The United Front of Women

Monthly Review
October 1980

This is the concluding chapter of my first book, The Rising of the Women (Monthly Review Press, 1980; University of Illinois Press, 2001), which is a history and analysis of certain high points in the history of women's organizing in the United States between 1880 and 1917. At the time I wrote it, I was still very influenced by Maoist thought, and the language and conceptual framework reflect this fact.

  THE UNITED FRONT OF WOMEN

 
 
            From the 1880s to the present Marxists have asked, Can women really unite across class lines to fight their common oppression without betraying the revolution? And feminists have wondered, Why do we have to choose sides, anyway? While these questions were being posed in the realm of theory, women built united fronts that both crossed class lines and took clear political positions on the side of the working class. In the United States, practice has often been more developed, flexible, complex, and rich than revolutionary theory, and nowhere is this more evident than in work with women. For this reason I have concentrated on describing practice rather than debatingtheory, except to draw the following conclusions.
 
The Relationship Between Sex and Class
 
            The working-class struggle and the struggle for women's liberation developed simultaneously in the vortex of changing relations of production and changing family and gender patterns. How could they fail to he related? Yet the exact nature of their relationship continues toelude precise formulation and much of the current discussion of it is curiously flat.
 
            Is the struggle for women's liberation subordinate to working-class issues, or, as many Marxists would have it, is the struggle for women's liberation a component part ofthe proletarian revolution? It is certainly clear that one is dependent upon the other: not only does women's ultimate liberation demand socialist revolution as a precondition, but at every turn the political character of the women's movement depends on the strength of the revolutionary forces in society as a whole. The release of new energies, the creation of new space in which to move, the sense of a common upward surge among all the oppressed give women greater strength, and the working-class parts of the united front of women have most influence 'when the working-class movement is powerful.
 
            But dependency is not the same as subordination. There can be mutual dependency. The prevalent notion that the struggle for women's liberation is "secondary" to that for proletarian revolution, meaning not only dependent but also comparatively unimportant, is not Marxism but mechanical ma terialism. It has led to dreary, half-hearted, and unsuccessful efforts to mobilize women, and to ridiculous oversimplifications such as "When the working class rises, so will women"; "When women enter production, they become liberated"; and "Socialism inevitably brings women's liberation in its train."
 
            The relationship between socialist revolution and women's liberation is complex and dialectical. Women, organized aswomen, have at times been in advance of the working class as a whole, and not only on questions of their own sectional interests. They have frequently, for instance, raised general questions of democracy. And while it is true that women cannot win liberation without a proletarian revolution, what kind of revolution can there be without significant shaping by women? Questions of quality as well as quantity are involved here, as Clara Zetkin pointed out:
 
            Our Programme must realise that the collaboration of the broad masses of women does not only mean the increase in the number of the revolutionary forces, but also the improvement in the quality. Woman is not only not an unsuccessful copy of man, as a female being she possesses her special characteristics and value for struggle and construction, and the free development of long chained-up energy will help in the struggle and the work of construction.  “Some Critical Remarks on the Draft Programme,” Communist  International 5, no. 15 (August 1928)
 
            On the other hand the opposing notion, common among socialist feminists, that the two struggles are separate but equal, like two sides of a scale or two wheels spinning at different rates on the same axis, is static and inadequate. It leaves out the relationship between the struggles and the way each affects the other—not to mention the fundamental fact that women are very much a part of the class struggle and their lives are entirely mediated by class relations. There is no struggle for women's liberation that is separate and independent of class. Indeed, how could such a thing be? Such a picture of the world leads to work that is detached, disoriented, floating in limbo.
 
            The working class is at least half female; and certainly more than half of all women are working class. The struggles are not only interrelated—they are interwoven, meshed. That is the nature of a dialectical relationship and that is why it is so hard to reduce it to a simple formula without all meaning dropping out of it, as the history discussed in this book must show. At the same time, this history does lead to certain conclusions about revolutionary strategy for women in the United States, based on organizing done in a variety of conditions over a period of about forty years [between 1880 and 1917]. I may add that these conclusions arc in agreement with my own observations of more recent organizing.
 
