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Saturday, September 11, 2010

An Anarcha-feminist Profile - Mollie Steimer

Mollie Steimer died of a heart attack on July 23, 1980 at her home in
Cuernavaca. Mexico. Mollie was 82 years old, and throughout her long life
she was consumed with a passion to work for the good of the people. Born on
November 21, 1897, in southwestern Russia, Mollie emigrated to the United
States in 1913 with her family. She immediately went to work in a garment
factory to help support her family. She came across radical literature
including the works of Bakun in, Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman. By 1917
Mollie had become an anarchist, to which she dedicated her life.  

With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, she plunged into agitational
activity.  She joined a young group of anarchists called Frayhart which
contained a dozen or so young women and men, all of them workers of
East-European Jewish origin.  

The Frayhart collective, edited and distributed their newspaper (also
called Frayhart) which was outlawed by the federal government for its
opposition to the American War effort. It also had anti-capitalist,
pro-revolutionary, and pro soviet content. On August 23, 1918 Mollie was
arrested for distributing leaflets against the landing of American troops
in Soviet Russia, along with several other members of her group.  

The Abrams case as it became known, constitutes a landmark in the
repression of civil liberties in the United States. It was the first
important prosecution under the Espionage Act. It has been cited in all
standard histories, as one of the most flagrant violations of
constitutional rights during the Red Scare hysteria that followed the First
World War. The trial which lasted two weeks, opened on October, 1918, at
the Federal Court House in New York. The defendants were Abrams, Steimer,
Schwartz, Lachows ky, and Lipman. Schwartz, however, never appeared in
court. Having been severely beaten by the police, he was removed to
hospital, where he died on October 14. 

The judge who tried the case grilled the defendants about their "free love"
activity. They were mocked and humiliated by the judge. Before the
conclusion of the trial, Mollie Steimer delivered a powerful speech in
which she explained her political belief s. "By anarchism," she declared,
"I understand a new social order, where no group of people shall be in
power, no group of people shall  be governed by  another group of people.
Individual freedom shall prevail in the full sense of the word. Private
owner ship shall be abolished. Every person will have an equal opportunity
to develop himself well, both mentally and physically. We shall not have to
struggle for our daily existence as we do now. No one shall live on the
product of others. Every person shall produce as much as he can , and enjoy
as much as he needs - receive according to his need. Instead of striving to
get money, we shall strive towards education, towards knowledge. While at
present the people of the world are ! divided into various groups, calling
themselves nations, while one defies another - in most cases considers the
others as competitive - we, the workers of the world, shall stretch out our
hands towards each other with brotherly love. To the fulfilment of this
idea I shall devote all my energy, and if necessary, render my life for it."  

The jury found all the defendants guilty. The Judge sentenced the three men
to the maximum penalty of twenty years in prison and a $1000 fine, while
Mollie received fifteen years and a $500 fine. The barbarity of the
sentenced for the mere distribution o f leaflets shocked liberals and
radicals alike. 

However the four were temporarily released on bail to await the results of
their appeal. Mollie immediately resumed her political activities. As a
result, she was continually hounded by the authorities. Over the next
eleven years she was arrested no less than eight times, kept in the station
house for brief periods, released then rearrested, sometimes without
charges being preferred against her. On March 11, 1919, she was arrested at
the Russian People's House on the East 15th Street during a raid by the
federal and local police which netted 164 radicals. Charged with inciting
to riot, Mollie was held for eight days in the notorious Tombs prison
before being released on $1000 bail, only to be arrested again and taken to
Ellis Island for deportation. Lock ed up for twenty hours a day, denied
exercise and fresh air and the right to mingle with other political
prisoners, she went on a hunger strike until the authorities met her
demands. "the entire machinery of the United State! s government was being
employed to crush this slip of a girl weighing no less than eighty pounds,"
Emma Goldman complained. 

