ISBN-10:
0801871115
ISBN-13:
9780801871115
Pub. Date:
11/07/2002
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation

Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation

by Kate Weigand

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Overview

Drawing on substantial new research, Red Feminism traces the development of a distinctive Communist strain of American feminism from its troubled beginnings in the 1930s, through its rapid growth in the Congress of American Women during the early years of the Cold War, to its culmination in Communist Party circles of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The author argues persuasively that, despite the devastating effects of anti-Communism and Stalinism on the progressive Left of the 1950s, Communist feminists such as Susan B. Anthony II, Betty Millard, and Eleanor Flexner managed to sustain many important elements of their work into the 1960s, when a new generation took up their cause and built an effective movement for women's liberation. Red Feminism provides a more complex view of the history of the modern women's movement, showing how key Communist activists came to understand gender, sexism, and race as central components of culture, economics, and politics in American society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801871115
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 11/07/2002
Series: Reconfiguring American Political History
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kate Weigand is an archivist at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and teaches courses in U.S. history and women's studies.

Read an Excerpt

Red Feminism

American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation
By Kate Weigand

Johns Hopkins University Press

Copyright © 2002 Kate Weigand
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0801871115


Chapter One


Building Unity amidst Diversity:
Ethnicity, Race, and Gender in the Early Years
of American Communism


The early history of the Communist Party in the United States is complicated and tumultuous and does not, on the surface, appear to suggest an environment likely to generate activism around the issues of ethnic identity, race, or gender. Starting in 1919, when U.S. Communists severed their ties with the more moderate Socialist Party, competing groups engaged in intense and frequent sectarian battles over a variety of issues, each attempting to win official and exclusive recognition and legitimacy from the highest Communist authority, the Soviet-led international Communist Party, or Comintern. Even after the rival factions finally merged in 1922, they continued to wage internecine war with one another. These struggles, combined with the effects of the red scare of the 1920s, drove the infant Communist movement underground, reduced its original membership by more than half, and limited its ability to carry out "mass work." Given such circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that any Communist--whatever his or her stance on revolutionary ideology and strategy--could consider any issue beyond short-term survival.

Despite their preoccupation with the pressing question of how to sustain and build a revolutionary movement within the world's preeminent capitalist nation, American Communists could not ignore the issues of ethnicity and race in the 1920s and 1930s. On the contrary, Communists' desire to build an effective and unified Party in the increasingly multicultural United States compelled them to pay close attention to these issues. The lessons Communists learned from their early work toward resolving the Party's ethnic and racial conflicts influenced their later strategies for liberating oppressed groups. Specifically, CP leaders became increasingly aware throughout the twenties and thirties that some members held chauvinistic beliefs about others and that the oppressive attitudes and behaviors of even a few individual Communists could hinder the whole group's efforts to create a working model of ethnic and racial integration. This knowledge, combined with a large influx of women members late in the 1930s, built the foundation for Communists' eventual approach to gender issues. Their regard for the "woman question" in the 1920s was minimal and tokenistic compared with their attention to the "ethnic question" and the "Negro question," but by the late 1930s Communists began using the lessons they had learned from their campaigns against ethnic fragmentation and racism between 1919 and 1936 to make gender issues a more central part of their program. This activity, flawed though it was, laid important groundwork for the pioneering "women's work" they would undertake after World War II.


1919-1929

During the CP's formative years ethnicity was the root of both solidarity and cleavage among Communists. Certainly native-born Americans participated in both the Socialist Party and the Communist factions that emerged from it. But because immigrants were more likely than the native-born to embrace radical politics in the 1920s, foreign-born and often non-English-speaking members dominated many of the early Communist groups, including the Workers' Communist Party and its successor the CPUSA. Until 1925 the CP's local divisions consisted of language federations that united those who shared the same ethnicity, language, and political outlook. In addition to serving as local governing units, the federations also worked to maintain important elements of each one's particular ethnic, social, and cultural practices by sponsoring choral and theatrical groups, dances, clubhouses, and language schools for children.

As early as 1919 Communists' disagreements with one another often broke down along ethnic lines. The Russian federation, for example, wanted to emulate Bolshevism as closely as possible; Russian emigres saw themselves as the natural leaders of the Communist movement in the United States. The Finnish federation, on the other hand, promoted consumer cooperatives as a primary weapon in the class struggle. Native-born American Communists saw a slow and cautious takeover of indigenous working-class institutions such as the American Federation of Labor as the best way to achieve an American Communist state.

