Part I

The United Front of Women

Earning a living away from home and often independently of the men of her family she acquired self-reliance and took a personal interest in the problem of existence. Working side by side with man and performing the same labor she came to resent his attitude of superiority. New thoughts entered her mind, a new sentiment found its way into her heart—the movement for women’s freedom came to life…. The phenomenon became evident almost simultaneously in all countries where the change of economic conditions changed woman’s position in society, where the dawn of the Industrial Revolution made possible the realization of equal rights and equal opportunities for man and woman.

Theresa Malkiel

Women and Freedom (1915)1

To a turn-of-the-century Marxist like Theresa Malkiel, it was a truism that the modern struggle for women’s liberation was born of the same economic developments that produced the class struggle: as women began to work outside the home, they learned to resent their condition of domestic servitude and to demand the same rights as the men of their class. In the future, socialism would liberate both men and women, and if the feminist movement could only be made to see its true interests, it too would work for socialism.

Despite these certainties, it was hard for many women radicals, including Malkiel, to be content to talk about a future revolution when all around them masses of women were moving in pursuit of other, more immediate goals. A largely middle-class feminist movement was mobilizing to fight for the vote and for social equality in general; at the same time millions of immigrant women were being drawn into industry, where their exploitation was ferocious. How could they be organized—and for what? Should they be brought into the feminist movement or organized with male workers or both? Did the oppression of women cross economic lines, or was the only significant category that of class?

Then as now, there was a range of answers to these questions, for the problem of unity among women of different classes troubled women as much in the early part of the century as it does today. Those farthest to the left, especially the anarchists and the Industrial Workers of the World, tended to view the feminist movement with deep distrust. As Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW’s main female leader, remarked with disgust in 1915; “The ‘queen in the parlor’ has no interest in common with ‘the maid in the kitchen.’ … The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of man, is a hollow sham to labor. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality loom the sinister outlines of the class war.”2

Reformers like Alice Henry of the Women’s Trade Union League took the opposite point of view: loving cooperation between middle-class feminists and working girls would enable the latter to organize and thus transform industry: “If the whole burden of remedying unfair industrial inequalities is left to the oppressed social group, we have the crude and primitive method of revolution. To this the only alternative is for the whole community through cooperative action to undertake the removal of industrial wrongs and the placing of industry on a basis just and fair to the worker.”3

The problem of unity among women is more complex than it seemed to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn or Alice Henry in that alliances across class lines have sometimes worked for and sometimes against the long-term political interests of working women. In the Illinois Woman’s Alliance, a coalition active in Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s, the left-wing and labor forces were strong, united, and able to take the initiative, and the middle-class women’s organizations followed their lead. On this basis, the Alliance quickly won remarkable reforms. The Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1903, was organized under different historical circumstances and came under the hegemony of middle-class reformers; its politics, organizational style, and achievements were therefore different from those of the Alliance.

People concerned about organizing working women today cite the example of the Women’s Trade Union League to prove conflicting hypotheses; that the only way working women can organize is with the help of cross-class alliances, or that working with middle-class women is a terrible mistake because of the corrupting effect of their petit bourgeois ideas. Neither point of view is fully historical, for 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. A strategy for women’s liberation at any particular time must take such variables into account.

When I began the research for this book, I did not understand this and hoped to find a strategy that could be used to solve the problems of our own movement. I knew that there had been a strong and radical labor movement, a very substantial socialist movement, and an enormous feminist movement before World War I, and I wondered how they were related. I began to accumulate material on women in unions, on the private lives of various organizers, on their sex habits, on theories of the oppression of women, on the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, the Women’s Trade Union League, the American Federation of Labor, household technology, and any number of other things. Although the material was interesting, it had no shape; and when I tried to let the facts speak for themselves, they were as inscrutable as an oracle, open to many interpretations. As my own politics developed, I pushed the facts one way, pulled another, trying to see what they meant.

Gradually a shape—a theme—emerged from the clay. It did not really even have a name. I have called it the “united front of women,” by which I mean the alliance, recurring through time in various forms, of women in the socialist movement, the labor movement, the national liberation movements, and the feminist movement. I am using the term united front not in the catchall sense of the 1930s, but as it is used currently, particularly in the Third World, to describe 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. Most reform movements in the United States have been united fronts. The abolitionist movement brought together men and women from all nationalities and class backgrounds. The woman suffrage movement was a united front of men and women, blacks and whites, the wives of capitalists and professionals, farm women, self-employed professional women, trade union women, and intellectuals. It included women of every racial and national background, family arrangement, sexual preference, and political persuasion; there were bourgeois feminists, radical feminists, and socialist feminists (though none of these terms were in vogue at the time), as well as Marxists and temperance advocates.

