Margaret Wright with Dr. Benjamin Spock, her vice-presidential running mate on the People's Party ticket, in 1976. (AP)

Rosie the Riveter for President: Margaret Wright, the People’s Party, and Black Feminism

 

“I’ve been discriminated against because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am poor, because I am fat, because I am left-handed.”

On an August afternoon in 1976, about 100 people from 14 states gathered at an alternative high school in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco to hear Margaret Wright launch her presidential campaign. With a brown shawl draped over her shoulders, the 54-year-old grandmother accepted the nomination of the People’s Party with a rousing speech against discrimination and economic inequality: “The country is really ready for a change. We’re ready for economic change. People had it with an inflation that hits them hard while pampering big business. Even the middle class is tired of it.” Wright concluded her speech by declaring capitalism a “total failure,” and promising, if elected, to turn the United States into a socialist country.1

Margaret Wright, as you may have guessed, was no ordinary grandmother. She worked for years as a community organizer in Los Angeles and by the time she ran for President in 1976, she had decades of experience in political activism. Wright’s status as an African American woman in the twentieth-century critically informed her politics. In fact, her life story offers compelling evidence into the daily lives of poor, black women in the United States and how their encounters with racism, sexism, and economic inequality fundamentally shaped the politics of black feminism in the 1970s. Her story is also a poignant example of how sometimes an extraordinary woman gets lost in the historical record.

Laboring in the Depression and World War II

Born around 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wright grew up amidst the economic chaos of the Great Depression. Her father worked sporadically as a day laborer and her mother supported the family through domestic work. An oversupply of labor and a decline in wages had a devastating effect on black women in Jim Crow America. White families who could afford help during the Depression often exploited domestic workers by charging extra room and board for live-in servants, and requiring day help to complete more tasks in less time. Families also sought out young black girls for domestic work because they could offer them the lowest wages.2 Indeed, Wright later recalled that she was put to work quite early in order to help the family make ends meet, laboring as a “kitchen mechanic” for a dollar a day.3

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wright left domestic work to become a “Rosie the Riveter.” During World War II, thousands of women like Wright joined the workforce. They labored in factories and shipyards all over the country, producing the necessary munitions and supplies to win the war. Our cultural memories of “Rosies” are, of course, overwhelmingly white and middle class. Even the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter — a young white woman wearing a red polka dot bandanna while flexing her bicep — reflects this idealization of white women’s war labor. Yet, African Americans composed a significant portion of war workers, filling an estimated 8 percent of the 5 million defense jobs that were created during World War II. Historians estimate that black women may have been employed in an estimated 10-20 percent of those positions.4

A woman operating a hand drill in a Tennessee factory, working on a WWII dive bomber, in February 1943. (Alfred T. Palmer/US Library of Congress)
A woman operating a hand drill in a Tennessee factory, working on a WWII dive bomber, in February 1943. (Alfred T. Palmer/US Library of Congress)

Wright went to work for Lockheed, and she later claimed that it was here where her political awakening began. She liked working for Lockheed because she belonged to a union. If she or her co-workers had a problem, they could go to the union for mediation or intervention, an option she never had working as a domestic laborer. She quickly became an active member, attending meetings and planning sessions, but she soon realized the limitations of being a woman in an activist community. She fought to balance her work shifts with her domestic duties and her union activism. As she later explained it, “The husband comes home and puts his feet up, she still has to make dinner. Sometimes even make dinner ahead of time so it could be ready for family if she was not there.” For women war workers who wanted to engage in labor activism, they struggled to squeeze in their union meetings between their “double duty” of work and home.

The Civil Rights Era

Following the war, Wright felt confident in her future. Like many former “Rosies,” however, she was unable to find postwar factory work. Companies all over the country preferred to hire veterans and encouraged women to return to the home. For many poor black women, the end of the war meant a loss of a good, stable income and a return to menial, non-union jobs. Unemployed and with a young daughter to support, Wright returned to domestic work to make ends meet.

