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So you want a revolution?

By Diana R. Laing

Back in the days when women, lumped together with criminals and the insane, were disenfranchised and mounted police rode down legal pickets, bonds were formed between the growing women's movement and expanding labor movements. After 1900, nationalist-progressive policies threatened the ordered society. The career of Florence Luscomb, who suceeded radical feminists such as Charlotte Gilman, Jane Addams and Alice Paul, was closely intertwined with both movements. Luscomb has devoted most of her life to jabbing plump and comfortable consciences. She began campaigning for votes for women before World War I, and continued to do so even after the suffrage had been gained nationwide with the 1920 19th Constitutional Amendment.

In the late '30s there was a strike of stevedores in Everett, Mass. The police broke up the peaceful picket line with tear gas. Those were the lean years for unions in America, and these members of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), protesting against conditions in the maritime industry, were banned from further picketing. But the police had arrived on a windy day and there was a school playground to the side of the dock. That day it wasn't only workers who were taken to hospitals; the children also choked and wept as the stinging cloud hit them.

The citizens of Everett were no more amused with the actions of the law than the strikers had been. But the workers' protest came sooner. That evening they got in touch with Luscomb and Sara DuPont, known as champions of progressive causes since before historians dignified those years as an "era." Luscomb and DuPont had shared the days when advocating reform often meant speaking from soapboxes to mangy dogs and small boys on universal suffrage, civil rights for Americans of every race and color, and the claim each man or woman had to earning a decent wage.

The two women readily agreed to help the labor union. They proclaimed the positions the CIO were forced to surrender and formed a new, solitary picketline of two the next day, protesting the police action. Both women wore gas masks; they were a curious sight. The newspapers quickly reported the story of the 75-year-old DuPont, a member of one of the wealthiest industrial families in America, protesting a management decision, and the publicity bore fruit. An enquiry was held, unearthing the information that the police, with the approval of their Chief, had been accepting money not only from the city whose children they had accidentally gassed but also from the striking seamen's employers. The Chief of Police was subsequently fired and the two women's actions had added the initial theatrical touch that brought the story into the open.

Today, Luscomb is 90 years old. She lives on a quiet, tree-lined Cambridge street in a turquoise-grey house with a white front porch, an 11-member commune. Luscomb opens the door to visitors, a smiling grandmotherly figure wearing baggy black cords, a cream silk blouse and turquoise-and-silver jewelry. She peers rather hesitantly through clear pale-pink-rimmed spectacles but she moves quickly and lightly, even on a summery afternoon when the heat seems to slow every movement.

This spring Luscomb was one of the Seven Grand Bostonians Mayor Kevin H. White honored for their services to the City of Boston. At the black-tie, champagne reception this woman who has worked against the tide in most of the progressive movements of her times stood in a receiving line accepting compliments and handshakes from strangers, trying to avoid stumbling over cables and milling photographers recording the event. Two days later the corsage of flame-colored roses Luscomb had worn at the dinner was in a vase on the coffee table next to the Washington Spectator.

Luscomb regales a visitor with a wealth of anecdotes and political prophesying about people and places far away in space and time yet, as she speaks, it is all vivid. Luscomb recalls the struggles of the early women's movement with compassion and sometimes with humor. There was, for example, a time in the summer of 1909 when Luscomb was stumping for the suffrage and spoke at a small town near Haverell, Mass. It was an evening meeting in a town hall and, after the speaker had finished, a basket filled with yellow "Votes for Women" buttons was passed around the room. They cost one cent but the audience was gently reminded, "We wouldn't refuse more." Luscomb reached a burly, balding man in the sixth aisle who solemnly handed her double the requested amount. "It was worth two cents to hear you speak tonight, ma'am."

