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These 1930s Housewives Were the Godmothers of Radical Consumer Activism

The Detroit Meat Strike began in Hamtramck, Michigan, on July 27, 1935. The 500 women who swarmed the shopping district with signs and banners were not only protesting high prices, they blockaded the stores and attacked those who would cross the picket line. They were led by a 100-pound housewife named Mary Zuk.

In a state where unemployment topped 25 percent, and where layoffs by the burgeoning auto industry devastated working-class households, women like Zuk were still expected to put food on the table and stretch the family budget as far as it would go. Over the last three years, the price of meat had jumped 62 percent, according to author Ann Folino White’s Plowed Under. Butchers claimed it wasn’t their fault — they blamed President Roosevelt and the increased processing taxes caused by the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) — but the women of the country would not be placated.

That spring, black and Jewish housewives in New York closed 4,000 butcher shops with picket lines, and housewives marched against rising meat prices in Chicago. They were peaceful; their aims were modest. The Hamtramck women felt no such restraint. They were cutthroat, boisterous, even militant. With Zuk at their helm, they would strike back hard, and change the nature of consumer activism in America.

Within a week of that first protest in Hamtramck, Zuk organized a crowd of 5,000 people in Detroit. Some butchers were forced out of business, and eventually Washington got involved. Read about the Detroit Meat Strike at Narratively.

(Image credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)

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