During the week of April 21, 1912, a state debating contest was held at Tempe Normal School. The first subject was, »Resolved: Woman's Suffrage Should Be Adopted in Arizona«. Agnes led off, arguing in favor of suffrage against opposing arguments based on fundamentalist Bible positions. According to the Normal Student, she did well. More important, during the week of the debates, the judges stayed in the women's dormitory with the students, and Agnes gave her room to Thorberg Brundin, a young Phoenix high school teacher with a bachelor's degree from Columbia University, who was to judge the next day's debate. The two met the night before the first debate, when Agnes returned to her room to fetch hair curlers (»more than one hundred, which she put in every night«).
Thorberg Brundin, a New Yorker from a Swedish immigrant family, had recently arrived in Phoenix to teach school, see something of the West, and be near her brother Ernest. She was a strikingly beautiful and poised woman in her mid-twenties and certainly the most cosmopolitan person Agnes had ever met. For her part, Thorberg was astonished by Agnes —an outspoken, swashbuckling young woman of unusual intensity who swept in wearing a gun and a dagger and went by the Indian name of Ayahoo. Thorberg was further impressed by the quality of Ayahoo's performance in the debates.
After the week of the debates, Thorberg and Agnes began seeing each other every Friday night, when Thorberg would come over from Phoenix to meet her brother, who could leave his job in the mountains for weekends in Tempe. In long talks over chocolate sodas, for which both women had a passion, intimacy grew rapidly. Smedley talked about her ambition to become a journalist. She told Thorberg how disturbed she was by her mother's death, and vowed that she would never die that way. She was trying hard to dissociate herself from the crudeness of her past; she worked at correcting her accent and her grammar and expressed scorn for anyone who drank alcohol, denouncing the practice as vulgar and animalistic. Smedley also felt attracted to Ernest Brundin, Thorberg's brother.
Ernest was a tall, gaunt man who was about a year younger than his sister. After graduating from high school, he had worked for a year in a surveyor's office in New York City and then studied engineering for a year at the University of Maine. In Maine he came down with tuberculosis and spent a year recovering in a sanitarium. Then, after a short and frustrating attempt at chicken farming in New Jersey, he migrated to Tucson, Arizona, in 1910, where he haunted an engineering office until they gave him a job driving a team of horses. In 1911 he was assigned to a surveying job on the huge Roosevelt Dam project at the headwaters of the Salt River, in the Superstition Mountains to the east of Tempe. After Thorberg joined him, they made plans to take their savings and migrate to San Francisco, with hopes of entering the University of California at Berkeley. Beginning in May of 1912, Ernest spent most weekends with Agnes and Thorberg in Tempe.
Smedley envied the Brundins' education and sophistication, and after the school year ended she moved to Phoenix to look for work. When she expressed disappointment over being unable to continue with school, Thorberg and Ernest dismissed her feelings by saying that school didn't necessarily teach one anything really important — an attitude that Smedley resented (»from the heights they could afford to be critical«).
In retrospect, the political, social, and emotional impact of the Brundins on Agnes Smedley is difficult to overestimate. Both Thorberg and Ernest were strong Socialists. Although Agnes had already developed a sense of righteous indignation about the social evils she had seen around her, she had never met anyone who claimed to have an enlightened political solution for them. Moreover, although Ernest held firm convictions, he was a courteous, soft-spoken man, and he and his sister were extremely close. Theirs was the first relationship Agnes had seen in which a man and a woman shared obvious love, comradeship, and understanding. In Daughter of Earth she recalled that she had wondered: »Could human beings be tender and still not weak? Could there
really be love free from danger and subjection for a woman?« (pp. 185-86). Could it be, she asked herself, that Ernest was really capable of respecting a free and independent woman?
