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Tributes from the Celebration

Remembering Sylvia Weinstein
Kathy Setian
Sept. 9, 2001

When I think about Sylvia Weinstein, I remember a strong, rich, and active life. A life in which she played many roles, all interwoven and connected. Sylvia was a humble person, but she could shine with brilliance. So I would like to organize my thoughts around her starring roles: that of Mother, Feminist, Socialist, and Agitator.

As a mother, Sylvia was unique, in that she viewed every child as her own. One of the movements in which she took the lead was the Child Care Movement here in San Francisco. Although her own children were already grown, she had tremendous respect for working mothers who juggled work and parenting. But Sylvia had a detractor, too: Dianne Feinstein, who was chagrinned to find out that Sylvia could not be bought. Sylvia really did want to do something for the children, not for herself. It was she who coined the phrase "It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need, and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy a ship." This slogan was taken up by the whole women's movement, and has had a life of its own.

But Sylvia was not just concerned about children locally. Whenever and wherever a crime against children occurred, Sylvia mourned and organized. An example is the young Palestinian boy who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers while clinging to his father; Sylvia was a life-long supporter of the rights of Palestinians. Last week when I read about the bombing of Irish girls on their way to school, my automatic reaction was to think of Sylvia. She would have understood my outrage, and she would have spoken out and organized.

Because Sylvia identified so much as a mother, I used to wonder if she could understand a woman like me, who chose not to have children. I got my answer one day when I observed her with a certain cat, one of many 4-legged creatures who thought, "There's no place like home, Sylvia's home". But this cat was unique, in that she only dropped in now and then, when she needed petting, grooming, or a home-cooked meal. Sylvia explained to me that she felt a special love for this cat, because when the cat had had kittens, she hated motherhood. She would climb up on top of the washing machine every time one of the kittens tried to nurse. So I guessed I got my answer: Sylvia cared not only for mothers and children of every species and every country, but also for their alter-egos!***

As a feminist, Sylvia gave the movement her all. Besides Child-Care, Sylvia identified all the way with Abortion Rights. In fact, Sylvia was one the movement's most compelling speakers, giving testimony time after time about her own experiences. The most powerful antidote to the oxymoronic "pro-life anti-abortion" movement was knowing about the chilling, life-threatening aspects of illegal abortions. And Sylvia turned her own moments of horror into a galvanizing force for action.

Sylvia was a key organizer for many years of an annual rally: "Day In the Park for Women's Rights." But here again, she had a detractor: Willie Brown, then a state assemblyman, once tried to forcefully upstage her while she was speaking.

Not long after, the California Democratic Party organized an intervention in NOW to weaken .the influence of socialists. Sylvia was targeted along with Carole, but I also got caught in the sweep for my vocal opposition to red-baiting. When the campaign began, Sylvia asked me if I would like her to tell the red-baiters that she was responsible for the disputed March to Women's Day In the Park, not me. My response was that if it hadn't been for Sylvia, I wouldn't have joined NOW in the first place, so I was honored to be thrown out with her. This was because I had been attracted to NOW's mass action strategy for defending abortion rights, as articulated by her. Oh yes, I was also attracted to the fabulous, fantastical charge, that "Socialists were taking over NOW". This charge came up at my very first NOW meeting, and the possibility that it might be true assuaged my fears of joining an organization that I had previously viewed as conservative.

***
In order to explain to me what was behind the purge in NOW, Sylvia came over to my house to explain socialism and Trotskyism, including the ice-pick, which I found unbelievable. This was the beginning of many far-ranging political discussions between Sylvia and me. I was impressed that there didn't seem to be a political issue that she didn't know about and a point of view.

At our National trials in NOW, Sylvia boldly proclaimed to the tribunal that she was indeed a Socialist as well as a feminist, in the tradition of Margaret Sanger. She said that socialists had a right to be leaders of the women's movement, the same as anyone else, and that she would not be hounded out of the movement.

When Sylvia was later expelled from the SWP, some of us regarded it as their most unforgivable act of all. Sylvia was always a hard and selfless worker who gave every ounce to the worker's vanguard. And any organization that expelled her had to be very far off-base indeed.

