From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Thu Mar 08 2007 - 20:58:13 EST
This is also published as a pamphlet by the Red Balloon Collective in the 1990s .... You can write to MitchelCohen (at) mindspring.com if you would like this in pamphlet form .... The U.S. Communist Party and Women's Liberation by Rosalyn Baxandall When it comes to "the woman question," the Communist Party U.S.A. and the CPs internationally have shown little interest in serious theoretical analysis. Ideological guidance came and still comes from the nineteenth century classics, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Engels), some passages in Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto, The Holy Family and The German Ideology, Lenin's Women and Society, and Bebel's Women and Socialism, which was more quoted and read than Engels in America. These classics offered women a theorization from the standpoint of the family, "the social relations of reproduction" and a historical and materialist approach to the family. Marxism rescued women and their cause from the defeatist ring of patriarchal discourse and opened women's oppression to human and political intervention. Women, as part of the proletariat, can become subjects as well as objects of emancipation. But this liberation aspect also had its downside: The feminist project was subsumed in the universal. The basic tenets of marxism, as interpreted by the Communist Party, assumed that: 1) the sexual struggle predated capitalism and therefore didn't exist in capitalist or socialist society, or, at any rate, was secondary to and subsumed within the class struggle; 2) the natural division of labor based on the ability of women to bear children was universal; 3) sexuality was relevant only from the point of view of procreation, not pleasure; and, 4) the emancipation of women would occur when they joined the proletarian struggle in the workplace. These key assumption have not changed or even been seriously challenged in the party since the 1890s, despite widespread feminist movements in North America and Europe which have called all of those precepts into question, and despite the transformation that has taken place in women's lives under monopoly capitalism and the struggle for liberation. The direction of the Communist parties internationally shaped their approach to women in the U.S. Intense factional disputes during the 1920s left the CPUSA, then in its infancy, unusually dependent on the Comintern for ideological and organizational leadership. The changing requirements of the Soviet Union dictated shifts in the party strategy, and these in turn affected the Communist Party's approach to women. In North America, 1920 marked a decline for feminism. The pioneer generation of women's rights and abolitionist activists had died; the next generation focused more on single issues and did not have the experience of participating in a broad movement for freedom, justice and equality for women and Black people. Bourgeois feminists and Socialist Party feminists lost their previous militancy and their ability to motivate diverse sectors of women. The Palmer raids, the jailing and harassing of radicals, left many socialist veterans weary and without a movement. Radicalism was no longer chic; in fact, it was downright dangerous. Many of the bohemian classy set abandoned politics for art. Feminism, which had been a dynamic force since the 1840s, became narrowly relegated to the individualistic aspirations of professional women and their splintered groups. It was in this context of repression that the CPUSA was launched in 1919, and their ideas towards women articulated. Some active Socialist Party feminists joined the CP in the 1920s and shed their socialist as well as feminist past. The largest group of women who made the transition from the Socialist to the Communist Party were immigrants who organized along ethnic lines and spoke and wrote in their native languages; that way, they were less under the control of the party leadership. Thousands of Jewish, Finnish and Slav women served the new communist movement as they had the old socialist one, in strike support activities and in an ever-sustaining web of fraternal institutions. During the 1930s, these women would make major contributions. Even Ella Bloor, called "Mother" Bloor (as were most Party women -- motherliness denoted a woman's special strength in the CP's eyes) -- complained in her autobiography "that there has been some hesitancy in giving women full, equal responsibility with men."(1) Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who set up an educational department for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who was much better-educated than most party leaders in America (having graduated from Barnard and the London School of Economics; she earned a living teaching history at Columbia University), became a foremost Communist trade union leader in the 1920s. She disappeared in Central Park in the 1930s, and many well-known non-party intellectuals suspected that the Comintern had her killed because she had contemplated leaving the CPUSA and knew too much. Theodore Draper believed that only Poyntz was "ever considered a threat to the male monopoly in the top leadership."(2) American Communists, weak and preoccupied with feuds, made few attempts to organize women during the 1920s; they just tried to follow the Russian mandate rather than building on the American or immigrant activist feminist tradition. The Comintern held an International Women's Conference in Moscow in 1920 and 1921 and urged all parties to set up women's departments. The CPUSA complied in 1922 and set up a Women's Bureau and supported several local women's organizations. When Rose Pastor Stokes, a leading birth control and suffrage advocate, joined the CP she militantly affirmed her indifference to feminist matters and denied that there was even a special woman's problem.