After the creation of the newly unified organization called the Workers Communist Party in 1922, rival Communists' disagreements continued to focus around these ethnic divisions and ultimately boiled down to three related issues: First, ethnic factions disagreed about the means by which an American Communist Party could most effectively work toward a Bolshevik-style revolution in the hostile atmosphere of the United States. Second, they argued over who was in the best position--Americans, who were most familiar with the U.S. political situation, or Russians, who saw themselves as the natural champions of Bolshevism--to lead a unified American Communist Party. Third, and most important, there was considerable debate over whether every member of the American CP needed to unite around an identical theoretical and practical approach to Communism, regardless of his or her ethnic identity and political traditions. In other words, the primary question was whether or not it was acceptable--even desirable for the sake of recruiting and retaining members--to permit the CP's ethnic divisions or language federations to retain their various identities and practices and the assorted approaches to Communism that came with them?

Communists were divided by their positions on these complex issues and by the ethnic allegiances and traditions that shaped their diverse cultures and organizing contexts. Throughout the first half of the 1920s Communists in the United States could not agree on either a theoretical approach to revolution-building or a plan for mass action. In 1925, with American Communists still unable to resolve these sectarian problems by themselves, the Communist international stepped in and directed the American CP to accept a new policy it called Bolshevization as the solution. From 1925 to 1928 the American CP adopted Bolshevization by defining ethnic solidarity among Communists as an impediment to Party unity and reorganizing itself to duplicate the structure of the Soviet Communist Party. The Party's new Central Committee stripped the language federations of their autonomy and reorganized them into multiethnic street- and shop-based units that brought together Communists who lived in the same neighborhoods or worked in the same factories. Because Communists who spoke many different languages comprised these new units, the CP implemented a policy they called Americanization to work hand-in-hand with Bolshevization. That process required immigrant Communists to learn English and cooperate with members from other ethnic backgrounds, whether they wanted to or not.

The joint processes of Bolshevization and Americanization discouraged ethnic insularity, but predictably they did not immediately make the Communist Party a more effective force in the United States. In the short term, Americanization and Bolshevization weakened the movement by driving many ethnic groups out of the Party and limiting its ability to recruit members in immigrant working-class communities. Ethnic radicals who found the Communist Party appealing before 1925 frequently regarded it as confused and misled afterwards. Italians, Finns, and Jews, among others, left Bolshevized and Americanized Communism in large numbers and retreated into the radical community institutions they found familiar. In early 1925 CP membership stood at 16,325 and by October of that year the Party counted only 7,213 members. Between 1927 and 1930 membership rebounded somewhat but remained about one-third smaller than in the early 1920s, averaging between 9,000 and 10,000 members.

Bolshevization eroded the American CP's membership in the short run, but by the end of the decade the policy actually strengthened the CP considerably because it unified the organization's leadership and ended the worst of Communists' political and cultural infighting. Furthermore, the newly Bolshevized CP increased its appeal to African Americans in this period. As long as the language federations, many of which had a well-deserved reputation for exclusivity and racism, dominated the Communist Party, it was difficult for the few African Americans who had joined the Party in the 1920s to recruit others. With Bolshevization and Americanization, however, not only did the language federations lose power, but the new Soviet-influenced leadership asserted that African Americans constituted an oppressed nation within the United States and confirmed that "Negro rights" should be a major component of the CPUSA's agenda. In 1928 the American Communist Party adopted a resolution, commonly known as the Black Belt theory, which declared that African Americans had the right to self-determination in the southern states, where they formed a majority. Though somewhat convoluted and ambiguous, these new policies made it clear that "Negro work" was one of the major priorities of American Communism. Consequently, by 1929 the U.S. Communist Party had successfully recruited several hundred black members and made a solid commitment to training black leaders.