The United Front of Women
 
            Women are oppressed in ways not shared by men. Prior to 1920, for instance, we were denied the right to vote. This common oppression gives women a basis to unite across class lines, since such unity is an obvious way to address a suffering that transcends class and national differences.
 
            But the particular form that women's oppression takes is determined by class and national factors as well as by general cultural and economic ones. A female industrial worker is caught up in a system of class relations reproduced in family units designed to ensure the continuation of her class in its powerless and plundered state. A black female worker is, in addition, involved in a system of national oppression that makes her subject to extra exploitation at work, and that impinges on and affects her family life and the continuation of her people. Both women workers share common class experiences with their male fellow workers, such as the fear of unemployment or oppressive and unsafe conditions at work. In addition, the minority woman shares the specific experience of national oppression with minority men. But the women workers' submersion in domestic labor, their responsibility for the upbringing of children, their participation in a process of human reproduction over which they have minimal control, their vulnerability to sexual harassment and abuse, and their lack of familiarity with trade-union and political organization all combine to maketheir experience of productive labor different from that of men and to make them subject to greater exploitation at work—exploitation based on their subordination in the society as a whole.
 
            So while the female industrial worker can and must unite with her male fellow worker along class and national lines, she has particular needs that demand attention. These go fat beyond the obvious—if seldom met—needs for childcare, educational opportunity, and a rational division of labor in the home; they include the need for control over her own sexual and reproductive being, a sense of her own dignity and worth as a person, and a way to gain experience in political work without being instantly subordinated to men. Working-class and national liberation organizations have often seemed to find it difficult to give these sorts of needs much attention under ordinary, non-revolutionary circumstances. Consequently women have tended to develop separate, though not necessarily separatist, organizations to work for their demands and provide themselves with an arena in which they could fully participate as equals.
 
            At certain points in history the labor movement and the women's liberation movement have perceived that they have common interests: birth control, woman suffrage, or the organizing of women into unions. This perception has provided the basis for an organized united front of women, bringing together women from the feminist, labor, and socialist movements around particular demands. The women from each of these movements have had their own interpretation of what is needed, their own preferred tactics, and their own politics, which they struggled for within the united front. The direction taken by the whole movement has at times depended on which group was strongest ideologically, which had the best organization, and which could mobilize the most outside support.
 
            In the 1880s in Chicago, for instance, when the labor movement's strength was growing and it had an energetic socialist leadership, women organizers had enough backup to be able to give direction to the united front of women as a whole. Their organization, the Illinois Woman's Alliance, was an early embodiment of themes that developed later on: the need to connect workplace and community, the benefits of support from the male labor movement, and the contradictions between trade union women and their middle-class allies.
 
            When the labor movement that sustained the Illinois Woman's Alliance split, this united front of women could no longer exist. The themes that had appeared in embryonic form within it were developed by other organizations in a more fragmented way. The Women's Trade Union League sought to organize working women, pioneering feminist methods of doing so. Swayed by the example of the AFL, however, and unable to understand how to organize working women without more help from the labor movement, the League ended up settling for legislative remedies to the class oppression of working women, combined with efforts to create a female auxiliary to the labor aristocracy. The IWW, on the other hand, successfully experimented with bringing issues of birth control into the labor movement and found ways to organize women workers and housewives in the heat of its mass strikes, but did not undertake special organizing campaigns around the oppression of women and had difficulty keeping women as active members. It also seriously underestimated the importance of the suffrage issue. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement, led by bourgeois women whose politics were often not even liberal, became detached from the working class and often hostile to it. The Socialist Party's lack of unity on the importance of organizing women resulted in a failure to give solid organizational support to its own campaigns. These problems made it hard for left-wing women to have substantial impact on the feminist movement, which remained centered on a single-issue campaign, and had no way of educating or organizing women around the many other issues related to the vote.
 
            None of this is to assign blame. These movements were young and new, they were under increasing government pressure, and they had no examples of victorious revolutionary work to draw on. Nor is successful work dependent solely on the will and strategy of organizers: a certain level of struggle in the society as a whole, many changes in consciousness, and a ripening of conditions are clearly necessary before substantial changes can be made. The boundaries of what is possible in the meantime, in a nonrevolutionary period, are not set primarily by the desires of socialists or feminists, but by the relative strength of the classes involved in the struggle and their degree of consciousness and organization within the women's movement and elsewhere. In the period before the First World War, as in the present, the employers were more conscious of their class interests in regard to women workers than was the labor movement, and they were unquestionably more powerful as a class.
 
