Monday, March 2, 2015

Portrait of Penny Pixler, Feminist and Wobbly

Note:  As described below this piece appears in the current issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World, on which I labored happily many years ago.  It is much better managed now than under my care and is invaluable reading for a fresh and insightful view of the labor movement from a vigorous and revitalized union.  I encourage you to check out the IWW web site at where you can view and download a copy of the March issue including this article.
I was stunned and flattered when Nicki Meyer asked me to profile my old friend and Fellow Worker Penny Pixler for this special Women’s Issue of the Industrial Worker.  I was a bit intimidated, too. I haven’t been asked to contribute to the paper I once helped edit for over three decades and I fretted how some might respond to a man profiling one of the leading Wobbly women of the last 40 some odd years.  Mostly I fretted about how to paint a human portrait that transcended biography or a hagiographic obituary.  I started and stopped half a dozen times.
Then I went to see the film Selma the other night and it all became clear.  As you probably know the movie tells the tale of the 1965 voting rights drive in Selma, Alabama and revolves around the charismatic presence of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But it was not a movie about King, no matter how much screen time he commanded.  It was a movie about all of the people who came together in a tough and dangerous moment to really change history.  We see and are introduced to all of his key associates—Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Bevel, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, and Bayard Ruskin.  But we also see the ordinary people of Selma, the rank and file of the movement, and especially the overlooked often erased-from history women.  Sure, there is Coretta Scott King who in a critical moment proves wiser than her husband, but there is also key SCLC leader Diane Nash, 54 year old nursing home aide Annie Lee Cooper who frames the indignity of trying to register to vote and becomes one of the first victims of police violence, local stalwart Amelia Boynton, Viola Lee Jackson marcher and mother of the first martyr of the campaign Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Viola Liuzzo the young white Detroit mother who came unbidden, volunteered and died.  This was not King’s one man show.  It was a movement.
The IWW in the ‘70’s did not have a great charismatic leader, undoubtedly for the better.  The radical Feminists had sometimes rancorously competing claimants to that mantle.  But both were genuine movements arising from the real need of real people and helped along by remarkable human beings.  Penny Pixler bridged those worlds.  I can only tell her story through my own unobjective eyes.
I first saw Penny at a social gathering of Chicago Wobs sometime in the early 70’s.  At first, frankly, I didn’t take much notice.  She sat cross legged on the floor and seemed quiet, even meek as conversation, booze and other recreational substances swirled around her.  Long blonde hair cascaded with wavy neglect across her shoulders.  She had a faint scar from a repaired cleft lip that left her with a minor speech impediment.  I later noted how she would use that to her advantage, to invite folks in the circle to lean forward to listen to her when she shook off reticence and spoke.  She would first rock forward, cock and nod her head, and raise a pointed finger to punctuate a comment.  And the comment was inevitably wise and/and or funny.  Penny, it turned out had a wicked, dry sense of humor.
Penny had arrived in Chicago a couple of years earlier after graduating from the University of Iowa in her home state and having done graduate work at the hotbed of radicalism the University of California at Berkley.  She was already a veteran student and anti-war activist and had a sense of adventurousness that belied her unassuming personality.  She had joined one of the first tours of China by American activists after that country was opened to visitors.  The eye-opening experience had turned her away from any temptation to go down the path of radical chic Maoism.  She was already in on the ground floor of movements that were just taking shape—radical feminism and ecology which barely had a name.

Chicago Women's Liberation Union on the march.

