On March 8, 1950, Claudia Jones—a leading member of the Communist Party of the US—delivered a speech on International Women’s Day, which was subsequently published as the article “International Women’s Day and the struggle for peace.” The next year the US government arrested her and cited this speech as pretext for her incarceration and eventual deportation. Why was this speech so dangerous?
At the height of the Cold War, she confronted US militarism. Facing an employer offensive, she exposed the way the ruling class uses sexism and racism to sharpen exploitation and divide workers. In a labour movement that was slow to move, she highlighted the militancy of rank-and-file women and challenged unions to better reflect women’s demands and women’s leadership. While the CPUSA crumbled under severe state repression and the weight of Stalinist politics, she continued to pioneer an intersectional socialism that intertwined Black liberation, women’s liberation and working class struggle, and challenged her own party to put “triply oppressed” Black women workers at the centre of socialist revolution. More than 70 years later this speech still rings true, and we include excerpts below.
Economic conditions of women workers
Any true assessment of women’s present status in the United States must begin with an evaluation of the effects of the growing economic crisis upon the working women, farm women, workers’ wives, Negro women, women of various national origins. The ruthless Taft-Hartley-employer drive to depress the workers’ wage standards and abolish labour’s right to strike and bargain collectively, as well as the wholesale ouster of Negro workers from many industries, was presaged by the post-war systematic displacement of women from basic industry. While women constituted 36.1 per cent of all workers in 1945, this figure was reduced to 27.6 per cent by 1947. Despite this, there still remains a sizable force of 17 ½ million women workers in industry, approximately three million of whom are organized in the trade unions, the vast majority being still unorganized.
The sparse economic data available show that the burdens of the crisis are increasingly being placed on the backs of women workers, who receive unequal wages, are victims of speed-up and face a sharp challenge to their very right to work. Older women workers are increasingly being penalized in the growing layoffs. Close to 30 per cent of the estimated 6 million unemployed are women workers.
Side by side with this reactionary offensive against their living standards, women workers have increasing economic responsibilities. More than half of these women, as revealed in a survey by the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labour, are economic heads of families. The continued expulsion of women from industry, the growing unemployment of men and youth, as well as the high, monopoly-fixed prices of food and consumer goods generally, are impoverishing the American family and taking a heavy toll on the people’s health.
Impoverishment has hit the farmwomen to an alarming degree. Almost 70 per cent of all farm families earned less than $2000 in 1948, when the growing agricultural crisis was only in its first stage.
Women workers still find a large gap between their wages and those of men doing the same work, while wages of Negro women are particularly depressed below the minimum wage necessary to sustain life.
There are increasing trends toward limited curricula for women students and limited opportunities for women in the professions. Employment trends also show increasing penalization of married women workers who constitute more than half of all working women.
The attempt by employers to foment divisions between men and women workers—to create a “sex antagonism”—is an increasing feature of the offensive to depress the wages of women and the working class in general. Male workers are being told that the dismissal of married women and the “return of women to the kitchen” will lead to an end of unemployment among the male workers. But this whole campaign against “double earning” and for a “return of women to the kitchen” is nothing but a cloak for the reactionary, Taft-Hartley offensive against wages, working conditions and social security benefits, with a view to a wide-scale dumping of workers, male as well as female.
It must be frankly stated that there has been lethargy on the part of progressives in the labour movement in answering and combating this insolent demagogy. It should be pointed out that the German finance capitalists also used this demagogic line prior to the rise of Hitler. By perpetuating the lying slogan that “women’s place is in the home,” monopoly capital seeks to conceal the real source of the problems of all workers.
Consequently this is a question of attacks, not only against the masses of women, but against the working class as a whole. When we deal with the situation of women workers, we do so, not only to protect the most exploited section of the working class, but in order to rally labour-progressives and our own Party for work among the masses of women workers, to lead them into the emerging anti-fascist, anti-war coalition.
Trade unions and women workers
There is every evidence that working women’s militancy is increasing, as evidenced last year in strikes in such industries as electrical, communications, packinghouse and in strikes of teachers and white-collar workers. Have labour-progressives grasped the significance of the vital need for a trade-union programme based on concrete knowledge of the conditions of the woman worker, an understanding of reaction’s attacks on her, economically, politically, socially?
