The Southern Summer School for Women Workers

Black and white photo of group of women sitting in a circle outside

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 4, "Generations: Women in the South." Find more from that issue here.

So you want to know about the Southern Summer School. Well, all I can say is - that group is responsible for whatever sense I have today! It made a big impression on me. It was the first time I had ever been away from home, but that didn’t bother me. The school was so informal - it was like everyone was on the same level - it seemed as if the teachers wanted to learn from us. You were taught to be aware of what was going on around you, about the labor movement, and the fact that women should be active in it. 

—Polly Robkin, New York City November 2, 1974 


It was a great inspiration to me to feel like women were considered capable of participating, it was something new and interesting and I guess it was to most of the girls. They had never had a chance to speak up and talk and express themselves about what they felt should and shouldn't be done in our government and in our industry. They had never had an opportunity to express themselves before, and it was great.... —Vesta Finley, Marion, N.C. July 22, 1975 


The Southern Summer School for Women Workers represented a unique effort at female cooperation across class lines. During the late 1920s, a group of women trained in the social sciences and committed to using their skills as teachers in behalf of social change, organized a workers’ education program for women in the Southern region. Each summer from 1927 to World War II, the staff of the School sought to provide young workers from textile, garment, and tobacco factories with the analytic tools for understanding the social context of their lives, the opportunity to develop solidarity with each other, and the confidence for full participation in the emerging Southern labor movement. The following account of their experiment represents a tentative outline of work-in-progress. It is part of a larger study of the role of women in social reform, the perceptions and experiences of Southern working women, and the relationship between middle-class reformers and the women they sought to help.


The roots of the Southern Summer School lay in the opening decades of the twentieth century, when the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to channel the reform impulse of middleclass women into programs responsive to the needs of working women. The YWCA created an industrial department to reach working women on the local level, and the WTUL pioneered in the establishment of workers’ education programs. Both supported the passage of protective legislation and the expansion of trade unions.1 

The founders of the Summer School, Louise Leonard McLaren and Lois MacDonald, hoped to bypass the limitations of a Northern-based WTUL and a Southern YWCA whose local branches were dependent on the support of mill owners and businessmen. Lois MacDonald, an economist and native of South Carolina, had written a classic study of Southern mill villages in 1926.2 As a YWCA leader in the South, she had helped organize a summer program which placed college students in industrial jobs. Having worked as an operative in an Atlanta textile mill herself, MacDonald had grown especially concerned about the human costs of Southern industrial development. 

Louise McLaren, the daughter of a Pennsylvania banker and a graduate of Vassar, had served as the YWCA Industrial Secretary in the coal mining region of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. After she became National Industrial Secretary for the Southern region in 1920, she traveled across the South. Like Lois MacDonald, she observed firsthand the impact of rapid industrialization on the lives of women. She perceived that: 

The popular idea that the South is ‘different’ and the failure to recognize the same large factors in industrial change which have characterized the industrial revolution elsewhere, handicaps the workers and retards the growth of the labor movement in the southern states. Just as the existence of national barriers has often prevented workers from different countries from recognizing their common cause, so southern sectionalism has blinded the textile workers to their need of affiliation with organized workers of the rest of the United States.

Together the two women set out to overcome such sectional barriers through a Southern-based workers’ movement in which the workers would “themselves take a hand.” 

As models for their plan, McLaren and MacDonald looked to the Brookwood Labor College, the Bryn Mawr Summer School, and the workers’ education programs of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU). For financial aid, they turned first to the American Federation of Labor. The AFL, however, was at its lowest ebb, devoted to craft unionism, and uninterested either in organizing women workers or in promoting workers’ education. Consequently, the two women were forced to create an organization which would draw on a wide range of interest groups for support.4 

Response to their call for assistance came from across the spectrum of women’s organizations. Funds for the first residence session in 1927 came from the American Fund for Public Service, administered by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the radical feminist and IWW veteran. Meta Glass, sister of conservative Virginia Senator Carter Glass, provided facilities at Sweet Briar College (the School was later moved to Asheville, North Carolina). Students were recruited from local ‘Y’ branches and sponsored by middle-class Southern women’s “workers’ education committees” which provided money for travel and tuition. 

