Golden Era Woman of the Week

Discussion in 'The Home Front Woman' started by LizzieMaine, May 11, 2014.

  1. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Each week we'll be posting the story of a Golden Era woman who stands out for her achievements, her notability, and her personality -- some of them you might know, some might be new to you, but all are worthy of your attention.

    Our first honoree is a truly remarkable woman -- Ruth Harkness, a real-life combination of Myrna Loy and Indiana Jones.

    Ruth Harkness was born in 1900 in a small town in Pennsylvania. An indpendent minded woman from earliest childhood, she had a flair for fashion and art that led her, by the late twenties, to a productive career as a Manhattan dress designer. Her husband, William Harkness, was a globe-trotting adventurer and explorer whose great goal in life was to capture the first living specimen of the elusive Giant Panda, an animal then little known to the western world. Unknown to Ruth, Bill Harkness developed throat cancer in the early 1930s, and while on an expedition to the mountains of Western China he took a turn for the worse in 1934 and died in a Shanghai hospital.

    Bill's death threw a switch in Ruth Harkness's mind. Up until then she'd been satisified with the life of a New York socialite -- but with her husband's passing she became determined to see that his lifelong dream was accomplished, and with no background or experience in exploring, hunting, or woodcraft, she traveled to China herself in 1936 to carry on his work. She found that his partner had been embezzling expedition funds and rid herself of him immediately -- hiring instead a young Chinese explorer named Quentin Young to serve as her guide, and outfitting herself in cut-down, resewn clothing from Bill's wardrobe, she headed into the forests in search of a panda.

    The expedition made its way thru the western mountains and camped in an area known to be panda country. Against Ruth's explicit instructions, members of the exploration party shot an adult panda for food -- and to her horror, she discovered that the animal was a mother, her newborn infant crying in a nearby hollow tree. With no other choice, she wrapped the baby panda in her jacket and carried it back to camp -- nursing it with canned milk from the expedition's provisions, until they made their way back to Shanghai. Thru the influence of one of Bill's old friends, an executive of Socony Oil, she was able to get export papers for the cub -- describing it as "one small dog" in the paperwork -- and sailed for San Francisco.

    She arrived in late November to a wave of publicity. The panda -- named "Su Lin," or "a little bit of something very cute" -- became a sensation, and for several months lived with Harkness in a suite at the Algonquin Hotel in New York until she could figure out where it would be best cared for. The Brookfield Zoo in Chicago agreed to accept custody of the cub, and once Su was safely boarded, she returned to China for the purpose of finding another young panda to serve as Su's companion. She returned home with another young cub, "Mei Mei", in early 1938, and the two pandas became inseparable playmates -- until, tragically, Su suddenly died from an infection resulting from a stick caught in his throat.

    Ruth Harkness was shattered by Su's death, and her life began to spiral into depression. She tried another expedition to China and captured a third panda -- but before she could bring the new cub home, she was suddenly horror-struck by the implications of what she was doing: panda-hunting had become a fad and pandas were being taken out of their habitat in bunches to meet the demand from American zoos. She returned the bear to the forest and set it free -- and swore she'd never capture another animal again.

    Ruth Harkness lived another eight years after that, working as a travel writer, but her zest for life was gone. She fell victim to alcoholism, and died alone in a hotel bathroom in 1947. Among the few scant posessions in her suitcase at the time of her death was a copy of "The Lady and the Panda," the book she'd written about her life with Su Lin, published just days before his death.


    Ruth, Su Lin, and Mei Mei, February 1938.
    vitanola and Hambone87 like this.
  2. DecoDame

    DecoDame One of the Regulars

    What a great idea for a thread! I'm eager to hear about generally lesser known period women. Especially someone with such gumption. I'll be the first to chime in with a "Why don't they make movies about women like this?" cliches. But only because it's true!

