Grace Carlson: Unsung Hero of the Early Trotskyist Movement

by Ann Montague 

Grace Carlson was the only female member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) (predecessor organization of Socialist Action) to be convicted and sentenced under the notorious anti-communist Smith Act of 1940. She was sentenced to sixteen months in the Federal Correctional Facility For Women in Alderson, West Virginia. The trial and convictions of the 17 male leaders of the SWP is a well known part of Trotskyist history. All 18 leaders were  convicted of allegedly trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force and violence on the eve of the U.S entrance into World War II . (See “Socialism On Trial” by James P. Cannon).

Grace wrote to her sister Dorothy (also a member of the SWP) on May 14, 1944, “It is lucky that I didn’t know when I graduated from St. Catherine’s that I’d be in prison on the 15th anniversary of our Commencement…I would so much rather be myself, today, sitting here than any one else”.

A new biography of Grace Carlson has just been published. “The Fierce Life Of Grace Holmes Carlson: Catholic Socialist Feminist” Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, New York University Press, 2021. The chapter entitled, “Sisterhoods” is a treasure trove of information about the women in the early days of the Trotskyist movement. It details Grace Carlson’s leadership and her political contributions on women’s oppression.

Early Life

Grace was born in 1906 and grew up in a Catholic working class neighborhood in St Paul, Minnesota. Her lifelong commitment to the working class was a result of her life experiences. Her radicalization came about as a result of experiencing two major strikes.

 In 1922, when she was just 15 years old there was a major strike known as the Shopman’s Strike. This was the first time she saw the power of worker’s solidarity. It was a massive nation-wide strike of 400,000 workers in six craft unions associated with the railroads. Her father was a boilermaker and was a striker but returned to work before the end of the strike. He then took his daughter with him as they crossed picket lines to buy groceries hoping her presence would deter violence from strikers. The act of crossing picket lines was so disturbing for young Grace because she believed what she did “was wrong” and she went to Confession and told the priest that she had “helped deprive laborers of their wages”. Later in life she described her early beliefs as “being a scab was wrong as was the capitalist exploitation that drove men to such desperate measures”.

Grace experienced political rebellion in her youth. The Catholic school she attended was run by the Sisters of St Joseph with teachers that were Irish Immigrants and supported the revolt against British rule.  This was also a period of strong  sentiment against the First World War and anti war songs of that period were school  activities. Grace continued her education and attended the College of St Catherine and then earned an advanced degree in Psychology from the University of Minnesota.  

During this time Grace had drifted from the church and towards socialism. She continued to see herself as a member and defender of the working class. Grace experienced  the violent reality of class struggle first hand as an active supporter of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike. The power of the strike that shut down the city of Minneapolis and the violent attacks on the strikers moved her to realize that only a socialist society could address the needs of workers and the oppressed. The first Trotskyists she met were leaders of this strike, “My admiration of their courage, ability and intelligence led me to study their program and I started reading Debs, Trotsky, Lenin, Marx and Engels”.

In 1938 Grace was a delegate to the founding convention of the Socialist Workers Party led by James P Cannon. In 1940 she left her job at the State Department of Education to work full time for the party. 

For the next twelve years she worked as the Minnesota state organizer, running election campaigns, writing a column for the party press, and working in New York and Detroit to assist the party as she was needed. She was a strong speaker, writer and organizer. 

By September 1940 Grace Carlson was the SWP’s candidate for U.S. Senate. In addition to campaigning with a critique of capitalism she called for “genuine economic and social equality for women” and also demanded “full social, political and economic equality for Negro people”. While she ran an energetic campaign she only gained 9,000 votes but she saw it as a success. “Thousands of Minnesota workers and farmers heard our program over the radio and were introduced for the first time to the Trotskyist movement”. She was also happy that she got more votes than Earl Browder, the Communist Party candidate for President. She wrote to Natalia Sedova, Leon Trotsky’s widow, “It was a great source of satisfaction to me to have made so much better showing than the Stalinist candidate!”

Continuing to work with National Secretary James Cannon and the Labor Secretary Farrell Dobbs, she was elected to the party’s National Committee in 1942 and served as the only woman member of that body for many years.

Time In Prison

During her time in prison her connections through correspondence deepened the sisterhood of the women comrades. The struggles of those women who were mostly working mothers and also her relationship with the poor and young women prisoners inspired her thinking about Marxist feminism. 

While in prison she cherished the communication she received from her sister Dorothy. She was separated from party work but women’s roles in the party had expanded. 

Most of the male leadership of the party were either in prison or drafted.  So the women stepped up and an informal female collective leadership emerged. Women who had committed time to the party by doing office work were now becoming party organizers. The women were organizing mass meetings and becoming speakers as well as  writing for the paper. Grace was thrilled by this development and sent letters of encouragement to all the women who were stepping up. Even before she went to prison Grace had been encouraging more women to speak at forums and take on more organizing responsibilities. While Grace was frustrated in prison she relished her ability to be a mentor even while behind bars.

But her sisters also realized how isolated Grace felt and were worried about her health. They arranged for a different comrade every month to travel to the prison for a visit.

After being released from prison Grace launched a “Women in Prison” speaking tour and started to write columns in The Militant which were Marxist critiques of patriarchy as well as the  oppression of working class women under capitalism.

Her experience in prison had deepened her resolve to direct her work in fighting the oppression of women under capitalism.  In June 1945 she launched her “Women in Prison” tour speaking at SWP branches in 22 cities around the country. Her message was that “women are doubly oppressed victims of capitalist society because they are robbed of their right to make a decent living in society and then when they are forced to make a living by so called illegal means they are thrown in prison. These young girls are not criminals they are victims of a criminal social system”.  She spoke to meetings of up to 200 with the focus on women prisoners.This was a continuation of her message as a candidate calling for genuine social and economic freedom for women. 

At the same time she worked to make equality a reality within the SWP for women comrades by expanding  their roles in the party. Grace was integrating the daily struggles of women into her writing while speaking on the fight for socialism. She also started speaking about housework and motherhood as “productive work”.

The Break

 In 1946 Grace ran for U.S. Senate and in 1948 she was the vice presidential candidate for the SWP as they ran their first campaign for president. This was an audacious campaign in the midst of the Cold War and the oppressive  anticommunist red scare.  Their campaign slogan was “The Struggle For Civil Rights”. 

Three years later Grace said that she would not run again and she resigned from the SWP in 1951 after the death of her father. She stated she had no political differences with the party. She wrote that the death of her father was a traumatic time for her and her reasons were personal and spiritual. 

Her long time friend and comrade James Cannon met with her and tried to change her mind. He later wrote that he believed, “she left as a result of years of persecution, poverty and discrimination as she fought with us for socialism.. she has no differences with our party program nor grievances against us.”

Grace consistently maintained she continued to be a Marxist and oppose capitalism. She returned to the Catholic Church. She was  harassed by the FBI and was blacklisted and could not get employment.

Eventually she became a respected professor at St Mary’s Junior College. In the 1960’s she was involved with ending the war in Vietnam and wrote a critique of the new left and misdirected individual acts “that did not strike at the center of economic and political power.” She denounced reform efforts that did not “strike at the heart of capitalist oppression”.

Grace maintained her revolutionary spirit to the end. At her memorial service in 1992 her colleagues remembered how she often enjoyed retelling the story of how she had fought for decades to recover her voting rights which were finally restored in the early 1960s. She  described the reaction on the bureaucrat’s face when he asked her how she lost her voting rights. Her response was, “Of course, by attempting to overthrow the government by force and violence”.