Bolshevization, which discouraged white ethnic exclusivity, along with the Black Belt theory, which emphasized the vital importance of black struggle, attracted increasing numbers of African Americans to the Communist Party, but the two policies in tandem also created considerable tension among Communists in cities such as Chicago and New York, where a significant percentage of the membership was black. Since slavery African Americans had frequently formed their own religious and cultural organizations, separate from whites, and they did not, as a group, usually work toward either physical or cultural assimilation. Historically, black churches, schools, and fraternal institutions were a source of strength for African American community organizing. Because the Bolshevization policy discouraged ethnic solidarity, however, the Communist Party had to direct African Americans away from black organizations--even though Communists emphasized the concept of black nationhood--and into integrated Party units. Integration was not an easy matter for African Americans, in part because of their long tradition of separate organizing. Certainly the legacy of residential, religious, educational, and social segregation in the United States meant that whites found integration difficult as well. Despite what were often their best intentions, cultural differences and the damage done by years of myths and stereotypes on both sides made mixed-race events perplexing and awkward for nearly everyone involved. Not surprisingly prospective African American Communists distrusted the motives of whites, and white Communists often resented blacks and frequently evaded the Party's directives to fight for Negro rights.

Despite these challenges, CP leaders upheld their commitment to interracial organizing in Party branches and soon expanded it by announcing that "the closest association of the white with the Negro comrades in social life inside and outside the Party is imperative." Several instances of white hostility toward black members in social settings and much generalized confusion about how far whites were supposed to go in making black members feel comfortable soon compelled CP leaders to initiate a campaign to combat racism at the individual level as well as in society at large. They began with a "thorough educational campaign ... to stamp out all forms of antagonism, or even indifference among our white comrades towards Negro work" and, soon afterwards, launched a second campaign of self-criticism and discussion intended to help Communists stamp out white chauvinism "branch and root."

As larger numbers of African Americans began to join in Party activities and racial conflicts persisted, black and white CP officials joined together to rethink their earlier approach. According to the historian Mark Solomon, in 1930, after much debate and discussion, leading Communists rejected the assumption that white chauvinism grew simply from white ignorance and refuted the idea that it could be remedied with education alone. Their new approach to the Negro question redefined white chauvinism as a manifestation of ruling-class ideology that "polluted the white workers in America" and prevented the interracial unity that was necessary to achieve a revolutionary social transformation. In other words, they fully embraced the notion that white chauvinism impeded the interests of both white and black workers, that it betrayed revolutionary theory and practice by advancing the interests of the class enemy, and that it must be purged from the Party's ranks. In December 1930 black Party leader Ben Amis wrote in the Daily Worker that any Communist guilty of chauvinist behavior would be exposed in the Party press, placed on trial, and "ruthlessly prosecuted" before integrated workers' courts. The Party actually made good on this threat more than once in this period. In Seattle, Washington, for example, "several comrades who objected to the presence of Negro workers at Party dances were expelled," and the CP Central Committee then intervened and expelled twelve more who had opposed the expulsion of the original group.

The anti-white chauvinism campaigns, which grew out of the earlier policies of Bolshevization and Americanization, effectively politicized African Americans' personal experiences, personalized race politics for many white Communists, and led the American Communist Party to adopt a more complicated explanation of racial oppression than the one offered by a strict class-based analysis. Communists became aware, in other words, that personal attitudes and behaviors had political origins and consequences and that Communists had to struggle to enact their political values at the personal level. This insight set in motion changes that would ultimately make it possible for radical women to emulate African American Communists and to organize on their own behalf. Nevertheless, organizing by women for women did not happen immediately. During most of the 1920s the CPUSA's record on women's issues was far from stellar. Although numerous women who had been militant feminists in the 1910s joined the emerging Communist movement in the 1920s, the Party did very little to organize women and its female memberships remained quite small.

The CP's neglect of the woman question in the 1920s undoubtedly reflected the decline of feminist activism in the United States after suffrage, but other factors also shaped Communists' indifference to women's issues. Marxist classics such as The Communist Manifesto, Engels's Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, August Bebel's Women and Socialism, and Lenin's Women and Society justified Communists' tendency to make gender secondary to class by defining women's oppression as an economic phenomenon reversible only through socialist revolution. Intense sectarianism and the persistent strength of traditional notions about proper male and female roles among American Communists also limited the U.S. Communist Party's ability to articulate feminist positions early on. In 1922, when the Communist International urged all Communist parties to set up women's departments and to argue for the incorporation of women into public life and the socialization of household tasks, the American CP complied only minimally. It adopted the position that women should be allowed to participate fully in the workforce and politics but abandoned support for the reorganization of the private sphere. Furthermore, though it followed orders and established a Women's Bureau, the Party gave the new department no power to create a program for women's liberation or put one into practice. Not until the mid-1930s would Communists even begin to think about the woman question in earnest.


