[OPE-L] CPUSA and Women's Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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?


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, 1920[196]43," 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.

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.

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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