Some Left-progressive unionists are beginning to tackle this problem as a decisive one. In New York District No. 4 of US, splendid initiative was shown by the official establishment of a Women’s Committee. Men and women unionists participate jointly to formulate a programme and to combat the growing unemployment trends, especially the ouster of married women and t heir replacement, at lower wages by young girls from high schools—a trend that affects the wages of all workers. In this union, also, conferences have been held on the problems for the women workers. Similarly, in Illinois, an Armour packinghouse local held a women’s conference with the aim of enhancing the participation of Negro and white women workers; as a result of its educational work and struggle, it succeeded in extending the leave for pregnancy from the previous three-month limit to one year.
But these instances are exceptions and not the rule, and it would be incorrect if we failed to state that attitudes of male supremacy among Left-progressives in unions and elsewhere have contributed to the gross lack of awareness of the need to struggle for women’s demands in the shops and departments. This bourgeois ideology is reflected in the acceptance of the bourgeois attitude of “normal toleration” of women in industry as a “temporary” phenomenon. This dangerous, tenacious ideology must be fought, on the basis of recognition that the dynamics of capitalist society itself means the tearing of women away from the home into industry as a permanent part of the exploited labour force. Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, more than one-hundred years ago exposed the pious hypocrisy of the troubadours of capitalism who composed hymns about the “glorious future” of the family relationship under capitalism, they noted the fact, which many progressives too readily forget, that “by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder…The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (Manifesto of the Communist Party)
The absence of a special vehicle to deal with the problems of women workers in the unions has undoubtedly contributed to dealing with these problems, not as a union question, but solely as a woman’s question. It is of course, both. But it must be tackled as a special union responsibility, with the Communists and progressives boldly in the forefront. In many instances this approach would improve rank-and-file struggles for wage increases, against speed-up and around other concrete demands, and would also win militant unionists for active participation within the emerging rank-and-file movements. In this connection, it is also necessary to examine the just complaints of may women trade unionists, particularly on a shop level, who are concerned over the trend toward fewer elected women officers, and the relegation of women merely to appointed positions, as well as the unnecessary pattern of “all-male organization” union structure on many levels.
This entire question requires that we take into account also the position of the wives of trade unionists.
Indicative of the growing militancy of workers’ wives is the role of miners’ wives, hundreds of whom, Negro and white, recently picked the empty tipples in the mining camps of West Virginia in support of the “no contact, no work” struggle of their fighting husbands, sons and brothers. Similarly, in the longshore trade, during the Local 968 strike in New York, wives of workers, particularly Negro and Italian women, played an outstanding role. Likewise, in Gary and South Chicago, wives of steel-workers issued open letters of support for the miners’ struggle at the steel plant gates, collected food, etc.
Reactionary propaganda is not at all loath to exploit the wrong concepts of many workers’ wives, who, because of political backwardness stemming from household drudgery, lack of political participation, etc, often adopt the view that it is the union, or the progressive movement, that robs them of their men in relation to their own home responsibilities.
Attention to the organization of wives of working men by labour-progressives and Communists therefore becomes an urgent political necessity. And key to avoiding past errors is the enlisting of women themselves, with the support of the men, at the level of their readiness to struggle.
A rich heritage of struggle
Before 1908 and since, American women have made lasting contributions in the struggle for social progress: against slavery and Negro oppression, for equal rights for women and women’s suffrage, against capitalist exploitation, for peace and for Socialism. Special tribute must be paid those heroic women who gave their lives in the struggle for Socialism and freedom: Elsie Smith, Anna Damon, Rose Pastor Stokes, Fanny Sellins, Williana Burroughs and Grace Campbell. In this period of the US monopoly war drive to war and world domination, reaction pays unwilling tribute to the role of Communist women leaders by its deportation delirium. The present-day struggles of progressive and Communist women merge with the traditions and contributions of such great anti-slavery fighters as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, of such military women proletarians as the textile workers of 1848, of such women pioneers as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of such builders of America’s progressive and working class heritages as Kate Richards O’Hare, Mother Jones, Ella Reeve Bloor, Anita Whitney and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
March 8 was designated International Women’s Day by the International Socialist Conference in 1910, upon the initiative of Clara Zetkin, the heroic German Communist leader, who later electrified the world with her brave denunciation of the Nazis in Hitler’s Reichstag in 1933. Already in 1907, Lenin demanded that the woman question be specifically mentioned in Socialist programme because of the special problems, needs and demands of toiling women. Present at the 1910 conference as a representative of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, Lenin strongly supported and urged adoption for the resolution inaugurating International Women’s Day. Thus did the American-initiated March 8 become International Women’s Day.