The government however, was not yet ready to deport the 21 year old,
prisoner whose case remained before the courts. Released from Ellis Island,
Mollie was kept under constant surveillance. In the fall of 1919, when Emma
Goldman returned to New York  (af ter completing a two year prison
sentence) Mollie took the opportunity to call on her. It was the beginning
of a lasting friendship. Mollie reminded Emma of the Russian women
revolutionaries under the Tsar, earnest, ascetic, and idealistic, "who
sacrifice d their lives before they had scarcely begun to live ." In Emma's
description, Mollie was "diminutive and quaint looking, altogether Japanese
in features and stature". she was a wonderful girl Emma added, " with an
iron will and a tender heart," but "fear fully set in her ideas." "A sort
of Alexander Berkman in skirts", she jested to her niece Stella Ballantine.
Soon after her meeting with Emma Goldman, Mollie was again arrested. She
was imprisoned for six months. Locked up in a filthy cell, isolated once
more from her fellow prisoners, and barred from all contact with the
outside world. During, this period, word came that the Supreme Court had
upheld the conviction of Mollie and her friends.  

In April 1920 she was transferred from Blackwell's Island to Jefferson
City, Missouri, (where Emma Goldman had been confined before deportation
with Berkman in December 1919) for eighteen months.  Her lawyer, meanwhile,
with the support of the Political Prisoners Defence Committee, had been
trying to secure release for his clients on the condition of their
deportation to Russia. In due course, an agreement was concluded, and
Weinberger obtained the release of the four  , with the stipulation that
they would leave for Russia at their own expense and never return to the
United states.  

On November 24, 1921, Mollie Steimer sailed for Soviet Russia. Victims of
the Red Scare in America they soon became the victims of the red Terror in
Russia. Arriving in Moscow on December 15, 1921, they found that Emma
Goldman and Alexander Berkman had a lready departed for the West,
disillusioned by the turn the revolution had taken. Kropotkin had died in
Feb., and the Kronstadt rebellion had been suppressed in March. Makhno's
insurgent army had been dispersed, hundreds of anarchists languished in
prison.  Amid the gloom, however, there were some bright spots. In Moscow,
Mollie met Senya Fleshin, who became her lifelong companion.  

Mollie and Senya organised a Society to Help Anarchist Prisoners,
travelling about the country to assist their incarcerated comrades. On
November 1, 1992, they were arrested by the GPU on charges of aiding
criminal elements in Russia and maintaining ties with anarchists abroad.
Sentenced to two years' exile in Siberia, they declared a hunger strike on
November 17  in their Petrograd jail, and ended up being released. They
were forbidden  to leave the city and were ordered to report to the
authorities every 48 hours. However Mollie and Senya resumed their efforts
on behalf of prisoned comrades. They were arrested again. Protests to
Trotsky by foreign Anarcho Syndicalist delegates soon brought about their
release. This time they were expelled from Russia and placed aboard a ship
bound for Germany.  

In Berlin, and afterwards in Paris, Mollie and Senya resumed their relief
work which had led to their deportation. In 1927 they formed the Mutual Aid
Group of Paris to assist fellow anarchists exiles, not only from Russia,
but also from Italy , Spain, Potugal, and Bulgaria, even though they were
penniless, without legal documents, and in constant danger of deportation. 

Mollie assisted Senya in professional photography him until 1933 when
Hitler's rise to power forced them to return to Paris. In the early months
of the Second World War they were not molested but before long their Jewish
origins and anarchist convictions caught up with them. On May 18, 1940,
Mollie was placed in an internment camp, while Senya, aided by French
friends, managed to escape to the occupied sector of the country. Somehow,
Mollie secured her release. The pair reunited then crossed the Atlantic and
settled in Mexico City.  

They arrived half starved and penniless and without a permanent passport.
For the next 25 years they lived as "Nansen" citizens (i.e people without a
passport), anarchists without a country, until they acquired Mexican
citizenship in 1948.  When deported from the United States, Mollie had
vowed to stay true to her beliefs. In Russia, in Germany, in France, and
now in Mexico, she remained faithful to her vow. Fluent in Russian,
Yiddish, English, German, French, and Spanish, she corresponded with
comrades and kept up with the anarchist press around the world. In early
1980 she was filmed by the Pacific Street Collective of New York, to whom
she spoke of her beloved anarchism. In her last years, Mollie felt worn and
tired. To the end, however, her revolutionary passion burned with an
undiminished flame.   

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