1929-1939

The 1930s was a decade of dramatic changes for the Communist Party. By 1929 the Party had finally resolved many of the conflicts that had divided and weakened it during its first ten years, built a membership of approximately 18,000, and organized many of its important internal institutions such as its newspaper, the Daily Worker. When the Great Depression began in the same year, the CPUSA found itself in a good position to begin recruiting thousands of workers and intellectuals who were losing confidence in capitalism. By 1934 the CPUSA had grown to more than 26,000 members and included such intellectual luminaries as John Dos Passos, Sidney Hook, Matthew Josephson, Granville Hicks, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and Lincoln Steffens.

As white ethnic influence in the CP declined and ethnic conflicts lost their intensity over the course of the 1930s, race and gender issues took on increasing importance. Race, in particular, moved to the forefront of American Communists' agenda as more African Americans joined the CPUSA and integrated a larger number of previously all-white Party units and events. In the early 1930s Communist leaders intensified the campaign against "white chauvinism" and prosecuted white rank-and-filers in several high-profile cases for "serving the capitalists and endangering the Communist Party" by exhibiting racist attitudes and behavior. This continuing commitment to fighting racism at the individual level, combined with the Communists' heroic efforts in Scottsboro to defend the nine black men sentenced to death for the alleged rape of a white woman and to organize the interracial Sharecroopers Union in Alabama, won the CP a great deal of credibility in black communities in the North and the South. By the mid-1930s African Americans constituted about 9 percent of the CPUSA's total membership. Many others who never joined the Party still supported it as the only predominantly white organization in the United States with a genuine interest in racial equality.

From 1935 to 1939 the CPUSA joined the Russian and European Communist parties in adopting the Popular Front against fascism as its new strategy for organizing. As a part of the Popular Front strategy, Communists backed away from the pursuit of sweeping revolution, emphasized democracy, and embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and other more typically American forms of political activity, including electoral politics. These developments, in turn, made it possible for the CP to attract large numbers of new members and to attain a wide following in many sectors of American life. By the later 1930s the CP "provided national, regional and local leadership to many important industrial unions as well as liberal, student and cultural organizations," and "Communists and 'fellow travelers' served as a dynamic wedge of radicalism within the dominant New Deal liberalism." Because of the success of Popular Front recruiting efforts in the late 1930s, the CP emerged as the core of a mass progressive movement that provided leadership to diverse activist efforts, including union organizing and eviction protests in the North, civil rights struggles in Harlem and in the South, and the Spanish Civil War in Europe.

In the period of the Popular Front, Communists sought to enter the political mainstream by deemphasizing revolution, declaring that "Communism is twentieth-century Americanism," and joining with Socialists and liberals to fight for the New Deal and other progressive reforms. The Popular Front also brought the emergence of a new and more fundamentally American approach to organizing African Americans. The new policy that the Party announced along with the Popular Front in 1935 rejected the CP's earlier view of black religious and fraternal organizations as "agents of the bourgeoisie" and proposed instead that Communists should work within such black organizations to build support for Communist programs. The recognition that they could not just replace African American cultural traditions and organizations with Communist ones was more respectful of black history and culture and made it possible for the CP to expand its sphere of influence in the black community and to increase its black membership even more significantly. Instead of focusing primarily on recruiting black workers, the new approach induced Communists to consider middle-class intellectual and professional African Americans as potential comrades as well. Most important, however, this policy recognized that, despite Communists' acceptance of Bolshevization, there was some value in permitting black members to work within black organizations. Separate organizing by one group, Communist leaders conceded, did not always interfere with Party unity. In this case African Americans could maintain race solidarity and work for black liberation and still not lose sight of the larger issues of class exploitation and Communist revolution.

At the same time that Communists encouraged African Americans to begin working within black organizations, the high percentage of black unemployment during the depression also induced Communists to move away from their strict emphasis on union and workplace issues and to turn their energies toward the domestic realm. By the middle of the 1930s black and white Communists alike focused a great deal of effort on campaigns for lower rents and prices and equal access for African Americans to relief programs and public housing. Communists also developed a new commitment to promoting African American history and culture in books, theatrical performances, and music. This work consolidated the CP's position as one of the foremost organizations working for civil rights in the United States before World War II.