The faculty McLaren and MacDonald recruited included both graduates of New England women’s colleges and the small women’s colleges of the South. Most were single and all were fiercely independent. Almost all had worked previously with the YWCA and then moved on to involvement in other reform activities. The Southerners were “new women” seeking a public role for themselves in a society which provided few outlets for their aspirations. The commitment of the New Englanders paralleled in many ways that of the women who had traveled South after the Civil War to teach in the American Missionary Association (AMA) schools for the newly freed slaves. Like their predecessors, they were motivated by a sense of duty and they looked to Southerners as those most in need of aid. For many, the South held the mystery and attraction of a foreign land.5 

Above all, like the AMA women before them, the women of the Summer School were teachers. Trained in the educational theories of John Dewey and the optimistic tenets of the new sociology, they perceived education as the way to bring about social change; and it was through their role as educators that they sought to bridge the gap between their own advantages and other women’s needs. 

In constructing their program, the faculty consciously avoided the literary and artistic emphasis of the Bryn Mawr Summer School and the vocational training of most adult education programs. Because their ultimate goal was to train grass-roots leaders and to disseminate organizing skills, the faculty planned to provide students with a practical knowledge of economics and the political system. As one board member put it: 

This is no individual enterprise, it is not merely a session for those who may have the means to improve their individual and personal attainments and seek for themselves a little higher training in the arts and cultures of life The emphasis of the whole school is to be on social and not on individual growth and responsibility. 6 

Thus the founders of the Summer School hoped to transcend the reformist goal of improving the lot of individuals. They envisioned regional collective change: a transformation of the lives of Southern working women. 



During the School’s fifteen-year existence, over 300 women attended its sessions. All were between eighteen and twenty-five, with at least two years of industrial experience and six years of schooling. All were white. The School owned no property but rented facilities each year; in consequence the faculty bowed reluctantly to the social mores of a segregated society. They did not take on the challenge of creating an integrated student body, but at the School they consistently stressed the identical interests of black and white labor. They also ran brief workers’ education programs for blacks in several Southern cities. 

Chief among the School’s teaching methods was the use of the students’ own life experiences as illustrations of historical change and social problems. Students were encouraged to compose and perform original dramas based on their own life histories. And their autobiographies and essays, together with faculty follow-up studies of their participation in local labor and community activities, provide a rich collective portrait of the lives and thoughts of a cross-section of Southern working women. 

For example, the work history of Nora MacManus, a cotton spooler from Macon, Georgia, illustrated to the other students the double-edged impact of protective legislation. She had first gone into the mill as a “bobbin-girl” at the age of eight. A short while later she left work to attend school when the Georgia legislature passed a law forbidding the employment of children under fourteen. At fourteen she returned to the mill as a spooler, working eleven hours a day until she was fifteen. Then her hours were reduced by a new state law preventing children under sixteen from working more than eight hours a day. At each turn in her story, the intervention of legal reform ameliorated the conditions under which she worked, while at the same time working an economic hardship on her family.7 

The stories written by Summer School students graphically mirrored other social and economic changes. They told of the difficulties faced by those who worked the land, the movement of families from the farm to mill towns and urban centers, the high price paid for economic survival. Students wrote of the hazards of coal dust, textile fibers, and dangerous machinery, and of the additional burden of frequent pregnancies. Most suffered from an inadequate diet; many had been forced to cope with the ill health or early death of their parents. One student, in 1929, summarized her family history in this way: 

My childhood was happy. Our home was in a big oak grove. After i became old enough I had to work on the farm, if there wasn’t work to be done at home I would have to help other people. My father’s health had been bad for several years. After he was not able to do farm work we moved to the city. The doctor told father he had pellagra. At first I thought work in the mill was a great experience, but I soon grew tired of working in such a place and would often long to be out in the open again.8

The School drew to its campus women who longed for the means to change the patterns of their lives. They came for many reasons: some had been fired for union organizing or had joined a local and wanted to understand the meaning of their new commitment. But most students in the School’s early years came simply out of a desire to learn. Many had left school at an early age and jumped at the chance to obtain additional education. Bessie Edens was a leader in the Elizabethton strike of 1929, and later in the same year came from Tennessee to the Summer School. She described her first contact with the School this way: 

