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 Bakunin, 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, Lachowsky, 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 beliefs. "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 fulfillment 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 of 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. Locked 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 States 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 (after 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, traveling 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, Portugal, 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.