Today’s left, and particularly today’s feminist movement, is all too often stumbling from crisis to crisis, reactive, frustrated, and lost.

It is also bigger than it has been in decades, rebuilding old organizations and starting new ones, jostling for position in a world where those crises are themselves the norm. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and now the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there are new opportunities to remake the relations of power that just twenty years ago seemed immutable.

When we are cut off from our history—as we so often are in a neoliberal world obsessed with the eternal “now”—we find ourselves doomed to rehash the same debates, the same fights, the same betrayals. We cannot learn from our history when we only know its barest contours, or when we only learn it as the glorious tale of a hero or heroine who made victory possible. The left is no less prone to “Great Man” histories than anyone else, even as it professes to care about collective action.

And so Meredith Tax’s history of the collective action of women in labor in America at the turn of the 20th century, and the repeated attempts to form a “united front of women” to fight for feminist goals, was necessary when it was first written, and it is even more necessary now. Today’s rising U.S. left confronts many of the same questions that workers did in the Gilded Age, before the New Deal and the rise of industrial unionism, when worker organization was fractious, police and even military violence met any who tried to disrupt the process of capital accumulation, many workers made ends meet with piece-work (or as we might call it today, gig work) in the home, and employers exploited migrants and Black workers to keep wages low, stoking racism to maintain division.

Of course, things are different now, too.

Few today who take labor seriously would say out loud that women are unorganizable or don’t need unions. Yet too often the labor movement even in 2021 fetishizes structures and tactics built for a mid-century working world where a man goes to work and has a wife at home, and mourns the loss of traditionally masculine jobs while giving feminized industries short shrift. Too often unions turn to electoral politics to win gains that seem impossible to win on the shop floor, only to be betrayed by the politicians that labor has backed. And even in today’s organizations there is a tendency to decry “identity politics,” which in practice tends to mean “how dare you get your race and gender in my nice neat class war.”

Except as this book shows, there is nothing neat about class war. And to win, working people will have to learn to form coalitions, discern the difference between allies and comrades, and take seriously demands that come from the home and community as well as the workplace.

The Rising of the Women is a book meant for political practice, a book designed to take lessons from history to help today’s organizers and troublemakers formulate strategies for their work. By reading the true stories of what happened during famous strikes like the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and the “Uprising of the 30,000” in New York in 1909, as well as of lesser-known struggles, Tax has given today’s organizers a particular gift: she shows us how much there is to be learned from losses, as much as from a heroic win.

* *

At the heart of the book are socialist women, who, Tax writes, understood themselves as “the human links between the feminist movement, the labor movement, and the socialist movement.” They understood the relationship between these movements as dialectical, and within their lives—their immigrant, radical, working-class lives—they brought together, sometimes messily, issues that they were often told were opposed. For them, Tax notes, “labor history comes attached to community history and family history and the history of reproduction. It involves not only class consciousness and the consciousness of national oppression, but also sex consciousness.”

There were high points for these women, when all of the struggles seemed to coalesce, when an understanding of the problems of the class meant understanding that class struggle could occur in the street and the home and the church and the community organization as well as the shop floor, that the bread riot is a proletarian battle too and that fighting eviction is a feminist goal. And there were low points, when labor leaders (particularly within the American Federation of Labor) treated feminism as a bourgeois plot, or bourgeois allies tried to corral working women’s uprisings into the fight for the vote, trying to solve every problem with protective legislation and support for lesser-evil candidates rather than more immediate action.

These women worked in fledgling labor organizations, from the Knights of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World, and of course the AFL. Sometimes they organized locals separately from the men and sometimes they were absorbed into the broader union; they also formed cross-class but (at least in theory) prolabor organizations like the Illinois Women’s Alliance and the Women’s Trade Union League.

This is a book about collective struggles rather than individual heroes, but nonetheless Tax brings to life in these pages so many vibrant characters who are fierce and funny, righteous and burned out, and above all real people who experienced wins and losses as material changes to their lives, not just numbers on a scoreboard. You will meet Chicago radical Lizzie Swank; the AFL’s first “general organizer for women” Mary Kenney; Leonora O’Reilly, “the soul of the WTUL”; IWW firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; Clara Lemlich, hero of the shirtwaist strike; IWW domestic worker organizer Jane Street; and rank and file textile striker Annie Welsenbach of Lawrence.

Gilded Age workplace demands often centered on the need for freedom from work, pointing out that the drudgery most paid jobs consisted of was hardly liberatory. As Chicago garment worker Anna Rudnitsky wrote in the WTUL’s magazine, “First we must get a living-wage and then we must get a shorter work-day, and many many more girls must do some thinking. It isn’t that they do not want to think, but they are too tired to think and that is the best thing in the Union, it makes us think…. It makes us stronger and it makes us happier and it makes us more interested in life and to be more interested in life is oh, a thousand times better than to be so dead that one never sees anything but work all day and not enough money to live on. That is terrible, that is like death.”

Organizing gave them freedom to enjoy more of their lives, the famed “roses” of the Lawrence strike’s call for “bread and roses,” and the union was often a vehicle too for socializing—the Ladies’ Federal Labor Union included “social enjoyment” in their statement of purpose alongside more serious goals of righting the wrongs done by unjust employers. Women unionists talked of bringing their activism to their love lives, playfully checking men’s clothing for the union label.

And the strike, when it did come, was a whirlwind of excitement, an escape from the workplace, perhaps, but another kind of work, and a moment where many years’ worth of learning was compressed into days. Radical journalist Mary Heaton Vorse described the Lawrence strike as “a college for the workers,” where they learned “history and economics translated into the terms of their own lives” and “suddenly find hitherto unsuspected powers,” giving speeches, writing articles and leaflets, inventing new forms of picketing and writing and singing labor songs. Women, Helen Marot of the WTUL argued, made the best strikers because of their “genius for sacrifice and the ability to sustain, over prolonged periods, response to emotional appeals,” and their skill at managing and sustaining personal relationships even during crisis. That skill was needed when strikes, as in Lawrence, included workers from several different countries, speaking multiple languages.