            Within the limitations set by these general conditions, however, policies pursued by the left have made a difference. The persistently sectarian response of US Marxists to class contradictions whenever these have surfaced an the united front of women is one reason socialists have failed to be more influential in the women's movement. In his discussion of the US labor movement, William Z. Foster describes a purist tendency to split which he holds partly responsible for the movement’s general backwardness, in contrast to the European labor movement:
 
            Because of this policy, thousands of the very best militants have been led to desert the mass of labor organizations and to waste their time in vain efforts to construct ideally conceived unions designed to replace the old ones. In consequence the mass labor movement has been, for many years, systematically drained of its life-giving elements. (American Trade Unionism, New York: 1947)
 
            Splitting to form “pure” organizations, and the consequent abandonment of the existing mass movements, has also occurred in the united front of women. It can be seen most clearly in the work of the IWW, but also existed as a tendency in the Socialist Party’s suffrage work, and in the demise of the Illinois Woman’s Alliance. Strategically, it is essential for both working-class and socialist women to have their own organizations, with their own programs, and to develop their own leaders—this is not the issue. The problem occurs when these women fail to see themselves as part of a united front demanding both alliance and struggle. Too often, U.S. socialist women have seen the only alternatives as either capitulation to the bourgeoisie on the one hand, or flight into political isolation on the other. They have seemed unable to envision a difficult, protracted relationship combining unity on some questions with contention over others. Unless working-class and socialist women have a strong base outside the united front, they have little hope of winning the battles inside it. Since such strength is hard to build and long in coming, the irritating, tedious, and often fruitless struggles within the united front of women can make activists despair, as did the radicals in the Illinois Woman's Alliance, and go off in a fury to work on their own. We know where it got them. The united front of women involves both a necessary sisterhood and class war: both can be unpleasant; both are unavoidable.
 
Women and Unions
 
            The main obstacle to organizing women into unions is their different and conflicting work lives, one at home and the other on the job; this double burden makes it hard for them to move. When this is taken into account and unions deal with both as peets of their oppression, women can be extremely militant, as they were in strikes led by the IWW.
 
            The way women are organized depends on the character of the labor movement at the time. When trade-union men have been eager to help them organize, not only have women built unions, but they have also participated fully in the labor movement, using their organizations as a base from which to build and influence the united front of women. This was most likely to happen when the labor movement was led by socialists, as in Chicago in the 18808. The presence of socialist men, however, does not guarantee a high level of understanding of female oppression; therefore, female socialist leadership is of critical importance, not only for organizing women but for the political development of the movement as a whole.
 
            Even when the labor movement's leadership has been more conservative and indifferent to the need to organize women, it has still been possible for women to organize themselves into unions. In this situation working women often turned to the feminist movement for help. But while the assistance of middleclass feminists can be invaluable, as in the organization of the garment industry, It can also result in a dilution of the militance of women's unions. The liberal feminists who are most likely to enter such alliances seldom have a good understanding of the potential strength of the working class and the possibility of changing male indifference to support in the context of an intense struggle. Consequently, women's union campaigns under middle-class feminist leadership have tended to rely on solutions imposed from without, particularly on state intervention through lawsuits and legislation. Rather than viewing such reforms as secondary weapons in the industrial struggle or as tools which are ultimately controlled by the ruling class but which are temporarily subject to mass pressure, the feminist movement has frequently worked on the assumption that the state is neutral and can be made to act independent of the particular interests of any class. Because this is not true, the legislative machinery set up to protect women has often been turned against their interestsin the absence of a strong movement that could keep up the pressure, and laws that were progressive in one period have turned into their opposite in another.
 
