Elizabethton, Tennessee, 1929
When wages sank and conditions became intolerable, women led a strike of the Glanzstoff Textile Mill. While their menfolk’s anger often erupted in violence, women used laughter and bold defiance of conventional feminine behavior as weapons against a bewildered National Guard, which was made up of their neighbors until backup was called. Though prosecutors branded them “wild” and “disorderly,” the women earned support from their pastor, sheriff, fellow townspeople, and local merchants.
Those big companies sprang like arrows
into the heart pine of Appalachia,
shaking hands with homegrown ambition,
eyes popping for our breasted hills,
sinewy creeks, and I suppose for what they saw
as backward-walking mountain folk.
They knew we had few laws to cry
for what a man ought give,
and no union to guard
what no man should take. No woman here
lines her closet with pretty things bought in town
or strings the hollows with high hopes.
A straight wage and a level word
we earned wading the chemical baths
that pull plain cellulose to clean filaments of rayon,
to stockings and bolts of color cloth.
We pulled that stuff, and when words ran out,
we shut the mill down, lined up like vertebrae
across the road.
They came with tear gas, nearly putting out our eyes,
but we stood, by God, stood laughing
at the National Guard –
boys who’d sat next to us in school,
who’d pitched rocks into the Watauga River,
one of them father to my children ten years ago.
For my divorce,
and our backtalk,
for shoving away soldier’s guns stuck in our faces,
they called us “lewd,”
and, red-faced, ordered us to walk 12 miles to jail.
We said no.
Later, raises never showed.
Management one-by-one scattered our girls
to the fields and washtubs,
bending our backs, biting our tongues.
But I knew what I was doing and I don’t deny it:
the six weeks we worked for ourselves
and stood for each other,
echoes of our shouts disappearing
like the longleaf pine
while we laughed, boys,
we just laughed and laughed.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com