Chapter 7: Feminism “Between the Waves”

The main political victory of the original “first wave” women’s movement was winning the vote for women in 1920 after a decades-long struggle. Achieving women’s suffrage came on the heels of the recruitment of massive numbers of women into industry during the war as men went into the army. But it also came in a period of revolutionary upheaval following the slaughter of World War I. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which immediately gave women the vote, went far further, as we explained in chapter 6, than any capitalist country then or since in trying to liberate women. This put great pressure on capitalist countries to make at least some concessions. In 1919, the newly established International Labor Organization, among many other provisions, wrote the Maternity Protection Convention which provided for 12 weeks of protected maternity leave. Many capitalists countries signed on, but the U.S. never did. As of today, the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world to have no provision for maternity leave.

The mainstream feminist movement in the U.S. at the time, dominated by upper middle class white women, and led by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was narrowly focused on winning the right to vote at almost any political cost. Unfortunately this included abandoning black women living under Jim Crow in favor of an alliance with pro-segregation Southern women’s groups in order to have the maximum political leverage. A half century earlier, at the time of the Civil War, key white feminists like Sarah and Angelina Grimke were staunch supporters of destroying the slavocracy and enfranchising black men, seeing the struggle for black freedom and women’s liberation as interconnected. In turn, the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of the foremost champions of women’s right to vote. After the Civil War, Cady Stanton and a number of others who had previously been abolitionists and allies of Douglass, opposed black men being given the right to vote before women got the vote. This position was an anticipation of the later betrayal of black women by the mainstream suffragist leadership.

Working-class women in the U.S. in the early 20th century were involved in other struggles against low pay and terrible working conditions. This included the famous “Bread and Roses” strike by women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 organized by the anti-capitalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Prominent socialists like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn fought for ending super-exploitation of women workers as well as the right to vote and to abolish the capitalist system which kept all workers in subjection.

It was also the Socialist Party which organized the first Women’s Day march in 1909 in New York and inspired the Socialist International to adopt it as an international day of action for working-class women the following year. But while the radical wing of the labor movement like the IWW sought to organize women workers, the conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was focused on organizing “skilled” male workers. These AFL unions often formally barred women from joining, along with black workers and other minorities. Union leaders justified excluding women workers on the basis that they were temporary workers who worked for “pin money,” rather than workers who brought in critical earnings for their families.

After 1920, the labor movement was thrown back in the U.S. for a whole period, until it developed explosively in the mid-’30s during the Great Depression. The new unions grouped in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) did not, in general, fight to open up industrial employment to women but working-class women played key roles in organizing auxiliary groups that provided critical strike support in era-defining battles such as the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the Flint auto workers’ sit-down strike in 1936-37. Workers across the country and across the world were inspired by the auto plant occupations, and a subsequent wave of sit-down strikes in other industries included predominantly female workplaces like large retail stores.

Besides building support for strikes in overwhelmingly male workforces, women working in industries like textiles also waged major battles during the 1930s. This included the 1934 strike by 400,000 textile workers along the East Coast which was the biggest strike in the history of the labor movement up until that time. The radical wing of the CIO – including the Communist Party (CP) which neared 100,000 members at its height in the mid 1940s – began to push harder for the movement to take up the issues facing women workers. The CP campaigned for a solution to the severe childcare crisis that resulted as previously non-employed women took jobs.

The CP was by far the strongest organization on the American left at that time. Its authority reflected the support of sections of the American working class for the Russian Revolution. But by the 1930s, the Soviet Union was firmly under the grip of the Stalinist bureaucracy which had crushed workers’ democracy and reversed many of the gains made by women after the revolution. The Communist parties around the world, including the American CP, were now completely subordinated to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy which sought an alliance with key capitalist powers and in return betrayed working class revolution as in Spain in the 1930s. As part of promoting a “popular front” internationally with allegedly “progressive” sections of the ruling class, the American CP gave support to Roosevelt and the Democrats rather than building an independent political force representing the interests of working people and the oppressed. This was a betrayal with long lasting consequences, including for the fight for women’s rights.

The Communist Party was challenged on the left by the followers of Leon Trotsky, one of the central leaders of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky fought Stalin’s rise to power and the destruction of workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union. In his masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed, he explained the devastating effects of Stalinism on the position of women in Soviet society. The American Trotskyists fought against the CP’s policy of class collaboration and also led the great Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934.

Nevertheless, aspects of the CP’s work still reflected the impulse of the Russian Revolution and the early Communist International. In particular, their campaigns against racism and to organize black workers, thousands of whom joined the CP. Inspired by this work which helped lay the basis for the postwar Civil Rights movement, a number of CP women also pushed within the party for a tougher fight against gender oppression.

The work of the CP on what was referred to as “the woman question” was an important forerunner of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women in the CP challenged the official position of the party in the 1930s, which focused on the economic discrimination of women in the paid workplace, but had little to say about the many ways in which women experienced sexism in society, and within the CP itself.

