Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
Some of us have been thinking and talking
too long without doing anything. Poems are
perfect; picketing, sometimes, is better.
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
I looked at my post from 2021 for Presidents’ Day, and wasn’t inspired to go in any new directions. If you prefer to read the excerpts I selected from the writings and speeches of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, click here:
Today’s featured authors, Meridel LeSeuer and Edna St. Vincent Millay, do share the same birthday with George Washington – February 22.
I debated what to choose from Meridel LeSeuer’s many and varied works, but decided to give you what I think is her best – one of the post powerful and depressing pieces of writing I have ever read. It’s 90 years old, and the Marxist magazine New Masses stopped publishing in 1948, so I think it’s out of copyright.
But since you were all expecting poetry, I’ve also posted one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s happiest poems at the end.
Women on the Breadlines
by Meridel LeSeuer
I am sitting in the city free employment bureau. It’s the woman’s section. We have been sitting here now for four hours. We sit here every day, waiting for a job. There are no jobs. Most of us have had no breakfast. Some have had scant rations for over a year. Hunger makes a human being lapse into a state of lethargy, especially city hunger. Is there any place else in the world where a human being is supposed to go hungry amidst plenty without an outcry, without protest, where only the boldest steal or kill for bread, and the timid crawl the streets, hunger like the beak of a terrible bird at the vitals? We sit looking at the floor. No one dares think of the coming winter. There are only a few more days of summer. Everyone is anxious to get work to lay up something for that long siege of bitter cold. But there is no work. Sitting in the room we all know it. That is why we don’t talk much. We look at the floor dreading to see that knowledge in each other’s eyes. There is a kind of humiliation in it. We look away from each other. We look at the floor. It’s too terrible to see this animal terror in each other’s eyes.
So we sit hour after hour, day after day, waiting for a job to come in. There are many women for a single job. A thin sharp woman sits inside the wire cage looking at a book. For four hours we have watched her looking at that book. She has a hard little eye. In the small bare room there are half a dozen women sitting on the benches waiting. Many come and go. Our faces are all familiar to each other, for we wait here everyday.
This is a domestic employment bureau. Most of the women who come here are middle-aged, some have families, some have raised their families and are now alone, some have men who are out of work. Hard times and the man leaves to hunt for work. He doesn’t find it. He drifts on. The woman probably doesn’t hear from him for a long time. She expects it. She isn’t surprised. She struggles alone to feed the many mouths. Sometimes she gets help from the charities. If she’s clever she can get herself a good living from the charities, if she’s naturally a lick-spittle, naturally a little docile and cunning. If she’s proud then she starves silently, leaving her children to find work, coming home after a day’s searching to wrestle with her house, her children.
Some such story is written on the faces of all these women. There are young girls too, fresh from the country. Some are made brazen too soon by the city. There is a great exodus of girls from the farms into the city now. Thousands of farms have been vacated completely in Minnesota. The girls are trying to get work. The prettier ones can get jobs in the stores when there are any, or waiting on table, but these jobs are only for the attractive and the adroit, the others, the real peasants, have a more difficult time. .
A young girl who went around with Ellen [a poor, attractive young woman] tells about seeing her last evening back of a cafe downtown outside the kitchen door, kicking, showing her legs so that the cook came out and gave her some food and some men gathered in the alley and threw small coin on the ground for a look at her legs. And the girl says enviously that Ellen had a swell breakfast and treated her to one too, that cost two dollars.
A scrub woman whose hips are bent forward from stooping with hands gnarled like water soaked branches clicks her tongue in disgust. No one saves their money, she says, a little money and these foolish young things buy a hat, a dollar for breakfast, a bright scarf. And they do. If you’ve ever been without money, or food, something very strange happens when you get a bit of money, a kind of madness. You don’t care. You can’t remember that you had no money before, that the money will be gone. You can remember nothing but that there is the money for which you have been suffering. Now here it is. A lust takes hold of you. You see food in the windows. In imagination you eat hugely; you taste a thousand meals. You look in windows. Colours are brighter; you buy something to dress up in. An excitement takes hold of you. You know it is suicide but you can’t help it. You must have food, dainty, splendid food and a bright hat so once again you feel blithe, rid of that ratty gnawing shame.
“I guess she’ll go on the street now,” a thin woman says faintly and no one takes the trouble to comment further. Like every commodity now the body is difficult to sell and the girls say you’re lucky if you get fifty cents. . .
It’s one of the great mysteries of the city where women go when they are out of work and hungry. There are not many women in the bread line. There are no flop houses for women as there are for men, where a bed can be had for a quarter or less. You don’t see women lying on the floor at the mission in the free flops. They obviously don’t sleep in the jungle or under newspapers in the park. There is no law I suppose against their being in these places but the fact is they rarely are.
