‘What’s the use of living if you can’t help somebody else?’

03-11-1917 madge keith portraitOccasionally, a gem shows up in the archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This item, published on March 11, 1917, shows how a worker found the courage to demand a better shake from her employer. This is taken from the much-longer story, which is included at the end of this summary.

Getting arrested has become a “regular thing” for Madge Keith, 24. In 14 weeks of picket duty at Robinson’s, a restaurant in downtown St. Louis, she’s been picked up by police 25 times. “And I might be arrested 25 more — but it’s all in a day’s work with me now,” she told a Post-Dispatch reporter.

She’s on strike for a wage increase. “We don’t want so very much, either. The restaurant pays $1 a day and 8 hours’ work. We want $1.10 a day 8 hours’ work. We couldn’t get it. So we struck.”

The first time she was arrested, “I was scared, half scared to death, and humiliated — it was my first time. I cried all the way to the police station.” The police officers intimidated her: “There was one policeman on each side of me, and each one took one of my hands and pinched the thumbs until I cried.”

“A big, fat policeman,” she recounted, “announced he was going to slap me in the face ‘just for luck.’ Of course, I was frightened: I’m only five-foot-two, and not accustomed to policemen changing their luck by slapping me.” But when the fat cop reached back to slap her, she planted her  foot in his stomach.

Ms. Keith said the union was paying her $6.60 a week for picket duty — “mighty hard work,” she said, and “no tips in it, either.”

But it was all worth it: “When the strike’s won … we’ll have the satisfaction of having won something for other women, and after all, what’s the use of living if you can’t help somebody else?”

Madge Keith shows up in the 1920 Census, living on Carpenter Place (long gone now), still single and still working as a waitress. I could not ascertain what happened to her later. Robinson’s continued operations on Olive Street until the late 1920s. Whether the waitresses won their battle for an extra dime a day is unclear — I couldn’t find subsequent stories. — RWK

03-11-1917 25 arrests fail to daunt waitress on picket duty