I didn’t know what it was all about more'n nothing only they said it was the Southern Summer School for Women Workers of America or something to that effect. School was what I wanted, school. I didn’t know what kind of school it was. But after I got there I liked it.9 

Another student came to the School in 1930 upon the recommendation of a regional officer of the AFL. Elected president of her local union at the Kahn Manufacturing Company in Mobile, Alabama in 1925, she had served as a delegate to Alabama State Federation of Labor conventions and, in 1928, was elected vice-president of the Federation. She came to the Southern Summer School because: 

In assuming the duties of these offices i felt my inability, but it has always been my policy to do the best I can when called upon. With my work at the factory, my home and children, I haven’t had an opportunity to read and study the problems of labor as I would love to, so when the opportunity to attend the Southern Summer School came, it seemed to be something I had been longing for. 10 

The School’s students knew first hand the difficulties women confronted in the labor movement. A woman from the Hanes Hosiery mill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, reported that while the male employees in her plant were well paid and did not work over eight hours a day, the local union excluded women from membership; they could get work only every other day. A student from Birmingham, Alabama, who worked as an organizer for the United Textile Workers during 1935, stressed that it was necessary “to convince the men of women’s ability and sincerity.’’ She argued that women often did not participate in unions because they had the double burden, of working in the mill during the day and doing housework at night. However, she commented that support from women workers during times of conflict, on picket lines, and in relief efforts, was essential to the survival of any union. 

At the School the women often discussed the special needs and concerns of women workers. In 1929, they debated the problem of the place of married women in the labor force. One of the older students, married and the mother of two children, maintained: 

It is nothing new for married women to work. They have always worked. Why should not a married woman work, if a single one does? What would men think if they were told that a married man should not work? if we women would not be so submissive and take everything for granted, if we would awake and stand up for our rights, this world would be a better place to live in, at least it would be better for the women. Some girls think that as long as mother takes in washings, keeps ten or twelve boarders or perhaps takes in sewing, she isn’t working. But I can say that either one of the three is as hard work as women can do. So if they do that at home and don't get any wages for it, why would it not be all right for them to go to a factory and receive pay for what they do?11 

Another student clarified the argument when she pointed out that few women in the South in the ’20s and ’30s quit working outside the home when they married: 

Apparently we like to deceive ourselves. The girls in industry only enter as they think for a very short time. Very soon, they keep thinking 7 shall marry, then I shall not work anymore. Why then should i be interested, or, in other words, why should I bother about all of this fuss that goes with improving conditions?’ But aren’t we mistaken about this? Do the women who marry leave industry? We all know that as a general thing this is not true.12 

The role of women as cheap, surplus labor was the theme of a student essay, written in 1927: 

Among the working class, women have always helped to make the living. Women at the present time are employed in almost all kinds of work. Some employers would rather work women than men because they consider them more efficient and regular at work than men. Women are gaining for themselves a place in the industrial world, but should be careful to keep a high standard and not remain content to be cheap labor. 13 

In many ways, the School achieved its goal of providing the social space in which working women could gather to talk to one another, reflect upon their lives and gain confidence for self-expression and communal aspiration. But the hopes of its founders reached far beyond the meaning of the School experience for individual students. They saw themselves as training leaders for an insurgent Southern labor movement; and that movement, they believed, would be part of a larger struggle for “the creation of a genuine democracy in which those who work would own and operate the country. ”14 



As the ’30s progressed, the lofty vision of the School’s leaders seemed close to realization. In 1929, workers across the South had revolted against increasing workloads and diminishing wages in a series of wildcat strikes which focused national attention on the region and compelled industrialists to ameliorate working and living conditions in numerous Southern milltowns. After years of worsening economic depression, workers’ discontent once again erupted when 200,000 Southerners joined the general textile strike of 1934. The formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), in the following year, spurred labor organization in mining, textile and garment-making industries; and the ACWA, the ILGWU and the United Garment Workers launched Southern organizing drives. In 1937, the CIO established the Textile Workers Organizing Committee to spread the idea of industrial democracy throughout the South. 