Immigrants, Tax notes, made up the majority of the industrial working class of this age, and they were given the worst jobs, paid less, and ghettoized into neighborhoods by ethnicity. Nor did immigrant women come in for the gentle treatment afforded to well-off white women. During strikes, women faced brutal police crackdowns with unexpected bravery, even as many of them were targeted for particular violence. Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish migrant, was singled out and beaten until six of her ribs were broken while picketing during the shirtwaist strikes; later, she recalled, “Ah—then I had fire in my mouth…. What did I know about trade unionism? Audacity—that was all I had—audacity!”

They needed that audacity. While the police brutality and threat of imprisonment has not dissipated over the years, women today hardly face the level of opprobrium for being union activists that Tax’s subjects did. Women who were publicly active risked becoming outcasts and were often compared to prostitutes; thus, Tax notes, “Women organizers in the 1880s thus tended to be very highly motivated and strong individuals who were often both social and sexual radicals as well.” The police violence they faced made them sympathetic to sex workers who were constantly victimized by law enforcement, and the Illinois Women’s Alliance took up the sex workers’ cause, attending court hearings and demanding access to women who were jailed to report on their conditions.

Radical women of the gilded age, then, experimented not just with forms of labor organization, but communal living and social support, and they demanded that the labor movement consider prostitution not a social vice but a labor issue. They understood that while “sweated labor” was scattered across tenement workshops or sent home with workers, it would be impossible to organize shop by shop, so they organized politically and in the community, in ways that hold lessons for today’s gig economy workers. They demanded—decades before the Wages for Housework movement—that labor organizations recognize housework as work and the housewife as part of the working class. And they argued that improving the conditions of women workers (including providing them with birth control) would allow women to marry for love rather than out of economic necessity—or to not marry at all.

* *

Is the “united front of women” possible today, or necessary?

By “united front” Tax means the term as it was used when she first wrote the book in the 1970s, to mean “the coming together of different classes and their organizations (as well as different national and gender groups) for a goal of some magnitude that takes a considerable length of time to achieve.”

Feminism has several fault lines running through it that would seem to make such united fronts difficult, and indeed Tax’s book shows us many ways that those fronts fell apart. One such front is careerism, or as Selma James has acidly put it, “jobs for the girls.” While well-off women could make organizing a priority without needing to get paid, working-class women like Maggie Hinchey, blacklisted for her organizing as a laundry worker, often suffered real consequences and could not turn troublemaking into a career—particularly if their radicalism frightened their rich allies.1

In her introduction to the 2001 edition of The Rising of the women, Tax notes, “Corporate feminists do not need a strong movement. They need strong brand recognition.” These words have if anything gained potency in the years since, the years of Lean In and Hillary Clinton and the girlboss. Surely if there is to be a united front of women, it cannot be the hectoring one pushed on American women in 2016, when we were assured that a victory for Clinton would be a victory for us all. After all, as has been noted so many times since then, 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. Surely, a united front of women still understands that some women have chosen the other side.2

Yet Tax argues that it is neither true that working women inherently need cross-class alliances, nor that “working with middle- class women is a terrible mistake because of the corrupting effect of their petit bourgeois ideas.” Instead, she persuasively writes, “the character of any such alliance depends on a large number of factors: the strength of the labor movement; the influence of the left within it; the left’s support of women’s liberation; the openness of the feminist movement to influence from workers and from the left; and, of course, the political and economic character of the period in general.”

Such alliances can be pushed one way or the other by shifts in the world outside; victories for workers can provoke more opposition from bosses, which leads to fractures within class alliances when some of the well-off choose their class over their gender. This is not, of course, only a problem for feminists. A united front of any type, Tax points out, “always contains the possibility of betrayal, and struggle within it is inevitable.” Where feminism is concerned, it would be a strategic error to concede the movement and the name of feminist to the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world; the result is real harm to real people of any gender.

Feminist struggle has won its greatest gains when the working class as a whole has been strong and moving. Yet it would be a mistake to take from this the idea that a “pure” class struggle can liberate women and destroy the shackles of binary gender without ever mentioning either as a goal. We must, then, guard against the two types of error Tax names: “‘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.”

In our present moment political alliances are shifting, and what political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo calls “class fragments” are realigning.3 The socialist movement, he notes, has always relied to a degree on cross-class solidarity, and today’s far right has attempted to split the industrial working class away from pink- collar service and care workers, to win what it thinks of as male and culturally conservative workers into a coalition with small businesspeople and managers against the head and heart workers of today’s socialist left. To understand these splits a feminist class analysis will be necessary, a study of the way work itself is gendered and valued (or devalued) based upon who does it. The success of today’s cross-class alliances, like those of the Gilded Age feminists, will depend on whose interests are placed at the fore.

Today, we stand at a precipice, beginning to emerge from a pandemic into a more immediate climate crisis. The material foundations of gender as we know it are crumbling, and a backlash is crisscrossing the world, writing abortion bans and transphobia into the law. It is more important than ever, even as we are whipsawed by plural apocalypses, to think strategically and carefully even as we react.

This book can help us to map the rough terrain that lies ahead.

Sarah Jaffe

New Orleans, December 2021

Forty Years Later

In the late seventies, when I wrote The Rising of the Women, most of the US left thought revolution would come via the classical Marxist strategy of building the labor movement until it was strong enough to form its own political party and, through elections, command the heights of government. The anarchist version of this strategy was that the labor movement would gain power through a general strike, not the vote. In both cases, women were but an adjunct to the main protagonist: the (white) male worker whose courage and collective strength would transform society and free us all.