One moonlit summer night, a wild ride with Ernest over the desert on a runaway horse led to a passionate embrace. Tearful goodbyes followed when Ernest and Thorberg left for San Francisco soon thereafter. A few weeks later a marriage proposal came in a letter from Ernest. Agnes quickly took a train to San Francisco, where she moved in with Ernest, Thorberg, and Thorberg's future husband, Robert Haberman, all of whom were sharing an apartment at 624 Octavia Street. Thorberg had a part-time job, and Agnes found full-time work as a secretary, but Ernest could find nothing that paid well until he was offered a job working on the American Canal project, which would bring Colorado River water to southern California. He accepted the offer, and on August 24, 1912, a few hours before he boarded the train for the Imperial Valley, Justice of the Peace A. T. Barnett at City Hall recorded the marriage of Ernest George Brundin, white, aged twenty-four, and Ayahoo Smedley, white, aged twenty.*
- * The casualness Agnes tried to adopt is revealed in a postcard she sent to her father from San Francisco a few days later, on September 6, 1912: »Dear Dad, As busy as a cranberry merchant. Fine health, however. Frisco is a rather nice town, but I don't care much for it.« The marriage was not mentioned. On Smedley postcards see Chapter 1, note 7
Tensions soon rose among the remaining three on Octavia Street. Thorberg became impatient with Agnes's lack of sophistication. For example, when they went to the theater, Agnes was bored if the play lacked music and dance. More important, Thorberg was appalled at the arrangement reached by her brother and Agnes: they had agreed not to have children, at least not until Agnes had saved enough money to get herself, her sister, and her two brothers through school. Much as she liked Agnes, Thorberg thought the pair were totally mismatched by temperament and told them so. She also knew how much Ernest wanted to have children. But most of all, she was stunned by Smedley's categorical hatred of sex and her naive belief that a marriage could survive on »romantic friendship«. Thorberg even suspected that Smedley had married Ernest because she wanted to stay close to her.
Painful though all this was, Smedley found it even harder to cope with the hostility of Thorberg's future husband, Robert Haberman. Haberman was a volatile Rumanian-Jewish American who practiced pharmacy in San Raphael. He was a dedicated Socialist and often attended meetings and demonstrations held by the I.W.W. and other Socialist and radical groups. When Thorberg first met him, he was becoming increasingly involved in supporting the Mexican Revolution of 1911. He insisted on taking Thorberg and Agnes to places like Playland, an amusement park at the ocean end of Golden Gate Park, so they could mingle with »the common man«. When Agnes said she didn't want to associate with »vulgar, cheap, and ugly people«, Haberman would shout back that their vulgarity was the fault of the system — a retort that would leave her quiet and sullen.
Smedley was struggling to come to terms with a new environment and new ideas. In February of 1913 the Tempe Normal Student published an article entitled »The Yellow Man«, sent in by A. Smedley-Brundin. It was an impressionistic piece about San Francisco's Chinatown, in which Smedley tried to counter the racial prejudices against Chinese that she knew to be rampant in Arizona. Her observations on Chinese culture were naive, romanticized, and transparently escapist— an early attempt to find an alternative to a white society that she personally found oppressive.
The situation in the Octavia Street apartment continued to irritate her. She was jealous of Thorberg, who was successfully pursuing a Master's degree in zoology at the University of California in Berkeley. She also resented the fact that Thorberg continually shirked doing her share of the cooking and cleaning. Agnes couldn't tolerate a messy place and would clean the house »with a vengeance«.
Ernest's visits were brief and infrequent. According to both Thorberg and Ernest's second wife, Elinor, the marriage was completely devoid of sex until April of 1913. At that time, to escape Octavia Street and be closer to Ernest, Agnes moved to El Centro in the sun-parched Imperial Valley of southern California. She hoped that by doing secretarial work in this small town, where she could live cheaply, she could save enough money to get back into school.
When Ernest visited in El Centro, sex was included in the marriage, but Agnes continued to resist. It didn't help her attitude that after she had found a secretarial job at a hotel, many of the land speculators arriving from Los Angeles crudely propositioned her. By the beginning of June, with the onset of morning sickness, Agnes knew that what she had dreaded had become fact: she was pregnant. The realization came when Ernest was out of town, and she reacted with terror. She was convinced that her equal relationship with her husband would soon vanish and that the arrival of a child would make it impossible for her to go to school and thus become his intellectual equal. Already bitter about her poor rural background and envious of Ernest and Thorberg, she clung fiercely to her dream of someday becoming a successful journalist. Tortured by these fears and haunted by the memory of her mother's fate, she went to a druggist and bought poison that would induce an abortion.