As a founding member of Socialist Action, Sylvia continued her dedicated work and leadership. And hours before she died, Sylvia was working at the office of the Socialist Workers Organization.

***
Sylvia shined in all of these roles as mother, feminist, and socialist, but it was as an agitator that Sylvia was at her most brilliant.

As a speaker, she had an uncanny ability to draw from everyday experience to simply explain complex political issues. Since her experience was Everywoman's experience, people fervently identified with what she had to say.

Her anger and hatred of the ruling rich, or "the turds" as she would call them, was transformed into creativity which galvanized people to action.

We could always count on Sylvia to be merciless with the class enemy, and to give us confidence that our cause is just, and that together, we can change the world.

As a columnist, her writing was equally edgy. Because of her direct style and rare brevity, many of us would turn to her column, "Fight Back", and read it first.

***
The workers movement needs leaders like Sylvia Weinstein. I hope there will be many other women to lend their talents now and in the future. Although each one is valuable and unique, among them, Sylvia is indeed unforgettable.

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A Rebel Woman
by Roland Sheppard

On August 13, 2001, at the age of 75, Sylvia Weinstein died. She was a life long socialist and working class fighter/leader. I knew her as a friend and a comrade for 40 years. She had a passion for life and compassion for the oppressed. She prided herself on being a "Jimmy Higgins" during her forty years in the Socialist Workers Party and eighteen years in Socialist Action/Socialist Viewpoint. She was a "salt of the earth" socialist from the coalfields of Kentucky.

She worked full time in The Militant office and full time in the national offices of Socialist Action and Socialist Workers Organization. During the 1960s, she helped to make the arrangements and accommodations for Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. She took time off from the office to lie down in front of a cement truck during a civil rights picket line at a construction site in 1967. In the 1970s she was the main leader of the fight for childcare in San Francisco. She became famous as the "child care lady." When Socialist Action was formed in 1983, she assisted the Greyhound workers when they went on strike and helped to organize the union's strike headquarters.

She was the continuation of the spirit of the "Wobblies". Like Joe Hill, when working people fought for their rights, it's there we found Sylvia. She was a modest person, who seldom used the word I, she was more comfortable with a "we."

But, her accomplishments were many. She never refused any tasks. She could do many things and in a fight she was worth her weight in wildcats. She was a fighter, but never got a chance to be part of an insurrection or see the accomplishment of her goal for a socialist world. Her legacy demonstrates a path toward that goal. We are all in a better place because she was here. She was a working class hero which is something to be. In that sense, she was also my hero. She is best described by Joe Hill's song "The Rebel Girl".

But she was more, she was a rebel woman. It is how I will always remember her.

 

THE REBEL GIRL
(Lyrics by Joe Hill)

There are women of many descriptions
In this queer world, as everyone knows.
Some are living in beautiful mansions,
And are wearing the finest of clothes.
There are blue blooded queens and princesses,
Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl;
But the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.

CHORUS:

That's the Rebel Girl, that's the Rebel Girl!
To the working class she's a precious pearl.
She brings courage, pride and joy
To the fighting Rebel Boy.
We've had girls before, but we need some more
In the Industrial Workers of the World.
For it's great to fight for freedom
With a Rebel Girl. Yes, her hands may be hardened from labor,
And her dress may not be very fine;
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind.
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance she'll hurl;
For the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.

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Sylvia Weinstein Goes to Heaven

She didn't know what the hell was happening. One minute she felt weak and sick as a dog, but now she felt just fine except she didn't recognize anything.

"Welcome aboard!" said a man in a white shirt, a bow tie and black suspenders. "I'm Gene, from the greeting committee."

"Do I know you?" Sylvia said. the guy looked vaguely familiar.

"Well, I got a million votes while I was in jail," he said.

"You mind telling me what's going on and where we are?"

"You've just entered the First socialist republic of the Universe." He held out his hand, and there appeared a large piece of fresh apple pie surrounded by a halo of clouds.