Almost 175 years after the publication of The Communist Manifesto, nothing remotely resembling either scenario has yet taken place in the United States. There have been many attempts to explain why the Marxist model couldn’t be implemented, from the continual availability of new farmland as the frontier extended and indigenous peoples were killed off and expropriated, to the constant flood of new immigrants who could be used to break strikes and the divisive effects of racism in a system founded on slavery. All of these factors distinguished the US economic system from the nineteenth-century English capitalism on which Marx based his paradigm—though, as Cedric Robinson points out, the economies of England and the rest of Europe incorporated slavery from the time of ancient Athens. Robinson believes Marx’s desire to produce elegant theory led to serious oversimplifications. “Fully aware of the constant place women and children held in the workforce,” he writes, “Marx still deemed them so unimportant as a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with slave labor and peasants, into the imagined abyss signified by precapitalist, noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation.”1

As I worked on The Rising of the Women, I too had doubts about the reliability of Marxist revolutionary predictions—partly because the US labor movement had only a fraction of the strength of its UK counterpart, but principally because the theory excluded women and community organizing.2 By 1984, I had lost so much faith in the paradigm that, when I made a speech for Monthly Review, which had published The Rising of the Women, I focused on the socialist tradition’s neglect of women’s organizing:

A pattern of male repression, exclusion, devaluation and just not getting the point runs like a thread through the history of the left. With few important exceptions, left-wing movements have been overwhelmingly led and controlled by men and serviced by women: men making speeches, women making coffee. As a result, our hundred-odd years of socialist history is lopsided, reflecting the ideas, history, and experience of only half the species. Within left-wing organizations, the “woman question,” as Leninists quaintly call it, is commonly treated as a petty-bourgeois diversion from the class struggle, its concerns trivial items to be placed on the bottom of an agenda and skipped for lack of time. Women who try to stimulate discussion of it are normally encouraged to tum their attention to more important matters… The socialist movement has paid the price for such stupidity. Its theory does not accurately describe the world and its practice does not prefigure any future society most of us would want to belong to. No wonder it has reached an impasse. How could a theory and practice based—at best—on the experience of only half the human race possibly be adequate?3

Today I would go farther, possibly even as far as Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned former Marxist guerilla and ideological leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, who said, “The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.”4

Theories about the failure of Marxism in the United States also overlook a crucial aspect of US history: every time a progressive movement became strong enough to cause concern, the state came down on it with a heavy hand, murdering, jailing, blacklisting, and deporting as many leftists as it could find. This happened in the Red Scare following World War I, the McCarthy period, and the attacks during the sixties on the civil rights and antiwar movements, particularly the Black Panthers.

With this history in mind, and in light of the current danger from the extreme right, I believe our strategy for profound social change in the United States must be based not only on the labor movement, but on two other nineteenth-century movements, those of Black people and of feminists, both born in the struggle to abolish slavery. Against a state as powerful as this one, only a united front that bring these movements and labor together will have enough muscle for serious transformation. And time is running out.

The Current Crisis

We are at a turning point in human history. The climate emergency demands that we immediately move from a fossil fuel—based economy to one that is environmentally sustainable. This will require drastic political and economic changes. Nor is the climate crisis the only one we face: by October 2021 the COVID-19 epidemic had already produced over 242 million cases, according to the World Health Organization, and it has not yet run its course. The economic depression resulting from the epidemic is likely to doom millions more to homelessness, hunger, and unemployment.

Climate change, COVID, and the economic slide have put overwhelming stress on a system that had already reached its breaking point. In the last thirty years, global economic integration based on free market ideology has led to obscene wealth for a very few and desperate poverty and uncertainty for most. The decisions that shape today’s world are more often made by transnational corporations than by governments or national elites. Unwilling to relinquish the power they once had, some members of these elites support right-wing politicians whose appeal is based on a toxic brew of racism, fundamentalism, hatred of women and LBGTQ+ people, and paranoia about cultural dilution by migrants. With help from the religious right, a new axis of fascist politicians has come to power, including Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Donald Trump here in the United States.

These politicians, and the right-wing movements behind them, are a danger not only to democracy but to life on earth itself, for their disregard for climate change will make it even more difficult to deal with global warming. Lacking the legitimacy that comes from solving real social problems, they rule by force, fear, and deception, relying on the military, police, and support from fundamentalists and a captive media to contain popular dissent. In order to build their base, they target minorities, migrants, women, and LGBTQ+ people; undermine basic democratic rights like voting, assembly, and freedom of speech; and invoke religion to attack the very idea of universal human rights. Some are open fascists; others are willing to accommodate fascism.

Politicians of the center, who spent the last thirty years cheering market solutions and unrestrained economic growth, were unprepared for the cascade of crises we now face. Their main fix for the problems of late capitalism has been austerity and further shredding of the social safety net; their response to climate change has been slow and inadequate; and too few have fiercely opposed the rise of right-wing movements. They are not strong enough by themselves to turn back the extreme right.

The rise of this new global axis demands a united front against fascism comparable to that of World War II and late-twentieth- century movements in China and Vietnam. These were all led from the left. But the reborn US left is young, and, like a toddler, is still learning to walk.

Its rebirth began with Occupy Wall Street in 2011. That led to the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2015 and 2019, which in turn led to the resurrection of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a mass organization, and the election of new progressive politicians to a host of offices. Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement against police brutality and a racialized justice system, began in 2013 with mass protests against the acquittal of the man who killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. This led to the formation of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of over a hundred abolitionist, anti-capitalist groups, while BLM itself went on to build a national network that protested the murders by police of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others, culminating in the vast mobilization after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

But where is the comparable progressive organization or network focused on women’s issues? It doesn’t exist. This is a problem not just for feminists but for all of us, because the organized strength of women is needed to fight fascism.

Suffrage and the United Front of Women

In The Rising of the Women, I use the term “united front of women” to mean a broad women’s movement of different classes in which socialists must fight for their own political goals without destroying the unity needed to move forward. The suffrage movement in the early part of the twentieth century drew in everyone from millionaire J. P. Morgan’s daughter Anne to socialist union organizer Clara Lemlich. Each faction fought for leadership, but while the Anne Morgans had money and social status on their side, socialist feminists did not even have the full support of the left for women’s suffrage. Anarchists and syndicalists thought the vote was a bourgeois distraction, while some socialist politicians feared that women were so backward they might all vote for capitalist parties.