Her union activism, however, left an indelible mark. Over the next two decades Wright cultivated a reputation as a smart community organizer and fierce civil rights activist. Now living in the Watts section of Los Angeles, “Grandma Margaret” founded several activist organizations in the 1960s, including Women Against Racism (WAR) and the United Parents Council of Watts. In 1967, while serving as the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Education, Wright organized a rally with 200 other activists, demanding changes to the largely white administration at Manual Arts, a predominantly black high school. The rally culminated in a march to the school administration’s office, and when Wright refused to leave, the police dragged her from the building and arrested her.5

Student protests at San Fernando Valley State College called for the establishment of "Black and Brown Studies" programs, 1969. (CSUN University Archives)
Student protests at San Fernando Valley State College called for the establishment of “Black and Brown Studies” programs, 1969. (CSUN University Archives)

The following year, Margaret was arrested once again, this time for her part in planning the “Valley State 19” protest at San Fernando Valley State College. During the demonstration, a group of black students seized the college president’s office, holding him for three hours while making 12 demands — including the establishment of an Afro-American studies department and increased effort to recruit minority students.6

By the 1970s, Wright’s activism had evolved from civil disobedience to formal politics. She ran for a seat on the Los Angeles school board and regularly attended L.A. city council meetings. She was also managing her own daycare and working as a lecturer in Education at USC. During this period, Wright became disillusioned by the gender politics embedded within both the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements: “We run errands, lick stamps, mail letters, and do the door-to-door. But when it comes to the speaker’s platform, it’s all men up there blowing their souls, you dig?” And yet, Wright recognized that white feminism offered no safe harbor for black women either:

We’re low women on the totem pole. White women have their problems. They’re interviewed for secretarial instead of the executive thing. But we’re interviewed for mopping floors and stuff like that. Sometimes we have to take what’s left over in Miss Ann’s refrigerator. This is all exploitation.7

By this point, Wright believed racial and gender inequality could only be remedied by nothing less than a socialist revolution.

Presidential Run

“You know, when people hear the word socialism, they think of someone else’s socialism — what we need is a socialism that fits America.”8

A newspaper article announcing Wright and Spock as the 1976 Presidential candidates on the People's Party ticket. (Star News, October 6, 1975.)
A newspaper article announcing Wright and Spock as the 1976 Presidential candidates on the People’s Party ticket. (Star News, October 6, 1975.)

The socialist-oriented People’s Party, founded in 1971, was an umbrella organization for several state parties, including California’s Peace and Freedom Party, the Michigan Human Rights Party, and the Vermont Liberty Union. Forming an alliance for the 1976 presidential election, the People’s Party believed that Wright’s experience as a community organizer, her commitment to socialism, and her lifelong experiences as a black woman in America well represented the various interests of the coalition. The party’s platform included more social programs, a redistribution of land and wealth, and free health care. Her vice-presidential running mate, Benjamin Spock (yes, that Dr. Spock), pledged to be a “good teammate” to Wright: “I will not be uppity. I will do any job Margaret wants me to do, even if only to preside over the Senate.”9

A campaign poster for Margaret Wright and Benjamin Spock on the People's Party ticket for the 1976 US Presidential election.
A campaign poster for Margaret Wright and Benjamin Spock on the People’s Party ticket for the 1976 US Presidential election.

Despite having a famous pediatrician by her side, limited finances hampered their campaign efforts. The Wright-Spock ticket appeared on only six state ballots, and on Election Day, the duo received only 49,016 votes or about 0.06% of the total vote.

What Happened to Margaret Wright?