    When we made a pleasure trip to NYC several years ago, I made a point of going to the Algonquin and sat in the lobby and had a glass of wine and soaked in the spirit of the place and pictured Louise Brooks being tossed out of the joint for being underage and...Louise. Now I have yet another story to imagine taking place there. And I've only just lost my sweet canine companion, very unexpectedly, so Harkness' sense of loss over Su has extra resonance right now...It can be heartbreaking.
  3. Gingerella72

    Gingerella72 A-List Customer

    Nebraska, USA
    I would enjoy a movie about Ruth Harkness! What an incredible story.
  4. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    I've wondered for years why there wasn't a proper film about her -- there was a cheesy little docudrama a few years ago which wasn't worth much, but why some big-budget director hasn't latched onto the story is beyond me. It's got adventure, drama, heart appeal, the sex angle (Harkness and Quentin Young, her Chinese guide, engaged in a brief but torrid affair during the 1936 expedition), and pandas. I know our audience here would lap it up.

    Who knows an agent? I'd do a treatment right now if I thought someone'd buy it.
    Annie B likes this.
  5. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Vitanola shares an interesting fact about Bill Harkness, Ruth's husband -- he was the grandson of Daniel Harkness, a large early shareholder in Standard Oil. This is what likely made it possible for him to go gadding about in China in the depths of the depression, and also may explain Ruth's connection to the local Socony representative in Shanghai, who not only arranged for Su Lin's export papers, but also got her out of custody when the Chinese authorities began to wonder just what this strange white woman was trying to prove. Ruth stayed with Su in an unheated detention room for several days without sleeping, holding him close to her to keep him warm and alive until they finally let her go.
    Last edited: May 13, 2014
  6. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Exactly three hundred and six people are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and exactly three hundred and five of these people are men. There is only one woman enshrined at Cooperstown. Her name was Effa Manley, and she was one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century. Effa Manley made her name in a male-dominated business at a time when women weren't expected to know much about sports, and even less about the business of sports. But as the driving force between the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, she made a vital contribution to the game at a time when both gender and racial roles in American society were in flux.

    There is much mystery surrounding her early life. Effa Louise Brooks was born in Philadelphia somewhere between 1897 and 1900, but practically every other fact of her early years is in doubt. Her exact parentage and even her actual racial identity remain in dispute, in part because she herself took great pains to obscure her early years, telling different stories to different people at different times in her life. She lived her life as an African-American woman, and was raised by a white mother and an African-American stepfather -- but she repeatedly claimed that both of her biological parents were white, and that she herself was, essentially, a white woman who, for cultural reasons, chose to "pass" as black. Other researchers believe that her biological father was in fact a black man, and that she was, in essence, an African American woman who chose to "pass" as a white woman who chose to pass as a black woman. Whatever the truth, and with no existing birth certificate, it's unlikley the truth will ever be known, Effa Brooks grew up as part of Philadelphia's small but vibrant African-American middle-class.

    Effa's early adulthood was unremarkable. She graduated from high school in 1916 and after a series of small jobs entered the millinery trade. She prospered in this field during the twenties, and was successful enough to be able to enjoy a bit of leisure time. And one of her favorite hobbies was baseball. Philadelphia was an early hotbed of African-American baseball activity, and Effa became a devoted fan of the game -- not just a rooter, but a careful observer and student of the intricacies of its rules and strategies. It was at the 1932 World Series in New York that she met Abraham Lincoln Manley, a handsome and prosperous-looking man who had amassed a healthy bankroll as a "policy" banker -- operating one of the many illegal backroom lotteries which provided a diversion for working-class people in the thirties, especially in the black community, where "playing the numbers" was a part of daily urban life.

    Effa and Abe were married, but no sooner had they settled in Harlem than the community was wracked by a violent race riot stemming in part from discriminatory hiring practices in the section's largest white-owned department store. Effa became involved in organizing an alternative to violent action -- taking an important role in the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" boycott campaign that forced the store to make important hiring concessions. Clearly, Effa Manley had no intention of settling down to a life of quiet middle-class housewifery.