Ernest arrived back in El Centro to find Agnes nearly dead. He took her, panic-stricken and hysterical, to the local doctor and insisted that he complete the abortion before Agnes killed herself. The doctor complied. Smedley wrote in Daughter of Earth: »When I came back to consciousness Ernest was sitting by my bedside, smiling. I lay gazing at him and hating the smile, hating it, hating it! How dared he smile when my body was an open wound, when I had stood before eternity... How dared he smile when a child had been taken from my body and now my body and mind called for it... How dared he smile... [he] a man who knew nothing, nothing, nothing« (pp. 198-99). Agnes refused to let Ernest pay for the abortion, saying that she would let no man pay for her body.
The Smedley-Brundin marriage had not been consummated until the eighth month. The physician who had attended Agnes told Ernest after the abortion that because of her deep-seated fear he doubted whether she would ever be able to enjoy sex or have an orgasm. For Ernest, this was too much. He wanted to be Agnes's friend, but he also wanted a wife and children.
With financial and moral support from Ernest, Agnes S. Brundin left him in El Centro and registered as a student at San Diego Normal School on June 28, 1913. She entered with the academic self-confidence she had developed in Arizona, and her personal magnetism and energy are apparent even from the skimpy records left in the school archives. She helped found the school's weekly newspaper, Normal News, and during the paper's first year (November, 1913, to August, 1914) she was listed on the masthead as the business manager. Theater was emphasized on campus that year, and Smedley was heavily involved. The paper reported that Agnes, »known in our corridors as A. S. Brundin, played the part of Antonio in the court scene from The Merchant of Venice by 'Bill' Shakespeare«. She also performed in Scenes from Greek Plays by Stephen Phillips and joined the party and dance held afterward. The Normal News listed A. S. Brundin among the class of 1914 that was to graduate at the close of the summer session. In June, 1914, Smedley was appointed faculty secretary and typing teacher for the Normal School's Intermediate School, positions she would retain through 1916, remaining associated with the Normal News as Alumni Editor.
Since arriving in San Diego, Smedley had worried about her sister and two brothers. The brothers wrote that they were being mistreated by the farmer in Oklahoma to whom Charles Smedley had hired them out. Agnes could do nothing about that situation, but on November 12, 1914, the Normal News announced that Agnes's sister, Myrtle Smedley, had arrived on campus as a special student in woodwork and sewing. Agnes had made enough money to bring Myrtle out from New Mexico, where she had been working as a hired girl with a ranching family. According to family lore, Myrtle's first reaction was hostile; she thought that Agnes, with her »proper accent« and »corrected grammar«, was putting on airs. But by March of 1915 Myrtle was enrolled as a regular student and was in charge of »outside circulation« for the Normal News, which reported that the two sisters spent their spring vacation in 1915 visiting Ernest.
In the spring of 1915 a controversy arose on campus when a »Hindu reformer«, Dr. Keshava D. Shastri, was allowed to speak only to the faculty (including Smedley, in her capacity as Supervisor of Intermediate School typing); the majority of faculty members considered him too anti-British in his views to be allowed to address the students. Their decision was made, in part, out of fear. San Diego still lived in the shadow of the violence that had erupted in 1912, when vigilante committees of merchants and citizens forcibly prevented the anarchist Emma Goldman from speaking, by tarring and feathering her manager (and lover) Ben Reitman. In response, thousands of I.W.W. members and their supporters descended on the town, and the jail could not hold all who were arrested. The controversy then spread throughout California. Tensions over the free-speech issue continued into 1915. Such was the political climate when Emma Goldman came to San Diego, one day before Dr. Shastri's lecture, to give a series of three public lectures off campus: one each on Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Margaret Sanger's birth control movement.
The Shastri-Goldman episode was a political education for Smedley. Shastri awakened her to the global issue of British imperialism. Since she took pride in the fact that an ancestor of hers had fought the British during the American Revolution, Shastri's anticolonialism struck a major chord. Afterward she talked with Shastri and asked for more information about Lajpat Rai, a major Indian politician in exile in New York, who had been mentioned in the lecture. Smedley also attended Emma Goldman's lectures, and what Goldman had to say in favor of birth control, especially for poor women, hit her hard. This experience also put her in touch with a new organization, the Open Forum, which had stepped in as a sponsor of the Goldman lecture after the Socialist Party backed down under pressure. The forum soon became an important focus of Smedley's political and social life. When she returned from summer vacation, she acted as its secretary.
