursue his acting career. (The IWW supported dramatic projects as part of their work so his dramatic career was within the IWW world.) At times she even took care of his children by other women.

It didn’t matter. Robbins was, for reasons hard to understand, addicted to Ben and the drama of their on-again, off-again relationship. What’s more, both Robbins and Ben were invested in the Free Love ethos of the time (another famous adherent: Emma Goldman), which saw relationships as something men and women should be able to enter, and dissolve, on their own, without interference of the state. This tended to work out better for the men than for the women.

Once she gave birth, Robbins describes the child-care choices in her own neighborhood as “ill-kept charity holes” and complains of the way they treated the mothers compelled to leave their children there. At the same time, “I tried an uptown Montessori kindergarten… with cultured, smiling ladies in charge, and I found that it was only for the rich….” At another kindergarten, the registrar “felt very uncomfortable over the fact that I had no husband.” The shame and frustration Matilda experienced as a working mother 100 years ago feels appallingly familiar. “There are books a-plenty and educators and exponents of ‘new’ and ‘modern’ theories on child culture…. But what is there for the mother compelled to leave her child for the job?” Robbins asked. Good question.

A century later little has changed. For instance, the fertility discourse in the Jewish community has been dominated for decades by men loudly lamenting low birth rates while staying silent on the systemic child-care burdens’ falling on women. The list goes on: the United States is the only developed country in the world to not offer federally mandated paid maternity leave. In many states the annual cost of childcare can be as much as a year’s tuition at a public university. Mothers are criminalized for leaving their children at a playground while they themselves interview for jobs. The safety net is full of holes.


BUT ROBBINS’S AMBITION WOULDN’T BE STYMIED BY HER CIRCUMSTANCES; like many working mothers today, she worked around and through her troubles. Though her path wasn’t easy (she sometimes had to pretend to be divorced rather than an unmarried mother), Robbins remained politically engaged as a secretary for the Socialist Party, taking a front row seat at the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in the early 1920s. And she remained proud of her choice and certain that the concerns of working mothers were as important as those of any other laborer. Indeed, the quotes above come from that 1927 article she drafted about choosing single motherhood, “From The Life of A Wage Earning Mother.”

Her progressive comrades, however, didn’t find single motherhood such a compelling topic. The article was rejected by The Nation in 1927 (and by Redbook in 1977). The sad thing, of course, is that the issues Robbins raised—low wages, dire lack of affordable childcare, patronizing and cruel treatment of single working mothers—remain relevant. One could see Redbook or The Nation being eager to publish her account today.

“From The Life of A Wage Earning Mother” is included as an appendix in Robbins’s memoir, which is illustrated with vibrant woodcuts by her granddaughter, artist Robbin Legere Henderson. Henderson also included clarifying historical material as well as reflections on her grandmother’s fascinating life, pointing out and filling in the gaps in Matilda’s story. As Legere Henderson notes, Robbins’s writing can be frustratingly circumspect. It appears that Ben Legere was, at best, a neglectful partner and at worst abusive. What exactly kept drawing Matilda back to him? We never really find out. Matilda’s relationship with IWW counsel Fred Moore, one of the lead attorneys during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, is also left ambiguous, though her granddaughter believes that they were lovers. At one point in the memoir Matilda claims that though she never lacked for male attention, “[c]asual sex affairs had no appeal for me.” A woman of fierce principle, perhaps Matilda saw the need for a comfortable love life as a weakness, unbefitting a committed revolutionary.

This is one of the many ways Robbins’s life was defined by her iconoclasm. She was a single mother by choice at a time when such a thing barely existed. Perhaps most notably, she was an East Coast, Russian-Jewish immigrant woman in the IWW , a masculinist union movement centered in the West and dominated by members in heavy industry like mining, ship building, and logging. Though we think of the history of American labor as well-populated by Jews, Jewish involvement in the IWW was comparatively tiny. In the popular imagination, the IWW was associated with hobos, and with good reason. Hobos were itinerant, male manual laborers, the emblematic IWW member. In 1912 the Socialist Party candidate for President was an IWW member named Eugene V. Debs. He got almost a million votes, and thus the IWW vision of a workers’ revolution didn’t seem too farfetched, or unreasonable.

Perhaps that explains why the fervor—and success—of the IWW was a perfect home for Robbins’s energy. The IWW stood apart from other labor movements of its day. Instead of organizing along craft or guild lines, it organized skilled and unskilled workers together, by industry. Rather than working for reform, the IWW ’s goal was to seize control of the factories themselves, bringing about an industrial revolution by the workers. The IWW made no distinctions along gender, racial or ethnic lines. Instead of top-down administration, the IWW believed that power resided with the workers. Anyone could be a leader, a philosophy that was understandably attractive to a woman like Robbins.