    While all this was going on, Abe Manley was busy on the baseball front. Looking to put his money to good use, he bought a franchise in the Negro National League. The Brooklyn Eagles, named for the borough's daily newspaper, would play in Ebbets Field while the major-league Dodgers were on the road, and Abe himself would act as general manager, road manager, traveling secretary, and bus driver. Effa, with her head for organization, would control the business and administrative end of the operation -- including contracts with players. Under their joint management, the Eagles prospered. Then, in 1936, Abe and Effa decided to expand their operations, buying a franchise in nearby Newark, and merged it with the Eagles. As part of the deal, the Eagles relocated to Newark, where they would play for the next fourteen years.

    Abe Manley remained busy with his various other enterprises, and bit by bit he turned daily operation of the ballclub over to Effa. She proved herself not just a sharp businesswoman but a highly astute judge of baseball talent, signing many of the top African-American ballplayers to contracts with the Eagles, and keeping the club in regular contention. By the mid-forties, she was one of the most powerful figures in Negro League baseball -- a force not just in the operation of her own club, but in the Negro National League itself.

    Never was she more prominent than in the years just after the Second World War. After years of false feints, white baseball was finally taking steps to integrate, and many white owners looked to the Negro Leagues as a vast untapped resource of talent, theirs for the taking. But they failed to reckon with Effa Manley. When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a minor-league contract in late 1945 without compensating his Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs, Manley made it clear that she wouldn't tolerate any big-league poaching of her roster. She was riding high, with the Eagles winning the 1946 Negro World Series, and she saw unrestricted signing of her players by the major leagues as not just a threat to her own team but as a threat to Negro Baseball itself -- which was, at the time, the largest black-owned business enterprise in the United States.

    Effa Manley stood firm the following year, when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck expressed interest in signing her star second baseman Larry Doby as the first black player in the American League. Manley made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she was perfectly happy for Doby to have a chance in the big leagues, but if Veeck wanted him, he would have to pay fair market value for his contract. Impressed by this no-nonsense woman, Veeck wrote a check for $15,000 -- and in doing so, established the precedent of Major League Baseball honoring Negro League contracts.

    Manley knew when she sold Doby to the Indians that Negro Baseball was doomed -- integration would put an eventual end to the Negro Leagues -- but she ensured that her investment in her team, and that of her fellow owners, would have at least some level of protection as this happened. The Negro National League dissolved in 1948, and the Manleys sold the Eagles to a barnstorming entrepreneur from Texas, ending their formal association with the game. Effa moved on to the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, but her heart remained in baseball. In 1976 she wrote "Negro Baseball Before Integration," in which she laid out the cases of more than 70 star Negro League players who she believed deserved Hall of Fame enshrinement, based on her first-hand observation of their careers.

    So far, eighteen men on that list have been so honored -- along with Effa Manley herself. She died in 1981, a valued link to a nearly-forgotten era in baseball history, and even more, positive evidence of what a motivated, intelligent woman could do without regard for social or cultural obstacles. She was truly one of the most memorable women of the Era.

    Last edited: May 18, 2014
  7. DecoDame

    DecoDame One of the Regulars

    I've read a fair bit about golden age baseball, and I've never read a word about her before. Terrible. What a fascinating run she had. A quiet pioneer.

    Is she really the only woman in Cooperstown?? I thought the women from the women's baseball league finally got recognized or is that a misapprehension from A League of Their Own? Never believe the movies...

    I'm finally watching Ken Burn's "Baseball" doc and just in the first part I'm already constantly annoyed at the "A boy's dream..." "...All young boys know that feeling" and "...boys and their fathers bond..." constant commentary. Yes, well, that's your experience, fellows, but I was the ball maniac in my family, not my two brothers. It just doesn't allow much for a girl/woman's experience with baseball, so far... (I was tickled to learn that the Brooklyn Dodgers' first full nickname was "Trolley Dodgers" tho)

    (As a further aside, youtube has a 1934 game, almost in its entirety, between Yanks and Tigers. Listened to that will doing chores one day. Great to even hear "Gehrig comes to the plate". )
  8. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Effa really is the only woman. There is a display for the AAGPL, but no individual players have plaques in the actual Hall. Womens' participation in baseball in the Era is one of the great forgotten stories, and I may touch on other notable baseball ladies in future posts. (I've always wanted to write about Hilda Chester, the most famous baseball fan of all time, and she may be one of them)

    In my family women have always been fierce baseball fans. My grandmother taught me the game as we listened to Red Sox broadcasts on the big Firestone radio in her living room, and one of the last things she said to me before she died was "when are they ever gonna get rid of that bum Bob Stanley?" I'm glad she didn't live to see 1986, but when they won it in 2004, I said a prayer in her memory.