As a result of these developments, the number of the School’s students affiliated with trade unions rose substantially, and by 1935, 80 percent of the students in attendance represented Southern locals. Financial support from labor increased as newly formed unions across the South raised scholarship money and sent members to the School to receive training in parliamentary procedure, labor history and economics. 

While this new labor backing was essential to the School’s program, it also presented difficulties. From the beginning, the disparate aims of creating a women’s alliance across class lines while, at the same time, organizing Southern workers had led the School to look for support from groups fundamentally at odds with one another: middle-class women’s organizations on the one hand and labor unions on the other. Closer ties to the labor movement threatened to topple this fragile coalition. 

As the CIO organizing drive gained strength, the School’s leaders struggled to interpret labor’s aims to reform-minded Southern women. As Louise McLaren explained in a speech to the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs: 

It is hoped that the club women of the South may study the facts before it is too late, and that they will get behind the workers’ education movement since that is one concrete way in which they might help to prepare workers to do their share in bringing about right conditions in southern industrial life.15 

But this effort to mobilize middle-class support for labor met powerful obstacles. For example, in 1935, McLaren reported that the Roanoke, Virginia, workers’ education committee chairman, a former YWCA industrial secretary, had been forced to sever her connection with the School “because of her lack of freedom to express her interest in the labor movement due to her husband’s employment in a large corporation.’’ This was, McLaren added, but one example of the School’s growing difficulty in finding middle-class women who would “identify themselves with workers in the present tense situation.”16 

Even the sensitive and dedicated leaders of the Southern Summer School sometimes had difficulty understanding the realities faced by working-class women. For example, during the late summer and fall of 1929, Louise McLaren corresponded with several students who had participated in the textile strike in Marion, North Carolina. She wrote to one student in October of that year, after the second strike in Marion in which six workers had been killed: 

This morning I have a letter from Laurence Hogan telling me that you have been scabbing in the mill since the murders and of course I am shocked to hear it. I hope there is some mistake about this and that you will write me and tell me how it happened. 

Minnie Fisher, a twenty-year-old cotton mill worker, replied: 

Louise, I am sorry you heard that I was scabbing, I will tell you how it was and you be the judge. They had a strike on Tuesday and we didn't know anything about it until it was pulled and our boys got killed at the gate and then I quit work . . . our leaders never had any meetings to tell us what to do so nearly all the union people went back. I haven’t worked but two days and they asked me not to go back and now I am back home and . . . have got no job no money no anything and my man is gone and I can't find out where he is whether dead or alive and I am in debt that it looks like I am going to have to do some scabbing so you can imagine what kind of shape I am in. I have got a little girl that has to be clothed and fed... so now you have the truth from my heart what would you do if you was in my place?17 

Such an exchange illustrates the elusiveness of the School’s hope for female solidarity across class lines. Students armed with organizing skills and an increasing sense of self-worth had to venture back into communities which were often hostile both to female assertiveness and to labor organization. Moreover, while students returned to the pressures of factory work and family responsibilities, their teachers resumed academic posts at colleges and universities, taking up lives which made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to comprehend the constant hardships faced by working-class women. 

Nevertheless, within the confines of the School itself, Louise McLaren, Lois MacDonald and their colleagues did create a model for new social relationships. The School experience seems to have marked an important watershed for many of the students. It provided a first exposure to the world beyond the mill village or city factory. For some, it served as an entry into the labor movement or community leadership positions. For most, it offered if not the means of collective change as its founders intended, then at least the incentive and opportunity for individual self-advancement.



After 1935, the School abandoned its connections with women’s groups and became more dependent on organized labor. However, contrary to union priorities, the School’s leaders continued to insist that workers’ education and the organization of women workers were crucial to the movement. And, they urged students to maintain an independent stance toward all institutions, including trade unions. 

As the radical thrust of the CIO drives of the depression era gave way to pragmatism and political compromise, the socialist perspective of the School’s leaders caused increasing tension. By the beginning of World War II, the group’s relationship with a male-dominated labor movement had undermined their feminist goal of forging a women’s alliance as well as their efforts to organize women workers. As a result of pressure from the unions, the School began admitting men in 1938. 