The united front of women has been a frequent phenomenon in the history of the organization of working women in the United States: the work of Chicago women which culminated in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance; the 1909 general strike of shirtwaist makers in New York City, which organized most of the trade into the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; and, on a much more limited scale, the Women’s Trade Union League, are all examples. The Lawrence strike of 1912, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, was a different sort of united front of women, one that demonstrated the strength that can come from deliberately building connections between workplace and community, between workers, housewives, and children.

A united front differs from a “coalition” which, as the word is generally used, means a coming together of various organizations for a limited end, such as a piece of legislation, an election, or a demonstration. It also differs from an “autonomous women’s movement,” as conceptualized during our period, although there are many points of overlap. For one thing, most of the socialist women discussed here did not see themselves as part of an autonomous movement, but as part of more than one movement—the human links between the feminist movement, the labor movement, and the socialist movement. They knew there was a dialectical relationship between the movement for women’s liberation and the labor movement, and refused to give up either; while this choice often led to personal difficulties, it gave these women a historical importance that has not been sufficiently recognized. They did not think it desirable to organize women in a way that would further cut them off from other social movements; on the contrary, they felt a need to struggle against the separation and compartmentalization that already existed. Yes, they wanted to organize women to fight for their own liberation, and they wanted to do the reform work for women that other movements had neglected. But they also wanted to integrate the women they were organizing into the general struggle for socialism so that they could play an equal part in that fight.

Much Marxist history and theory has tended to treat the working class as if it included only men. When women are discussed, it is as workers, in the same terms as men only with more pity, or as “reserves” that must be mobilized on the side of the working class lest they go over to the enemy. When working men act against their own class interests, it is the result of unfortunate historical circumstances; when women do, it is their “backwardness.” As history moves along and women play a more obvious, even glaring, role in it, they are given a little more space in history books. But it is never their own space, seen in terms of their own struggles and perceptions. They are always an adjunct to the main struggle.

Despite this, much Marxist history contains an accurate vision of what has happened to working-class men as they have been affected by changes in their economic and social life. Once we know as much about what has happened to working-class women as their very different lives become caught up in the same developments, we will be able to write the history of the whole class. In this history women will have a continuous, not sporadic or occasional, existence. And, as others have pointed out,4 we should not expect that the rhythm of women’s history will be that of men’s any more than the character of work inside the home is identical to that outside it. The years when there were bread riots or struggles over public education—both led by women—were not necessarily the same as the years when there were mass strikes in basic industry—led by men. The early years of a depression, for instance, with rising unemployment, are seldom ones of great industrial strife, but they often show increased activism in working- class communities, expressed in food boycotts or battles against evictions. If we look only at the workplace, or only at men, when writing the history of the working class, we will find only one kind of militancy.

But when the experience of women is integrated into history, some Marxist issues become more complicated. An example is the theory of how working-class organization and consciousness develop. This theory is—very roughly and generally—as follows: with the formation of the industrial working class or proletariat, workers begin to struggle against their employers, first in the factory, then in the trade or locality. “They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workmen of the Middle Ages.”5 Industry develops further and the workers become concentrated in larger factories. They begin to form unions, which grow powerful enough to affect wages and working conditions and even to lead mass strikes. The workers become aware that they are not fighting their employers alone, that they are fighting the whole class of employers, which has at its disposal the entire state apparatus with its law courts, police forces, and armies. The struggle becomes one of the working class against the bourgeoisie; it becomes a political as well as an economic struggle.

Through the unions or through the development of a labor party, the working class will then try to influence the bourgeois political process, to get its own legislation passed, its own supporters elected. According to classical Marxist theory, at this stage the working class cannot do much more. It cannot possibly gain control over the bourgeois political process, but in order to understand this, the working class needs Marxism—scientific socialist theory which sums up the international experience of the struggle between classes. When the workers grasp socialist theory, they transform it into a living force; only then can they organize a party capable of leading a revolution and overthrowing bourgeois rule.

In the period between 1880 and World War I, parts of this process seemed to have begun in the United States. Workers had formed unions and Marxists were active in them, trying to link the workers’ economic needs with their political ones. But the process was different for women than for men. Even though some of the earliest concentrations of industrial workers were among women employed in the New England textile mills, substantial numbers of women did not enter industry until after the Civil War. It takes time for new workers to see themselves as members of a class, and by the time women were ready to do so, men were already organized into craft unions in most of the industries where women worked.

Thus the history of worker organization and of the development of class consciousness was different for women. Rather than entering industry side by side with men, women entered a situation in which male workers had an organization but seldom extended its benefits to their sisters. In fact, because they viewed women as competitors who undercut their wages, many trade unionists preferred to leave them unorganized, hoping this would drive them back into the home where they belonged.

