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  • Writer's pictureJ.M.

The Wonder Girls Rebel: Spark 2 - The Heroine (one of them)

Updated: Mar 21

The Wonder Girls Rebel title text

I don't read newspapers – their headlines, more often than not, make me too angry. Since 2015 I've got my news mostly through sites like Ripples. This way I can do something about it. It may only be a click on an online petition or a few pounds a month to support Led by Donkeys, or The Good Law Project but it does make a difference and to quote a UK supermarket with their fingers in far too many pies, 'every little helps'.

But I have started collecting old newspapers. The headlines may be dire but I know the outcome. Perhaps not liking tension is inappropriate for someone who loves making fiction but the fictional world is one over which I have total control!

Newspapers from 1930s, mostly front pages about Edward 7th's abdication and the coronation  of George 6th in 1937 but a news Chronicle rom 1938 with the headline 'British Fleet Mobilises'

Spark 1 for The Wonder Girls Rebel was the villain, a fascist newspaper baron - aren't they all? Spark 2 is a writer, a 'muckraker' – an early 20th century investigative journalist. Generally, I don't like novels about writers, they feel too navel-gazey but this writer is an exception.

Frances Sweeney was born in Boston around 1908, the only daughter of an Irish 'saloon-keeper'. Petite and blonde with a rheumatic heart condition, she founded her own paper The Boston City Reporter. More newsletter than newspaper, she produced copies using a mimeograph machine, different in operation, but looking like the 'Banda' copiers I used centuries ago when I was teaching.

Her objectives were clear.

“The object of the Boston City Reporter is and always has been to tell the public who is using prejudice against entire races and religions for undemocratic purposes - and how.

The paper struggled for money but Frances refused to resort to advertising or anything that would adversely reflect upon her work or enable her opponents to malign and discredit it. She mostly relied on teenage volunteers, like  journalist and social commentator Nat Hentoff, who wrote about the experience in his memoir, Boston Boy.

“In all of Boston the woman I most admired, sometimes feared, and ridiculously loved was Frances Sweeney.”

Frances' instruction to her young investigative reporters was simple. 'What I want from you is facts.' Those facts had to come with proof, not opinions. The only person allowed to have opinions was Frances herself and her opinions had to be based on facts that could be incontrovertibly proved.

She had one paid undercover investigator, interestingly with the same rheumatic heart condition, who Hentoff described as 'tall' and 'cadaverous', a greek known as Gus, with a talent for invisibility in the far right meetings he infiltrated.

At first, Frances focussed on corruption in politics but then turned her attention to fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda. As a devout Catholic, she was especially appalled by the anti-Semitism she saw in The Catholic Church. In the 1930s, gangs of Catholic youths would terrorise Jewish neighbourhoods assaulting residents and vandalising property. Boston at that time was one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the United States. Father Charles Coughlin, a well known radio priest and supporter of some the policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, incited much of the violence. Frances risked excommunication not only by denouncing Coughlin but the whole priestly hierarchy for not denouncing him.

During World War Two, Frances started a ‘Rumour Clinic’ with The Boston Herald. Each week, the ‘clinic’ would take a rumour, trace it to its source which was usually Nazi propaganda and soundly refute it. One such rumour was that because a woman with permed hair went to work in a munitions factory, her head exploded. Other rumours were less ridiculous, but it only goes to show what people will believe if somebody, or something, like a newspaper, with perceived authority, tells them.

Photo from of Frances Sweeney at her desk taking notes from a fellow black editor, William Harrison, sitting beside her.
Frances Sweeney taking notes from fellow editor, William Harrison, reporting an 'anti-Indian' rumour for the Rumour Clinic. (Photo from Life Magazine 12 October 1942)

As one young woman, working independently, her task was huge. It was likened by fellow ‘muckraking’ undercover journalist, Arthur Derounian, pen name 'John Roy Carlson', as digging at a mountain with a hand-spade’. Her determination, however, was fearless.

One wet night in April 1944, as Frances was walking home through a wealthier Boston neighbourhood, she had a heart attack. She lay in the gutter, in the rain, conscious, but unable to move. Local people passed commenting on the number of drunks in the city. It took the second glance of a passing police officer to work out that Frances was not drunk, but sick. She lived for just a few more weeks, dying in June of that year. She was 36 years old.

Posthumously, Frances Sweeney succeeded in getting Catholic International, a pro-fascist magazine banned from news-stands. She raised awareness about anti-semitism in the Boston police force, which led to the firing of the police commissioner and a sharp drop in violent crime against the Jewish community.

Irving Stone, the American biographical writer said,

"Fran Sweeney could not be discouraged, could not be beaten down, could not be frightened, could not be put in her place. She was a one-man crusade. She burned with some of the hottest and most unextinguishable passion for social justice that I have ever seen."

Veronica, my heroine inspired by Frances Sweeney, has a lot of Frances' determination but faults too, which the records for Frances don't show. Perfect heroines don't make great stories. I do hope The Wonder Girls Rebel does Frances' memory some justice. She has been such an inspiration.

My other principal heroine/point of view character is my one-time street thief 'Baby', whose story spans all three books and is Spark 3, landing here in a week or so's time.

For this short post, I am particularly grateful to Wikipedia – always – it points me in the right direction, Google Books for Nat Hentoff's memoir, and Life Magazine for the complete picture of Frances at her desk with a colleague – the 12 October 1942 edition, via eBay, is on its way across the Atlantic as I write!

I hope you'll click on my books here to find out more about the stories inspired by activists like Frances...

The Wonder Girls book covers with link to to find out more about the stories

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