A Life of Struggle: Grace Carlson

Against the Current No. 213, July/August 2021

Dianne Feeley

The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson
Catholic, Socialist, Feminist
By Donna T. Haverty-Stacke
New York: New York University Press, 2021,
312 pages, $50 hardcover.

A BIOGRAPHY THAT uncovers new information is a welcome read. For the thousands of people who cycled through the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Young Socialist Alliance over the last 70 years, we learned of Grace Carlson and the role she played from James P Cannon.

His article “How We Won Grace Carlson and How We Lost Her” (July 7, 1952 Militant) explained that she resigned under the pressure of the Cold War. Given the political moment, that made sense. In fact, Carlson was the only woman convicted under the first Smith Act trial, which sentenced her to 18 months in federal prison in 1944.

Cannon described his friend and comrade as “a defeated and broken woman” who returned to the Catholic Church. But unlike Louis Budenz’s break from the Communist Party and return to the Catholic Church, she never repudiated her years in the party or provided names to the FBI.

The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson tells the story of a woman committed to working-class and civil rights struggles both before and after her years as a leader in the SWP. Drawn to progressive political positions as a high school and college student, Carlson became an activist after she developed her professional expertise as an educator. Educated in Catholic schools by the same order of nuns that taught me in elementary school — the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (35) — she was nurtured by a community where her father was a railroad worker, one uncle was a socialist, a supportive mother, and Irish nuns who opposed World War I.

After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1933, she became a lecturer there. Along with her younger sister Dorothy, she joined the university’s Social Problems Club and participated in campus antiwar strikes against ROTC. This in turn led her to supporting the Farmer-Labor Party, marching in an unemployed demonstration at the capitol and attending Sunday forums at the Trotskyist headquarters with her fiancé Gilbert Carlson.

As members of the Social Problems Club, she and Dorothy collected funds for the 1934 Teamsters strikes. At Sunday forums they met both rank-and-file strikers as well as strike leaders. Several were Trotskyist militants who explained their organizing strategy.

Admiring their commitment to social justice, she joined the organization within two years and sought to study the Marxist works that informed them. Although the author does not detail the strategies that Carlson admired from the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters (Local 554) strikes nor explain the “leapfrog” methods pivotal in organizing Teamsters regionally, clearly Carlson was drawn to organizers who transformed an “open-shop” city into one where the Teamsters local became a powerful institution.

Shortly after Grace and Gilbert’s marriage in 1934, Carlson was asked by Dr. John Rockwell, State Commissioner of Education (and her former thesis advisor), to work in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, developing programs to retrain disabled people. As she carried out her research, she noted the numerous obstacles society put in their way. These ranged from inadequate aftercare and rehabilitation to employer prejudice.

Outside of work, she spoke to unions as social change organizations that needed to fight for better working conditions. At the St. Paul’s Trade and Labor Assembly’s unemployment conference in March 1940, she called for attendees to recognize the “relationship between poverty and ill health” and called for “a program of socialized medicine and hospitalization.” (69)

After August 1939, when Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact, the United States entered a period historians label as the “little red scare.” Grace Carlson, and even her boss, came under scrutiny. She resigned from her job while he was later dismissed.

She and her lawyer husband participated in socialist meetings and in the Non-Partisan Labor Defense (NPLD) that the SWP established to defend workers arrested for striking or other political acts, and he represented them in some of the court cases. As she deepened her involvement in the party, their relationship became strained and they separated. Upon leaving her job she became the St. Paul party organizer.

Party Organizer and Political Prisoner

Over the next dozen years Grace Carlson developed into an efficient organizer, public speaker and socialist candidate for various public offices. In her first run as a candidate for U.S. Senate in 1940, she advocated economic and social equality for women and Blacks, along with the SWP’s program to defeat fascism by building an army based on the unions. As a far-left campaign, it was mainly a forum to reach a larger audience.

By June 1941 federal marshals arrested 29 SWP members, including Grace and her sister Dorothy. They were subsequently indicted under the recently passed Smith Act for advocating insubordination within the armed forces and violent overthrow of the government. Several were leaders of the Teamster local that had transformed Minneapolis into a union town. The government’s case was based on the testimony of FBI agents who had infiltrated the local and the party.

The SWP defended its Marxist ideas. Carlson testified that as workers rose to demand an end to exploitation, violence would come from a capitalist minority.

She explained that this assumption was not calling on workers to violently overthrow a capitalist government. In fact, it was the Smith Act that was unconstitutional because it criminalized speech.

In the end the jury convicted 18 members, who were sentenced the day after Pearl Harbor. Eleven were sentenced to 18 months, others to one year. The judge dismissed the charges against 10, including Dorothy.

During the two years of the SWP’s appeal process, the party organized the Civil Rights Defense Committee (CRDC) to publicize their case, held mass meetings and raised funds for legal expenses. They attracted the support of civil libertarians including the ACLU and several unions. However those unions under the leadership of Communist Party blocked the convicted Trotskyists from seeking their support and in fact denounced them.