Still, most progressives saw the vote as a basic democratic right that should be extended to women as well as men. In this period the Socialist Party was large and mass-based and elected many local and state officials; socialist Eugene V. Debs won more than 900,000 votes in the 1912 and 1920 presidential elections. The party’s founding program in 1901 included equal rights for men and women. When it did nothing to put this position into practice, socialist feminists around the country organized local women’s groups. These women were not separatists by choice; they wanted access to the party’s national reach. So, in 1908, they submitted two resolutions to the party convention: one to set up a Women’s National Committee, the other for a women’s suffrage campaign. When both resolutions passed, they set to work. A year later, the party had ten times more female members.

But how were they going to approach the suffrage movement, most of which was anti-labor, anti-immigrant, and racist towards Black women? They had three options: work within existing suffrage organizations as individuals; build socialist suffrage organizations that could participate in the movement alongside mainstream organizations; or form socialist suffrage organizations that would criticize the movement from the sidelines rather than collaborate with the bourgeoisie.

To find out what they did, you will have to read Chapter 7. But these strategic questions confront the left in any united front situation: do you give up your independence to be part of the action, build your own organization and fight for leadership in the broad movement, or stay pure on the sidelines? A mature left is capable of working with liberals without forgetting its objectives or losing its soul. An infantile left is not. But without their own autonomous women’s organizations, left-wing feminists cannot fight for leadership within the united front.

Feminism and the Left

In my preface to the second edition, I painted a picture of the feminist movement in 2001: many sectors, each with its own objectives and style, but still demonstrably part of one movement. Look for feminist organizations today and what do you see?

There’s #Me Too, an unquestionably powerful movement against job-related sexual harassment and assault, with a huge impact. But because it is a campaign, not a membership organization, there is no way for people who support this movement to ensure either consistency or accountability. Then there’s the Women’s March, which started out strong after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016, staging the largest protest in US history: up to a million people in Washington, DC, and between 3 and 5 million people in the United States as a whole. But because it was a campaign originated on Facebook, its governance was up for grabs, and it has had many ups and downs since 2016. Reproductive rights organizations, notably Planned Parenthood, and the reproductive justice movement have been on the front lines against the right-wing religious assault on women since the late seventies. Now, as many states pass laws cutting off access to abortion, spontaneous groups funding women’s travel to abortion clinics have sprung up. All this is well and good. But multi-issue left-feminist organizations are also needed if we are to defeat the right.

The history in this book shows what happens when women rely on progressive groups led by men to do feminist organizing, and the US left today is a long way from grasping feminism, let alone integrating it into a general political program. In 2008, Linda Burnham, an experienced Black left-wing feminist,5 did an in-depth study of US grassroots organizations’ approach to racism and sexism, interviewing leaders of eleven community organizing groups, mostly people of color. She found that while all of them had a structured program to deal with racism, not a single one had anything comparable on sexism.6

Our generation learned about sexism the hard way. One of the igniting events of women’s liberation was the 1969 counter-inaugural rally in Washington, DC, which made the limitations of the antiwar movement extremely clear. When Marilyn Webb and Shulamith Firestone came onstage to read a women’s statement, the predominantly male audience shouted them down, yelling, “Take them off the stage and fuck them!” Dave Dellinger, who was chairing the rally, responded by telling the women to leave the stage. Furious, they went home and started women’s groups.

Women in the Black movement faced similar hostility. Their voices were deliberately excluded from the 1963 March on Washington, and Fran Beal, who fought the sexism she found in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), remembers the pushback she encountered when discussing abortion rights for Black women: “We were called lesbians and dykes. They accused us—this was from the SNCC people—they accused us of dividing the movement. They said, That’s not as important as race.”7

Today, many feminists work inside and often lead unions and left-wing organizations. But their personal feminism cannot transform the overall consciousness of these groups, much less the progressive movement as a whole. Such large-scale transformations in consciousness do not come about merely by women winning over their male colleagues. Autonomous feminist groups are needed to push from the outside at the same time.

The work of the Illinois Women’s Alliance discussed in Chapter 4 and the history of the shirtwaist strike in Chapter 8 show how much can be accomplished by a united front of women with progressive leadership. The story of the Lawrence strike in Chapter 9 shows what more can be done when a strike unites the entire working class at both the union and the community level. And the struggles over socialist suffrage work in Chapter 7 shows what happens to women’s work when the left disregards it, or when its male leaders feel threatened by feminist activism, and the women involved have no independent organization that can keep their issues alive.

Today a large and aggressive right-wing movement is on the attack against feminists, queers, and especially transgender people. At a time when the right is led by angry white men and religious fundamentalists, it is critical for progressives to fight attacks on trans people while strengthening the fight against patriarchy in general. Only by doing both can we build a progressive movement that will fight for all of our rights, not play one group off against another. Everyone in this movement needs to understand gender, patriarchy, racism, and class, and the specific ways they intersect and overlap. In addition, progressive feminists have to build both our own independent organizations and a broad united front of women, and work with and within the left to achieve our common social justice objectives. Unless we can do all these things, and fight climate change at the same time, we will fall short. And failure could mean the end of human life on earth.

Twenty Years Later

The Rising of the Women is about the strategic necessity for and unavoidable difficulty of feminist coalitions, and how these coalitions change according to the character of the period. Twenty years after this book was first published, thirty years after I began to write it, its subject seems clearer and even more important than it did then.

Feminism is not a politically homogeneous movement. No significant popular movement is; all contain differences of interest, affiliation, and belief. Today, when the global women’s movement is stronger than it has ever been, many countries have a national women’s bureau or umbrella organization set up by the government, while others, like the United States, have a cluster of leaders and organizations recognized by the state and the media—we can call these the “official women’s movement,” as the Chinese did at the 1995 U.N. conference in Beijing. While the official women’s movement is important, it is never more than the tip of the iceberg in any period where women’s rights are actually on the agenda. This is because the emancipation of women is so fundamentally challenging to every established order that a broad and diverse mobilization is needed to win even small gains. The women’s movement is therefore a coalition in itself, and it operates in coalition with other movements.

