Friday, November 10, 2006

The Utica 24

Twenty four women. Names lost to history. Changed the world. During the war years thousands upon thousands of men left their jobs in industry to take up arms for their country. Women left their kitchens and their children and came into industry. Rosie the Riveter became the symbol for what women could do. Women would be forever changed. It wasn't that industry had discovered women, it was that women discovered themselves. They did everything that men did, and often did it better.

In Utica, New York, the Utica Knitting Mill needed workers desperately. Women had come into the work force but there weren't enough of them. The knitting mill was important to the war effort and there was almost panic as they looked for hands to put to the task. In Utica was a home for the 'feeble minded'. An idea formed in someone's head.

24 women were offered the offered the opportunity to leave the grounds of the institution and move into a large house near the knitting mill. They were put to work in what is today called an enclave. They worked together. They worked as a team. They were told that if they worked hard, they could continue to live in the community - out of the institution. They were offered freedom. It was an opportunity that they would grasp with both hands.

Their productivity astounded everyone. Soon word got out. Feeble minded women acted with one mind and one spirit and came to work every day. They broke production records. They never took a sick day. They worked. And worked. And worked. Someone in New Zealand's Department of Mental Hygiene heard of the 24 women and laughed. He assumed that the women weren't 'real', that they were 'misdiagnosed' that they were carelessly categorized. He made the trip to Utica with psychologists to measure the minds of the women. He wanted to prove to himself and everyone else that what the miracle in Utica couldn't happen.

But a miracle had happened. 24 "feeble-minded moronic" women took the community by storm. He went back, this government official, to New Zealand and began asking whole new questions about what people with disabilities could do. He began thinking, for the first time, that maybe the community could benefit from the presence of all it's citizens. Thus began the movement toward community in New Zealand.

Because of 24 women. In Utica.

Years later as the mill was to close the 24 women were the last to be laid off. Not because of benevolence. Not because of pity. But because, to the end, they out performed and out produced the others working at the mill. First they beat the 'normal' women, then they beat the 'normal' men. It seemed that they got the taste of freedom and would lose it for nothing.

I found this story is a musty old book called, 'The Making of A Moron," by Niall Brennan published in 1953. I read it in University and then found it years later, how is it that the older you get the more interesting history becomes, from a bookseller on the internet.

I happened upon the story.

No one told me.

It was told in no class I took or training I attended.

We have our hero's in this field.

We just don't honour them.

But I thought of them the other day as we drove by Utica on the freeway. I saw the sign and they came to mind. I didn't know how to pay tribute to them.

This post today is my feeble attempt to honour women who's minds were anything but.


Belinda said...

Wow, what a brilliant story to tell on this weekend of all times. Thank you for keeping the story alive for those of us who hadn't heard it. I'm on my way to a Person Centred Support Networking meeting today and the story is going with me...I was going to say it'll be "my" contribution--no it won't--it will be yours--and that of "the Utica 24."

suzin said...

my name is suzin. i live in wellfleet on cape cod. one day in june i went to a yard sale and came upon a wonderful old cardboard box from the thirties or fourties. a dapper gentleman in a sportcoat was on the lid bearing the name utica knitting mills. i knew immediately this would be the birthday gift for my friend michael. i went on line to find the utica mill and came upon this absolutely thrilling story. the small,soiled,musty old box became tranformed into a superb voyage back in time. thanks dave and joe, and especially to diedra!!!!

Anonymous said...

today i received a letter addressed to me, in care of my partner (wife...thanks to the great state of massachusetts). i did not recognize the name on the return address, although it was from my little town of wellfleet. at first i didn't think it was for me.
instead of trying to figure out who it was from i opened it & read it... as a mystery & knew soon enough i'd figure it out.
what a delightful way to start my day. the story was fabulous & i most certainly will be sharing it.
suzin, of the previous posting had printed the story from this blog, all the postings & mailed it to me.
it feels like a BIG circle. decades old. now i wonder what my grandmothers attachement to this box was? i think her hats were stored in it. i could not part with the hats but eventually did pass them on for my friends fundraiser yard sale.

i have held onto this box and so many other of the items from my grandmothers house for many years. i was only willing to relinquish this particular box to suzin bcz i really like her (although i don't know her well) and i knew she had good intentions for it.
thank you suzin...we are now BONDED...through this box, these women, this story!
thank you.

clark said...

The situation happened in 1917. The Utica Knitting Mill made arrangements with the Rome Institution for Mentally Defective Girls. Chris Argyris, a preeminent theorists in management theory, used it as an example in his, "The Individual and Organization: Some Problems of Mutual Adjustment". The point was to show that "moronic" people do not out grow their capability to perform the tasks given them and remain "contented", where normal people learn and grow in their duties and become frustrated when additional tasks/promotions are denied them.

Anonymous said...

I heard you tell this story at the Support Life Conference in Sacramento, CA last week. It was very inspiring. Great to hear you and keep up the great work!