The Lives of Agnes Smedley

The Lives of Agnes Smedley                                         by Ruth Price

Born in Missouri in 1898, Agnes Smedley grew up in poverty, the eldest  of five siblings. What she most dreaded was to end up like her mother Sara, bearing many children, scrounging to feed them and often abandoned for long periods by her husband. Finally Agnes’ father returned and moved the family to Trinidad, Colorado where he got a job supervising mine workers.

What turned this wild and uneducated girl into a feminist and a social activist?  Perhaps she had sympathy for the striking mine workers who suffered at the hands of the mine management.  The United Mine Workers of America had sent Mary “Mother”  Jones to help organize miners in Trinidad. The author suggests that Jones may have been Agnes’ first role model, that Jones was “the first female to suggest an alternative image of womanhood in which it was acceptable and even admirable to resist…the unjust circumstances that robbed people of freedom and opportunity.”

Agnes Smedley somehow ended up in California, attending college and meeting such reformers as Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens. In California she realized for the first time the prejudice against the Asian immigrants there.  She was particularly caught up in the Indian independence movement.

Later, Agnes went to England, Germany and Russia. As many intellectuals and activists of the day, she held high expectations for the proletarian revolution in Russia. Though never a member of the Communist Party, she went to China in the 1930’s as a journalist, but actually involved herself with many of the revolutionaries. She cared for  wounded soldiers who were fighting the Japanese invaders. She had great compassion for the poor and downtrodden.

” The tenderness and concern with which Agnes ministered to the soldiers helped bridge the language barrier between them.” She could never be just and observer, but became involved in hte cause, even following the Red Army in retreat to Yenan. There she knew Mao Tse-tung, Chou Enlai adn  Chu Teh.

During this period, she became one of the few Westerners that actually knew what was happening in China. Her aticles wer published and read carefully in the United States and in Europe. She always told things as she saw them. She was painfully direct and honest in her comments. It is true she may have been involved in some questionable dealings during her time in Shanghai. Reading the book, I feel, however, that she always remained true to herself, and had the courage to stand up for her beliefs.

During her lifetime, many famous persons loved and supported her, among them birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and  writer Katherine Anne Porter. When China “fell” to the Communists and and the red panic began in America, Agnes was stalked and harried by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. She went to stay with friends in England. In 1950, she died unexpectedly after a routine surgery.

I appreciate the 15-year effort of Ruth Price in bringing out this book on an amazing woman who is little-known today. I was very interested to read  about Agnes’ many colorful experiences. Whether you agree with her politics or not, you have to admire her for standing alone and doing all she could for those she cared about even when public opinion and circumstances were against her.


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