Women had to approach the established unions as suppliants, knocking on the door and asking to be let in. Working men did not accept them as equal partners in the class struggle, because the socially caused differences in their situations made them unequal. Women were hired because their need was so desperate that they would work for less than men: their wages were depressed; their working conditions were horrible; their jobs were increasingly sex-segregated. They did not earn enough to pay high union dues. Many of them were young girls working only until they got married. Those who were married had to rush home to their “other” job and seldom had the time to attend union meetings, which were in any case held in saloons where “nice girls” didn’t go. The differences in the lives of men and women outside the workplace reinforced and were used to justify unequal treatment within it.

But if the men who guarded the doors to the labor movement did not always ask them in, working women found support from other sources. From the 1880s until after World War I efforts to organize women came less from the mainstream of the labor movement than from a series of united front efforts by socialists and feminists. The first comprehensive history of women in U.S. trade unions, written in 1911 by John B. Andrews and W. D. P. Bliss as part of a government survey of the working conditions of women and children, noted with some uneasiness that the organizational history of working women was strikingly different from that of working men because of such united fronts:

The women’s unions, moreover, to a much greater degree than those of the men, have been developed and influenced by leadership from without the ranks of the wage-earner. This external leadership has often furnished elements of weakness to the pure trade-union movement among women, but it has also furnished necessary support as unselfish and inspiring as can be found anywhere in the annals of the development of our industrial or political democracy.

External leadership has often been necessary in furnishing initial direction and financial support. It has frequently induced and sustained the movement until a growing sense of independence and an understanding of personal rights enabled the women wage- earners to act together on their own account. On the other hand, external leadership has often worked injury to the trade-union women by drawing them away from plans for immediate advantages, to the consideration of more remote and less tangible schemes for universal reform.6

In other words, socialism. To a pronounced extent the history of the organizing efforts in this book is a history of the work of socialists of one kind or another.

There were three basic types of socialist in this period, and from 1901 on all of them coexisted inside the same organization, the Socialist Party. The first type often called themselves “Christian socialists”; they would be called utopian socialists today. They believed the cooperative commonwealth would come to pass through peaceful efforts to build class harmony and human brotherhood. They were fond of communal experiments and producer or consumer cooperatives, and saw class conflict as something to be avoided if possible. Leonora O’Reilly of the Women’s Trade Union League was a socialist of this type, preaching that the world should be run by labor because “labor is the law of life”—sooner or later, everyone would work and be as brothers and sisters to one another.

The second type were reform socialists or social-democrats, as they would be termed now. They called themselves “constructive socialists,” to distinguish themselves from those on their left whom they called “impossibilists.” While they saw the world in terms of fundamental class conflict rather than the brotherhood of man, they believed this conflict could be peacefully resolved by building a working-class political party that would gain in electoral strength until it finally swept the country. At that point the victorious working-class movement would vote in socialism and nationalize industry, thus eliminating the power of the bourgeoisie. Most reform socialists saw trade unions as an important step in this process: unions would help develop a class-conscious proletariat capable of voting in its own interests. Even more than unions, however, they emphasized educational and electoral work, particularly at a municipal level, where their policies became known as “sewer socialism” because of their emphasis on sanitation and city services. Many of the labor members of the Women’s Trade Union League were reform socialists.

The third type called themselves “revolutionary socialists” or “red socialists,” as opposed to those on their right, whom they called “yellow socialists.” They believed that class conflict could not be resolved through elections, and that the revolution would be brought about through militant industrial unionism and the use of the general strike—though this might be combined with socialist political action as a minor theme. Many revolutionary socialists belonged to the Socialist Party but looked to the Industrial Workers of the World for leadership. They were more associated with sex experimentation, birth control propaganda, and cultural radicalism than were the other socialists.

A small but significant percentage of all three types was female. An estimate made in 1912 by the editor of Progressive Woman, a socialist woman’s magazine, put the female membership of the Socialist Party at 10 percent.7 Considering the limited participation of women in the work force at the time, most of these were probably housewives rather than industrial workers. This was equally true of earlier socialist organizations and is hardly surprising: the only working-class women with the time for political activity were unmarried working women who lived at home (where their mothers took care of their cooking, cleaning, and laundry) or married women whose children were grown and whose husbands supported their political work.