Using all avenues to reach the working class, the party ran Grace for mayor of St. Paul. In the end the federal court of appeals ruled against them and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The party organized farewell meetings and in Minneapolis the 18 marched to the courthouse and surrendered on December 31, 1943.

As the only woman convicted, Grace Carson was sent to Alderson federal prison, in West Virginia. The party and the CRDC did what they could to provide the political prisoners with resources.

Carlson’s experience deepened her understanding of how the carceral state targets poor working-class women. She also saw how the imprisoned white women looked down on Black women prisoners.

As soon as she completed her parole, she launched a “Women in Prison” speaking tour to 22 SWP branches around the country. She spoke of how women were “doubly oppressed victims of capitalist society,” denied the right to make a decent living and thereby “forced to make a living by so-called illegal means” and then thrown into prison.

She argued that most of the young women she knew in prison were “victims of a criminal social system.” (108-9) She also wrote a column for the party’s paper on working-women’s issues.

Over the next seven years Carlson was a party spokeswoman and candidate for office. As an elected member of the SWP’s national committee, she functioned as a branch organizer in several cities although she always returned to her St. Paul-Minneapolis base. Throughout those years she was particularly close to her sister and her sister’s growing family.

Given the letters she and Ray Dunne wrote while they were in prison, their working relationship had developed into a sexual one. However this was discreetly handled given Dunne’s marriage.

A “Christian Against Capitalism”

Why did Grace Carlson abruptly decide in leave the SWP in 1952, after she had already agreed to run a second time as their vice-presidential candidate? Haverty-Stacke reluctantly accepts Carlson’s explanation that her father’s death caused her to re-examine the meaning of her life and conclude God was missing. However, that abrupt decision might also have been combined with Dunne’s unwillingness to leave his family.

Whatever her motive or mixture of motives, she returned to the Catholic Church at the height of the witchhunt. Given her prison record and stripped of her voting rights, she was only able to find a permanent job as a secretary at St. Mary’s Hospital, which was operated by the St. Joseph nuns. Of course this dilemma of feeling forced to choose between religion and a Marxist organization seems strange to us so many years later.

Grace and her estranged husband repaired their relationship and resumed their marriage. Separately and together, they continued their social action work within the institutions of the Catholic Church. In fact, while SWP leader James P. Cannon told Grace that he saw the church as the “most reactionary and obscurantist force in the entire world,” (159) her mentoring of young Catholic women illustrates how she continued to use the socialist-feminist perspective she had developed as a party member.

Within a decade Carlson was key in establishing the plan for St. Mary’s Junior College as a single-purpose junior college for nursing education.  It was to be a vocational school for “the disadvantaged,” educating students to be lifelong learners prepared to serve the community.

She saw people with few resources were often defeated by small setbacks that made their goal seem hopeless. When she retired from the college in 1979, Carlson set up an emergency non-interest loan fund to remove obstacles that function to impede students: “to pay a babysitter, fix a car, tide over the grocery budget, or remedy some other financial crisis.” (210)

Along with rebuilding her professional life, Grace Carlson found opportunities as a columnist, speaker and activist. She defined herself as a “Christian against capitalism,” opposed the war in Vietnam and supported the anti-nuclear movement.

Haverty-Stacke points out that Grace was not drawn to the symbolic actions of the Berrigan brothers or to the Catholic Worker and the ideas of Dorothy Day — who inspired me. In fact, she characterized the Catholic Worker as “a little sappy.” (193-195)

Instead she was drawn to the Slant group of Cambridge University undergraduates (including Terry Eagleton) and started a branch at St. Mary’s College. What appealed to her was their working-class composition and their promoting “the social goals of the Gospel,” which implied the need for revolution. (195)

Grace Homes Carlson, born into a working-class family in 1906, died in 1992. Appropriately, her sister was by her side. Carlson’s work with the disabled and her own incarceration in a women’s prison pushed her toward a Marxism that envisioned a democratic revolution where working people swept aside the obstacles of poverty and inequality.

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke’s biography has brought into focus the life of one of the figures forged during the hotbed of Minneapolis radicalism of the 1930s. It is best read along with the Teamster series written by Farrell Dobbs that paints the struggle of the Trotskyists in Minneapolis to build and extend consciousness among the broad working class. Also of interest is James P. Cannon’s Socialism on Trial, which reprints his testimony.

Previously the author covered the first Smith Act trial in Trotskyists on Trial: Speech and Political Persecution since the Age of FDR. In The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson, she explains the mystery of what happened after the SWP “lost” Carlson. Like Carlson, many of us who were “lost” to the SWP in both its best and worst days, were nonetheless enriched in our discovery of Marxism.

July-August 2021, ATC 213

2 comments

  1. I really appreciate your review of The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson. I first learned of her from my friend, Guy Miller. I am sure we both have a much deeper appreciation of her contributions after reading your review. I look forward to reading Haverty-Stacke’s book.

  2. Hi Diane,
    Thanks for the informative and balanced review. Too bad the book is $47.50, even as an e-book!
    Best Regards,
    Syd Stapleton

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