Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism

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Eva McDonald Valesh was one of the Progressive Era's foremost labor publicists. Challenging the narrow confines placed on women, Valesh became a successful investigative journalist, organizer, and public speaker for labor reform.Valesh was a compatriot of the labor leaders of her day and the "right-hand man" of Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. Events she covered during her colorful, unconventional reporting career included the Populist revolt, the Cuban crisis of the 1890s, and the ...

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Overview

Eva McDonald Valesh was one of the Progressive Era's foremost labor publicists. Challenging the narrow confines placed on women, Valesh became a successful investigative journalist, organizer, and public speaker for labor reform.Valesh was a compatriot of the labor leaders of her day and the "right-hand man" of Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. Events she covered during her colorful, unconventional reporting career included the Populist revolt, the Cuban crisis of the 1890s, and the 1910 Shirtwaistmakers' uprising. She was described as bright, even "comet-like," by her admirers, but her enemies saw her as "a pest" who took "all the benefit that her sex controls when in argument with a man."Elizabeth Faue examines the pivotal events that transformed this outspoken daughter of a working-class Scots-Irish family into a national political figure, interweaving the study of one woman's fascinating life with insightful analysis of the changing character of American labor reform during the period from 1880 to 1920. In her journey through the worlds of labor, journalism, and politics, Faue lays bare the underside of social reform and reveals how front-line workers in labor's political culture—reporters, investigators, and lecturers—provoked and informed American society by writing about social wrongs. Compelling, insightful, and at times humorous, Writing the Wrongs is a window on the Progressive Era, on social history and the new journalism, and on women's lives and the meanings of class and gender.

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Editorial Reviews

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"Elizabeth Faue nicely links the history of journalism to that of labor and reform politics. She also connects the ambitious Valesh to the uneven nature of class identity in America and to the authenticity that a "working-class" background brought to both newspaper work and reform circles during the Progressive era."—Ardis Cameron, University of Southern Maine, American Historical Review, April 2003

"Like a 19th century Barbara Ehrenreich, Valesh was hired by the St. Paul Globe to do undercover reporting on working women who were the 'Nickel and Dimed' of her time. The series was published under the pen name of 'Eva Gay,' when Valesh was only 22, and 'introduced readers to the lives of garment workers, laundresses, cigar-makers, seamstresses, domestics, operatives in woolen knitting mills and boot and shoe factories, telephone and telegraph operators, bookbinders, stenographers, and shop women.' Her accounts helped spark the interest of labor advocates and middle-class reformers, stressing that 'the appalling conditions under which most women workers were amenable to change'—if the 'working girls' themselves took action on their own behalf."—Steve Early, The Guild Reporter, 70:6, June 2003.

"Eva Valesh slipped into historical obscurity in part because she left no significant body of private papers and because much of her public writing was unsigned. Through dogged research to uncover the scattered remaining sources, Elizabeth Faue recaptures this important figure and seeks to draw larger meanings from her life and career about class and gender politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."—Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, West Virginia University, The Journal of American History, Sept. 2003

"Elizabeth Faue has told a remarkable story, one with implications that extend well beyond Eva Valesh. Eva Valesh's remarkable story shows what is possible in a society open to talent. But her life also shows the compromises that may be demanded of even a remarkably talented child of the working class."—Gerald Friedman, UMass-Amherst, EH.NET (October 2003)

"Faue helps us understand Valesh's iconoclastic career in the context of the masculine worlds of journalism, politics, and labor reform, which offered women such limited and difficult choices. Moreover, she provides an excellent overview of the issues facing labor and American society during a crucial time."—K. Fones-Wolf, West Virginia University, Choice 40:4, December 2002

"This book is an excellent model for the scholar trying to balance nutrient-rich research with an engaging writing style. It also is an excellent model for the scholar linking a particular journalist to a specific historic moment or movement. And, by the way, it is an absolutely fascinating read and a stellar contribution to the field of labor journalism. . . . Faue has effectively reclaimed the story of a forgotten journalist and, in doing so, has contributed significantly once again to the field of labor journalism. . . . Faue deserves a hearty salute."—Cheryl Heckler, Miami University, Journalism History 28:4, Winter 2003

"Elizabeth Faue interprets the life of Eva Valesh with verve and insight. What a story! From the 1880s, when she exposed deplorable working conditions in St. Paul/ Minneapolis, to 1909 when she joined elite women in the National Civic Federation and denounced socialism in the ranks of New York's garment workers, Eva Valesh's career illuminates a little-known trajectory that carried her and others from the political left to the political right in labor reform."—Kathryn Kish Sklar, author of Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900

"Writing the Wrongs is a beautifully written and analytically sophisticated book about an important, complex topic, one which, when properly unlocked as it is here, opens an array of interrelated issues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to our comprehension. Elizabeth Faue is wonderfully grounded not only in Valesh's life but also in the work cultures of newspapers and their departments, from the composing room to the journalist's desk."—Peter Rachleff, Macalester College

"I am impressed with what Elizabeth Faue has accomplished. She carefully situates Eva Valesh in each of her venues-the printing trades, the world of garment workers and labor reformers in 1880s Minneapolis, the Populist lecture circuit and electoral machine, the national AFL office, and the life of labor journalists in the early twentieth century. In the process, she engages many of the key questions in women's and labor history: the limits of craft unionism, the rise and fall of Populist radicalism, especially in regard to the effort to build a labor-farmer electoral alliance, the strengths and weaknesses of cross-class alliances in support of women workers' struggles, the plight of women workers who were also mothers and political activists. Well written and researched, the book should find a ready audience among scholars concerned with the lives of working women."—James R. Barrett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Writing the Wrongs is a luminous portrait of one of America's great labor journalists. And it is a great read as well. Elizabeth Faue vividly evokes Valesh's career as a sympathetic reporter and a controversial participant in some of the great labor struggles of the last century."—Alice Kessler-Harris, author of In Pursuit of Equity

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801484650
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.68 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction : truth- telling fictions : reconstructing a life in labor 1
1 Stealing the trade : the making of a labor journalist 9
2 "An object of solicitude at election time" : the knights, partisanship, and working-class politics revisited 31
3 Telling tales : labor conflict, class politics, and lawlessness in the great Streetcar Strike of 1889 51
4 "They walk on my collar in their party organs" : women, partisan speaking, and third-part politics in the late nineteenth century 71
5 From strikes to strings : the trade union woman as journalist, 1892-1895 95
6 "A slim chance of making good" : labor journalism, yellow journalism, and the new woman 117
7 Samuel Gompers's "right-hand man" : Eva Valesh and the gender of labor's political culture 143
8 "Joan of Arc of the women of the laboring classes" : authentic experience, publicity, and women's cross-class alliances 165
Conclusion : proofing the truth : Eva Valesh's life and labor 185
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