(3) It is ironic that with these views Stokes was rewarded by being appointed the first national secretary of the Women's Commission in 1922. Re-Writing History CP women in North America were either unaware of their foremothers' militant and wide-ranging history or chose to ignore it. They dated the founding of International Women's Day to 1913 (when the Bolshevik women first instituted celebrations in Russia) rather than commemorating its American origin in 1859, when working women took to the streets of New York City demanding the right to vote. In the re-written version of history, International Women's Day took on the coloration of a supremely proletarian holiday, with a special section of the party paper devoted to the woman worker and "The Mothers of the Proletariat."(4) Once again, motherhood was beatified as the hallowed ground for women; the special oppression of women workers as women was ignored and dissolved into the "gender-blind" working class, and the true feminist origins of International Women's Day were buried. The largest of the local women's organizations was the United Council of Working Class Wives. Most of these groups were underfunded and short-lived. Even though the "Theses of the Women's Movement," a document of the Comintern setting forth the official line, advocated a dual approach to women's oppression -- the full incorporation of women into public life, politics and work, and the reorganization of the private sphere by means of socializing household tasks -- any focus on the division of labor in the household, the nature of the nuclear family and gender-related roles in bringing up children in North America was gradually abandoned in favor of the single focus on industrial struggles. Within this productionist perspective the special interests of women were subordinated to the perceived interests of the working class.(5) This meant organizing steel, coal, auto and heavy industries where women were barred from working. In terms of the domestic sphere, the CP stressed the importance of women as mothers. Instead of recognizing motherhood as a choice involving a whole web of socially-conditioned gender dynamics, aspirations and roles (integrally related to the development of capitalism), the family was seen as the natural place for women, her innate sphere. The attitude towards women in the 1920s is well summed up by Vera Buch Weisbord, a working-class activist in the Passaic strike and wife of Albert Weisbord, the leader of that strike: "The situation of women in the Party and of wives in particular was an ignominious one. Few were just housewives minding children. Many who held no posts contributed a devoted activity. If they were married they were considered to be the direct echoes of their husbands in any question of opinion. We could only be resentful to find such bourgeois attitudes in our ranks. No matter what the women's contribution, it was taken for granted. "I remember a meeting of Party activists in New York at that time (1926) in which some special questions were being discussed. In the hall outside the closed door stood about a dozen women, some among us holding important posts in the needle trades, all activists having no interest outside the Party. We had been excluded as women, for no other reason. As one man went in, before the door closed we heard him say, "There's a bunch of wives outside." "When leaders, under pressure from the Communist International, set up a department of "Women's Work," they felt that everything was taken care of."(6) Out of Drudgery And Into Action On the other hand most women who have spoken or written about their party experiences readily admit that in spite of male chauvinism, their work in the CPUSA empowered them. As Tillie Olsen, prominent writer, said, "The CP took me out of a life of drudgery and into a life of action."(7) For other women who had not gone on to school, the party represented upward mobility and an introduction to a world of rich cultural activities and opportunities. The CP was an international organization; it provided new horizons for women usually confined by family and community. With the depression the party grew in size and prestige. The party had predicted the disaster and had an economic program to meet it. In 1935, the Seventh World Congress announced a shift in policy, called the Popular Front; this new policy, which brought together coalitions across class lines (and substantially watered down the politics), attracted many new recruits who were American-born and middle-class. Anti-fascism, rather than revolution, was stressed; the party agitated around peace, consumer and neighborhood interests. More women joined and became active especially at the neighborhood and local levels. Women's Councils conducted bread strikes and meat boycotts and were successful in lowering the price of bread and meat in hundreds of shops in Detroit, and in several sections of New York City. Large numbers of middle and working-class women joined Unemployment Councils, which organized rent strikes and prevented evictions. Some participated in campaigns of the League of Women shoppers, which used the buying power of middle-class women to pressure department stores to deal fairly with their female employees.