            When the labor movement has been actively hostile to the organization of women, it has been extremely difficult for women's unions to survive, even with help from feminists. Unions that were heavily infiltrated by racketeers, such as the construction unions and the United Garment Workers seem to have been particularly antagonistic to women since their leadership was threatened by any popular upsurge that could not immediately be controlled and channeled for purposes of private graft. In a number of instances, the political conservatism and entrenched privilege of unions in the skilled trades led them to play the same role as racketeers, sabotaging efforts to organize women.
 
            In situations where the work force was segregated by sex, where male unions were reluctant to organize women or where the differences in the work schedules, desires, or consciousness of the sexes were marked, it was sometimes advantageous to build separate women's locals. These have obvious inherent limitations—a tendency to reinforce the segregation of women into powerless positions within the larger union, reflecting their position in the industry—but they have sometimes proved more viable than other forms of organization.
 
            In short, the overall political character of the labor movement has strongly affected the form of women's organizations within it, the degree to which these organizations were dependent on outside help from feminists, and even their ultimate survival. The organization of women proved important not only to women workers, but to organized men as well, for the labor movement seems to have a different character—more open innovative, and militant in a mass way—when large numbers of women are part of it, as both the shirtwaist-makers' strike and the Lawrence strike demonstrate.
 
Workplace and Community Organization
 
            In a mass strike under radical leadership, it sometimes became possible to transcend the traditional forms of workplace organization and draw community women into the labor movement. The conflict was then transformed from an industrial battle located in the workplace to a class struggle located in both the workplace and the community as a whole. This happened in Lawrence in t 912; that strike has been called a mini-revolution because it prefigured the level of involvement characteristic of a revolutionary uprising. When a whole community was at war, working mothers and housewives—the most submerged part of their class—could rise up and find their own forms of organization and militance, and in this way change their own lives as well as the strike. They brought to the struggle a sense of overall class, family, and sometimes national oppression that can be stronger in the community than it is in the workplace, and they learned in their turn from the discipline and focus of the organized workers. While the Lawrence strike is the clearest example of this process, the work of the Illinois Woman's Alliance was a more primitive, less mass-oriented attempt to merge community and labor struggles, and to bring the strength of the organized workers to bear on the problems of school children, unorganized sweatshop workers, and even prostitutes.
 
Problems with the Socialist Movement's Work with Women
 
            Since so much of the impetus for organizing working-class women has come from socialists, wrong ideas within the socialist movement have had very damaging effects. Two kinds of errors have been made: "right errors," which try to eliminate women's problems by various reforms, and "left errors," which see only the class struggle as important and negate the need for any separate work against the oppression of women.
 
            The “right error" of thinking that the oppression of women could be eliminated under capitalism was fundamental to the suffrage movement and a strong tendency in the work of both the Women's Trade Union League and the Socialist Party. The WTUL’s tendency to look to the state to solve the problems of working women was one example; another was the belief held by many socialists that suffrage would make the sexes equal, leaving only the class contradiction to worry about. The Socialist Party therefore emphasized woman-suffrage agitation far and above any other form of work with women.
 
            The IWW's work exemplifies "left errors" in this area. Seeing women only as exploited workers and denying the existence of any significant sex oppression, the IWW failed to comprehend the significance of the suffrage movement. This failure fed their economism—seeing the economic arena as the only important focus for revolutionary work—and their sectarianism. The IWW's practice was, however, often much better than their theory. In theory, the only task was to build industrial unions; in practice, they did agitation and education around birth control, a demand which no other working-class organization in this period had the vision or courage to raise, and one which directly challenged the state's interest in controlling reproduction.
 
Women's Work in Party Organizations
 
            Within parties or socialist organizations, some special body to lead and focus work with women and to provide a basis for the struggle against male supremacy within the organization is essential. When the Socialist Party had a Women's National Committee, it was able to build large-scale campaigns around suffrage, put out a monthly women's magazine, and do education about the oppression of women. While the party may have had difficulty integrating this work with the rest of its program, the destruction of the WNC certainly did not mean that work with women was taken up by the party as a whole rather than being ghettoized in one committee. It meant, rather, that the oppression of women was no longer addressed in a systematic, national way. The IWW never had any special committee to develop its work with women; as a result, this work was inconsistent, sporadic, and largely dependent on one individual, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, despite the heights it rose to during certain strikes.
 