The Rising of the Women focuses on a subsection of the broad coalition that is the women’s movement, a subsection that we can call, in the language of a socialist periodical of the day, “progressive feminism.” The progressive feminists discussed here were trade union activists, industrial unionists, intellectuals; they were socialists, anarchists, and radical feminists of every shade from deep red to pale pink. This book looks at what they believed, the ways they dealt with one another, and the various kinds of arrangements they made with the men who controlled their organizations and the women of means who were their patrons. If The Rising of the Women still has a contribution to make, after twenty years during which many others have dug into the same material, this contribution lies in its complex, detailed approach to such issues of power and its emphasis on strategic question seldom addressed by academics. I wrote it as a way of teaching myself to think strategically about the emancipation of women—an antique phrase which I like to use because it reminds me how far we have come.

By the early 1970s, it had become clear that the women’s liberation movement of which I was a part was too narrow in its social base, too white, and too politically immature to be able to reach its goals. We needed to broaden out and change, and we needed allies who understood things we didn’t. Looking for ways we could become stronger and sink deeper roots into the people, trying to understand how we needed to transform, I zeroed in on the question of coalitions. Studying the long, tortuous progress of the organizations in this book, I learned that the political success of a movement is only partly determined by its members’ hard work, motivation, and intelligence. Other factors, such as the relative strength of conservative and progressive organization and opinion, the state of the economy, and the level of unity among progressive movements, may be even more important. Today these points may seem too obvious to need mention, but history was for me an important corrective to the voluntarism of the 1960s, a time in which many seemed to think that the process of building a more just society could be sped up if they only attended enough meetings.

The ability to think strategically depends on seeing conditions in the present as they are, grasping their potential for transformation, and being able to map a route from the present to the desired future. This requires the intellectual ability and information to make a realistic estimate of a situation; the social sensitivity to observe when it is changing and how; and the imagination to see how one’s own meager strength could become a lever to change it. How does one learn to think this way? It isn’t taught in school. In the early 1970s, as Bread and Roses, my women’s organization, begin to disintegrate, I felt like I was butting my head against a wall; I simply did not know how to think about what we needed to do to keep our movement alive, and neither did anyone else I knew.

Now I realize that economic and social segregation had made it impossible for most women, even activists, to learn how to think strategically. Men who became leaders in business, the military, politics, and social movements learned about strategy, tactics, and long- range planning by building organizations, serving in military campaigns, even leading sports teams. But, until very recently, mostwomen were barred from such fields. Very few of us had the opportunity to accumulate capital or order armies. Centuries of work in subsistence agriculture and handicrafts, caring for children, managing the survival needs of a family, and engaging in low-level mercantile activity or small-scale garment or food production, shaped different habits of thinking that emphasized cultural transmission, frugality, the value of human life, and the importance of human relations.

I wanted to learn what “the boys” knew without losing what I already knew myself. To do so, I turned not only to history but to Marxism.1 By this I mean a systematic way of analyzing history in terms of conflicts between opposing economic forces and the dialectical interplay between culture and economics. Because Marxist dialectics shaped the thinking in The Rising of the Women, some of its language sounds very dated now, particularly the phrase “united front of women,” which I use to describe feminist coalitions. Today the term is probably more distracting than useful; it can be abandoned as long as one understands that the women’s movement itself is a strategic coalition between women of different classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and politics.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, marking the disintegration of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, seemed to signal the triumph of Western capitalism, at least momentarily. These events made Marxist language socially unacceptable. It has been replaced in the academy by the language of social construction; one of the ways this book now sounds peculiar is that it talks about women rather than gender. It remains to be seen whether poststructuralism has anything to offer activists who want to learn how to think strategically.

It is abundantly clear that Marxist thinking and practice had glaring limitations and flaws, not only in countries where Leninists actually ran the state, but even in the United States, where they never had significant power. In fact, one of the subjects of this book is the difficulty U.S. socialists had dealing with women’s issues. But the inhumanities of socialist practice should not lead us to overlook those of capitalist practice; the economic brutality described in The Rising of the Women remains with us today, in the United States and everywhere else that globalization calls the tune. In 1896, the top 1 percent of the U.S. population had 50 percent of the nation’s wealth; today they have 90 percent.2 And historical materialism remains one of the few ways to learn how to think strategically about social change.

One of the main factors determining the success of feminist movements is the strength of other progressive movements at the time, and the degree of overlap between them. The feminist organizers in part II of this book, who built women’s trade unions and the Illinois Women’s Alliance into a powerful coalition between 1886 and 1894, had the support of a strong labor movement led by radicals and the help of a vibrant group of settlement-house reformers; and they were working in the context of a progressive movement that swept John Peter Altgeld into the Illinois governor’s chair in 1892. This was an extremely good environment for feminist organization. (See figure 1.) The group of women at the heart of figure 1 were at the center of all these movements, linking them and overlapping with one another.


Figure 1 : “Chicago Will Be Ours!”

Despite efforts to remain democratic, even this strong coalition could not hold off the forces of conservatism and co-optation (in this case, the American Association of Manufacturers and the Chicago Democratic Party machine) for more than a few years, and eventually split. But their landmark work—the first eight-hour bill, the first strategy to end child labor through compulsory education—was like a prophecy, showing what could he achieved when the labor movement and feminists, radicals and reformers worked together. A similar though by no means identical picture could be drawn of the overlapping movements of the late 1960s, another good moment for feminist organizing.

Part III of the book shows what the same kind of women could and could not achieve twenty years later, in a less favorable environment, when social change movements of all kinds, though still relalively strong and vibrant, were split by political differences. (See figure 2.) A women’s coalition like the one in Chicago, which brought together socialists and syndicalists, trade unionists and settlement workers, sex radicals and temperance workers, was not possible in a period when the mainstream women’s movement had narrowed itself down to the single demand of suffrage and was interested in working women mainly as illustrations of the need for the vote, while the labor movement was split between the “pure-and-simple” trade unionists of the AFL, who had no interest in organizing women, and the syndicalists of the ΓWW, who disdained electoral politics, hoping to bring about a revolution through a general strike. In this context, working-class feminists like Leonora O’Reilly or Clara Lemlich could not bring together the various strands of their politics in any one organization.