Later, Luscomb recalled the drama that attended the 1919 passage of the amendment by Congress of the Federal Constitution that would have extended the right to vote to all Americans, regardless of sex. Three-quarters of the state legislatures had to ratify the amendment and time was running out. The women were anxious to ratify it by 1920--the year of a presidential election--but they had to win 36 states, and they had 35. Only five states hadn't voted, two did not hold a session that year, and two were in the far South and "very reactionary," Luscomb remembers ruefully. Tennessee was the last chance. Passions rose as the deadline neared, rhetoric and belief tangling until they were inseparable. One legislator, tainted with the self-righteousness that always seems to attend those threatened by reform, cried out:

"Women are the best thing God ever made, and I would not pollute them by allowing them to wade through the filthy waters of politics."

At last, though, the amendment was ratified with the vote of Harry T. Burns, the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature following his mother's advice and helping vote in democracy for the women of America.

Luscomb conjures up images with little regard for continuity (from 1920 in Tennessee, her conversation turns to the 1848 conference on the condition of women at Seneca Falls, N.Y.). And her discourses reminded one of the plot of an old movie, full of flashbacks and straying off on tangents.

Luscomb's recollections are the stuff of which the most absorbing memoirs are made, but she has never written down the story of her life in full. Her first contact with feminism was at the age of five in 1892 when her mother took her to a suffragette convention. In 1909 Luscomb was one of the few women graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a degree in architecture. In 1910, the editors of The Woman's Journal (founded in 1840 by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell as the news bulletin of the women's movement) decided to reach out to the general public. Luscomb became one of many vendors hawking the journal on street corners. Every Saturday she stood on the corner of Tremont and "the well-named" Winter St. through the bitter chill of late 1910 and beginning of 1911. She still has the license as a "hawker and peddlar" (record #955) that she used at that time. And, in a battered leather documents folder she found a picture of herself on an old magazine cover: the clothes were old-fashioned and demure, her expression assured and smiling as she carried a bag over her shoulder full of newspapers. Always, she has maintained this kind of composure and conviction in the face of, at best, grudging tolerance or, more usually, as in the days when democracy for women was still opposed, when she felt herself unpopular, radical and ridiculed.

Luscomb visited mainland China in 1962, more than a decade before the United States government made any attempt to normalize relations with that country. And, only seven years before, during the McCarthy era, she was summoned to appear before the Massachusetts Commission to Investigate Communism and Subversion and interrogated about her organizational activities. These had included, since 1920, executive secretaryships of the Boston League of Women Voters, the Mass. Civic League, the Joint Board of Sanitary Control supervising health and safety conditions in garment factories, and for seven years, the Mass. branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She was a charter member (and at one time the president) of the local union of the United Office and Professional Workers Union of America.

Luscomb was an early adherent of the Civil Liberties Union from its inception in 1920 and for many years she was vice-chairman of its Massachusetts branch. She also joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People just after it was organized and served as the Boston branch vice-chairman, working extensively with Melnea Cass (another honored grand Bostononian known today as "The First Lady of Roxbury").

All in all, she is hardly a woman who would take a trial meekly. She addressed the Massachusetts Commission in 1955 when McCarthyism slithered over the land and she remained undaunted. She replied that she was not acquainted with any so-called subversives but that:

"I do know of subversion abroad in our land...It is subversive for commissions like these to spread such hysteria and intimidation throughout the land that Americans are afraid to sign petitions, afraid to read progressive magazines, afraid to make out checks for liberal causes, afraid to join organizations, afraid to speak their minds on public issues . . . this is the destruction of democracy."

Yet, today, Luscomb does not reveal the passionate depth of her convictions all at once. She talks slowly, with the measured rhythm and varied tone of the practiced public speaker but she never talks at you. Indeed, you might be deceived, on first meeting her, into imagining that this charming old lady was taking it easy after adventures such as her 1962 trip to the World Disarmament Congress in Moscow. But the deception is short-lived. She says her time is more her own now but she still gives lectures about the history of the women's movement, her journeys to China, Cuba, and Russia, and her ongoing work for civil rights and world peace.

Luscomb's phone rings continuously. One minute it is a radio network asking her to give a broadcast. A few moments later WGBH-TV calls to finalize an interview schedule. And of course her friends call, too. For, though she has remarked of her reforming campaigns that "They are the only things that made my life interesting, that made me feel that I was a part of my times...," it is nevertheless apparent that it is people, rather than abstract political ideologies that she cares about.