            It would be pure formalism, however, to think that any organizational structure offers a guarantee against chauvinism. Unless a party organization is solidly behind the idea of special campaigns for women, or is at least engaged in study and struggle around the question, women's committees can easily become powerless "ladies' aid societies" whose appeals for support are ignored. Their efforts to develop separate campaigns may be attacked as divisive of the working class; they can even, if necessary, be put under the leadership of figureheads such as wives of party leaders who are remarkable mainly for their support of the status quo. The only "guarantees" that work with women will be kept alive seem to be a high level of commitment to it in the organization as a whole and the presence of a number of experienced women whose understanding of their own oppression has made them determined to do the work.
 
            While again avoiding formalism, it is easy to see the importance of special women's committees in training such women leaders and giving them experience in coordinating work on a large scale. Without such systematic training, the IWW never developed more than two or three women organizers of national caliber; the years of organizational experience that formed the women who eventually built the Illinois Woman's Alliance were simply not available to women in the IWW. The fact that Socialist Party women were, if only briefly, in a position to make decisions about their own national campaigns accounts in part for that organization's large number of outstanding female organizers and speakers.
 
            It is a truism that every oppressed group must in the final analysis liberate itself. Freedom cannot be conferred from the outside; it must be won. Without leadership developed in the struggle for women's liberation, the best will in the world cannot enable a party organization to really understand the struggle of women, to support campaigns initiated by women around their own needs and link them with other issues, to organize masses of women. Without strong women, a revolutionary organization becomes what Joe Hill called the IWW, "a kind of one- legged, freakish animal," or one that has the appearance of walking on two legs but in reality puts all its weight upon one, effectively crippling itself.
 
The United Front of Women and the Autonomous Women's Movement
 
            Much of this book revolves around a central question: What can socialist women do to organize for women's liberation in a nonrevolutionary period, when socialist forces and the labor movement are weak, divided, and frequently uninterested in the oppression of women, and when the women's movement is—partly as a result—under bourgeois leadership? This situation existed in 1910; it exists in 1980.
 
            In the late 1960s a new mass feminist movement was born. Like the earlier movement, it had bourgeois and socialist organizations.1 Since the first few years of radical exuberance, bourgeois forces have unquestionably been in control of the movement's national organizations; publications, and image as reflected in the media. Their work has been directed toward gaining an equal place for women in the mainstream of American life, rather than changing the ultimate direction in which that stream flows. There are also a few national organizations of minority women, of mixed class composition, which have played a progressive role in their effect on the bourgeois groups and been able to voice the concerns of their constituencies in Washington. Left-wing feminist groups have been, for the most part, localist and short-lived, and have deliberately turned away from traditional modes of political work. While their emphasis on integrating the personal and political has led to innovative tactics, radical insights, and the development of a number of strong women with leadership experience, left-wing feminists have been unable to create a national organization or even sustain national campaigns. They have consequently had less impact on society as a whole than they could have if their ideas were not all filtered through media and organizations controlled by bourgeois women.
 
            During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new socialist movement grew out of the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements. Unlike the left-wing feminist movement, it has largely abandoned its early stress on decentralization and participatory democracy in favor of more traditional party forms of organization—to the degree that it is still a movement, many of its members having succumbed to the stresses of age and history. What remains is a number of national political organizations, most of which are somewhat multinational (meaning they are mainly but not entirely white), though a few grew out of Third World groups and are still predominantly minority.
 
            These political organizations fall into two broad categories: social-democratic (or democratic-socialist, if you prefer) and communist; for purposes of brevity I will use the latter term to cover all those who would define themselves as such, from members of the old Communist Party U.S.A. to Trotskyists to Marxist-Leninist organizations.2   While the communist groups differ extraordinarily from each other in their political ideas, they all tend to take a position on the international situation as their starting point and deduce their positions on domestic questions from that. Many of them have not developed a detailed position on the oppression of women because they have not considered the question a high priority. The social-democratic groups have tended in some cases to follow the lead of the bourgeois feminists, in others to join with the left-wing feminists, in order to be where the action is. Many communist groups have seen no difference between one feminist and another and have attacked all with equal vehemence as "petty bourgeois." These attacks have sometimes been moderated and even reversed at the height of a rectification campaign, but by and large, in a movement where sectarianism in general is so utterly out of control, it would be unrealistic to expect a good understanding of the need for united-front work among women. It is possible, and one may hope, that the severity of the present economic and political crisis will bring forward a new spirit of unity and increase the amount of attention given by the left to the oppression of women; this would be a happy departure from the general experience of the past decade.
 