Penny joined the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.  The CWLU had been founded in 1969 by women including Naomi Weisstein, Vivian Rothstein, Heather Booth, and Ruth Surgal who were dissatisfied with the reformist leadership of the National Organization of Women and its obsessions with the problems of upwardly mobile career women.  The organization wanted to confront gender inequality across class and ethnic lines.  Many of the women were committed Marxists, others, notably Anaracha-feminist and Wobbly Arlen Wilson provided a more libertarian left analysis.  The CWLU was action oriented and divided into several semi-autonomous working groups concentrating on consciousness raising, education and the introduction of Women’s Studies on Chicago campuses, reproductive rights and abortion, lesbian rights and issues, anti-rape campaigns, work place organizing through alliances with groups like Nine to Five, arts and expression through groups like the Women’s Graphic Collective and CWLU Band, and building solidarity with movements of minorities and women of color.  One of the CWLU’s most famous—and dangerous—projects was the Jane Collective, officially the Abortion Counseling Services of Women’s Liberation,  which went beyond advocating for abortion rights to anonymously arranging the then illegal procedures for hundreds of desperate women.
Penny thrived in the CWLU working on several projects including contributing to the organization’s several publications.  She was among those who helped define the organization as Socialist Feminist, which was made explicit in the important 1972 pamphlet Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement compiled by the Hyde Park Chapter and a team led by community organizer Heather Booth. 
In the mid ‘70’s Arlen Wilson introduced several young CWLU members, including Penny, to the IWW at first through social gatherings.  The women found Chicago Wobs less patriarchal and hierarchical than many Marxist parties and sects.  Not that the IWW was perfect, just that it was less rigid, more open, and had a history of organizing women on the job going back to the Lawrence and Patterson strikes.  Several joined the union and became active in the Chicago Branch in addition to their continued work with CWLU projects.
Then a remarkable thing happened, something that has gone down in lore as The Great Confluence.  Several of the women became involved with young male Wobblies, many of whom had come to the city from far corners of the country because Chicago was then an active center of IWW organizing.  The footloose Wobbly males may have had a bit of an overdose of machismo but remarkably generally allowed those sharp edges to be knocked off.  Several of those relationships endured for years and some are still active. 
Penny bonded with a young Wob from Portland, Dean Nolan.  Together they took an apartment in Wobbly Towers, a four story courtyard building on West Webster not far from the IWW Hall then on Lincoln Ave.  Several of the large, inexpensive, and cockroach ridden apartments in the building were occupied by Wobblies.  I lived with railroad yard clerk and musician Kathleen Taylor, downstairs CWLU member Judy Lietze and F.W. Richard Christopher of Boston shared a flat.  The aptly named Rita Bakunin shared a space with the bear-like railroad tower switchman Dave Van Pelt.  Others floated in and out, including Carlos and Marianne Cortez who lived with Kathy and me while their apartment building was being renovated.  Life in all of its glorious messiness flowed freely between those apartments.
The CWLU dissolved acrimoniously in 1976.  Penny and the other former members shifted their primary activity to the union.

There IWW has a mythological character named Jimmy Higgins—a rank and file member who shuns the spot light and glory but is always there to do any work that needs to be done.  Penny Pixler could have been a model for Jill Higgins.  Although working full time wiring computer mother boards and doing computer repair—a breakthrough job for women in those days—she could be found most evenings and on Saturdays and Sundays lending a hand at the hall the Branch shared with General Headquarters.  In fact she spent much time offering GHQ her aid, especially when it moved to a new storefront location on Webster near Halstead.  She was always there for the Industrial Worker mailing when yellow manila sheets were run the Addressograph, slathered with library paste and then rolled around copies of the paper which then needed to be bundled by Zip Code.  She did typing, answered phones, collated and stapled pamphlets, and did dozens of things to help the General Secretary Treasuer (GST), part-time bookkeeper, and the editorial collective. 
In the process she became a voice in the ongoing conversation about the union that percolated through the office.  An ever more important voice.  Soon she was regularly contributing to the IW—book reviews, international labor news, and, always insightful articles on women issues. Many of the articles were unsigned or simply initialed.  Penny never sought to draw attention to herself.  She quickly became a member of the staff collective then managing the paper which included former editor and continuing columnist Carlos Cortez, veteran organizer and historian Fred W. Thompson, and me.  She would continue to contribute to the paper almost all of the rest of her life.
Penny also found time for Branch duties—a delegate, frequent recording secretary at meetings, on committees, and on any picket line or demonstration that called.  She particularly mentored and nourished young women entering the union.  Penny would serve as Branch Secretary on more than one occasion.  At the end of her life as she knew she was dying of the cancer that eventually killed her, she made sure that the Branch got her vast personal collection of radical, labor, and feminist books to form the basis of a lasting library.  She even arranged for the book shelves to hold the books.  It was a fitting legacy for one of the most well read and thoughtful members the Branch ever had.
Penny never sought a high profile roll in the union.  She was not, unless pressed, a public speaker.  She was seldom involved in the workplace organizing drives that make stars among us.  Not to say that she ignored that side of things.  She went back to school and became a Chicago Public School teacher.  At first a Full-Time Basis Substitute (FTB), meaning that she had no benefits just a flat rate daily stipend, she was assigned teaching math at the city’s toughest inner-city schools.  Shifted from school to school, sometime multiple times a year, she relished the challenge of working with young Blacks and Latinos, but she also became active in the FTB movement for better pay and conditions.  When she became a regular district employee she became active in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and an outspoken supporter for its most militant faction.
Penny and Dean separated.  She shared an apartment with Fellow Worker Janet Miller in the north side East Ravenswood neighborhood for over twenty years. 
In the early ‘80’s I moved to Crystal Lake in the far boonies of the metropolitan area.  I saw Penny and my Wobbly friends at gatherings once or twice a year.  I knew that she served terms on the General Executive Board and as GST in 1985.  She was not the first to fill the chair of Vincent St. John and Big Bill Haywood—Kathleen Taylor did that back in our days in the Webster street office and others followed.  But the routine acceptance of women at the highest levels of IWW leadership owed a lot to paths she blazed.  Penny continued to be a pillar of the union and of the Branch.
We were not in as close a contact as I was with other Wobs because Penny, although a pioneering computer tech, resolutely refused to use e-mail or the internet not because she was a some sort of a Luddite but because she was convinced the internet and electronic communication could never be secure from government spying or manipulation.  She considered it to be an unsafe and unsuitable means for revolutionaries and radicals to communicate.  If you wanted to get ahold of Penny you had to phone, write an honest to god letter, or meet her in person.  In retrospect her seeming paranoia seems to be prescient.
Penny always kept up with our fellow workers in Chicago and around the country, including those who most of us had lost contact with.  With or without social media, she was the glue that knit many of us together.  It became something of a joke between us as the years rolled on—Penny would call my land line in Crystal Lake, I would answer and on hearing her voice ask, “Who died?”  She broke the news about so many over the years and helped arrange memorial gatherings in the city that I would get to when I could.
Penny had retired from teaching.  In addition to her continued activism with the IWW she now found time to engage in an old interest in the environment.  As usual she preferred hands on service to theory.  She adopted a wet-land prairie—Chicago’s all but obliterated original environment, and worked regularly at it restoration.  She also carefully monitored frog and amphibian populations.
A more than two years ago Penny got word that a cancer she had once beaten had returned with a vengeance, spreading through her body.  It was inoperable but treatable with a rigorous but debilitating regime of chemotherapy and radiation.  Penny remained both hopeful and realistic.  She knew that she would become unable to continue her activities and keep her long time apartment. 

