Agnes Smedley wanted to be known, and primarily is known, as an independent American radical, a working-class feminist, and a writer who served the causes in which she believed. She was born in Campground, Missouri, on February 23, 1892, the daughter of a farmer and jack-of-all-trades, Charles Smedley, and his wife, Sarah Ralls. Smedley’s lifelong commitment to the causes of the poor and to feminism were fueled by the wretched life she experienced as a child. Her family moved constantly. Their constant financial instability caused both parents to suffer, something they, at times, passed on to their children. Her mother died at an early age from the cumulative effects of poverty and overwork.
With the help of relatives, Smedley escaped from this life by getting an eighth-grade education and becoming a schoolteacher. At one of her jobs she met the sister of Ernest Brundin, who would later become Smedley’s first husband, and she moved with the two of them to California, where they all became involved in radical political movements. Smedley learned about the anti-imperialist Indian national independence movement, about anarchism and socialism from Emma Goldman, and about Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. While she admired the cultural sophistication of the Brundins, transplanted New Yorkers, she remained throughout her life a rough, earthy, outspoken person. Eventually she married Ernest Brundin, but they were temperamentally unsuited to each other. After their divorce, Smedley moved to New York City, where she lived among a generation of radicals and artists that made Greenwich Village famous.
In New York, Smedley became deeply involved in politics. She helped to establish birth control clinics, studied Indian culture, and worked at establishing herself as a journalist. There she met Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who was to become her teacher and, later, her common-law husband. With him she traveled to Germany and the Soviet Union and worked in exile for Indian independence from England.
In 1927 Smedley left “Chatto” for good, taking refuge in Denmark, where she wrote her first book, Daughter of Earth, a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It summarizes her life powerfully and melodramatically but in unsophisticated language. (She continues this...
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