            Throughout the 1970s, the left wing of the feminist movement was plagued by its own contradictions. These were often seen purely in terms of their material origins and described as splits between gay and straight women, minority and white women, mothers and women without children, etc. While such objective differences are significant, only when discussion centers on the theoretical and strategic positions that can derive from them is the resulting struggle likely to push the movement forward. Because the feminist movement has seldom argued in concrete strategic terms, its battles have often been muddy ones, oscillating between personal anecdote and grand theory, and leading to unnecessary splits which were perceived as natural inevitabilities.
 
            With such problems of sectarianism in their own movement, left-wing feminists have often responded to socialist attacks by avoiding further contact with “the male left,” or even by becoming anticommunist. Such responses are neither productive nor permanent, since feminists with a Marxist analysis are continually drawn to the socialist movement by the need to connect their work with the things it connects to in real life: economic causes, racial and national contradictions, questions of class and power, international crises. The same issues come up year after year: We can't work for women's liberation in a way that cuts us off from the unions, the black liberation movement, and the Vietnam War. But on the other hand: We can't work with these people if they think we should abandon our own demands, our own organizations, our own movement. 
 
            Of course unity doesn't and shouldn't mean that. Only a women's movement that has its own demands, organizations, and leadership is in a position to unite with anybody else—a rather strong position, in the current state of general disarray. But what kind of women's liberation movement does that mean we should build? Though the slogan "an autonomous women's movement" was not originally intended to mean autonomous from the class struggle or from battles against US imperialism, by the 1970s it came to mean just that. The concerns of left-wing feminists became compartmentalized in a way that damaged both the women's liberation movement and the other struggles. Women's concerns were seldom taken up in more than a token manner by socialist organizations, and at the same time the autonomous women's movement less and less took positions on anything but "women's issues"—abortion but not the war, the economy, or racism. Surely we don't want to return to the nineteenth-century doctrine of a separate sphere for women where women can make decisions about a limited range of female concerns and men can make decisions about everything else. We should not have to choose, as individuals or as organizations, between commitment to the class struggle, the national liberation movements, and women's liberation. It is a deformation in the political life of this country that so many people through the years have felt they had to do so.
 
            The Illinois Woman's Alliance represents a crossroads in our history, where one road opened up into several diverging ones, each larger and more significant than the original path in all but promise. In its early, small, and primitive way the Illinois Woman's Alliance held within it a prophecy of all that could be achieved if the socialist movement, the labor movement, and the united front of women could work together. Without such unity today, Marxists have found it difficult to address the problems of women consistently. Left-wing feminists have found it impossible to capture leadership of the women's movement from bourgeois organizations that are utterly unable to give it the vitality and consciousness it needs. The labor movement, sunk in conservatism, has repeatedly demonstrated that nothing short of a revolution in its ranks will get its leadership to reach out to the millions of unorganized women.
 
            Yet never has the need for unity and for a newly energetic approach to organizing been more clear. The situation of women is a sign of the general political crisis. In recent years, women have been pushed out of their jobs, lost affirmative action programs, seen public child care virtually eliminated, and the public health and education systems reduced to the point of incapacity. In the name of strengthening the traditional family, a new antifeminist movement has blocked the ERA, viciously attacked gay rights, eaten away the right to abortion (while sterilization abuse continues), and attempted to block access to sex education and birth-control information for minors. Wages have fallen far behind the cost of living, and women's wages were low to begin with. A tide of political reaction seems to be rising in both domestic and foreign policy.
 
