- Lilith M. Wilson, Trailblazing Socialist Leader and Legislator
Socialist Party of America, Pennsylvania, Lilith Wilson, Women and American Socialism
Observers of pennsylvania's political scene might have noticed that in 2018, three socialist-affiliated women were elected to the state House of Representatives. What few observers likely know is that, eighty-eight years prior, an Indiana-born labor and socialist leader, Lilith Martin Wilson, became the first socialist woman, the fourteenth woman in general, and the first woman from Berks County elected to the general assembly.1 In 1930, the working people of Reading sent Wilson and Darlington Hoopes to Harrisburg, where they represented the energized and highly organized Reading socialist movement. Together, they pushed state politics to the left, even as their caucus constituted a miniscule legislative minority. Twice reelected, the pair left a mark on the state's politics few third-party politicians have achieved.2
Wilson, who came to Reading to be part of the city's socialist movement, had national prominence. She was, as the Inquirer put it, "an able speechmaker."3 Indeed, the former Rand School teacher, who sat on the party's National Executive Committee, was an active socialist campaigner, advocating for the movement from Reading to Madison Square Garden.4 In Pennsylvania, she was a leading socialist voice, also serving in multiple capacities in the local and state organizations. She was also the [End Page 378] first woman to receive any political party's nomination for governor in Pennsylvania; her 1922 candidacy garnered over thirty thousand votes.5
Unfortunately for anyone interested in Wilson, few primary sources by and about her remain. She died partway through her third legislative term and left no archive. A handful of her letters appear in the Darling-ton Hoopes Papers, held at Penn State, and references to her are numerous in correspondence housed in the Reading Labor Advocate papers, held by the Pennsylvania State Archives.6 They contain, however, little of substance.
The collection containing the most Wilson-related materials is housed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Archives. The house archives staff has compiled a useful biography of Wilson, as well as a collection of newspaper clippings and obituaries from Pennsylvania and across the country.7 The house archives also holds perhaps the most interesting archival document relating to Wilson: a copy of Socialism and Christianity, the transcript of a 1924 radio address.8 Printed as a pamphlet and sold for five cents by the local party, Socialism and Christianity is the most extensive, archivally accessible piece composed by Wilson. It offers a forceful synthesis of religion and socialism. In the piece, Wilson urged her audience of religious working people to embrace the socialist movement just as they embraced the gospel. Written in an energetic, learned, and accessible style, the address is a fascinating window onto Wilson's rhetoric, as well as working-class radio culture in the 1920s.
Despite the limited record of Wilson's correspondence and writings, other materials show an impressive record in the assembly. She was an active and engaged legislator who, in concert with Hoopes, advanced ambitious labor and social legislation. The Darlington Hoopes Papers preserve a number of bills Wilson introduced during her three terms. She introduced and won house passage of a federal constitutional amendment outlawing child labor; she and Hoopes forced passage of unemployment insurance legislation in the house; and she introduced and twice passed [End Page 379] through the house constitutional amendments for old age pensions.9 Despite the limited archival record, Lilith Wilson must be remembered as a pioneering Pennsylvanian—a socialist woman who took to the airwaves, the streets, and the halls of power, fighting to her last days for freedom and justice. [End Page 380]
Ian Gavigan is a PhD candidate in history at Rutgers–New Brunswick. His research has been supported by the Pennsylvania State Archives, the Duke University Human Rights Archive, the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State University, and the Department of History at Rutgers. He lives in Philadelphia and is a graduate of Haverford College.
1. Michelle Goldberg, "The...