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Interchange – Matilda and the Wobblies

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From the Ukrainian Pale to Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Radicalized by deplorable labor conditions for immigrants in America, Matilda Rabinowitz became one of the only women to organize for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Rabinowitz immigrated to the United States from Ukraine at the age of thirteen. Radicalized by her experience in sweatshops, she became an organizer for the IWW from 1912 to 1917 before choosing single motherhood in 1918.

Our guest today is her granddaughter, Robbin Légère Henderson, who has illustrated Matilda’s memoir with black-and white-scratchboard drawings. She depicts her grandmother’s life in the Pale of Settlement in Ukraine, her journey to America and political awakening, her work as an organizer for the IWW, a turbulent romance, and her struggle to support herself and her child.

Henderson’s book is Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman, and in it Rabinowitz describes the ways in which she and her contemporaries rejected the intellectual and social restrictions imposed on women as they sought political and economic equality in the first half of the twentieth century. Rabinowitz devoted her labor and commitment to the notion that women should feel entitled to independence, equal rights, equal pay, and sexual and personal autonomy.

Matilda arrested in Detroit
She may be best remembered for her organizing autoworkers in Detroit at the Studebaker plant who began calling for the eight-hour day and weekly rather than bi-monthly paychecks, and held a combined skilled and unskilled walkout on June 17, 1913. This action, considered to be the first major strike at a U.S. auto plant, may not have occurred without Rabinowitz’s work.

But it’s a troubled love for another labor organizer Ben Légère that animates this story and makes it more than just an account of socialist labor organizing in the same years that would see the Russian Revolution explode into world consciousness.

GUEST
Robbin Légère Henderson, a California native, received her BA at the University of California at Berkeley and attended Reed College and the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in California, New York, Europe, Central America and New Zealand. For the past five years Henderson has devoted herself to scratchboard illustrations related to her family history. A residency in 2015 at Blue Mountain Center provided an opportunity to complete the graphic memoir of her grandmother, Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman, published in 2017 by Cornell University Press.

RELATED
The World of Our Grandmothers
The Women of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.)
Bread and Roses: Workers’ Rights A Century Ago (Books Unbound)

MUSIC
“One Day More” by Elaine Purkey
“Factory Girl” performed by Rhiannon Giddens
“Break and Roses” performed by Bobbie McGee
“Factory Girl” by the Rolling Stones
“Make America Great Again” by Pussy Riot

CREDITS
Producer & Host: Doug Storm
Assistant Producer: Rob Schoon
Executive Producer: Wes Martin

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