Written by Hannah Meyer
"There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign ... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out." -A West Virginia prosecutor
You might not have heard of “the most dangerous woman in America.” She was banished from more towns and detained in more jails than any other union leader in the early 20th century. Standing just five feet tall, the electrifying, Irish-born union organizer Mother Jones led 100,000 workers— including 16,000 children— from the textile mills and mines of Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island home to demand a reduced work week of fifty five hours and a ban on night work by women and children. When Roosevelt refused to see the marchers of the "Children's Crusade,” the reality of the working conditions—missing fingers and an eighty hour work week—was brought to national attention.
Multi-disciplinary artist, activist, and educator, Marie Cartier first discovered the legendary march when she “busted out” A People's History of the United States by the iconic socialist, Howard Zinn, while researching her play, The March of the Mill Children for 3GT’s 2020 New Works Festival Theme Night. “It made me think a lot about how at a given moment in history there are people who will put it all on the line, really make a lot of effort, make sacrifices, and go out of their way to address injustice and then there's everyone else, and there's always a reason not to, there's always an excuse not to or something holding you back from doing it. So that's what I decided I wanted to explore with the play.”
Cartier wondered, how could people sacrifice their livelihoods to make injustice visible when they are entirely exhausted by an 80 work week? Given that one sixth of children under the age of sixteen were employed (likely a massive underestimate) and the fact that the Mill Owners owned the newspapers, it seems miraculous that this momentous act of civil disobedience was able to happen.
Fast forward to 2020. The United States, along with the rest of the world, struggles to navigate a global pandemic. Essential workers, often ill-equipped with protective gear, work on the front lines while the threat of a fully overwhelmed healthcare system seems less like an apocalyptic theorization and more and more of a reality. While protesting and labor laws look very different in 2020 than they did in 1903, the act of protesting can easily be smothered by the all-consuming obligation of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours a week, almost 9 hours a day. At the peak of the pandemic in April, almost 15% of American's were unemployed. During the height of the 2008 Great Recession, 10% of folks were unemployed.
If we are not consumed by the hustle for economic security, what unforeseen commodities emerge amidst the stretch of time?
Marie Cartier’s writing cuts through the noise and distills the exhaustion and need for momentous political change that many folks in both 1903 and 2020 feel by placing both time periods side by side. The March of the Mill Children situates the legendary march on a television screen where Ruth, a dressmaker, and Gladys, her roommate, a domestic worker watch the Children’s Crusade while grappling with their desire to get involved and the endless exhaustion of… working full time. Gladys, desperate for a news cleanse, yells at the newscaster “All I want is a little me-time and the DAMN REMOTE.”- a sentiment that seems to echo throughout time.
Much like a grinning tightrope walker, Cartier’s writing bridges risk and humor, a quality rooted in her early engagement in circus and her current collaboration with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, “I learned so much from the Mime Troupe’s style and fearlessness in addressing political issues...It was always very clear to me that art should always be political but also entertaining and silly and funny.”
While frustrated by the myriad of systemic issues heightened by the pandemic, Cartier is glad for the opportunity for us all to question what is normalized. Much like how the 80 hour work week that extended into the night was routine in 1903, Cartier hopes that “our healthcare system for example, would seem barbaric a few years in the future.” She also wonders “Why are the excuses to not get involved actually very good? People are literally hustling their asses off. The last thing they want to do is go to a super long organizing meeting or go to a protest and have to yell or walk around for a really long time. So, that is a real barrier, and it's one I feel myself in. I don't participate in things as much as I would like to. It takes a lot of effort to lead a life I'm proud of, but there's always something that you can't do.”
For Cartier, political change exists both within the echoes of legendary union organizers like Mother Jones, but also within low-barrier involvement like cooking for the Homeless Youth Alliance in the Haight Cooking and (during his 2016 campaign), weekly phone banking for Bernie Sanders’ campaign. “One of the things that I appreciate about the Bernie Sanders campaign is that it draws a lot of people into volunteering and getting involved that wouldn't before, because [the Bernie Sanders campaign] made it a low barrier to get involved. I think if we had more low-barrier involvement people would be more involved and do that. And if they just do that, that's fine, but then they might feel empowered to do more.”
The idea of “doing more’ in an era when the world feels as though it is flying down a hill with its eyes closed can feel laughably futile, yet as Cartier emphasizes, both small and large acts of civic engagement have their place in history. In the era of the pandemic, the influence of an individual - as both a spreader of virus or potential agent of revolutionary change- is illuminated and asks: what next?
MARIE CARTIER is a multidisciplinary artist born and raised, living and working in San Francisco. A trained actor, her work in theater also spans everything from light and sound operation to props design, education and writing. A newly-minted collective member at the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Marie completed the Emerging Artist in Residence program at SFMT by creating the original show Yesterday is Tomorrow with her sister Genie. She recently wrote the script for Saturnalia: A Raunchy Circus Christmas at Shelton Theater, a show she also co-produced and performed in. Marie goes on biking adventures to add to her "Plein Air SF" painting series, celebrating the natural beauty of San Francisco and Northern California. She holds BA's in Theater and Peace and Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley. Check out the wide variety of her work at mariecartier.weebly.com
HANNAH MEYER, 3GT's Marketing Associate, is a director and dramaturg of new work with a background in marketing and public relations. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. Outside of theatre, Hannah is a writer whose essays, poetry, and satire have appeared in Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, The Baram House, Muses, The Haven and elsewhere. Her essay which explores the politics of comedy in Rachel Bloom’s banned song, “Period Sex,” will be published later this year with Taylor & Francis. Hannah is passionate about the intersections between art, activism, and scholarship. She is overjoyed to be working with 3GT and supporting the work of queer and female-identifying artists!
Sources: Ballard, S. L., & Hudson, P. L. (2003). Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. University Press of Kentucky.