    My mother is also a rabid Sox fan, and called me in tears last winter when Jacoby Ellsbury signed with the Yankees. It took the better part of an hour to get her settled down.
  9. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    St. Louis, MO
    Effa Manley's fascinating. She clearly figured out who she wanted to be and how she wanted to present herself, and damn the torpedoes.

    I'm very much enjoying these fascinating and extremely well-written bios. Please keep them coming. I'm already looking forward to the next one.
  10. DecoDame

    DecoDame One of the Regulars

    I guess I shouldn't be surprised by Cooperstown ignoring women players... *sigh*

    Having been born in, and grew up near, Cincinnati, I of course was a Reds fan. Being the 70s, it was REALLY easy and thrilling being a Reds fan then. Which I guess puts us in opposition you being a Red Sox fan...but what a series in '75!

    I've tried to get back into the game recently, but find it hard to relate to the uber-corporate, steroidal, obscenely-payed era (it was never pristine, but it just seems like it's gotten progresively worse, imo). Went to the latest Cincy stadium several years ago, and was stunned to see how little hustle and grit to win there was. They all looked bored and many of them were standing up straight with their glove on their hip as the pitch was made. Only Votto looked like he wanted to be there. Didn't exactly pull me back in.
  11. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    That '75 series remains one of the most memorable weeks of my life. The church bells really did ring in small towns all over New England when Fisk hit the home run. And to this day my mother says we'd have won it if Darrell Johnson hadn't pulled Willoughby in the friggin' ninth and put in that so-and-so Burton.
  12. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    One of the legendary archetypes of the Golden Era woman is "Rosie the Riveter," widely imagined as a middle-class housewife who put down her pots and pans and headed to the assembly lines when her nation called during the Second World War. But the Rosies of the mid-1940s were far from the first women to make their mark on a factory floor. Working-class women had labored in factories for decades with little attention given to their well-being -- until the mid-1930s, when the American labor movement burst into a militant new phase. Hard-working blue-collar women were an integral part of this movement -- and none more so than a fiery young woman from Flint, Michigan named Genora Johnson Dollinger, hailed by her generation as The Joan Of Arc of Labor.

    Genora Albro was born in 1913 to family with roots in Flint, Michigan, and although Genora was actually born in Kalamazoo, the family returned home in her early childhood. Her father was a smalltime photographer by trade, but the shadow of the factories fell across everyone in Flint even then, as the auto industry continued to boom. As a teenager, Genora was smart, well-read, and religious, teaching Sunday School in the Methodist Church, and becoming familiar with the church's Social Creed, which among other points stressed the importance of the rights of labor. Her interest in labor issues was piqued thru her relationship with Kermit Johnson, a schoolmate whose father worked on the production lines at Chevrolet and who opened her eyes to working conditions there.

    Genora fell ill with tuberculosis during her senior year in high school, and never graduated -- but she spent the period of her long recuperation reading labor literature and meditating on what she, as an individual, might do to improve conditions for the workers. She ended up marrying Kermit Johnson in 1931, and as Genora raised her first child, she attended neighborhood discussion groups where she became interested in how the labor movement might make inroads in the auto industry. The auto manufacturers were militantly opposed to organized labor, and as the Depression deepend, they sought to cut every cost possible by increasing the burden on the assembly line workers. "Speedups" became common, pushing laborers to the limits of their physical endurance. One of these workers was her husband, Kermit, who alongside his father was working in Chevrolet Plant No. 4 in Flint.