(8,9) In the party, especially in the late 30s and 40s, many women found an arena for political action and a rich social life, one that was freer than the dominant culture. Ambitious, rebellious women with energy and ideas had more room in the party at this time than they had in the professions or other political parties. CP cultural life was exciting and fulfilling, with picnics, dances, discussion groups, theatrical events and several magazines. Women had more sexual freedom than they had in the mainstream and some of the bohemianism of the 1910-17 period lingered in the ranks, although not in the party leadership. Into the Party, Back In the Closet Even though the party was a refuge from dull bourgeois life, the American totem of family, monogamy and heterosexuality was never officially, nor theoretically, questioned. There were significant numbers of lesbian women in the party but members pretended they weren't gay, as homosexuality was equated with the decadence of capitalism. In fact, the tough guy Atlas-like steel worker was the masculine ideal and defined the party's romanticized image of the working class. "Manly" was synonymous with proletariat, which obviously relegated women to the weaker sex.(10) Due to the depression (and later, the war), many women were called on to support their families. The party praised women workers during the war for doing their part in the fight against fascism, but never thought of them as permanent workers. In practice, the new blood drawn to the party during the Popular Front period in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the "new openness" in its many front groups, generated a stimulating, almost counter-cultural, inner party life. But even during that period, the CP leadership was culturally and socially conservative and conformist. Women's economic dependence was assumed and all marriage problems were seen solely in terms of poverty. As Earl Browder, the head of the party at that time, explained: "Permanent and healthy family life is best built upon the secure possession by all people of the material basis for the family; that is, adequate housing, plenty of food and clothing, and an assured income. . . . Abolish poverty and the problem of divorce will largely disappear."(11) The assumption was that problems were always narrowly economic in nature. Women's oppression was never seen as important in itself, nor that women's lives could be made easier by taking female complaints seriously. Women were advised in the party press that, rather than fight with their husbands about housework, they should accommodate him at home and build a good society, where equal rights would then be possible.(12) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn summed this up succinctly: "Happier homes are possible when families work together to speed socialism."(13) "Working together" meant that no alternatives to the nuclear family, no cooperatives, no collective raising of children, and no sharing of housework were explored. Men defined women. In the labor movement, women were organized into ladies auxiliaries, which made coffee, organized daycare and built morale by staging rallies. Occasionally women took action. The CIO-affiliated Woodworkers Ladies Auxiliary in Portland, for instance, rode on fuel trucks with baseball bats to protect their husbands from AFL opponents.(14,15) Female direct confrontation tended to occur when it was too dangerous for men to act on their own behalf, banking on the fact that the police were sexist too. Especially in literature, working class women were often romanticized and seen as instinctively radical and militant, the salt of the earth,(16) the implication being that men are the intellectual and theoretical leaders and women, who are nearer to nature, are the sustainers of life and militant struggle. Another indication of party attempts to gather and mold women's increasing activity, both inside the party and on the job, was the journal Working Women. In 1933, the little mimeoed sheet with a hammer and sickle on the masthead was redesigned to reach a larger audience. The paid circulation jumped from 2,000 to 7,000, and organizers began to sell it at factory gates. In 1936 it became Woman Today, a slicker journal which even played down its party connections.(17) This new version contained love stories, beauty hints and homemaking advice; all that distinguished it from other women's journals was its articles on trade unions. One could hardly call the journal -- in any phase! -- feminist, or for the liberation of women. The CP attacked the Equal Rights Amendment, an important feminist platform of the time, as being anti working-class; but then the ERA was not supported by other left or liberal groups at the time either. Instead, Mary Anderson, of the Women's Bureau, the Department of Labor, and Mary Van Kleek, a social worker, drew up a Women's Charter to reunite the feuding women's groups. The Charter called for equal opportunity for women in employment, education and politics, as well as economic security including maternal insurance. Few women's groups supported the charter idea, but the party opened its pages to defend the Charter and sponsored a conference in support of it in 1937.