Figure 2: Fragmentation

Today the labor movement and the left have shrunk to the point that they would be almost unrecognizable to anyone time-traveling from 1912, while the movement for African American rights that began with W. E. B. DuBois and the Niagara Movement has not only grown enormously, but has inspired social justice movements of other ethnic minorities. (See figure 3.) Like the women’s movement and the environmental movement, these have their official, recognized organizations, but are much larger than the membership of those organizations. And there is an important and growing new movement against globalization, largely labor and student based. Despite these hopeful signs, the picture is one of almost complete fragmentation, with little overlap between movements except in the persons of a few beleaguered and overstretched individuals.


Figure 3: The Present

While projecting a strategy to remedy this situation is beyond the scope of this introduction, a few observations may be permissible to update the questions considered in this book. Because we live in a period of globalization, the coalition that is the women’s movement has today become international, to the point where activists in it have begun to work together on global campaigns and strategies for U.N. conferences. This is an extremely healthy development, as it enables U.S. feminists to learn from women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America like Patricia McFadden, program officer at the Southern African Research Institute for Policy Studies (SARIPS) in Zimbabwe , whose analysis of the tasks facing African feminism is relevant to any discussion of women’s coalitions:

I make a distinction between the women’s movement and the feminist movement. The African women’s movement grew out of women’s activism in the nationalist movements and performs many of its functions as almost a wing of the government, concentrating on social welfare issues because of the need to alleviate the poverty of our people. The African feminist movement is much more on the edge, focussed on individual rights, and frequently under attack as inauthentically African. Feminists need to ally with the women’s movement in order to help it redefine its relationship to the post-colonial state and respond to the new ideas of our civil society groups, in which women are major players, and which emphasize women’s individual rights to land, money, and power.3

In the United States, the position of the feminist movement and the women’s movement is reversed; here it is the feminists, especially the large Washington-based organizations, who see themselves as almost a wing of the government, or at least of the Democratic Party, while the broader if less visible movements of poor women, women in the labor movement, and immigrant women are virtually shut out. What could be more natural in the United States, where class is a dirty secret, race colors every contradiction, and the corporate media assimilate and drain the transformational possibilities from every new idea? Given these attributes, how does a women’s movement deal with the need to unite its scattered forces? Let us take a look at the U.S. women’s movement and see.

Imagine sitting in the upper balcony of Radio City Music Hall, looking at the movement spread out upon the stage. In the center, with big eye-catching organizational banners, are the mainstream feminist groups: NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Feminist Majority. Surrounding them are the issues organizations working on reproductive rights, breast cancer, violence against women; the academic women and policy-oriented feminist think tanks; the business and professional women’s organizations; the religious women of various denominations; and the old-line women’s organizations like the YWCA and the Girl Scouts, who pre-date contemporary feminism but have adapted to it. Pushed to one side, though so numerous they can barely squeeze themselves in, are the feminists active in movements for racial equality and environmental equity and economic rights; movements against globalization, police brutality, and war; trade unions and welfare groups and community organizations. Then there are the U.S.-based international advocacy groups, some secular, some religious, most oriented to a single issue or slice of issues. And last, the progressive feminists of the 1960s along with groups of black feminists, Latina feminists, Asian American feminists, women of color, and LGBT groups.

All these people are potentially part of a vast coalition for the emancipation of women that could work with other movements for social and economic rights. Get out your binoculars; focusing on a few elements in the mix, closer up, may help us identify the barriers to such unity.

Official feminism could be observed at the Feminist Majority Expo in Baltimore, March 28-April 2, 2000,. the purpose of which was to “showcase the power of the feminist Movement, its ideas and vision for the 21st Century!”4 The Expo was an extravaganza with six thousand participants; a feminist trade fair with booths featuring everything from book signings to massage; and a conference with many workshops and four plenaries (on the themes of fighting the right, economic power, political power, and global fundamentalism), not to mention an opening tribute featuring a bevy of heavily scripted celebrities and female Democratic politicians.

The raison d’etre of the event was to assert the women’s movement’s importance to the Democratic Party. “We are setting an agenda in the most powerful country militarily at this presidential election time,” said Ellie Smeal in her keynote address. “We didn’t invite candidates but we are sending them a message.” And what was the message? “Elect more women. Save abortion rights. Pay equity. More women-owned businesses.” Nothing about class or the need for unions. Nothing about poverty. Nothing about race—the obligatory rainbow onstage was belied by the whiteness of the audience and the narrow class perspective of the message.

None of this is news; class and race issues have been problems for the U.S. feminist movement since the 1960s, if not, indeed, since before the Civil War. But the influence of corporate ideology has never been stronger than it is today; this ideology has permeated the mainstream Washington organizations to the point that they could be described as corporate feminists. Corporate feminists assume that what is good for them personally is good for the movement, thus thinking like corporations, who do not build coalitions, but compete for a larger market share.

The Chicago coalition described in part II of this book was based on a perception of common purpose; working women, socialists, club women, and reformers could all unite to achieve goals they shared, in a process that gave all of them something they wanted. Everyone involved in such a coalition has to be willing to make some compromises: to meet in somebody else’s neighborhood, to work with people who make them nervous, to let go of control and negotiate on wording, to share the photo ops. The payoff is a bigger, stronger movement with the kind of ties between groups that can only come from working together. Such a coalition could be built today between women in feminist organizations and women representing community groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations, and environmental groups. But this does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda. Occasionally a mainstream Washington organization will put together a project or call a demonstration, get endorsements from a large list of groups without giving them any real input, and call this a coalition. But, unless it really builds a broader, stronger movement, this is not the kind of coalition I mean; it is, rather, a public relations gimmick by an organization that values hegemony more than diversity.