"Oh, shit," said Sylvia, shaking her head. "Pie in the sky. Is that the deal?"

But before the man could answer, another man, also bald but with a goatee, came through the welcoming committee.

"Comrade," the man said in a thick Russian accent, "you have been elected to our Political Committee to represent women of the American Section at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. Please take your place between Comrades Rosa and Emma."

Sylvia found herself suddenly transported to a platform and surrounded by her old four-legged friends, all nuzzling as close to her as possible, for Sylvia Weinstein's Socialist Heaven would not truly be heaven without these companions. In the middle of the platform stood a man with a curly gray beard and a Jewish Afro.

"Workers of the world!" the man said, extending his arm.

"He always begins this way," Rosa whispered in Sylvia's ear.

"You know," said Sylvia -- the man was now in the middle of a long analysis of capitalism, but this being heaven, his speech took only a split second -- "You know, I don't believe in an afterlife. So what's going on?"

"The program before you is only transitional," said another man, a fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, a dark goatee and a shock of wavy hair.
The speaker now nodded towards Sylvia.

"Our next speaker," he said, "is Comrade Weinstein, who comes to us directly from the center of world imperialism and the struggles against war, racism, the oppression of women and the exploitation of the proletariat."

Now Sylvia stood on the speakers' platform and looked out at the crowd. Some of the faces she recognized. In the front row were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Che Guevara, Malcolm X. She saw James Cannon and Rose Karsner, Marvell Scholl and Farrell Dobbs, Tom and Karolyn Kerry. But mostly she saw just comrades, thousands upon thousands of people like herself, women and men she had marched with for over half a century, people whose names are not recorded in any history book, people she knew and loved because they were hers and she was theirs. they were carrying banners and red flags, and they were singing a song that moved her deeply. This time there was no need for a speech. Sylvia Weinstein's voice, strong and beautiful, joined with all the others.

Written in memory of a friend and comrade by Bob Davis
(This story originally appeared on the back of the leaflet announcing the celebration of her life.)

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Selected Bibliography

Celebrating 50 Years of the Fourth International. [videorecording & audiorecording]. San Francisco, August 6, 1988. Includes Sylvia Weinstein speaking and giving the fund pitch.

Doyle, Sandy, Shirley Pasholk, and Sylvia Weinstein. The Fight for Women's Rights Today. San Francisco: Walnut Publishing Co., Inc., 1989. "...originally published in the September 1988 issue of Socialist Action newspaper, Sylvia Weinstein describes a system of infant care, child care, and public school education that would allow every child to develop her or his potential in a loving, learning atmosphere." -- introduction.

50 Years of Revolutionary Socialist Continuity. [audiorecording]. San Francisco, August 30, 1986. Sylvia Weinstein speaking as the Socialist Action candidate for San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Karolyn Kerry Memorial. [audiorecording]. San Francisco, February 22, 1981. Sylvia Weinstein remembering her close friend and comrade of almost 40 years.

Weinstein, Sylvia. FIGHTBACK!: A Collection of Socialist Essays. San Francisco: Socialist Viewpoint, 2005. "These essays reflect the wide range of social movements Sylvia was involved in...." -- back cover.

Weinstein, Sylvia. If We Are United, We Cannot Lose. San Francisco: Socialist Viewpoint, 2001. A mini autobiography transcribed from a speech given to the Women's Studies Department at the University of Maryland.

Weinstein, Sylvia. The Socialist and Labor Movements in the Bay Area, 1934-1964. San Francisco: Socialist Workers Party, 1973. A pictorial history published "to commemorate May Day, 1973, and the opening of a new Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance headquarters at 1519 Mission St." -- inside front cover.

The Holt Labor Library holds a complete run of The Militant, where articles by and about Sylvia Weinstein from the 1960s and 1970s can be found; Socialist Action, where her "FIGHTBACK" column and other articles appeared from 1984 - February 2001; and Socialist Viewpoint, where her "FIGHTBACK" column began appearing in May 2001.

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Pages created by Shannon Sheppard, MLIS
created 12/15/06
revised 03/11/09