In June, 1915, Agnes and Myrtle left for Berkeley, where Ernest soon joined them. To Agnes, summer school at a university was a dream come true. Ernest, too, was hungry for more education. But the trauma of living together as husband and wife remained. Again the problem was sex, and once again Agnes became pregnant—which led to the same desperate reaction and another abortion. The following story became legendary in the Brundin family: returning home on the streetcar from the doctor's office after the abortion, Agnes lay down on the side seat in the back, doubled up, and began to moan. She evidently made no attempt to control the volume of her moaning. Some of the passengers started mumbling that she must be drunk, and others rushed back to see if she needed help. Ernest, a very proper person, was beside himself, thinking only of how to get her home without getting kicked off the streetcar. He spoke angrily to her: »Sit up! People are looking at you—do you want to make a scene in public?« He had never spoken to her in this way, and never did so again. But their dreams of an academically satisfying summer were shattered, as they struggled to control their emotions.
In the fall Agnes and Myrtle Smedley returned to San Diego for the academic year 1915 — 16. After Ernest rejoined her in January 1916, Smedley tried to save her marriage while at the same time becoming increasingly committed as a political activist and socialist. Ernest opened a gas station in San Diego and rented a house with Agnes near campus which became, according to the Normal News, a lively social center. Smedley's delight in entertaining with cowboy and folk songs was irrepressible. The couple also bought a car they named Wiggles, and Agnes soon became known as a »fearless« driver.
As secretary of the Open Forum, Smedley handled arrangements for an impressive group of speakers whose impact on her personally appears to have been considerable. Most important was Upton Sinclair, the socialist and muckraker who inaugurated the forum's lecture series on January 17. He and Smedley struck up a personal acquaintance which endured into the 1930s; Sinclair recalled later, »She was a young school teacher, very pretty, and happy over meeting an author to whose ideas she was sympathetic«. In April, the best-known socialist politician in the nation, Eugene Debs, came to speak. Jane Addams was expected but could not come. There were also on-campus lectures on the Mexican Revolution, and Smedley was involved with arranging a dance at a Mexican settlement for fund-raising purposes.
By the spring of 1916, Smedley was a committed member of the Socialist Party. A central reason was the share of power the party gave women. Important women in the party included union organizer »Mother« Mary Harris Jones; Helen Keller; the editor and co-publisher of the popular paper National Rip Saw, and the party's vice-presidential candidate in 1916, Kate Richards O'Hare; the founder of the birth control movement in the United States, Margaret Sanger; and the general secretary of the National Consumers League and co-founder of the National Child Labor Committee, Florence Kelly. The party campaigned hard wherever the suffrage issue was at stake in an election. The party put women up for office and their elected officials appointed women to such public positions as that of the first woman judge in California in 1912. By 1910 women were sharing responsibilities at all levels of the party infrastructure, including its National Executive Committee. One of the latter's members in 1916, for example, was Anna Maley, who also managed Thomas Van Lear's successful campaign to be elected mayor of Minneapolis.
Many middle-class women who were active in religious social-reform organizations of the time also joined the Socialist Party, perceiving a Christian-like, service-oriented, and collectivist ethic as implicit in Socialist theory. One such was Francis Willard, president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who concluded her presidential address in 1897: »Beloved Comrades... socialism is the higher way; it enacts into everyday living the ethics of Christ's gospel. Nothing else will do«.
The West had its own regional variety of socialism. Many Western Socialists had an I.W.W. or anarchist-syndicalist orientation, which emphasized organizing unskilled migratory workers as »the genuine proletariat«. By 1916 the I.W.W. had failed as an organized movement. The Socialist Party, however, remained strong.*
- * Founded in 1905 as an offshoot of the Socialist movement, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) aimed at a more transient and less stable constituency than mainstream Socialists, depreciating methodical practical programs and emphasizing »revolutionary« appeals and demands for higher wages, shorter hours, and improved working conditions. The leader and founder was William D. Haywood, whose political philosophy was a composite of Socialist and syndicalist ideas. Throughout the West, a socialist-syndicalist press sprang up in small mining camps and in railroad yards located just outside towns. By 1910 the I.W.W. was strong in southern California, as well as integral to the Socialist movement there. Then in January, 1913, for using violent tactics in wildcat strikes, Haywood was expelled from the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party (led by Eugene Debs). Although several thousand syndicalists followed Haywood out of the party, the majority, like Smedley's friends in San Diego, remained within the Socialist Party. See Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the I.W.W. (New York, 1969), and James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge, 1978).