In the current corporate climate, such narrow choices seem almost inevitable. The mainstream women’s organizations have big budgets to meet, they are looking for visibility that will help them raise money, and most have been utterly shaped by interaction with the state, so their perspective is always: what will help with lobbying, what will help in the next election. Of course building a broad- based, democratic, diverse women’s movement would help with electoral and legislative goals, in the long run. But, even if one could leave aside issues of ego and control, corporate feminists are likely to see efforts to build a broader movement as competing with efforts to build their own organization. After all, soft drink companies do not see themselves as part of a soft drink movement where everyone works together for the good of the industry; they see themselves as competing for brand loyalty and consumer recognition. So do corporate feminists.

The Feminist Majority Expo brought together six thousand feminists, many of them students full of idealism who will shape our movement’s future. This was a stunning achievement in the year 2000 and presented quite an opportunity. Imagine what might have happened if the Feminist Majority had wanted to break new ground and build a broad coalition instead of presenting a “showcase.” What if the organizers had invited women from the Campaign for Economic Human Rights to talk about what it’s like to be a woman on welfare in the U.S. today? What if they had flown in feminists from Belgrade or Baghdad to talk about the effects of U.S. sanctions and bombs, rather than focusing the whole discussion of foreign policy on an easy target like the Taliban? Such discussions of the impact of U.S. domestic and foreign policy would certainly have challenged the beliefs of many in the audience, made them think, and made some uncomfortable. The resulting debate would undoubtedly have flown right outside the parameters of Democratic Party politics. That’s why it didn’t happen. Feel-good conventions, cheerleading for feminism’s past achievements, and playing on people’s fears are safe; open debate and efforts to build a broader, more diverse, women’s movement entail risk.

The same choice to avoid open-ended debate, the same tendency to see the women’s movement as troops to be lined up and told to salute, was demonstrated in the all-out attack made by official feminist leaders on the grassroots presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke. Because these candidates gave serious attention to poverty, war, social justice, and the environment at a time when such issues were being either ignored or travestied by the two main candidates, their campaign was supported by many feminists and other activists. This could have been an opportunity to open up political discussion within the women’s movement about means and ends, feminism and party politics. Instead, Nader-LaDuke supporters were reproached with a vigor normally reserved for mass murderers. A broader, stronger movement with more open debate might be more active, but it wouldn’t be so easy to deliver to the Democratic Party. Corporate feminists do not need a strong movement. They need strong brand name recognition.

If this analysis is correct, mainstream feminist organizations are unlikely to initiate any broad women’s coalition in the near future. Is there anyone else who could do so? In the last ten years, some of the smartest women in the U.S. have put their energies into developing a global feminist agenda that addresses questions of poverty, violence, culture, and education as well as reproductive and legal rights. This agenda could have enormous resonance if it were taken up by American women. Its proponents, a fairly small group of lawyers and researchers and staff members of nonprofits, have helped win astonishing gains for women, particularly in the U.N. program for women’s health and reproductive rights, and in redefining violence against women as a human rights abuse. And they certainly understand coalition politics, having worked in powerful international coalitions to bring about these ends. But, unfortunately, getting a message out to the women of the United States takes a different kind of organization and energy than getting it out in U.N. circles. Most American women don’t even know that a global feminist agenda exists, and its creators are too busy at the U.N. to also take on the task of rebuilding the U.S. women’s movement.

And what about the contemporary equivalents of the early feminist trade unionists in this book, the women active today in labor unions, the poor people’s movement, community organizations, and movements for minority rights and social justice? Could the impetus for a new women’s coalition come from them? The potential is there, but, unfortunately, these activists usually have so few organizational resources and are so overburdened they would find it difficult take on more work than they are doing already. They also have learned that they do not always get treated with respect when they reach out to mainstream feminists. According to Arundata Mittal, codirector of Food First, who works on poverty issues in California, “Many of those affected by welfare reform are white women in the suburbs who want to get out of abusive relationships and can’t because they can’t get welfare. But try to get the feminist groups who work on domestic violence to address this! In California, the mainstream groups don’t even answer our calls for support.”5

Is there any one else who could address coalition-building? ‘What about the radical, visionary women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s? For years, I have heard younger women, especially women of color, say, sure, they are feminists but they wouldn’t touch the feminist movement with a ten-foot pole because it makes them feel invisible and has no concern for their issues. But when I say thebig Washington organizations are not the whole women’s movement, they answer, with absolute justice, “Well, where are the rest of you?” And when I relay this question over to my old friends, they respond, “But look at all we have achieved. Look at the changes in the law. Look how many of us have become doctors, lawyers, professors; look at women’s studies; look at Tide 9! We have changed the way people think about women, about gender, about sexuality. We have brought domestic violence, incest, and child abuse out of the closet; we have made it possible for women to live openly as lesbians. The reason we have no real movement any more is because we have won. We are everywhere!”

We may be everywhere, but to be everywhere is to be nowhere if it means nobody can find you. We did not know how to build and sustain organizations. We rejected the Washington top-down model and had no other models to go on, just dreams of nonhierarchical flow that sounded a lot like what is coming out of the environmental movement today. So, while we changed people’s minds and lives, we built no enduring organizations or institutions that could keep our ideas alive. That task remains.

Of course, we were part of the left and what happened to it, happened to us. The space that had been available in the 1960s and 1970s for volunteer work drastically contracted in the political and economic climate of the 1980s and 1990s, while, at the same time, life became more expensive. Those who had planned to live on peanuts and do movement work for the rest of their lives had to figure out how to make a living. Progressive organizations that wanted to survive had to incorporate, shifting from an unstructured and spontaneous movement style of work, where free labor substituted for resources, to a staff-based style of work which not only cost more but entailed considerable interaction with the state and a corollary pressure towards hierarchical structures.

Like Maggie Hinchey, Leonora O’Reilly, and others in this book, many activists from the 1960s had trouble adapting to these changing political circumstances. And we were growing older; soon we had careers, or at least jobs, and many of us had children. Our personal options seemed to contract along with the movement. But let’s not pretend this was a victory. Our goal thirty years ago was not to enable a few women to get rich working on Wall Street or to sit on their cans for the rest of their lives, talking about theory and calling it practice. We were working for the irreversible emancipation of women all over the world, not to mention the elimination of poverty, racism, and war.