(18) It wasn't until 1976, after almost a decade of organized women's agitation, that the CPUSA and the AFL-CIO finally changed their lines and supported the ERA. On women, then, the CPUSA has been a rear-guard rather than a vanguard. Sisterhood Was Powerful Female membership in the party grew during the 1930s and World War II years. In 1930, 10 percent of the membership was female; by 1943, women were 50 percent of the membership. However, women still remained a distinct minority in the leadership of the CPUSA. With men away at war, women had more space, but not in the party hierarchy. In fact, CP women were told that they should ignore their own needs in order to assist the war effort, because their Soviet sisters were sacrificing their lives. (At the same time, the CP-led unions signed no-strike pledges because, so long as the Soviet Union was under attack, everyone else -- women, workers (and, during this time, many workers were women) -- had to sacrifice, even though the bosses were reaping huge profits off those pledges; the early 1940s, on the other hand, saw the biggest wave of rank-and-file wildcat strikes in U.S. history -- usually opposed by the CP!) During the war, women were encouraged to join the workforce and fight for daycare. Once the fighting stopped, however, and the men came back, the party encouraged women to step aside and return to their rightful place in the home. The party, unlike many liberal organizations, didn't even protest when daycare centers were closed or women lost their jobs. After the war, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, usually an uncritical propagandist of party policy, claimed that even the National Association of Manufacturers took women more seriously than the CPUSA, and she noticed more male chauvinism in the party than ever.(19) The case of Mary Inman shows the unwillingness of the CPUSA during this period to openly and freely debate "the woman question." In 1935, Mary Inman, an active CP member, wrote In Women's Defense, a book that reframed housework as productive labor. The party wouldn't publish it; the excuse they gave was that Inman didn't use a marxist anthropological interpretation. People's World, the West coast's more open, daily newspaper serialized it. Inman viewed housewives as workers involved in the production of commodities (in this case, the commodity "labor power"). She organized a Committee for the Advancement of Women and put out a newsletter, along with a program for a new kind of housewives' labor union. Although the party held that Blacks were a special group and had to organize as such, organizing around women's unique oppression was considered heretical. An attack on Inman followed. Avram Landy, who was the National Education Director of the CPUSA, wrote Marxism and the Woman Question, asserting the CP's position that the housewife is not part of social production and therefore, women and men face the same problems of class and they should organize in trade unions to fight issues of capitalism, rather than gender. Housework, Landy claimed, is no longer an issue due to the "conveniences" of technology. "Motherhood is nature," the "material prerequisite of society," he asserted.(20) It has nothing to do with woman's role in capitalist production because it takes place outside of industry. For Landy, the family was an institution of "sex and blood,"(21) divorced from the production process and having no social importance. It didn't occur to Landy that the family, like all institutions, is not "natural," but integrally tied to the needs of capital, and that many women wanted to enter the paid work force but were excluded by sexism, lack of training and the need for child care. Others in the party, like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who had originally liked Inman's ideas, Mother Bloor, an important female in party circles, and Ruth McKenney, a novelist and editor of New Masses, quickly fell into line. They launched attacks on Inman in the party press. But many readers were sympathetic to Inman's analysis and wrote letters supporting her ideas on housework. Inman taught at a marxist school and on the last day of her class a party representative, Eva M. Afran, came and interrupted to tell the students that Inman's views were not marxist.(22) In the end, despite Inman's appeals, she was purged from the party. Organizing or discussing women's "special oppression" proved too threatening for the party to handle. Women would have to wait for 1956 and Khrushchev's revelations about Stalinism in Russia to debate issues of female liberation in the Communist Party in America. During the brief period of re-evaluation and openness after the Khrushchev revelations, women began again to speak out about male chauvinism in the party, the lack of support with children and housework from CP husbands and lovers, and about formerly taboo subjects like homosexuality and psychoanalysis. The Daily Worker's letters columns contain a rich patchwork of these debate fragments. However, on the whole, the 1950s were a dismal scoundrel time, especially for the stalwarts who remained within the CPUSA fold. Many women were called upon to make enormous emotional and economic sacrifices, as men lost their jobs, were put on trial and sent to jail. When the Smith Act wives organized speaking tours and a defense committee, instead of welcoming their initiatives the party leadership resented them. Many of were jealous that their wives were better and more dynamic speakers than they.(23) During this period, very few younger women joined the party, and at least half of those who had joined in the late 1930s and 1940s left or became inactive. It wasn't until the 1960s, with the reemergence of campus, Black and factory militancy, that a new crop of activists joined the CP ranks. However, many of those who joined left quickly, as it was hard to put up with the crustified, bureaucratic, culturally and politically stagnant conservative leadership.