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These 1930s Housewives Were the Godmothers of Radical Consumer Activism

When meat prices spiked during the Great Depression, the women of Detroit got mad as hell—and launched a boycott that changed America.


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women prostesting outside of a butcher shop

Photos courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The women were fearless, but the meatmen called them communists.

On the afternoon of July 27, 1935, the sounds of protest filled the Hamtramck, Michigan, shopping district, as a troop of 500 housewives descended on Joseph Campau Avenue with banners and picket signs reading: “Strike Against High Meat Prices. Don’t Buy.”

It was six years into the Great Depression, and the women, many of whom came from working-class immigrant families, were demanding a 20 percent reduction in meat prices from the city’s meat-packers and butcher shops. The picket was the first in a summerlong boycott that eventually spread out of the city’s 2.09 square miles and into neighboring Detroit. It was led by a 32-year-old, 100-pound, first-generation Polish-American named Mary Zuk.

a woman speaking to a group of people indoors

Mary Zuk, leader of Hamtramck Meat Strike, speaks to a group of woman, 1935.

In a state where unemployment topped 25 percent, and where layoffs by the burgeoning auto industry devastated working-class households, women like Zuk were still expected to put food on the table and stretch the family budget as far as it would go. Over the last three years, the price of meat had jumped 62 percent, according to author Ann Folino White’s Plowed Under. Butchers claimed it wasn’t their fault — they blamed President Roosevelt and the increased processing taxes caused by the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) — but the women of the country would not be placated.

That spring, black and Jewish housewives in New York closed 4,000 butcher shops with picket lines, and housewives marched against rising meat prices in Chicago. They were peaceful; their aims were modest. The Hamtramck women felt no such restraint. They were cutthroat, boisterous, even militant. With Zuk at their helm, they would strike back hard, and change the nature of consumer activism in America.

Zuk was born Mary Stanceous in Neffs, Ohio. In 1914, a wave of Polish immigrants migrated to Hamtramck following the opening of the Dodge Main auto plant. Zuk joined the migration in 1922, marrying local auto worker Stanley Zuk shortly after. During the onslaught of the Depression, Zuk’s husband lost his job in the auto industry and she became a mother of two whose family was struggling to make ends meet — which eventually led to her joining the shadows of the local social justice movement.

During the week of the Hamtramck protests, Zuk was elected head of the Committee for Action Against the High Cost of Living. On the Wednesday before the picketing began, the women of the committee flooded a Hamtramck City Council meeting, where they complained that meat had become a luxury food. They presented a resolution to the mayor, Joseph Lewandowski, calling for a federal investigation into meat prices. Then they took to the streets.

Armed with banners, placards and rage, the women formed picket lines that proved nearly impenetrable. The few men who did break the lines — egged on by their wives, they told the newspapers, who mocked them for being afraid of a few women — were seized when they exited the shops. Some were beat down and trampled; others had their packages grabbed and thrown into the streets.

a large crowd of mostly women, some holding protest signs

Women protest in front of restaurants and butcher shops in Hamtramck, Michigan, 1935.

The first day of protests resulted in a $65,000 loss for Hamtramck butchers, and news of the picket spread fast enough to make the third page of the July 28 New York Times. The Associated Press reported that the “housewives’ war for lower meat prices” had been, according to the city’s butchers, “95 percent effective” in stopping customers from entering the shops.

As that first day reached its climax, a meat-packer yelled at the women: “Why don’t you go see President Roosevelt? He started this.”

“Maybe Roosevelt started it by killing the little pigs and the cattle,” Zuk replied. “We don’t know and we don’t care. We aren’t going to pay such high prices for meat, and that’s all there is to it.”

After the July 27 protest, it didn’t take long for the butchers to give in. By August, butchers were temporarily reducing prices but refused to make a commitment to lower them for good. The women vowed to continue the boycott, leaving no butcher shop without pickets. Soon after, a group of more than 100 protesters descended upon the J. Johann Package Company and attempted to set ablaze the meat inside. The protesters were unsuccessful, and the Chicago Tribune reported that three women and a man were arrested. They weren’t jailed long. That same night, the group was freed, after a crowd of 300 strikers gathered outside the police station and demanded their release.

Barely a week into the protests, the pickets had spread to half a dozen communities outside of Hamtramck. The meatmen were scared, and calls for the National Guard to protect their businesses rang from the mouths of the butchers. Zuk responded by gathering a crowd of 5,000 people in a Detroit park, where she reaffirmed her militant commitment to lowering prices.

“We are going to keep fighting until we knock out these politicians,” she said, according to Greg Kowalski in Hamtramck: The Driven City. “Working people don’t want to eat bones. We want President Roosevelt to give us a country like the Constitution provides. And we working people are the ones who can make him and Congress raise our living standards. We’re going to make him understand he can’t kill off the little pigs. And when we get through with the meat, we’ll start on gas and electricity and the sales tax.”