The depression and the emergence of the Popular Front transformed the CPUSA's position on the Negro question. These developments also revolutionized the Party's approach to organizing women in some of the same ways. The CP's new emphasis on the broad social and economic problems of the working class meant that the Party could no longer dismiss domestic issues as irrelevant to the class struggle. Consequently, in the early 1930s the Communist Party actively encouraged rank-and-file women's efforts to organize women's councils and neighborhood committees and by 1936 the number of women in the CP had increased to 25 percent. By the end of the decade women composed between 30 and 40 percent of the CP's rapidly increasing membership, and they participated in a limited way in both national and local Party leadership, wrote for party publications, organized and joined workplace and neighborhood struggles, and pushed the Communist Party to take their problems more seriously.

In part because of the larger number of women participating in Communist activities in the mid-1930s, the CP was considerably more committed to women's issues than it had been in the 1920s. During the Popular Front period the Central Committee finally empowered the previously non-operative CP Women's Commission to centralize planning and supervision of Communist women's work and increased the circulation of its progressive women's magazine from 2,000 to 7,000. It also supported women's access to free and legal birth control and abortion and urged women to challenge male domination in the workplace.

Furthermore, as Communists had begun to reach out to professional and intellectual African American political activists in this period, they also began to make alliances with middle-class professional and intellectual women. The CP had long opposed the Equal Rights Amendment first proposed in 1923 by the National Woman's Party on the grounds that by stressing the total sameness and equality of women and men it threatened the hard-won protective legislation that codified essentialist notions of women's difference from men and prevented employers from requiring women to work excessively long hours and during the night. This opposition had proved a barrier to the recruitment of middle-class and professional women who, because they did not benefit from protective laws, were more likely to support the ERA. In 1936 Communist and other progressive women decided to try to strike a compromise between middle- and working-class women by endorsing a new proposal they called the Woman's Charter, which proposed to codify women's equality in every area of life and to recognize gender differences and the need to shield working women from the most exploitative employer practices. Finally, as they did with African Americans, Communist leaders began to recognize that women could organize as women and still fully support the CP's larger goals.

Despite these gains, however, the CP still resisted change in some areas of women's work. For although the Popular Front strategy forced Communists to take women more seriously, in practice the Party's desire to appeal to the masses in the late 1930s limited its will to oppose traditional gender arrangements in the family and in society at large. This became especially clear when some of the most radical women in the Communist Party such as the pioneering Communist feminist Mary Inman followed African American Communists' opposition to white chauvinism and denounced "male chauvinism" in Party ranks and in their own families and relationships. Instead of responding with extensive educational campaigns or male chauvinism trials, like the white chauvinism trials of the 1920s and the early 1930s, many Communist men still dismissed women's complaints and called the protesters "bourgeois feminists." Similarly, when progressive women declared that cultural as well as economic factors contributed to women's oppression, they often met with resistance from the upper levels of Party leadership. By the end of the 1930s the Communist Party had 55,000 members, approximately 22,000 of whom were women. But, although it supported women's liberation in theory, the CP still would not, in this period, fully embrace a practical program for resisting male chauvinism in the family, in Party settings, or in American society at large.


1939-1945

Except for the brief period between August 1939, when Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact, and June 1941, when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R., American Communists continued during the first half of the 1940s to pursue the Popular Front strategies of embracing reformist politics and portraying themselves as regular and patriotic American citizens. The Nazi-Soviet pact had an understandably negative effect on Communist organizing, particularly among African Americans, many of whom joined the Party in the 1930s because of its strong antifascist and antiimperialist orientation. Between late 1939 and mid-1941 the CP lost many black members and allies, including such prominent activists as A. Philip Randolph, who later excluded Communists from his March on Washington movement, the most important civil rights event of the 1940s.

The Communist Party's return to Popular Front tactics in June 1941 rebuilt its political base. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Party had 65,000 members, about 10 percent of whom were African Americans. Although the CP's national chairman, Earl Browder, did away with the Black Belt theory during World War II, the CP continued to pay significant attention to civil rights and racism, and its recruitment drives among African Americans were even more successful than they had been before the war. In 1943, for example, the Daily Worker reported that African Americans were joining the Party in "growing numbers": 44 out of 94 new recruits in Michigan, 14 out of 34 in Maryland, 8 out of 52 in Wisconsin, and 8 out of 64 in New England were African Americans. Later that year, after a recruiting competition between the Upper Harlem and the Chicago Southside sections of the Party, the Upper Harlem branch reported that it had recruited five hundred members in the spring alone. By the end of World War II, when race issues began to supersede class issues in national politics, the American Communist Party already had a long history of concern for and attention to the problems of African Americans in both the South and the North. When civil rights emerged as a highly visible national movement in the 1950s, numerous black and white activists with ties to the Communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s helped to chart its course.

