The amazing Helen Valeska Bary

Never heard of Helen Valeska Bary? Of course not. Nor, probably, of Maud Younger, Sara Bard Field, Alice Paul, or Anita Whitney! All these remarkable women are invisible in our history books, but they did much to shape our country and our laws. Helen Valeska Bary 1888-1973, worked for the Labor Commission, the department of Social Security, negotiated labor strikes across California. She toiled for the minimum wage for women at a time when employers had “girls” sign a statement upon application for work stating that they were not using the funds for support of a family, so as to get around the need to pay a living wage.

Post World War 1 San Francisco saw the progress women had made in the work-force diminish as concerns that they were “stealing” work from men drove public opinion against them. At the same time, a wave of puritanism, the same wave that brought us prohibition, fueled the closure of brothels. Women who had made their living on their backs now made it on their feet, but any hope of a living wage was dashed by public resistance. Valeska Bary rose through the ranks of government during the War, but managed to remain not only employed but with a growing sphere of influence, after the men returned home.

Sara Bard Field

An amazing oral history of Valeska Bary, along with other feminists of bygone times, can be found at the Bancroft Library. Here’s a quote from her interview:

“Also, I saw something that annoyed me very much. That was that an application for employment at Nathan Dohrmann’s contained a statement just above the signature that the applicant was living at home and not dependent on her wages….
When you talked about low wages with many people, they would tell you that these women were living at home and whatever they earned was just pin money. Every girl, in applying for a job, had to say that it was just pin money….She did not need it. You may say that cleared their skirts from the idea that they were grinding the faces of the poor, it was just a pin money occupation.”
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4 thoughts on “The amazing Helen Valeska Bary

  1. Thank you for sharing this bit of history about important women who paved the way for us. Though we still have a way to go, I cannot imagine fighting the forces they faced in their time. I’m so grateful to them for their dedication and to you for telling us their stories!

    • There are so many unknown women who did so much, in a time when it was so much more difficult to take a leadership role. You’re right, we have come so far!

    • Leslie, I am so sorry I missed your comment. How wonderful to know that her legacy continued. I hope you read The Harlot’s Pen and enjoy a little fictionalization of such an interesting woman!

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