Like Aunt Mary and Tillie, Smedley was a survivor. Her political commitment sprang basically from personal rage over the indignities she and her family had suffered in the mining towns of the West. As a lower-class product of the harsh economic conditions and strong individualism of the West, Smedley might well have been more attracted to the I.W.W.'s anarchist brand of socialism than to the more middle-class orientation of the Socialist Party. But the particular way in which her personal rage interacted with the environment in San Diego led her to join the Socialist Party.
In 1916 Smedley's most immediate and pressing personal problem was sexuality. Recently acquired information on birth control gave her the means with which to deal with it physically. She channeled her personal anger in a political direction by blaming the state for keeping the liberating knowledge of birth control out of the hands of poor women. Her political consciousness was still shaped largely by Thorberg and Ernest Brundin, the two people she most admired and loved and who loved her in return. Moreover, her friends in San Diego came largely from the Open Forum, most of whose members were middle-class Socialists and liberals. Thus it was natural for her to join the Socialist movement with which they were associated. In short, Smedley joined the Socialist Party less for its theoretical insight or Socialist vision than to satisfy immediate emotional and social needs. She was attracted not by party meetings but by her personal relationships with leaders of the Socialist Party and the liberal Open Forum, as well as the forum's lecture series. As she wrote in Daughter of Earth:
About me at that time — and it was in California—were small Socialist groups who knew little more than 1 did. We often met in a little dark room to discuss the war and to study various problems and Socialist ideas. The room was over a pool room and led into a larger square room with a splintery floor; in the, corner stood a sad looking piano. In the little hall leading to it was a rack holding various Socialist or radical newspapers, tracts, and pamphlets in very small print and on very bad paper. The subjects treated were technical Marxist theories. Now and then some Party member would announce a study circle, and I would join it, along with some ten or twelve working men and women.
I joined another circle and [the] leader gave us a little leaflet in very small print, asking us to read it carefully and then come prepared to ask questions. It was a technical Marxist subject and I did not understand it nor did I know what questions to ask.
Once or twice a month our Socialist local would announce a dance and try to draw young workers into it. Twenty or thirty of us would gather in the square, dingy room with splintery floor. The Socialist lawyer of the city came, with his wife and daughter. They were very intelligent and kindly people upon whose shoulders most of the Socialist work in town rested. The wife had baked a cake for the occasion and her daughter, a student, played a cornet. While the piano rattled away and the cornet blared, we circled about the room, trying to be gay. I danced with a middle-aged machinist and we said not a word during the dance. An elderly Single Taxer, who had come for the specific purpose of gaining converts for his ideas, was my second partner, talking Single Tax while we danced.
I attended a few such study circles and dances, but there was seldom enough interest or beauty in them to hold me. The leaders of the study circle did not know how to teach in a manner essential to such a subject... [Myrtle] attended one class only and never went again. I recall them as sad and dreary affairs.
Smedley had come to accept the Socialist view that change for the working class as a whole was both possible and desirable. In this regard, she had altered her position drastically; in San Francisco in 1912 she had tried to avoid contact with people from her own background. In 1916 Smedley's sister Myrtle labored to suppress the reality of their family past in order to make good her escape into the American middle class. For the rest of their lives, the issue of how to react to their background would continue to divide the two sisters. Myrtle, for her part, thought that trying to make basic changes in the structure of society was foolish, romantic, and doomed to failure, and would perhaps cause even more misery. Agnes, for her part, could never understand why Myrtle did not condemn a system of government that tolerated great extremes of wealth, unequal opportunities for its citizens, and injustices perpetrated by big business. Why wasn't Myrtle as outraged as she that their own mother had suffered from malnutrition and overwork, and died from lack of adequate medical care?
