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Amazon Army

Amazon Women When mining families in the Pittsburg area staged a protest, they were called the Amazon Army. The army, composed of the wives and children of the miners, numbered as many as 6,000. Some of the women were pregnant, others carried children too small to be left at home. They marched into coal camps and blocked the entrances of the mines forcing them to close. Their grievances were directed toward a new state law that controlled the right to strike.

Coal mining was a major industry in southeast Kansas. Most miners belonged to a national union, the United Mine Workers, which helped to negotiate for better salaries and working conditions. Unions used strikes as a leverage to fight for their members.

During World War I miners played an essential role in supporting the allies. Production increased, along with pay. In 1919, after the war had ended, production slowed. Fewer workers were needed, and pay was reduced. Miners around the nation struggled to support their families. They used strikes as a way to ensure their voices were heard. These disruptions industry production caused chaos at the local and state level.

Governor Henry Allen wanted to avoid future strikes and responded by creating the Court of Industrial Relations in 1920. The court would serve as an arbiter during labor disputes. Alexander Howat, the outspoken head of the Kansas coal miner union, was opposed to the role of the court. He refused to appear for the court proceeding or follow its judgements. He was sent to jail for contempt of court. The national union removed him from authority and sent a provisional replacement. Howat had been a coal miner and officer in the district for 19 years and many miners felt an allegiance to him. Those miners who supported Howat refused to renew agreements with the unions and return to work. They called those who didn't, "scab" labor.

These local families were immigrants from many European nations who had brought their mining skills to southeast Kansas. Called "Little Balkans," this region was home to French, Italian, Swedish, Austrian, German, British, and Eastern European Americans who spoke many different languages.

They believed their protest supported the miners who sought justice and equality. The families convened a large evening meeting to plan a strategy. Then early on the morning of December 12, 1921, the wives, mothers, sisters, and children marched from coal camp to coal camp. Their goal was to oppose the provisional leader and shut down the mines.

The media quickly began calling them the "Amazon Army," known in Greek mythology as a tribe of warrior women who fought with Troy against the Greeks in the Trojan War. These "Amazon" women of southeast Kansas marched for three days. They carried buckets of red pepper flakes, which they tossed to sting the eyes of other workers and keep them away. They sang patriotic songs and marched with large American flags, to show that even though they were stopping production they were still true Americans. There were a few incidents of violence and property damage. Several of the husbands and brothers followed along behind the women.

Their actions were considered shocking at the time and condemned by many. The only woman in Congress at the time, Alice Robertson from Oklahoma said their march was a “spectacle to be deplored by the womanhood of the nation.” The Kansas National Guard was mobilized to reestablish order. Warrants were issued for a number of the participants, both men and women. The miners soon went back to work. Within the coal camps the women were considered heroes for fearlessly standing up for their families.

Fannie Wimler of Franklin wrote to the Pittsburg Daily Headlight saying, "What we want is our industrial freedom and liberty and we want our men to be good, true, loyal union men and 100 percent American citizens."

Their voices joined the struggle of workers across the nation, eventually leading to labor reforms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Industrial Relations was unconstitutional and it was disbanded in 1925.

This poem, written by Gene DeGruson of Pittsburg, provides an account of his mother, Clemence Merciez DeGruson, who marched with the Amazon Army.

"Alien Women"

In ’21, my mother marched still herself
at seventeen marched for Alexander
Howat to bust the scabs who worked
the mines in place of the fathers
and husbands of the thousand women
who marched with her carrying
their men’s pit buckets filled
with red pepper to throw in the eyes
of the poor scabs who cursed back
in English to their Slovene, German,
French, and Italian over
the State Militia’s rifle fire.
Its all dim in her mind now. She
remembers only that she was hungry
and frightened. She does not remember
Judge Curran, who said, “It is a fact
that these are bolsheviki, communists,
and anarchists among the alien women
of this community. It was the lawlessness
of these women which made it necessary
the stationing of the State Militia
in our county for two months
to preserve law and order.”
She does not remember they
were called an Army of Amazons.

Entry: Amazon Army

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: January 2020

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.