Yet there must be as many women out of jobs in cities and suffering extreme poverty as there are men. What happens to them? Where do they go? Try to get into the Y.W. without any money or looking down at heel. Charities take care of very few and only those that are called “deserving.” The lone girl is under suspicion by the virgin women who dispense charity.
I’ve lived in cities for many months broke, without help, too timid to get in bread lines. I’ve known many women to live like this until they simply faint on the street from privations, without saying a word to anyone. A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her….
Sometimes a girl facing the night without shelter will approach a man for lodging. A woman always asks a man for help. Rarely another woman. I have known girls to sleep in men’s rooms for the night, on a pallet without molestation, and given breakfast in the morning….
Mrs. Grey, sitting across from me is a living spokesman for the futility of labour. She is a warning. Her hands are scarred with labour. Her body is a great puckered scar. She has given birth to six children, buried three, supported them all alive and dead, bearing them, burying them, feeding them. Bred in hunger they have been spare, susceptible to disease. For seven years she tried to save her boy’s arm from amputation, diseased from tuberculosis of the bone. It is almost too suffocating to think of that long close horror of years of child bearing, child feeding, rearing, with the bare suffering of providing a meal and shelter.
Now she is fifty. Her children, economically insecure, are drifters. She never hears of them. She doesn’t know if they are alive. She doesn’t know if she is alive. Such subtleties of suffering are not for her. For her the brutality of hunger and cold, the bare bone of life. That is enough. These will occupy a life. Not until these are done away with can those subtle feelings that make a human being be indulged.
She is lucky to have five dollars ahead of her. That is her security. She has a tumour that she will die of. She is thin as a worn dime with her tumour sticking out of her side. She is brittle and bitter. Her face is not the face of a human being. She has born more than it is possible for a human being to bear. She is reduced to the least possible denominator of human feelings.
It is terrible to see her little bloodshot eyes like a beaten hound’s, fearful in terror. We cannot meet her eyes. When she looks at any of us we look away. She is like a woman drowning and we turn away….
The young ones know though. I don’t want to marry. I don’t want any children. So they all say. No children. No marriage. They arm themselves alone, keep up alone. The man is helpless now. He cannot provide. If he propagates he cannot take care of his young. The means are not in his hands. So they live alone. Get what fun they can. The life risk is too horrible now. Defeat is too clearly written on it.
It is appalling to think that these women sitting so listless in the room may work as hard as it is possible for a human being to work, may labour night and day, like Mrs. Gray wash street cars from midnight to dawn and offices in the early evening, scrubbing for fourteen and fifteen hours a day, sleeping only five hours or so, doing this their whole lives, and never earn one day of security, having always before them the pit of the future. The endless labour, the bending back, the water soaked hands, earning never more than a week’s wages never having in their hands more life than that.
“Women on the Breadlines” © 1932 by Meridel LeSeuer, published in New Masses magazine, January 1932
Meridal LeSueur (1900-1996) was born in Murray, Iowa; American poet, short fiction writer, activist and essayist against unfair labor conditions and in favor of the land rights of Southwest and Minnesota Native American tribes. After studying dance and physical fitness, in the early 1920s she moved to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Acting, and lived in an anarchist commune. By 1925, she was a member of the Communist Party. She found work in Hollywood as an extra and a stunt woman in silent pictures, but also continued to write articles for newspapers and journals, and children’s books which became popular, including biographies like Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road, and Sparrow Hawk. Lesueur was blacklisted in the 1950s as a communist, and taught writing classes in her mother’s home. In the 1960s, she travelled the U.S., attending and writing about the student protests, and in the 1970s, she lived among the Navajo people in Arizona. Her work was discovered by feminists in the 1970s, and enjoyed a revival. LeSueur’s unpublished novel, The Girl, written in the 1930s, was finally published in 1978.
For me, the saddest and most terrifying thing about “Women on the Breadlines” is that life is still like this for far too many people. Yet as Meridel LeSeuer says, “Hard times ain’t quit and we ain’t quit.”
And now, for something completely different.
Afternoon On A Hill
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.
And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!
“Afternoon on a Hill” from Collected Poems: Edna St. Vincent Millay, © 1956 by Norma Millay Ellis – HarperCollins Publishers
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was born in Maine on February 22, graduated from Vassar College in 1917, and published her first book of poetry that same year. She became a well-known and highly respected poet and playwright, with a strong feminist sensibility. She was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1923, for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. In 1936, she was in a road accident which severely damaged nerves in her spine, requiring frequent surgeries and hospitalizations, and at least daily doses of morphine. Millay lived the rest of her life in pain. Though she had been a dedicated and active pacifist during WWI, in the 1930s, she became very alarmed by the rise of fascism, and was an ardent supporter of U.S. involvement in WWII. She worked with the Writers’ War Board to create propaganda, including poetry. Millay’s reputation in poetry circles was damaged by her war work. Book critic Merle Rubin noted, “She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism.” St. Vincent Millay was the second woman to be awarded the Robert Frost Medal for body of work in 1943.