Although the Smedley-Brundin marriage still limped along, by June, 1916, it was clear that Ernest Brundin was not making a go of the gas station. He decided to return to Fresno to a part-time job that paid well enough that he could attend classes on and off at the state college. Following her husband to Fresno for the summer, Smedley landed her first job with a commercial newspaper, the Fresno Morning Republican.
Although this was a conservative paper, highly critical of President Wilson, Smedley agreed with its stands on two issues. Like the largest newspaper chain in California, the Hearst papers, and public opinion in California as a whole, it maintained a strong anti-British position up to the eve of the United States' entry into World War I. Although not pro-German, its editorials stressed the need for the United States to remain neutral and it continued to be highly critical of the war-preparedness policies of the Wilson administration. Smedley agreed with this position. The other issue was women's suffrage, for the paper ran many pro-suffrage articles both before and after Smedley joined the staff. Exactly what work Smedley did for the paper is hard to assess, as very few articles were signed, but she did acknowledge one story that she covered. Fresno was the center of the Indian Sikh community in California, and it definitely was Smedley who was sent to cover a Hindu rally in September of 1916. The speaker was Ram Chandra, the editor of Free Hindustan, a San Francisco monthly supported primarily by the Sikh farmers near Fresno. (At this time there were about 10,000 immigrant Hindu men in the United States and a minuscule number of women, since female Hindus were excluded by law.) Chandra's aim that day was to report on the progress of the Indian nationalist movement and to raise money to support the overthrow of the British in India. The intent of his newspaper was to publicize the particulars of injustices stemming from British colonial rule, such as press censorship and widespread famine.
Smedley was struck by the fact that the speaker seemed to be supported by a majority of the 500-plus rural Indian-American farmers present. She thus became aware that the Indian nationalist movement was well established in India and around the world and that it saw the war between England and Germany as a golden opportunity for the overthrow of the British in India. The Sikh farmers in California had formed the largest Indian political organization outside India, and they had named it the Ghadar, or »Mutiny«, Party.
But aside from discovering the Indian nationalist movement and holding her first commercial newspaper job, Smedley continued to live in trauma. Her marriage was in crisis again, and Ernest finally initiated divorce proceedings.
Smedley returned alone to San Diego in the fall of 1916. The focus of her extracurricular activities continued to be the Open Forum, which hosted a parade of liberal to Socialist speakers, notably Allan L. Benson, the Socialist candidate for president in 1916; Rabinandrath Tagore, the Indian nationalist and poet; Lincoln Steffens, who spoke on the situation in Mexico; and Corneling Lehane, who gave an address on the »Irish Rebellion«.
Sometime in December, 1916, a major change in Smedley's life was provoked by a simple quirk of fate: she lost her purse. The purse was found by San Diego Normal School's president, Edward Hardy. When he opened it to determine the owner, he discovered a pink membership card of the Socialist Party bearing the name of Agnes Smedley Brundin. He called her in, dismissed her from her job, and suggested that she leave town immediately, for her sister's sake: Myrtle, after all, would be looking for a job as a teacher the following year, and it would be much harder for her to find one if Agnes Smedley Brundin was still in town.
Smedley promptly left San Diego. Her announced destination was New York, but she headed first for Fresno, where Ernest was still in school. She pleaded with him to attempt another reconciliation, but to no avail. He was convinced that Smedley would never be happy as anyone's wife and that she had to find happiness in a career. Smedley herself had no lasting bitterness about her marriage to Ernest Brundin. As she later wrote in a letter: »I should so like to see Ernest and talk with him. He was the 'stufe' [sic] on which I stood while drawing myself out of a lower standard of thought, life, and culture. He was my one support. Had it not been for him I doubt if I would ever have known of another life. I have no regret; but I am sorry he was hurt, and that he loved me. But only a man who loved me enough to suffer could have helped me. I owe Ernest a debt greater than he can imagine«.
Smedley left California in 1916 feeling vulnerable and still emotionally dependent on Ernest Brundin. She stopped in Colorado to visit her Aunt Tillie. After leaving Colorado, she must have felt desperately lonely, for on the way to New York she stopped in a small midwestern town to look up her old pen pal from the New Mexico schoolteaching days. The man whose handwriting she had once admired was a short, God-fearing store clerk with very conservative ideas about women— hardly a fit companion for Agnes Smedley.