    In 1936, the United Automobile Workers, a new union organized under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organization, was on the edge of a breakthru in organizing the workers at General Motors, despite the free use of hired thugs and an elaborate internal surveillance network by the automaker to keep the workers in line. A strike committe formed to consider strategy, and it was twenty-three-year-old Genora Johnson who pushed hard for what became the major thrust of the campaign: workers would capture and occupy Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint, a plant crucial to production for the entire General Motors line. On December 30th, 1936, the Flint-based workers seized the factory, shut down the production line, and refused to leave the building.

    General Motors responded with force, but the workers answered back in kind. And Genora Johnson was in the thick of it. She organized over four hundred wives and daughters of plant workers into an ad-hoc army -- the Women's Emergency Brigade. Armed with baseball bats and blackjacks made from heavy auto parts sewn into leather webbing and swung like slings, and wearing red berets and armbands to declare their identity, the W. E. B. formed a solid line outside the plant, engaging in front-line combat against police and strikebreakers brought in by the company. When police fired tear gas shells into the plant in an attempt to force the workers out, the W. E. B. responded by shattering hundreds of windows with a barrage of rocks and bricks to disperse the gas. After a vicious, six-hour riot, the police and strikebreakers withdrew. Fourteen strikers were left wounded, but with the help of Genora Johnson and her W. E. B. comrades, the line held.

    The next move was to occupy Chevrolet Plant No. 4, paralyzing GM's entire Flint operation. Again the W. E. B. was on the front line as Michigan governor Frank Murphy sent in the National Guard -- but not to rout the strikers, but to *protect* them from GM's thugs and goons. On February 11, 1937, nearly a month and a half after it began, the Flint Sit-Down Strike ended with a victory for the union: General Motors would agree to a six-year contract with the U. A. W.

    Genora Johnson became a heroine to thousands of workers nationwide for her actions during the strike -- but she herself disclaimed the "Joan of Arc" label. She knew that the victories of 1937 were only the beginning, and she needed to fight the next phase of the battle from the inside. She was blacklisted by General Motors, so she and Kermit moved to Detroit, where she took a job on the line at Briggs Manufacturing, the firm which built bodies for Chrysler, and became the Chief Steward for UAW Local 212, representing all of the women at Briggs.

    In 1941, Genora and Kermit drifted apart, their marriage ending in divorce. Genora struck up a new relationship with Sol Dollinger, a merchant seaman who had been deeply involved in maritime union matters, and she continued her own union work while he was at sea. When he returned home after World War 2, Sol became an autoworker himself and took a leading role in union affairs in Flint. The Dollingers were a thorn in the side of both management and factions in the union who favored a more accomodating stand with management, and these conflicts came to a head on October 16th, 1945 when masked thugs broke into the Dollinger apartment and brutally beat Genora with lead pipes, shattering her collar bone, fracturing her skull, and leaving her with permanent nerve damage. An investigation of the assaut by the Kefauver Committee several years later discovered evidence that the thugs were Mafia operatives hired by a coalition of auto-industry executives in an effort to eliminate what they considered to be a pestiferous woman who needed to be put in her place.

    Genora Dollinger refused to knuckle under to physical violence, and continued her union efforts -- but the changing political climate of the postwar era eventually landed her on an industry-wide blacklist. Losing her job at Briggs, she and Sol moved to the West Coast, where she became deeply involved in the civil rights and womens' movements during the 1950s and 1960s.

    Even into the 1970s, she was a fiery, militant figure who refused to compromise her beliefs. When the U. A. W honored her work with a lifetime achievement award, Genora was in no mood for a conciliatory speech remembering the old days. Instead, she took the platform and delivered a blistering attack on the "tuxedo unionists" who she argued were, in complicity with management, undoing everything she had worked to accomplish during the thirties. To the very end of her life in 1995, Genora Albro Johnson Dollinger remained a woman of force, a woman of conviction, and a woman of immense physical and emotional strength and courage. She was truly one of the most memorable women of the Golden Era.