The participation of housewives in the socialist movement is worth stressing because of the persistent idea that housewives are “backward,” possibly the most backward sector of the working class, and that socialist organizers should therefore concentrate on wage-earning women. In fact most activist housewives had at one time worked for wages, and they were particularly able to sense the needs of the working class as a whole, rather than the narrower needs of workers in one industry. The largely untold history of women’s auxiliaries in the mines and other basic industries, and of the numerous militant working-class consumer revolts, bears witness to the fact that housewives can be anything but “backward.”8

Socialist housewives, settlement workers, and the left wing of the feminist movement were the main allies of working women in the period between the 1880s and World War I. Their support could not make up for the general lack of help from the labor movement, however; there were so many obstacles to the organization of working women that it took the combined forces of the united front of women and organized labor to make it possible. In the exceptional cases where such help was forthcoming—Chicago in the 1880s, the 1909 shirtwaist makers’ strike in New York—working women got up enough steam to crash through the barriers to union organization, at least for a time. It is no coincidence that these were also situations in which the local labor movement had left-wing leadership.

The united front of women—the alliance of socialists, feminists, and trade unionists—was therefore a major factor in giving working women the social muscle necessary to organize into trade unions in this period. But its success depended on the strength of the labor movement as a whole, the strength of socialists within it, and how progressive the feminist movement was. Above all, the united front’s ability to organize working women depended on who led it—what class and with what kind of politics. When the working-class and left forces were strong, when they had deep enough roots among the people to be able to organize women without the help of the middle class, and when they were clear about what they were trying to achieve, they were able to lead the whole united front of women and build vital links between women’s struggles at work and in the community. This was the case in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance. But when the working-class and left forces were weak, they lost leadership to those who dissolved the class contradiction in a middle-class version of sisterhood or who elevated certain individual working-class women into a miniature version of the labor aristocracy. This is what happened in the Women’s Trade Union League. In neither case was the question one of working-class “purity” versus cross-class “sisterhood.” The important question was which class was dominant in ideas, organization, and energy, and could therefore lead the rest.

The Illinois Woman’s Alliance was formed at a time when the labor movement in Chicago was strong; it was led by a handful of women from the Socialist Labor Party, with ten and twenty years of industrial and political experience behind them. They were able to unite every significant women’s organization in Chicago with the city federation of trade unions, and to bring about enormous political changes—a child labor law, a compulsory education bill, a factory inspection act, the construction of new school buildings and public baths. They even campaigned against police victimization of prostitutes.

By the time the Women’s Trade Union League was underway, however, conditions were very different. The labor movement was deeply divided: the IWW, its left wing, had split off from the craft unions in the American Federation of Labor, and the AFL was led by men who had little interest in organizing women. The working-class and left-wing women in the League were not seasoned organizers—some were only teenage girls. They did not see the problems inherent in their situation clearly and were unable to give overall ideological or programmatic leadership in such complex circumstances. Middle-class members were thus able to implement their own ideas of how a women’s labor movement should be led and by whom. They had great influence, not only in their emphasis on legislation as opposed to organizing, but in fostering a small but significant female leadership elite comparable in politics if not in power to the men who led the AFL.

Of course by World War I the stakes were higher than they had been in the 1880s and 1890s. Significant numbers of women were working outside the home. The U.S. working class as a whole was larger, better organized, and more powerful. The economy had been transformed: U.S. capitalism had entered the stage of monopoly concentration and would soon embark on its second imperialist war. From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, it began to make more sense to find ways to control and assimilate the labor movement developing among women than to drive it to insurgency by trying to stifle it. Far better that the AFL, which worked docilely with the government throughout the war, be the source of leadership for working women-not the socialists or feminists. But if working women were to be assimilated to the “pure-and-simple” antipolitical unionism of the AFL, the left-wing components of the united front of women had to be isolated and eliminated. This happened during the war. While the leaders of the mainstream suffrage movement and the Women’s Trade Union League became part of the government to help the war effort, radical feminists chained themselves to the White House fence and were jailed; pacifist women protested the war and were ostracized; and IWW members and socialists who actively opposed the war were persecuted, jailed, and even killed. A postwar government campaign of arrests and deportations further isolated the left. At the same time, the issues of protective legislation and the Equal Rights Amendment divided socialists and radical feminists from one another. The united front of women lay in fragments with a split between its left and its feminist parts, and both divided from labor.

The development of the united front of women in the 1880s, the contradictions that emerged inside it, and its eventual fragmentation are of interest to anyone who wants to develop a strategy for organizing women today. The particulars of our situation differ from the earlier history in many respects—including the recent development of the national liberation struggles in the Third World and the United States; the splits in the international socialist movement; and the far-reaching changes in women’s lives, such as the development of scientific birth control and the enormous increase in the number of working women. Still, while it would be folly to overlook the momentous differences between 1880 and 1980, understanding the complexities of organizing women in another period in the United States should enable us to better grasp the many-sided nature of our own task.

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