When World War II brought a return to full employment, workers had little time to attend a residence school. As the unions gained strength and financial solvency, they began to establish their own workers’ education programs. Thus, by the early ’40s, the role of the school which had been hailed as “the classroom of the Southern labor movement” was no longer clear. In 1943, after over two decades of work in the South, Louise McLaren decided to leave the School.

 The Southern Summer School, however, did not disappear. Rather, under new leadership, it turned to other social issues. In 1944, the renamed Southern School for Workers began running literacy programs for black workers, organizing voter registration drives, and fighting to eliminate the poll tax. When, in 1950, the organization finally disbanded for lack of funding, Mary C. Barker of Atlanta, who had served for many years as head of the School’s advisory board, contemplated the group’s work over the years since 1927. She emphasized the seeds of change which the School had planted in the minds of many Southerners, stressed the impact which the School had made on the lives of Southern workers, both black and white, and wrote that to her the School had not died, but “is very much alive today, for it has entered into the blood stream of the evolving history of the South. 



1. Mary Sims, The YWCA: An Unfolding Purpose (NY: Woman’s Press, 1950); Gladys Boone, The Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Great Britain and the US (NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1942). 

2. Lois MacDonald, Southern Mill Hills (NY: Alex L. Flillman, 1928). 

3. “Some Aspects of Industry in the New South," The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators (1928), p. 355. 

4. See Theodore Brameld, ed., Workers' Education in the US (NY: Flarper & Bros., 1941), pp. 48-66; Eleanor G. Coit and Mark Starr, “Workers’ Education in the US,” Monthly Labor Review, 49 (July 1939), pp. 73-79; Mark Starr, “The ILGWU,” Journal of Adult Education, 9 (1937), pp. 35-39; Florence Flemley Schneider, Patterns of Workers’ Education: The Story of the Bryn Mawr Summer School (Washington: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941); Alice Flanson Cook and Agnes M. Douty, Labor Education Outside the Unions (Ithaca: NY State Sch. of Industrial & Labor Rel., 1958). 

5. See Lura Beam, They Called Them By the Lightning: A Teacher’s Odyssey in the Negro South, 1908-19 (Ind’polis: Bobbs Merrill, 1967); James McPherson, The Abolitionist Legacy (Princeton Univ. Press, 1975). 

6. Atlanta, Journal of Labor, April 5,1929. 

7. Nora MacManus, “Autobiography” in Southern Summer School Scrapbook, 1927, in private possession. 

8. SSS Scrapbook, 1929. 

9. Bessie Edens Interview, Southern Oral History Program, August 14, 1975. 

10-13. SSS Scrapbooks, 1930,'29,’27,’27. 

14. “Report on Conf. on Workers Education,” Chattanooga, Jan. 16-17, 1937, SSS Papers, Catherwood Library, NY State Sch. of Indl. and Labor Rel., Cornell Univ., Ithaca. 

15. Speech by McLaren, “Workers’ Education in the South,” May 3, 1929, to the Va. Federation of Women’s Clubs, SSS Papers. 

16. Director’s Report, SSS, Jan. 15 - Mar. 15, 1935, Frank Graham Papers. 

17. McLaren to Fisher, Oct. 16, 1929; Fisher to McLaren, Oct. 23,1929, SSS Papers. 

18. Jack Herling, “Southern Summer School Real Workers College,” Federated Press, Eastern Bureau, August 24, 1929. 

19. Mary Barker to Brownie Lee Jones, Oct. 16, 1951, Barker Papers, Emory Univ.  



I Was In the Gastonia Strike  


I was in the Gastonia strike. I had been working for the Manville-Jenkes mill in Loray, near Gastonia for eight years — ever since I was 14. We worked 13 hours a day, and we were so stretched out that lots of times we didn’t stop for anything. Sometimes we took sandwiches to work, and ate them as we worked. Sometimes we didn’t even get to eat them. If we couldn’t keep our work up like they wanted us to, they would curse us and threaten to fire us. Some of us made $12 a week, and some a little more. 