Clearly, such an agenda requires more than one lifetime. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but it necessitates long-range strategic thinking, institution-building, and a means of transmitting ideas and concerns from one generation to another. My cohort of feminists had no access to the experience of earlier generations of radicals and working-class feminists. The repression of the Ỉ95θs had destroyed most of the avenues of historical transmission that normally exist between generations of radicals; that is why I had to go to the archives with my questions about coalitions and movementbuilding—it was very difficult to find older women activists from whom we could learn.

The answers I found in the archives are in this book. But I wouldn’t have found them unless I was also engaged in political practice. Most answers to strategic questions can only be found through years of patient experimentation, using one’s own life as a laboratory, trying to build unity and bring about change, failing, summing up the experience, trying again, looking for opportunities to bridge communities and issues, looking for ways to bring together the feminist movement and the women’s movement so they can nourish and learn from and support one another. This book is meant for those who will take up the task.

The Rising of the Women

To my friend and comrade Sarah Eisenstein, 1946–1978, who learned and knew and cared about the women in this book with as much passion as I do, and in whom political ideas burned like fire. May such fire catch and spread.

As we come marching, marching,

We bring the greater days.

The rising of the women

Means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler—

Ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories:

Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

—James Oppenheim, 1912


Until the development of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s, the most diligent searcher for women in the pages of U.S. labor history could find them only sporadically. They would suddenly appear, only to disappear again like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, leaving just a smile behind. In recent years more attention has been paid to the history of working-class women. At this stage much of the work is still in survey form (necessary when the ground is so unknown) or is focused on particular organizations such as the Women’s Trade Union League.1 Not enough detailed research has yet been done to enable us to develop a solid theoretical understanding of the problems involved in connecting women’s history and labor history. Still less do we have a body of elegant theory on the relationship of the working- class struggle to women’s liberation. This book is an initial attempt to study that relationship at one moment in our history.

It is based on certain presumptions: the labor movement is not the same as the working-class movement as a whole, nor can the history of working-class women be restricted to the history of women in unions. Much work remains before we can develop an accurate sense of the intricate relations between workplace and home, union and community organization, socialist and feminist group, street and kitchen and school and bedroom, as these have occurred in history. The web of connections that bind all these together in the life of one woman can be like a spiderweb, preventing her from moving. Yet when a strong enough wind is blowing, the whole web and all the women in it can be seen to move together, and this is a new kind of movement, a new source of power and connectedness. For women, labor history comes attached to community history and family history and the history of reproduction. It involves not only class consciousness and the consciousness of national oppression, but also sex consciousness.

Unearthing and understanding such a complex history is a collective project, of which this book is only a tiny piece. I am confident that its limitations and omissions, as well as the errors it may contain, will be corrected by others; and if this work provokes such efforts it will have achieved its purpose. Its scope is limited, focusing mainly on organizations in two industrial cities, New York and Chicago, and dealing primarily with questions of political strategy as these were explored by socialists and feminists between the 1880s and World War I. Because black migration from the South did not really get underway on a large scale until after World War I, black women played little part in the organizing discussed here and are therefore underrepresented in this book. Nor was I able to do much more than touch on the personal and sexual concerns of the organizers I dealt with, despite the obvious ways these affect political work. In spite of these limitations, this book will make some of the political practice and strategic questions in our history accessible to those addressing similar problems today, in the hope that past concerns will enliven and broaden present ones.

I worked on this book for ten lean years, between 1969 and 1979, while holding a variety of jobs, doing political organizing, and raising a child. I could never have completed it without the help of a number of people who got me over the hard places in what seemed an endless journey. Sarah Eisenstein, to whom this book is dedicated, played a special role in the evolution of the thinking in it. She shared her own research with me, went over numerous drafts unstintingly, and was invariably precise in her criticisms, refusing to let me get away with sloppiness in thinking or formulation, and preventing me from getting so involved with the activists I was discussing that I forgot the level of consciousness and lack of organization of most women in this period. What rigor of thought there is here owes a lot to Sarah; it would be a better book if she had lived to see it finished, just as the world would be a different place if she were still in it.

Myra Rubin Murray helped me at a stage when I could not see how to move forward; she went over the manuscript in detail, encouraging me to make it true to my own ideas and intelligible to those who do not share them. She and Ann Snitow were its most enthusiastic critics from the first, steadfast in their belief in the usefulness of the project and in my ability to finish it. I could not have done so without them and their sustaining support.

Nor could I have gotten through the numerous rewrites of the book after its first publisher had rejected it without the encouragement of Kris Glen, Ginger Goldner, Ros Petchevsky, Elsa Rassback, and Ellen Ross. The final draft got a thorough going- over and minutely detailed criticisms from Elizabeth Ewen, Ann Snitow, and Sharon Thompson, each of whom spent a great deal of time helping me; their advice was invaluable. Support and practical assistance of various kinds along the way came from Hal Benenson, Temma Kaplan, and Diane Ostrofsky, as well as from my editor Susan Lowes.

In my early years of doing research and discussing women’s history, a number of historians were wonderfully generous in sharing their own research and thinking. Among them were Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, Ellen DuBois, Linda Gordon, Priscilla Long Irons, Robin Jacoby, and Susan Reverby. Rosalyn Baxandall in particular was unfailingly supportive over many years, consistently giving of both her time and her source materials, helping me keep abreast of current work in women’s history at moments when I was spending most of my time on other pursuits.

I used manuscript and research collections at a number of libraries, which are listed in the footnotes. Two librarians were especially helpful: Barbara Haber of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, and Dorothy Swanson of the Tamiment Library, now located at New York University.

To the women’s liberation movement and to the working women of Chicago and New York, past and present, I owe more than I can describe or repay. This book contains only the shadow of what I have learned from them.

—Meredith Tax

May 1980



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!