Old friends and Fellow Workers gathered a Women and Children First Bookstore in Chicago for a farewell party.  Seated, Penny Pixler. First row right to left: Janet Miller, Hannah Frisch, Kathleen Taylor, Rennie. Second row: Ann Chrstioherson of the bookstore, Judy Freeman, Karen Nolan, Michael Hargis, Linda Bobon of the bookstore. Back: Patrick Murfin, Neal Rysdahl. 
The decision to leave Chicago and all of her friends and fellow workers after so many years was a difficult one, but she faced it.  She elected to move to Denver where she had family and where she would have access to quality medical treatment.  She hoped for enough time to enjoy her sister, get healthy enough to resume some conservation activities and get active in the Denver Branch. 
Before she left, she carefully wrapped up her affairs and gave away a life time of accumulated possessions, including that invaluable library.  Many of her old friends and fellow workers gathered at one of her favorite places, Women and Children First Book Store in the Andersonville area to give her a farewell.  A great time was had by all and no one laughed harder than Penny. 
She had a few months in Denver.  She impressed and bonded with Denver Wobs but never got well enough to resume regular physical activity.  She died on March 29 last year.  I got the word from Kathy Taylor and via several Facebook and social media posts.
But I kept waiting for that phone call from Penny to make it real.


  1. In the early '90s Penny Pixler formed a committee to bring out a new edition of the Little Red Songbook. One that would include more women & be international in scope.

    Pixler insisted contemporary songwriters be included. Contributions from IWW organizers who wrote songs on the side like Judi Bari in Redwood country and Lenny Flank in Allentown were added as were songs from members who are musicians like Anne Feeney and worker educators like Elise Bryant.

    Bernice Johnson Reagon, from the SNCC Freedom Singers contributed Ella's Song, a tribute to Ella Baker. Leon Rosselson shared The World Turned Upside Down. And Joe Hill's There is Power in the Union was printed next to Billy Bragg's There is Power in a Union.

    That was controversial to some (see Big Red Songbook). But Penny was correct to demand that new Little Red Songbooks, like the earliest ones, address current issues. Thanks Patrick for your remembrance.

    1. And thanks, Jeff for your important note. A perfect example of Penny's commitment and work.

  2. As reticent as she was Penny would have been embarrassed by all the accolades in this obituary. She wouldn't have appreciated it being posted on social media either.

    A few notes. Penny struggled in school as a child. When her hearing loss, unknown to anyone, was discovered and corrected, she became an excellent student and went on to earn three college degrees.l think it was her way of saying, "I AM smart."

    Penny was a voracious reader. When she made the decision to move to Colorado, several of us helped her pack thousands of her books. The topics ranged from international politics and history, women's studies and world religions, and poetry and Irish literature. I asked her, "Have you read all of these books?" She replied, "All of them. And some of them twice."

    I think of her whenever I look at my (much smaller) collection of books. If there is a heaven I hope it has a good library. Penny wouldn't want to be there otherwise.