She likes to sit in a large, sunny living room filled with old furniture as comfortable and shabby as an old sweater. There are hanging plants, a piano with a West Virginia wall-hanging above it and a big, dark-stained dining table where the 11 inhabitants eat the common supper they take turns cooking. A brown-and-white cat watched us steadily from the sill of a bay window. "It adopted us," Luscomb says, watching the cat swish its tail and survey a spider crawling on the outside of the glass.

Then, abruptly, Luscomb's mood changes from the lazy sunny afternoon easiness to an earnest, groping-for-the-right-phrases intensity.

"You asked whether I think that young people take themselves so seriously now that they forget to take others seriously? Well...you can't take yourself too seriously, there's always a small proportion of the public that takes interest in public problems. They're the ones who're right and they act on their convictions, live their ideals. But one of the truly great tragedies of the lives of most of us is that our existence is a high-walled lane, down which we travel with people of our own kind--of the same education, economic status, national background, religious classification--while beyond the walls on left and right lie all humanity, unknown, unseen, untouched by our restricted, impoverished lives."

Luscomb believes that everybody has the same responsibility for the welfare of human society and that, even as women campaign for absolute equality, they must fight with equal vigor against discrimination of any kind, racial or national. This kind of "all the human race are one" outlook on life seems as overly optimistic and simplistic as a Sunday-school teacher convinced of the essential benevolence of man despite the evidence to the contrary vocally presented by her obstreperous charges. And yet Luscomb's idealism is linked to unshakeable political beliefs. One might find fault with her world political analysis (Russia: "They made great forward steps in the beginning towards the socialist order, but then they slowed down and now they've developed a privileged class and stopped progress." China: "It seems to me that they are still going forward, not having yet developed a managerial class." The world: "We are in the midst of a tremendous change in the fundamental organization of our society and people must keep a historical perspective--miracles can't occur in just 25 years"). And you would be forgiven for feeling that Luscomb too neatly avoids the question of the denial of the right to dissent in the nations like China, North Korea, Cambodia that she feels are "leading the way." In fact, it seems more convenient than intellectually honest to answer a question on civil rights in China that, "Anyone who disagrees is not punished but re-educated...In any case, consider the former condition of the great Chinese mass and compare that with today." In short, Luscomb in many ways reminds one of early American socialist leaders such as Eugene Debs (whom she voted for in 1920, the year she was first eligible to vote). In many ways she personifies both the morality and the organizational weakness that beset those early, turn-of-the-century American socialists advocating a theory of nonviolent parliamentary socialism. And today, while one may marvel at the perennial hope of the women it is harder to share her optimism. This is not to say that Luscomb is insincere. It is simply that her vision of the future trusts perhaps too much in the natural cooperativeness of free men to convince the average, cynical city-dweller.

Luscomb's faith in human nature is, ultimately, refreshing but she also seems to have left something out of the reckoning. She tells, for example, the story of how one of the men in her household was at Seabrook and she speaks of the demonstration as an inspiration to all activist groups. And she may be right. Her prognosis, and hope, that we may all be moving inevitably to communist society may also turn out to be correct. But in the meantime, for the doubting Thomas's, there are still nagging questions such as "What part did oil companies have in the fomenting of protest against nuclear power?" or "How much like George Orwell's Animal Farm will the 'ideal' state be?" In the end it may just be best not to delve too deeply into Luscomb's beliefs and decide whether we agree lest we fall victim to the same riduculing or harassing frame of mind as those 1920's reactionaries who sought to restrain the needed reforms of society, economics and politics that Luscomb and her ilk fought for, even when they didn't always see their dreams fulfilled in their lifetime. It is, after all, so easy to mock but so much harder to do. And Luscomb has spent a lifetime demanding "what is to be done?"

Even more notably, Luscomb has gone ahead and acted upon her beliefs, from fighting racial prejudice to outwitting the State Department in order to visit the People's Republic of China she so admires. Many people write, argue or theorize. Florence Luscomb has acted instead. And actions always have spoken louder than words

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