When the IWW began to organize women, mostly immigrants, in textile mills, opportunity knocked for Robbins, sent in 1912 to organize her first strike, in Little Falls, New York. Though Little Falls was much smaller in scale than the Lawrence and Lowell textile strikes in Massachusetts, it was still significant, and for her help winning the 14-week strike she earned a place in American labor history.

Robbins understood intrinsically why factory conditions had to change. Her first job was at 14, in a shirtwaist factory in New York. Too young to work there legally, she was hidden in a hamper of shirtwaists when the inspectors came around. In 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire demonstrated just how deadly unchecked industrial capitalism could be for workers.


ALONG WITH HER LACK OF REFLECTION ON HER LOVE LIFE, Robbins’s memoir is curiously silent on her Jewishness, aside from the grim description of her early years in the Pale of Settlement. Legere Henderson says that while her grandmother did occasionally speak Russian, she never heard her speak a word of Yiddish. After the establishment of the State of Israel Matilda became an unaffiliated anti-Zionist. It’s certainly possible that, like many other Eastern European immigrants, she wished to create a new American life, unshackled to the old fashioned strictures of Jewishness. Her position was also likely due to the influence of the IWW , which de-emphasized differences like race and ethnicity in favor of a universalism of the proletariat. We know from her memoir that Matilda had many Jewish friends and traveled in very Jewish circles, but she never seems to participate as a Jew. Class identity seemed always to determine Robbins’s understanding of the world around her.

That emphasis on class consciousness left Robbins with blind spots. IWW values included and intertwined with destigmatized birth control, free love and free speech. But at its core it remained a masculinist movement and articulated no specific vision for the emancipation of women workers. Incredible though it seems today, women’s suffrage was entirely absent from the IWW agenda, and Matilda never mentions this as a concern, even though the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, at the height of her activism. Indeed, though Matilda doesn’t say as much in her memoir, IWW women were encouraged to see middle-class female activists not as allies, but as adversaries, women working to hold up a fundamentally rotten system. In her memoir, Robbins never connects her own experiences as a working mother with the oppression of systemic sexism, nor does she suggest political solutions.

What Robbins doesn’t say in “From The Life of A Wage Earning Mother” is made explicit in her memoir: despite the systemic inequities, what made single motherhood possible for her was her extensive network of friends, especially her close friendships with bohemian and middle-class feminists. They were the ones who provided the emotional and financial support she needed at key moments. They believed in her and pushed her to further her education and career. Her closest friend was Marie Hourwich, also a Russian Jewish immigrant. Despite their common background, Hourwich came from an upper-middle-class family and had graduated from Johns Hopkins. Robbins had an eighth grade education. When they met in 1911 in Boston, Hourwich was working as a statistician with the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission. She and a number of other young college-educated women had come there for a project to survey the women of Boston about working conditions.

Matilda Robbins impressed Hourwich and her friends with her command of foreign languages, her unaccented English (Marie Hourwich still had a heavy Russian accent), and her reading habits. Robbins quickly went from working in a shirtwaist shop to being Marie’s assistant. Though she was enormously fond of Hourwich, Robbins was very aware of their class differences. She dryly describes herself as an “untutored immigrant girl” who nonetheless spoke a refined English and had a command of economics and labor. Next to these New England college girls, Robbins says she was “a creature of another world.” Though she would always be aware of the difference in privilege, Robbins was eager to be in Hourwich’s world, and they became lifelong friends.

Robbins’s friendship with another statistician, Marie Kasten, inspired her to go to college. Kasten convinced her that, with her aid, she would be able to enroll in her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Robbins had set about saving money for the necessary remedial tutoring when life intervened. Just as she began her plan to ready herself for college, she got the call to go to Little Falls and lead the strike there. Though she never did go to college, Robbins maintained her friendships with middle class feminists the rest of her life and often relied on them for support.

This is the most poignant message of Immigrant Girl. Revolutions are begun in unwavering commitment to principle. Real political change, on the other hand, is an endless grind of compromise. Indeed, human relationships in general are built on compromise, and the constant negotiation of conflicting identities. No one, not even revolutionaries, can live without friends.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a journalist and playwright in New York City. Her work on new Yiddish culture, feminism, and contemporary Jewish life has appeared in Haaretz, The Jewish Week, The Forward, Alma and Lilith. She conducts the biweekly “Rokhl’s Golden City” column for Tablet, on Yiddish and Ashkenazi life in all its incarnations.