After Wright’s presidential run, the historical record of her life becomes sparse. In 1980, Wright appeared in the documentary “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter,” where she discussed her life growing up in the Depression and working during the war. She’s featured in a few local newspaper articles throughout the 1980s and the last trace I could find of her was from a May 13, 1991 article in the Los Angeles Sentinel, where she received a community service award.10 I also found a 2004 article that mentions her as the “late Margaret Wright,” but I was unable to find any obituaries, newspaper memorials, or scholarly works that discuss her death. I even went on Facebook and Twitter to ask friends and colleagues if they could help. Ultimately, the only evidence I found on Wright’s passing was on Ancestry.com. There I found an entry in the California Death Index that indicates Wright passed away in Los Angeles on May 11, 1996.

Margaret Wright. (Clarity Films)
Margaret Wright. (Clarity Films)

It’s heartbreaking that Margaret Wright’s death seemed to go largely unnoticed outside the African American press in Los Angeles. I was able to piece together most of her life through newspaper articles, a few mentions of her presidential run in scholarly sources, and the Rosie the Riveter documentary; however, I am incredibly frustrated that the passing of such an extraordinary woman elicited so little attention. Yet, as a women’s historian, I know that this invisibility and lack of recognition is nothing new. Historians often have to piece together the fragments of women’s lives and fill in the gaps as best as they can. And for black women, this problem of historical invisibility is compounded. Readers, if you have any more information on Margaret’s life, please share in the comments section.

Postscript

Margaret Wright’s story is the last essay in our Run Like a Girl series. As the Executive Editor of Nursing Clio, I want to thank all of our editors and writers for their hard work in putting this series together. When we started this project, I had no idea that so many women had run for President of the United States. We’ve compiled a list of about 80 women, and Wikipedia also has an extensive list. I wish we had time to write about each and every one of these very interesting women. Some of their lives are well documented. Others, like Wright’s, are a little more difficult to piece together. There are a few women that we could find little to no information on. If you would like to share any more information on any other women who ran for POTUS, please chime in!

Notes

  1. “Margaret Wright Heads People’s Party Presidential Ticket,” The Daily Reporter, August 7, 1976, pg. 6. Return to text.
  2. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010), 199, 206. Return to text.
  3. Wright describes her early life during the Depression and World War II in the documentary, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. All direct quotes in this piece are from the film. See The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, directed by Connie Field (Clarity Films, 1980), DVD. Return to text.
  4. It is important to note that despite the urgent need for skilled laborers, companies affiliated with war production refused to hire many minorities. In response, civil rights leader and labor organizer A. Philip Randolph launched the March on Washington Movement (MOWM), which helped organize thousands of African Americans to march on the nation’s capital in 1941, demanding that President Franklin Roosevelt issue an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry. Roosevelt eventually signed Executive Order 8802, which banned employment discrimination in defense industry and government. FDR also created a temporary Fair Employment Practices Committee to help ensure that defense manufacturers would not practice racial discrimination. See Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, eds., A History of African Americans Since 1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Return to text.
  5. The protests against the administration stemmed from documented incidents of violence against African American students by the school’s security staff. Terry Sattoria, “Police Quell L.A. Racial Outbreaks,” Independent Press Telegram, October 21, 1967, pg.5, “Violence Flares at L.A. School,” Independent Press Telegram, October 20, 1967, pg.1. Return to text.
  6. Robert J. Sye, “Margaret Wright: Women, Power Symbol, Enigma, Los Angeles Sentinel, January 1969, pg. B2. Silvia O. Oliande, “Honoring the 60s Legacy,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1996, “Jury Convicts 15 in College Seizure Case,” The Van Nuys News, June 12, 1969, pg. 19. Return to text.
  7. Quoted from Mary Reinholz, “Storming the All Electric Dollhouse,” West Magazine, Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1970. Return to text.
  8. “Margaret Wright Heads People’s Party Presidential Ticket,” The Daily Reporter, August 7, 1976, pg. 6. Return to text.
  9. “Margaret Wright Heads People’s Party Presidential Ticket,” The Daily Reporter, August 7, 1976, pg. 6. Return to text.
  10. “Zetas Celebrate Finer Womanhood,” Los Angeles Sentinel, May 23, 1991, pg. C3. Return to text.

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