Eva McDonald Valesh was an investigative journalist and labor activist. She exposed unsafe conditions for women workers in the Twin Cities during the late nineteenth century and became a prominent labor writer and speaker.
Eva McDonald Valesh was born Mary Eva McDonald in 1866 in Orono, Maine into a working-class family. Her father John, who had grown up in Canada, was a carpenter and bridge-builder. When McDonald was eleven, her family moved to Minnesota, following work in the lumber industry. McDonald graduated from high school in Minneapolis at the age of fifteen. She went on to teacher training school, but found teaching "dreary." She began searching for another way to support herself.
McDonald soon got a job writing for a reform newspaper in Minneapolis, the Saturday Evening Spectator. She seized the opportunity to learn typesetting, a lucrative skilled trade, and to hone her skills as a journalist. In 1888, McDonald launched a column series for the St. Paul Globe, reporting on how working people were really living in the Twin Cities. She disguised herself in raggedy clothes and got jobs in flour mills and garment factories. With her slight stature and short haircut, she seemed barely into her teens. “I looked as if I hadn’t eaten a square meal in a long time,” she remembered later. She gained the trust of fellow working women and escaped the scrutiny of factory bosses.
Her first article, “ ‘Mong Girls Who Toil,” appeared in March of 1888 under the pen name “Eva Gay.” She reported on the poor conditions that women workers suffered. Long hours in crowded workshops with little light or ventilation. Dangerous chemicals and industrial machinery. Sexual harassment from male bosses and coworkers. Paltry wages. Her exposé of conditions at the Shotwell, Clerihew, and Lothmann garment factory on Second Street in Minneapolis prompted women workers there to go on strike. This was the first large women’s strike in the history of the Twin Cities.
McDonald became an in-demand speaker for the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Eight-Hour League. She continued to work as a labor journalist, covering the 1889 Twin Cities streetcar strike. She ran (unsuccessfully) for Minneapolis school board, becoming one of the state's first female candidates for political office. After marrying Frank Valesh in 1891, she continued to work. Only a near-death experience in childbirth in 1892 curtailed her public speaking activities.
In 1896, McDonald Valesh moved to New York City with her son Frank and her sister Blanche. She began working for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), as the “right-hand man” of its president Samuel Gompers, a longtime friend. She also served as editor of the AFL’s journal, the American Federationist. McDonald Valesh was one of the few women in leadership with the AFL. By the early 1900s, it was a conservative advocate for native-born white men in skilled trades. The AFL discouraged the participation of immigrant, Black, and women workers. It would take until the 1920s for the women's organized labor movement to be welcome in the AFL.
Eva McDonald Valesh remained on the East Coast for the rest of her life. After having a heart attack in 1919, she retired from the world of labor activism and spent the rest of her career as a proofreader for the New York Times. She died in 1956 at the age of ninety.
Cartwright, R. L.. "Valesh, Eva McDonald (1866–1956)." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/person/valesh-eva-mcdonald-1866-1956 (accessed June 25, 2020).
Faue, Elizabeth. Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
“Workers Owe a Debt to the ‘Striking Maidens’ of 1888.” Workday Minnesota, https://workdayminnesota.org/workers-owe-a-debt-to-the-striking-maidens-of-1888/.
Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.