For women active in the Communist movement, the World War II years, like the 1930s, were simultaneously progressive and regressive. As the wartime mobilization of men into the armed forces created labor shortages in traditionally male-dominated industries, progressive women accompanied their more mainstream counterparts into the industrial workforce. Similarly, as thousands of progressive men left the country to fight in Europe and Japan, Communists and other progressive women also moved into the leadership positions of many Left organizations, including state and local Communist Party clubs. By 1943, women finally achieved numerical parity with men in the organization.

Despite those gains in all sectors of the Party, however, the Popular Front emphasis on appealing to mainstream America still prevented the CP from expanding its conception of women's oppression to include cultural and personal factors. At the same time that women gained more influence in the CP leadership, national Communist Party leaders instructed their supporters to work within the mainstream political system to assist the United States in its fight against fascism. This strong belief in the need for a united American front led the Party as a whole to abandon temporarily many of its radical demands and to support such wartime policies as the no-strike pledge for American labor.

In 1944 CP National Chairman Earl Browder decided that an oppositional political party was no longer necessary. Deepening the Communist commitment to Popular Front politics, Browder took reformism to the next level by dissolving the Communist Party USA and replacing it with the explicitly nonrevolutionary Communist Political Association. Although Communists maintained a theoretical commitment to gender equality throughout the war years, women leaders emphasized the issues of women's oppression and women's liberation far less between 1940 and 1945 than they had during the late 1930s. Even those Communist women who had been most dedicated to women's issues in the 1930s put their efforts on hold. Instead of working to broaden women's roles in the progressive movement and in society at large, Communist women, like many women working with more conventional organizations, focused on fighting fascism by organizing neighborhood scrap-metal drives, volunteering for the Red Cross, working in munitions plants, and demanding federally funded nurseries for children of working mothers.

In late 1945, following the Allied powers' victory in Europe and Asia, the context for Communist and progressive activism began to shift dramatically once again. In the immediate postwar period national liberation struggles erupted in Africa and Asia, Communists and other leftists gained political influence all over Europe, American workers launched an unprecedented strike wave, and U.S. president Harry Truman proposed a program of reforms that included national health insurance and civil rights for African Americans. In part because of the opportunities for revolutionary change the postwar environment seemed to offer Communists around the world in 1945, the Comintern engineered the expulsion of the Party's Popular Front leader Earl Browder and condemned his support for reformist politics.

When the new Party chairman, William Z. Foster, reconstituted the CPUSA in 1945, American Communists resumed public criticism of the Party's position on the woman question. Citing women's vital contributions to the Allied victory, progressive women began organizing to take advantage of the widespread political upheaval that characterized the immediate postwar period and returned to the gender-based struggles they had set aside in 1940. Between 1946, when the Communist Party began to lend its support to progressive women's attempts to organize independently, and 1956, when Kruschev's revelations about the crimes of Stalin finally destroyed what little was left of the Communist Party's mass base after years of anticommunist intimidation, Communist women and their allies did their most important work on the woman question. Using the Party's approach to African Americans and racism as a model, they revived much of the analysis of women's oppression originated by Communist Mary Inman in her book In Woman's Defense, published in 1940, and, through their new women's organization, the Congress of American Women, strengthened and refined their earlier efforts. By engaging in separate women's organizing, theorizing about the role of culture in women's oppression, and protesting against male chauvinism in both personal and political settings, progressive women forced the Communist Party to rethink its narrowly economic understanding of women's oppression, to clarify the relationship of gender oppression to race and class oppression, and to acknowledge that women's so-called personal problems had political solutions. Much more than the Communist Party's problematic position on the woman question in the 1930s, these activities sustained the U.S. women's movement through the doldrums of the McCarthy era and laid vital practical and theoretical groundwork for the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Continues...


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What People are Saying About This

Marvin E. Gettleman

Weigand's staggeringly extensive research draws from previously unused sources, including the U.S. Communist press and the letters published therein on feminism. Red Feminism will become a classic work at the intersection of radical, feminist, and African-American history.

Marvin E. Gettleman, Brooklyn Polytechnic University

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