Kickass Women in History: Fannie Sellins

October 12, 2019

Thanks to a recommendation from Dennis, we have Fannie Sellins as this month’s Kickass Woman in History. Sellins was a labor rights activist who lived from 1872 to 1919. She was murdered while fighting for the rights of miners in Pennsylvania.

For much of her life, Sellins (born Fannie Mooney) lived a typical urban working-class life. Sellins was born in Cincinnati, but her family soon moved to St. Louis. Her father was a house painter and her mother stayed home with the children. Sellins attended school through the eighth grade, which made her a rarity among the workers she met later. She married and had four children. Her husband was a garment worker and he was able to provide well enough that Sellins stayed home with her first three children.

Fannie Sellins

Shortly after the birth of the fourth child, Sellins’ husband died and she got a job in a garment factory to support her family. This marked the beginning of her activism as a labor rights leader. Fannie and other workers in her factory started a new chapter of the United Garment Workers of America to represent garment workers in St. Louis. In 1909, her chapter went on strike and Sellins began working for the union full time. She travelled from city to city urging people to support the strike and formed especially strong bonds with miners. After two years, the union won concessions including a higher wage.

From there, Sellins became a leader in the coal strikes in Colliers, West Virginia. In addition to speaking, she did relief work, finding donations of food and clothing and providing personal aid, including nursing and midwifery for no charge. When a fight broke out between strikers and scabs in 1914, Sellins was arrested. She spent three months in jail before the union was able to post bail. Eventually President Woodrow Wilson pardoned her since she had not actually participated in the fight. Sellins generally opposed violence in strikes although she did approve of it “for self defense.” In one of the rare quotes we have from her, she said,

The only wrong I have done is take shoes to the children in Colliers whose bare feet are cold from the cruel blasts of winter. If it is wrong to put shoes on those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers.

Sellins then went to the Alle-Kiski Valley in Pennsylvania. Conditions for miners there were so bad and unions were so violently (literally) opposed, that the area was nicknamed “The Black Valley.” Again, Sellins did relief work as well as public speaking. According to Dr. Carl Meyerhuber, Sellins “understood that no labor household could sustain a strike unless they had the backing of the women.” One of her most important jobs was to convince the miner’s families, most of whom were immigrants, that they had rights in America and that they should and could aspire to fair wages and decent housing conditions.

watercolored postcard of Fannie reading in her jail cell
Fannie reading in jail – these postcards were sent to President Woodrow Wilson petitioning her release.

On August 26, 1919, Sellins was beaten and shot to death by deputy sheriffs (hired by the Allegheny Coal and Coke mining company). There are varying accounts about what happened. Some say she was walking the picket line, some say that she was trying to herd a group of children to safety during a fight between deputies and strikers, and some say she rushed to the aid of a striker, Joseph Starzeleski, who was being beaten and who later died of his injuries. She was hit on the head with a club and shot three times. She was 47. No one was convicted of her murder or that of Starzeleski.

Sellins became a martyr of the labor movement. In 1920, the union installed a memorial statue at her grave. It has since been designated a Pennsylvania State Historic Landmark.

My primary source for this post is Fannie Never Flinched by Mary Cronk Farrell. It’s written for children but contains a lot of information and amazing pictures.

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