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Meridel Le Sueur Pioneered Women’s Stories on the WPA

In the 1930s a young Meridel Le Sueur was living in Minnesota and writing about how desperate poverty pushed law-abiding women across the line of criminality. She was going to meetings with women in the Workers Alliance, writing “to raise our miserable circumstances to the level of sagas.” She had published several articles in New Masses, Anvil and other lefty magazines before she got a job on the Writers’ Project. (More in Soul of a People.)

On her own time, Le Sueur wrote up the stories of her fellow women, and in her novel The Girl, she created a composite portrait of a female character forced by circumstances to work at a speakeasy, which leads her to work as a prostitute, and later as a getaway driver in a bank holdup that goes wrong. The protagonist is eventually rescued by a group of homeless women who are probably communists.

When the novel was finally published in the 1970s, Le Sueur was known as a pioneer in the women’s movement. She called the book a “hosanna” from one generation of women to the next, a shout of joy and strength to “those wonderful women … who keep us all alive.”

“It was a white culture up to then,” Le Sueur said at a reunion of WPA writers in the 1980s. “There was no black movement,” she explained, “no women’s culture” on the radar before the 1930s. By gathering these stories, the WPA writers paved the way for new American histories.

Watch a free screening of Soul of a People this Wednesday at the American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Le Sueur’s work was featured recently at the St. Paul public library.

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