            Who will fight off this onslaught? Who will put forward the alternatives for women? The bourgeois women's organizations have time and again proven their inability to do so effectively. Like the suffrage movement they claim as their exemplar, they are locked into single-issue strategies and cannot build the kind of broad unity around a militant program that is needed to win substantial demands and keep them won. The record on abortion is enough to demonstrate that. The left wing of the feminist movement is only just beginning, in a few places, to try to build united fronts around specific demands; it still has little organizational strength and needs more experience in struggling around programs in a way that advances the movement rather than splits it. The socialist and national-liberation movements are hard-pressed and divided, with many urgent concerns, and do not in general make the backlash against women's rights a high priority. The labor movement is also beleaguered; weakened by decades of compromise, it lacks the kind of force and sweep it has only when it is moved by real social vision and is reaching out to enlist large numbers of new workers. So the question remains what it was a hundred years ago: Who will organize the women? And when?
 
            In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's poem about the socialist and the suffragist, the world finally awakens and tells both: "Your work is all the same, / Work together or work apart, / Work, each of you, with all your heart, / Just get into the game!"3 The socialist, labor, and women's liberation movements have been separate now for more than one lifetime. We have seen how this occurred; it is harder to see how to reverse the process. Yet I believe it can ultimately be reversed if we pay attention to our own history and experience as well as to that of the rest of the world. Though we women did not create our own misery, only we can end it—but we can't end it alone. Women need to be part of both a women's liberation movement and a general movement to change society. And if persistent, careful efforts at unity around specific issues don't come from us, where will they come from? Do others see the need more clearly? Are others stronger?
 
            Langston Hughes says, in his poem “Frosting”: "Freedom / Is just
frosting / On somebody else's / Cake—/ And so must be / Till we / Learn how to / Bake.
 
            Women have been baking cakes for thousands of years. It's time to sum up what we know about mixing and sifting and flavoring and letting yeast ferment and rise; it's time to write down our recipes and take the practical knowledge of our hands out of the kitchen to where it will do some good; it's time and past time.
 
______
 
Endnotes
 
            1 I would consider the National Organization for Women (NOW)and the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) both, like NAWSA, bourgeois women's organizations in that their program for women could be comfortably assimilated by either of the bourgeois political parties. Indeed, this is their goal. This does not mean that these organizations, both of which are large, are made up only of ruling-class people and politicians; NOW, at least, has a heterogeneous member: ship, and some of its local chapters are quite different in both composition and politics from the national leadership. They have little effect on the organization's policy, however, which is set with an increasingly firm hand from Washington.
 
            Minority women's organizations have, on the national scale, included the National Organization of Black Feminists, Women of All Red Nations, and the Third World Women's Alliance; most minority women's groups, however, have been local ones comprised of Afro- American, Chicana, Puerto Rican, Asian American, and Native American women. Left-wing feminist organizations have all been local and most have lasted only a few years; examples would include Bread and Roses in Boston, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, the New Haven Feminist Union, and a host of socialist-feminist groups. The new Reproductive Rights National Network may prove to be a significant step away from such localism.
 
            2 As this is being written, the main social-democratic organization is the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC); the old Socialist Party still exists as well, and some would include the New American Movement (NAM) among these groups. · Social-democratic politics are frequently represented in the newspaper In These Times. Then there is the Communist Party USA and the various Trotskyist splits from it and from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP); these include International Socialists (IS), International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Spartacist League, Workers World Party and its youth affiliate, Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF), as well as many others. Progressive Labor (PL), which split from the CPUSA at the time of the Sino-Soviet rift, has grown increasingly to resemble its predecessors.
 
            There is a large and ever-growing number of new Marxist-Leninist groups (as self-defined), moat of which are oriented towards China or Albania, though a few look more to Cuba. A fairly up-to-date list would include the Central Organization of US Marxist·Leninists (COUSML), the Communist Labor Party, the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML), the Communist Workers Party, EI Committee (MINP), the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs, the Proletarian Unity League (PUL), the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) and its Organizational Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH). Revolutionary organizations that are predominantly Third World include the All-African Peoples Party, the Republic of New Africa (RNA), and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP).  A number of organizations that were previously only Third World have merged with others to become multinational, while some have been destroyed by police repression.
 
3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman,"The Socialist and the Suffragist," The Forerunner 1, no. 12 (October 1910), p. 25.

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.