  13. lolly_loisides

    lolly_loisides One Too Many

    The Blue Mountains, Australia
    What a great article Lizzie, she was an amazing women.
    Edit - just found an interesting article on women & the labour movement during WW2 (it also addresses Rosie the Riveter propaganda & reality).
    Last edited: May 25, 2014
  14. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    That's an excellent link -- thanks for posting. The thing that always amazes me when I read such things is not that there were so many women in the Era who accomplished so many things, it's that, for some reason, even in these "enlightened" times, most people have never heard of them.

    The thing I admire most about Genora Dollinger is that her greatest accomplishments came when she was just twenty-three years old. Think about that for a moment. How many twenty-three-year-olds today could you imagine doing what she did -- not just signing internet petitions or running her mouth on a blog or engaging in some kind of coffeehouse "street theatre" protest, but actually going out into the teeth of a mob, not in the name of "nonviolent resistance," but with a weapon in her hand, ready to fight -- putting not just her words, but her very life on the line for the sake of a greater good.

    I have often thought, if I'd been fortunate enough to have a daughter of my own, that I'd have named her "Genora." And I'd have made sure she knew why.
    Last edited: May 25, 2014
  15. Lady Day

    Lady Day I'll Lock Up Bartender

    Crummy town, USA
    I love this thread :)
  16. VintageBee

    VintageBee One of the Regulars

    Northern California
    Me too!!! I love history, particularly about everyday people (by that, I mean not actors or actresses specifically). Thank you, LizzieMaine, for this thread!
  17. DecoDame

    DecoDame One of the Regulars

    I find that so touching - community bonding over that moment. Even though I had quite a different reaction to Fisk's homerun. lol I have a DVD of those 70s series. I've only watched one inning or so. I need to sit down and soak it in. I'm sure your memories of the details are stronger than mine, because my memory is generally "impressionistic" at best.

    Another great profile! Lizzie, would you recommend the bio "Child of the Sit-Downs" for a Genora bio? Or any other preferred (is there any other)? I want to read more about her.
  18. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    When they talk about "Red Sox Nation," it isn't just a marketing gimmick. When I was growing up there were two things that were absolutely immutable about your identity: the church you belonged to and your allegiance to the Red Sox. In both cases, they were something that would follow you from the cradle to the grave.

    I gave my mother a DVD of Game 6 for Christmas the year before last, and she watched it over and over again all that winter.

    "Child of the Sit Downs" is an excellent book which I highly recommend -- it gets deep in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of her beliefs and motivations. Iit's the only serious biography, and it's astonishing that it took so long for it to come out. She was a key figure in the 1930s labor movement, which unfortunately has seen a concerted effort to erase it from public consciousness.
  19. DecoDame

    DecoDame One of the Regulars

    I'm guessing the Game 7 disc could be found in the trash bin out back? ;) I wish my own mother was as into the game as I was. She rolled her eyes at me and my brothers quite a bit growing up.

    Okay, will look for that bio. My local library branch doesn't seem to have it in their system, but I'll widen the net with an inter-library loan search - now that I know it's worth pursuing. Thanks!

    Strange and sad that my own family - many who were themselves factory and warehouse workers - have a negative opinion of unions now. I have a (so far) uneducated opinion that there was a lot of sabotage and undermining of them by people who were threatened by their successes. I'll be interested to read more about their histories to see how that impression shakes out.
  20. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Well, Genora's view was that the "tuxedo unionists" of the '70s, in their taste for the high life and their fondness for rubbing shoulders with the elite, were the prime saboteurs of the labor movement. It was sort of like the ending of "Animal Farm," if you get my drift.

    Her lifelong friend, colleague, and hero was Walter Reuther, who remained to his dying day a real friend of the working class. Unfortunately that dying day came a lot sooner than it should have.

    The retroactive editing of 1930s labor history started to pick up full steam in the '80s and '90s, when the "Spirit of '37" generation was dying off, and it was considered politically expeditious to throw what really happened down the memory hole. Genora tried till her dying day to keep the real story out there, but there's precious few people left alive today who were there in the thick of it. Of the more than 400 women and girls who made up the Emergency Brigade in 1937, only one is left alive.
    vitanola likes this.

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