Economic Change

The entrance of millions of women into factories during World War II raised women’s collective confidence and ambition. Working in war-time industries, women earned twice or three times as much as they could as a clerical or service worker – the main employment sectors open to women. This higher income granted more than economic independence; working in industry made it transparent to women themselves that much of the sexual division of labor was not, in fact, due to natural differences between men and women.

Black women had long worked for wages in much higher numbers than white women, concentrated in agriculture and “domestic service” and the war effort opened up dramatically better jobs in industry to 600,000 black women.

At war’s end, a renewed emphasis on women’s place in the home in popular media outlets like Ladies Home Journal, Fortune, and Good Housekeeping, signalled the beginning of a concerted effort by the ruling class to return to the pre-war status quo. By the end of 1946, three million women had been pushed out of industrial production to be replaced by men.

But in the following decades, with the post-war economic boom in full swing, women again entered the paid workforce in increasing numbers. Clerical work expanded greatly in the post-war period, creating low-paid jobs that were overwhelmingly offered to women. However, women would not gain access to many industrial and blue-collar jobs until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it possible to challenge employers on exclusionary hiring practices.

By 1970, 43% of women were employed compared to 34% in 1950. With the sharp economic downturn that occurred in the mid-1970s, and the beginning of sharp attacks on working-class living standards, more families needed two incomes to get by, and by 1980 52% of women were employed.

The entrance of women into the workforce in much greater numbers, and into unions, was an essential factor in the development of the women’s movement. Earning a paycheck gave women a certain independence and confidence, and offered the possibility of collective action to solve shared problems. At the same time, working women continued to be responsible for the lion’s share of household and child-rearing labor in the home. Capitalism needed more workers, but it gave no ground in terms of male domination in the home and in society generally. What gains were made by women, were made through the strength of movement-building and mass action.

Rising living standards and the opening of college doors to women to satisfy corporations’ demands for more skilled managers and professionals also raised women’s expectations that they could improve their lives through college and a career. However, many women only found doors slammed in their faces by elitist, sexist men.

The ruling class’ cult of motherhood worked for a time in the 1950s, but by the ’60s it backfired. A new generation of young women vowed never to live what they saw as the stifling lives of their mothers who had given up their own dreams to live through their husbands and children. The federal government’s approval of the birth control pill in 1960 also contributed to the developing sexual revolution and greater independence for women.

Postwar Political Reality

The CIO offensive, which opened the possibility of huge advances for working-class men and women, continued in the immediate wake of World War II, reaching its height in the biggest strike wave in the nation’s history between 1945-1947. This reflected a new period of revolutionary possibility internationally after the war and the defeat of fascism. But the leadership of the unions in the U.S. then moved to make a deal with the ruling class in which they renounced any intention of forming a separate political party and agreed to purge the left in exchange for an acceptance of the unions’ existence as well as wage and benefit gains from the employers. This deal between labor and capital entrenched a bureaucratic layer on top of the industrial unions, reducing the democratic participation of rank-and-file union members step by step.

The subsequent McCarthyite “Red Scare” led to thousands of working-class Communists and other socialists being driven out of the factories and a crushing setback for the left as a whole. Many on the left, including some socialists, drew the false conclusion that the working class had become conservative and would not be won to an anti-capitalist perspective.

In the 1960s, many young leftists were searching for an alternative to the discredited old-line Stalinism of the Communist Party which was associated with the repression of the Soviet Union and its crushing of rebellions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The “New Left” took many forms, but it frequently rejected both correct and false ideas put forward by “Old Left” organizations. Thousands were attracted to the Chinese Revolution and its apparently more radical leadership. Many of the followers of Mao Zedong echoed the idea that the working class in the West was largely “bought off” and argued that the only important struggles were in the “Third World” and among the most oppressed in the advanced capitalist countries.

This was shown to be false by the reappearance of the working class on the stage of history with the month-long general strike in France in 1968 that directly posed the question of socialist revolution. While these and subsequent working-class uprisings in Italy, Spain, and Portugal had an enormous effect on the left internationally, there was no force on the fractured American left which had the authority or political clarity to rally the hundreds of thousands of revolutionary-minded young people and workers to a genuine revolutionary perspective.

All of these developments contributed to the failure of the subsequent mass movements, including the women’s movement, to achieve their full potential. And it must be underlined that there was a massive potential for a challenge to the status quo and even capitalism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Civil Rights struggle, a true mass movement, brought down Jim Crow laws in the South, with the support of a section of the labor movement. This victory and the ongoing black freedom movement enormously inspired the subsequent movement against the Vietnam War, the new women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement. At the same time, the class struggle began to heat up and got out of the control of the conservative union leadership leading to the biggest strike wave since the immediate postwar period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.