By mid-August, as the strike held firm, butchers were forced to sell off their remaining stocks and close their businesses. The butchers appealed to Michigan Governor Frank Fitzgerald and sought a circuit court injunction to ban the women from protesting, but Fitzgerald insisted that the issue between the women and the dealers was a federal concern.

Soon after, Zuk moved to dispatch a delegation to Washington, D.C., to present their demands to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. But Wallace had no interest in meeting with the women, and rumors began to spread that he was avoiding them. The delegation began their trip by meeting with AAA consumers’ counsel Calvin Hoover, and was only able to meet with Wallace after threatening not to leave Hoover’s office until he showed.

From the moment he arrived in Hoover’s office, Wallace appeared troubled by the atmosphere. The sight of the reporters in the room put him on edge. There will not be a “full and frank discussion” as long as there are reporters here, he declared.

“Our people want to know what we say and they want to know what you say, so the press people are going to stay,” Zuk responded.

Wallace maintained that the high price of meat was not the fault of the feds and blamed the price dilemma on a national meat shortage. Then, when Zuk voiced the group’s demands — one of which was a ban on AAA processing taxes, which the women said the packers were using to get rich at the expense of the consumers — the room was met with silence.

Newsweek reported:

The lanky Iowan looked down into Mrs. Zuk’s deep-sunken brown eyes and gulped his Adam’s apple.

Mrs. Zuk: Doesn’t the government want us to live? Everything in Detroit has gone up except wages. 

Wallace fled.

Though the delegation had been shunned, the women continued to voice their concerns throughout D.C., eventually making it into the White House and getting their complaint to Roosevelt’s assistant secretary, “and thence to the Capitol, where Representative Dingell of Michigan told them he would seek passage of his resolution calling for an inquiry in the Detroit area,” The New York Times reported.

One week prior to the delegation’s visit to D.C., U.S. Representative Clarence Cannon of Missouri stood on the House floor and called for an investigation into the Hamtramck women’s protest tactics. These women weren’t the working-class immigrants they made out to be, he said. They were spoiled housewives who sought pleasure from throwing public fits — a point he underlined by producing pictures of the women carrying purses, wearing high heels and pearls, their hair coiffed like they had just come from the “bridge club,” not the kitchen.

This was a “fake food strike,” he alleged. He believed that women couldn’t possibly organize such a boycott without the help of men, and he was certain it had been paid for by the meat-packers themselves, who were actively campaigning against the federal AAA processing tax, claiming it was costing them money.

Cannon’s charges didn’t go unchallenged. On August 20, the delegation marched into the congressman’s office. They shouted that they were neither communists nor financed by meat-packers, and then they stormed out.

“Wait, wait,” Cannon yelled. “I’m very disappointed that you won’t stay and discuss this situation.”

“We just came to tell you what we think of you,” Zuk said, and that was that.

By the time the delegation returned to Michigan, news of the trip had spread throughout the country. Attacks on meat warehouses were reported in Chicago and small towns across Pennsylvania. Housewives threatened to use Hamtramck-like tactics if their local meat markets didn’t comply with their demands. Demonstrations broke out in Denver, Miami and Indianapolis.

a crowd of people and countless protest signs

A group of women and children stand in front of a restaurant with banners and picket signs in Hamtramck, Michigan, 1935.

In late August, meat-market owners Julius Friedman and David Rosenberg convinced a circuit judge to intervene in the marches against their businesses. According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, the men said the “pickets had reduced their business 50 percent by intimidating customers.”

They found sympathy in the court, which barred the protestors from threatening customers and obstructing doorways and sidewalks. Robbed of their most aggressive tactics, Zuk’s women found that as the year went on, the federal government continued to ignore their demands. But on the local level, they had been successful, reducing the price of meat in Hamtramck and easing the strain on the families in their neighborhoods. They stopped the strike in 1936 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the AAA tax unconstitutional, and Zuk shifted her focus to infiltrating politics.

In April 1936, Zuk became the first woman to hold a seat on the Hamtramck City Council. Her platform — fair housing and food prices and reasonable utility costs — resonated with both men and women across the city. With the backing of her fellow housewives, Zuk swept her male competition.

“A mother can organize and still take care of her family,” she said when she won.

Mary Zuk, leader of Hamtramck Meat Strike, speaks to a group of woman, 1935.

Women protest in front of restaurants and butcher shops in Hamtramck, Michigan, 1935.

A group of women and children stand in front of a restaurant with banners and picket signs in Hamtramck, Michigan, 1935.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published September 26, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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