(24) Activists like Bettina Aptheker, one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, dropped out of the party on feminist grounds. Angela Davis, whom the party practically paraded as a pin-up, wrote on sex and race issues, but was never a feminist. In fact, Angela Davis's most important political and intellectual work was done before she joined the CPUSA. As a CP spokesperson, she had the unfortunate task of defending the Soviet Union in an uncritical way, including its 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The CPUSA was quite slow to realize the importance of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Basically, they dismissed the second wave of feminism as they had the first -- as "bourgeois." However, when it became clear that women's rights, affirmative action and daycare were becoming mainstream mass issues, they tailed along and created Women for Racial and Economic Equality, first as a local group in 1974 and then as a national organization in 1977. Conclusion Even though the CPUSA gave women's emancipation a low priority, women's organizing during the 1920s through the 1950s on other issues kept alive an activism among women in which climate the women's liberation movement in the U.S. was to emerge -- independent of, and usually in opposition to, the Communist Party. A number of women's liberation activists of the late 60s, including myself, were red diaper babies; we grew up with terms like "male chauvinism" and "the woman question," and heard frequent gossip about which party families were "backward about women." "The woman question" was a radical nineteenth century term, long superseded by the new, women-developed theory, and actions, of the women's liberation movement; only the CP continues its use today. The party never saw sexism as deeply structural, economically and politically, as it did racism. The CP perceived women merely as an "interest group," and relegated sexism and male chauvinism to the realm of "personal problems" to be solved individually, or within the family -- usually by women giving in. Nevertheless, through their work in the party, more than in other mainstream or left sects, women's political activism around general issues left for future movements an important legacy. What about the future? As I write in 1989, Gorbachev's ideas about women are hardly worth the paper they're written on. How will the CPUSA respond? Does it agree with Gorbachev's current line on women, which is, to quote him: "Over the years of our difficult and heroic history, we failed to pay attention to women's specific rights and needs arising from their role as mother and homemaker, and their indispensable educational function towards children. We have discovered that many of our problems in our morals, our culture and in production are partially caused by the weakening of family ties and slack attitude to family responsibilities. This is the paradoxical result of our sincere and politically justified desire to make women equal with men in everything. Now in the course of perestroika, we have begun to overcome this shortcoming. That is why we are now holding heated debates in the press, in public organizations, at work and at home, about the question of what we should do to make it possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission." Even though, on the whole, glasnost is surely needed and welcome, Gorbachev's perestroikan polemic against women sounds like American conservatives blaming women for the break-up of the American family, instead of challenging the role of men in not taking on responsibility for childcare, housework, and other "purely womanly" tasks. Does Gorbachev speak for the CPUSA on this issue? Will this be the CP's "Woman's Answer" in the 1990s? NOTES 1. Ella Reeve Bloor, We Are Many. International Publishers, 1940, p. 308. 2. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism. Viking, 1960, p. 193. 3. Mary Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. University of Illinois Press, 1981, p. 321. 4. ibid., p. 322. 5. Elizabeth Waters, "In the Shadow of the Comintern: The Communist Women's Movement, 192043," in Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism," edited by Sonjia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, Marilyn Young. Monthly Review, 1989, p. 40. 6.Vera Buch Weisbord, A Radical Life. Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 144. 7. Modern Language Association, December 1988, San Francisco. 8. Kim Chernin, In My Mother's House. A Daughter's Story. Ticknor and Fields, 1983. 9. Meredith Tax, "Women's Council's in the 1930s," Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, June 1984. 10. Elsa Dixler, "The Woman Question: Women and the American Communist Party, 1929-1941." PhD thesis, Yale 1974, pp. 44-46. 11. Earl Browder, The Peoples Front. NY International, 1938, p. 201. 12. Sunday Workers Magazine, Oct. 4, 1936; July 5, 1936; Aug. 16, 23, 30, 1936; Feb 2, 27, March 6, June 1, July 17, 1938. 13. ibid., Dec. 19, 1937. 14. ibid., Jan. 12, 1937. 15. Mary Heaton Vorse, Labor's New Millions. NY Modern Age, 1938, p. 217, 205, 234. 16. Mike Gold's mother, in Jews Without Money, and in New Masses 38. Feb. 18, 1941, Meridel Le Sueur. 17. "Working Women, Jan. 17, 1936; Women Today, March, 1936. 18. Women Today," March 1936, Feb. 1937; "Sunday Workers Magazine," Jan. 10, 1937; "Political Affairs 53," May 1974. 19. Rosalyn Baxandall, Words on Fire, Rutgers, 1987, p. 50. 20. Avram Landy, Marxism and the Woman Question. Workers Library, 1943, p. 18. 21. ibid., p. 33. 22. Much of my knowledge about Inman comes from Sherna Gluck who interviewed Inman extensively. I tried to interview Inman myself, but she was too suspicious. See "Words on Fire," pp. 223-226, and an undergraduate paper by Heike Stuckert, "Inman Versus Landy: The Communist Party USA and the Woman Question 1936-1949," March 1989. 23. FBI Reports, June 27, 1949; May 2, 1949; June 23, 1949, San Francisco. Also, see a paper by Deborah Gerson, Smith Act Defensive Committee, Berkshire Conference for Women Historians, June 19, 1987. 24. Conversations with many CP youth members, Aug. 1989. They would like to remain anonymous.
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