The Amazon Army – Social Influence of the Coal Camp Women

By Crawford County March 7, 2017

In the early 1920s, Southeast Kansas’ coal mining industry was the site of volatile political statements. The largest industry in the area, coal mining had state- and nationwide consequences; the Kansas government often sought control over miner’s unions, attempting to avoid worker strikes and subsequent fuel shortages. The miners themselves fought for sufficient pay for their dangerous work, and freedom from what they considered their “enslavement” to the mining industry.

Until 1921, this political arena was dominated solely by men.Although directly affected by the men’s decisions, women relatives of miners were rarely given the chance to share their perspective. Complementary to the climate of the ongoing miner’s strike led by Alexander Howat, the women of mine camps desired the protection of their families. As Benjamin Goossen wrote, “They believed that while Alexander Howat and the District 14 men correctly opposed the industrial court [government intervention], the pressing demands of family life in a time of scarcity also required prompt and decisive action by the coal camp women.”

These women, many of whom were recent immigrants, felt strongly that the American dream they had been promised – plentiful work and equal treatment – had been denied. “Their families had traveled to the coalfields in answer to fliers and advertisements from coal company agents,” wrote Goossen, “Who billed Kansas as a land of opportunity where immigrants could find plentiful work and build better lives. These women had been sorely disappointed in the reality of coal camp life.”

Unhappy with their livelihoods and lack of speech, the women took action. Beginning December 12, 1921, around 2,000 women could be seen marching to the coal fields early in the morning. Singing patriotic hymns and waving American flags, the women intended on blocking the mine to prevent workers from entering. The first march was successful; the Pittsburg Daily Headlight reported later that day that 120 “scabs” (workers who continued despite the strike) were unable to enter the local Jackson-Walker mine.

The marches continued for several days, eventually garnering statewide and national attention as the State of Kansas attempted to quell the protests by sending in National Guard troops, a machine gun attachment from Lawrence, 1,200 rifles stockpiled at Hotel Stilwell, and 1,000 deputized men. When word reached the New York Times later that month, the prominent newspaper labeled the marchers “The Amazon Army.”

Work in the mines was disrupted for months as the marchers and miners continued to protest unfit working conditions in the mines. For the first time, the women also felt a sense of social influence that continued well after the marches ceased. Journalist Mary Heaton Vorse wrote of the marches impact: “From that march came that tingling sense of power which filled the air before election. That march is linked up with the reason why “Ma” left her home and went out electioneering. As I went around from one mining camp to another, I found among the women a freedom of expression, courage of thought, that I have not found in any other industrial district.”

Directly affected by the Amazon Army’s march, Crawford County continues to recognize the women’s push for freedom of expression. Set in the Pittsburg Public Library is the mural “Solidarity” painted by Wayne Wildcat in 2000. The Miners Hall Museum also honors the story of the Amazon Army with photos and audio recordings that paint the story of the march.

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Brad Johnson says

I knew a facts about this before I read this but know I know more! Very enlightening. Recent immigrants, opposition to unions (right to work laws, etc.) funny how some things stay the same whether it was then or now.

William Sollner says

Why this story has never been the subject of a major film is a question for Hollywood...and the rest of the country.

Jerry D. Lomshek says

Thanks so much, Linda!! It certainly was a momentus occasion in our local history. Thanks for all of your work in researching this important event and preventing it from being forgotten.

Randy Roberts says

Thank you for keeping this part of the history of Southeast Kansas vibrant and alive. Democracy in action.

Donia Gobar says

I am deeply grateful to Historian Linda O'Nelio Knoll (amazing educator, KNEA Human&Civil Rights award winner), an amazing human being who opened a window to the painful yet glorious history of women's struggles for human rights, protesting the unjust; the story of women standing by their victimized men who suffered under ground in dark inhuman conditions many years ago. Women have been struggling in the world over centuries to live in a just world, yet it only will be effective if women and men together stand against injustice and be a front for true humanity.
I still remember sitting in the semi dark hall watching the “Army of Amazons - An Oral History of Southeast Kansas" musical produced and directed by Linda Knoll. I was watching, feeling, breathing the history. I could hear their voices from decades ago, feel their pain, smell the air in empty kitchens, feel the chilling breeze and scorching airless heat of underground... I FELT, and whispered to myself, " Linda Knoll, What a service to the story of lives long gone..."

Stephen F Knoll says

Linda What. Great and timely article. Very proud of the work and awareness you have put into this project over the years you're play winning state awards! Your loving brother in law Stevie

Jeanne Spigarelli Cohorst says

So proud of those women who stood up to be heard. So thankful to Linda O. Knoll for reminding us all of our history!!! This should be inspiration for all of us to continue to stand up for what is right.