The Story of Kansas

October 4, 2010

'Amazon Army' protested unfair labor

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

Angry press on the East Coast nicknamed them the “Amazon Army.”

But they had been — and would be — called worse by the time they were through.

In December 1921, on the frozen plains of Kansas, between 2,000 and 6,000 women — some pregnant and others carrying small children — marched to 63 mines in southeast Kansas, protesting unfair labor practices and laws regarding hazardous working conditions, poor pay and discrimination.

They faced down the state militia, a machine gun attachment and 100 armed deputized men. Shots were fired at their feet and still they marched.

The women were armed only with American flags and red pepper flakes, the latter of which they planned to throw into the eyes of union scabs.

Their leader was Mary Skubitz, a feisty woman who was born in Slovenia and immigrated to Kansas with her family when she was 3 years old. Skubitz, 34 when the march took place, could speak five languages.

The 63 mines — located in Crawford and Cherokee Counties in southeast Kansas — produced a third of the nation’s coal.

The people mining the coal were a mix of 50 nationalities. That portion of the state was nicknamed “The Little Balkans.”

Much of the history of the march had been forgotten until about two decades ago, when Linda O’Nelio Knoll, a Pittsburg Middle School teacher whose grandmother participated in the march, began documenting the history.

Knoll has since been a recipient of the National Education Association’s Human & Civil Rights Award for her research on the women’s march.

Knoll said what touched her most about the story was that the march was held a year after women nationally had been given the right to vote.

Yet, these women — U.S. citizens — were perceived as foreigners and “unwomanly.”

“They were on the outskirts of towns, living in camps surrounding the towns,” Knoll said. “They had to resort to making a living in ways that were so difficult. They were fighting for so many rights.”

The women effectively shut down the mines in southeast Kansas for three days, beginning Dec. 12, 1921.

The women fought for eighthour workdays, child labor laws and equal rights for women and minorities.

Forty-nine women were jailed during the protest on charges of illegal assembly and assault.

The New York Times dubbed them the “Amazon Army.” And for a time, the women were in the nation’s spotlight.

In honor of the women, a Miner’s Memorial in Pittsburg details the story of the Amazon Army with photos, text and audio recordings. Also, the Franklin Heritage Museum in Franklin, considered the birthplace and meeting site of the women’s march, features a plaque detailing the march. The museum is the site of the original Miners Union Hall.

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