One day some textile organizers came to Gastonia. They came to the mill gates at six o’clock, just when the daylight hands were coming out. They began to talk to the workers as they came out of the mill. Everybody stopped to listen. When the night-shift hands came up, they stopped to listen too. I was on the night shift. None of us went into work that night, for the organizers were telling us that they would help us get more money and less hours if we would stick together in a union, and stay out. 

This was the first time I’d ever thought that things could be better; I thought that I would just keep working all my life for 13 hours a day, like we were. I felt that if we would stick together and strike we could win something for ourselves. But I guess we didn’t have a chance — the way “the law’’ acted after we struck. 

That night we had a meeting, and almost all of the workers came. People got up and said that unless they got shorter hours and more money they would never go back to work. We all went home that night feeling that at last we were going to do something that would make things better for us workers. We were going to win an eight-hour day, and get more pay for ourselves. 

The next morning, we were at the mill at five o ’dock, to picket, but we couldn’t get anywhere near the plant, because the police and the national guards were all around the mill and kept us a block away. We formed our picket line anyway, and walked up and down a street near the mill. 

Every day for a week we picketed. One day my husband, Red, went with me on the picket line. (He worked in another mill on the night shift.) Just as we started on the picket line two policemen came over and grabbed Red, put him in an automobile, and took him to jail. They beat him up with a blackjack, and broke his ring and tore his clothes. They thought he was one of the strikers, and they were arresting strikers right and left, hauling lots of them to jail every day. 

In the second week of the strike, the bosses went to other towns and out in the country and brought in scabs. The police and the national guards made us keep away from the mill, so all we could do was to watch the scabs go in and take our jobs. 

We kept on with our picket line, though we didn’t have much of a chance to persuade the scabs not to go in, because of the police and guards. We were treated like dogs by the law. Strikers were knocked down when they called to the scabs, or got too near the mill. Every day more and more strikers were arrested. They kept the jail-house full of workers. Strikers were put out of their houses. All over our village you could see whole families with their household belongings in the street — sometimes in the pouring down rain, and lots of them with their little children and babies. 

We had a relief station where strikers could get food and groceries. Red, my husband, had been fired from his job in the other mill when his boss found out that he was trying to help us strikers, so he opened a drink stand near the relief station. One night about nine o ’dock, the police came to the relief station as they usually went anywhere there were any strikers. I don't know what happened exactly, but there was a gun fight, and the chief of police was killed. Red, who was selling drinks there, was arrested along with a lot of others. Red and six others were accused of killing the policeman. 

After Red was put in jail for the murder, my father and I moved to another town. I was expecting my baby soon, but I went to work in another textile plant. Except for what I read in the papers, I didn’t know much about what was going on in Gastonia. 

Then I read about Ella Mae Wiggins in the paper. I didn’t know Ella Mae so well, but I knew she was one of the best leaders the strikers had. Everybody liked and trusted her. This was the way she was killed: Things had gotten so bad in Gastonia that the strikers were afraid to hold a meeting in the town, so they got a truck and were going outside of town to hold their meeting. It was while they were on the way that the policemen way-laid them and opened fire on the truck. Ella Mae was shot in the back, and killed out right. 

After this the strikers felt as if there wasn’t any use going on with their fight. Most of them went to other towns and tried to get jobs. Our strike failed. 

I don’t remember exactly when the trial of the police who killed Ella Mae took place, but I do know that the trial was just a fake — they didn’t do anything at all to those men that killed her. 

Seven months after the strike they tried Red and the six others accused of killing the chief of police. They had been kept in jail all this time. I couldn’t attend much of the trial on account of the baby, but Red told me about it. 

Almost everybody thinks that the workers were innocent, and many people believe that the chief was killed by one of his own policemen. However, Red and the others were convicted of the murder, and given anywhere from five to twenty years in the penitentiary. Red and the others got out on bail, and all of them left the country and stayed away for two years. Then Red came back to get me and the baby and he was caught, and sent to prison. He served three years and four months of his prison term, and got out last year. 

After the trial, I moved to High Point, and got a job in a textile mill to support the baby and me. We have had a hard time of it, but I think what we went through in Gastonia was worth it all, because I think people all over the country learned about the conditions of textile workers in the South, and it helped the labor movement in the South. 

—Bertha Hendrix 

1938 Southern Summer School Scrapbook