THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Beatrice “Bea” Lumpkin
“I Grew Up Highly Influenced by Organized Labor and Radicals on the Left.”
Interviewed by Karen Fishman, VFA Member, October 2022
KF: I’m Karen Fishman, and I’m here with Beatrice Lumpkin. Very happy to be here with you. Beatrice has had a very long and eventful life as an activist, especially in the labor movement and in the civil rights movement. We’re going to talk about her involvement in the founding of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and other activities during the early part of the women’s movement. Can we start, Beatrice, by you telling us your full name, when and where you were born, where you grew up, and where have you mostly lived and worked during your life?
BL: I’m Beatrice Lumpkin. Born and bred in New York City, then I left, and most of my life has been in the Midwest with nine years in Buffalo, New York, and the rest of the time in the Chicago area.
KF: In what year were you born?
KF: Tell us, Beatrice, who and what were your major early influencers?
BL: I’d say my family and the community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants that I grew up in.
KF: Tell us a little more about that. What was that like? What were they like?
BL: My parents were political refugees. My father was rescued or busted out of a Tsarist jail in the aftermath of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution in which my mother also participated. They were not married then. But I must add that the community was highly organized on their jobs, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, so I grew up highly influenced by organized labor and also, in general, radicals on the left.
KF: Were your parents active in the labor movement, in those unions?
BL: I believe my mother worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and left for the birth of her first child. She was not there at the time of the 1911 fire, but that’s about the time that my oldest brother was born. I don’t think either one of them ever went back to work in factories. Of all the businesses my father chose to engage them in, they went into, quote, business, unfortunately, I think they chose the laundry business. So, my mother spent the rest of her life ironing shirts and my father on foot, picking up the packages.
KM: Tell us a little bit about your early work life.
BL: Being born in 1918, that would have made me a teenager in the early days of the Depression. My first job was actually only 15 and I lied, saying I was 18, which was required, and that was in an electronics assembly plant where they were making the sockets for the vacuum tube. From there I went in one of the CIO organizing drives.
I left college and became an organizer of the laundry workers union. So various factory jobs during World War II. Then my education was worth a few more cents an hour, and I became, as they called it, a junior electronics engineer. There I went into different electronics jobs that were not union and then I went into the great world of teaching, which was and is very union.
KF: Teaching has been a lot of your professional life.
BL: Yes, I’d say it’s been a third of my life.
KF: When you think about your activism in various social justice movements, can you pick out a couple of the most important events and efforts in which you were involved? Tell us about the roles that you played and what impact your work had.
BL: In later life, I participated in events in large part through what my husband was doing as a steelworker. He literally rose from the rank and file to become an important steelworker leader. That’s a long story, but I thought I should record it, and so I wrote a book called Always Bring a Crowd!: The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker.
And there’s one that takes on my own life. The joint part of our lives together was important, but we had very separate lives as a whole. My own story, Joy in the Struggle: My Life and Love, that was the first, the most important part of my life and love. And the reason I emphasize the joy is I’m sure that’s a large part of what’s kept me relatively healthy for so many years.
KF: Are there any especially memorable campaigns that you were involved in?
BL: Well, I try to remember them all. I do think they were all special. What kind would you like me to talk about? Let’s talk about the founding of CLUW, because I know our time is limited, and I want to be sure to include that. I’m fortunate to be in Chicago, which has been the center of many of our progressive movements. This is what I believe the textbook writers call the the second wave of feminism.
And having lived so long, I can say I came along at the first wave of feminism, since I was born before the 19th Amendment. The second wave was mostly characterized, and I’m speaking about the media, as the movement of middle-class women. Or even upper, I hate calling them upper class, because I don’t think much “up” about them other than their money. Shall we say capitalist class women. But not so much working-class women.
And that’s far from the case. And so union women felt they needed a feminist form of their own, which was never anti-man. It was anti-exploitation. They were organized regionally speaking, of the country, regional conventions of union women from different unions. It was a coalition and we had the catchy name then of CLUW, Coalition of Labor Union Women. I was also fortunate because of my labor involvement, to know the organizers, the seven women who were the founding members of CLUW.
I participated in that convention, the Midwest union women, and then in 1974, a national convention was called, a founding convention at which we expected 800 women and 3000 women came. I kid you not. It was wonderful, the enthusiasm that was there. Of course, there were serious divisions because of a factional fight between the Farm Workers Union and the Teamsters, and a symbolic coming together was very important when the delegations of those two unions embraced and created a unity on which CLUW was founded, based on four principles. If I can remember them.
Yes, we made very important progress but those are still suitable as four principles today. First, of course, equality for women in the workplace. It’s hard to say what’s most important, but that would be a leading contender. Equality of women in their unions because with one exception, there were no national female presidents of the unions. A lot of progress has been made in that direction to the point where today the head of the AFL-CIO, the federation of most of the unions in the country, is a woman. Equality in political life, and there is a fourth related one. I’m very proud of what we did.
KF: I mentioned to you that I was at that founding convention and I remember it as being very exciting for those of us not in the labor movement to have the women in the labor movement joining the feminist fight. Individuals in the labor movement had been involved, we know all the way through, but I also remember that convention as a very diverse group of women and women from many different unions and from different positions in their unions. It was a really wonderful day.
BL: Long live CLUW!
KF: What did you think about the women’s movement apart from your involvement in CLUW? How did it strike you? Did you participate in any local feminist groups? Did you have other involvements?
BL: I’ve been fighting for women’s rights from at least the age of six. Why couldn’t I wear my hair chopped off? As you see, I’ve reverted to that style. It’s hard to beat a haircut where you can’t tell if it’s been combed or not. I certainly have suffered from the discrimination against women.
Perhaps the biggest thing career wise was that being through the depression, being on welfare in New York, we called it relief. I certainly couldn’t pay tuition at college, but the labor movement had fought for free colleges, which we don’t have today and Hunter College was tuition free. However, I could only go to Hunter College which then was an all-women’s college and not the CCNY City College of New York, which was then an all-men’s college. And Hunter College had no engineering course and so I never became an engineer.
Now, it’s true the engineers were unemployed during the Depression also and it’s a terrible thing to say, but under capitalism it proved true that you didn’t have full employment unless you had a war and then it got so bad that you could have your unemployment and the war going on at the same time. I would say I’ve been an active feminist and I remember the age six because I was fighting with a boy with my fists and the grownups, instead of stopping us, were egging us on. I never fought that way again.
KF: Tell me how you’re still involved as an activist.
BL: I was just thinking that I was very tired this morning because I’m over involved, but nothing’s more important than the climate change crisis. I’m involved in that work through the Chicago Teachers Union and involved in other efforts with the Chicago Teachers Union. I did work in a steel mill for two years. Plus, the spouses and relatives and friends of steelworkers are now eligible to join the retiree organization, SOAR, Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees. I’m also still writing some. I’m busy.
KF: You are busy. A life that’s an inspiration to those of us who are not as busy. When I talk to you, I feel I should be doing more. Anything else you want to tell us that you would like to have as part of your story?
BL: It is a traditional line, you could say woman’s occupation, but it better become everybody’s occupation. And that’s to get rid of all the nuclear weapons and to end wars before they end us.