Following Comrade Foster’s article in Political Affairs, nine Party Conferences on Work Among Women were held with the active participation of district Party leaders. Two major regional schools to train women cadres were held. All all-day conference on Marxism-Leninism and the Woman Question held at the Jefferson School of Social Science last summer was attended by 600 women and men. These developments evidence a thirst for knowledge on Marxist-Leninist teachings on the woman question.
But it must be frankly stated that it is necessary to combat all and sundry male supremacist ideas still pervading the labour and progressive movements and our Party. Uprooting of this ideology, which emanates from the ruling class and is sustained by centuries of myths pertaining to the “biological inferiority” of women, requires a sustained struggle. Failure to recognize the special social disabilities of women under capitalism is one of the chief manifestations of male supremacy. These special forms of oppression particularly affect the working women, the farm women and the triply oppressed Negro women, but, in varying degrees, they help to determine the inferior status of all women in all classes of society.
Progressive and Communist men must become vanguard fighters against male supremacist ideas and for equal rights for women. Too often we observe in the glib talk about women “as allies” but no commensurate effort to combat male supremacy notions which hamper woman’s ability to struggle for peace and security. Too many labour-progressive men, not excluding some Communists, resist the full participation of women, avow bourgeois “equalitarian” notions as regards women, tend to avoid full discussion of the woman question and shunt the problem aside with peremptory decisions. What the promotion of a sound theoretical understanding of this question would achieve for our Party is shown by the initial results of the cadre training schools and seminars on the woman question, many of whose students have begun seriously to tackle male supremacist notions in relation to the major tasks of the movement and in relation to their own attitudes.
The manifestation of bourgeois feminism in the progressive women’s movement and also in our Party is a direct result of the prevalence of male superiority ideas and shows the need for our women comrades to study the Marxist-Leninist teachings on the woman question. According to bourgeois feminism, women’s oppression stems, not from the capitalist system, but from men. Marxist-Leninism, just as it rejects and combats the petty-bourgeois “equalitarianism” fostered by Social-Democracy, so it has nothing in common with the bourgeois idiocy of “the battle of the sexes” or the irrational Freudian “approach” to the woman question. These false ideologies must be combated by women labour-progressives and in the first place by women Communists. Key participants in the fight against these ideologies, and in the fight to enlist the masses of women for the pro-peace struggle, must be the advanced trade-union women and women Communists on all levels of Party leadership. All Communist women must, as Lenin said, “themselves become part of the mass movement,” taking responsibility for the liberation of women.
We must guarantee that women cadres end isolation from the masses of women, by assigning these cadres to tasks of women among women, on a mass and Party basis. The Women’s Commission of the Party must be strengthened. All Party departments and Commissions must deal more consistently with these questions, putting an end to the false concept that work among women represents “second-class citizenship” in our Party. A key responsibility for all Women’s Commissions is increased attention and support to the growing movements of youth.
We must gauge our Party’s work among women by our effectiveness in giving leadership and guidance to our cadres in mass work, with a view to concentrating among working class women and building the Party. To this end, further, working class and Negro women forces need to be promoted in all spheres of Party work and mass activity.
An examination of our work among women is necessary in all Party districts. There is need of Party conferences on the problems of working women and housewives. The good beginnings of examining the long neglected problems of Negro women must become an integral part of the all our future work among women. This arises as an imperative task in the light of the militancy and tenacity of Negro women participating in struggles on all fronts.
Experience shows that a major area of our work should and must be in the field of education, where monopoly reaction and the Roman Catholic hierarchy concentrate in a policy of inculcating militarist, racist, pro-fascist ideology in the minds of our children; of victimizing progressive teachers, of conducting witch-hunts, etc. Where good work has been carried on this sphere, victories have been won, as in the defeat of reactionary legislative measures directed at progressive teachers. In developing struggles to alleviate the frightful conditions of schooling, particularly in Negro, Puerto Rican, Mexican and other working class communities, Communist and progressive women have an important task to perform and an opportunity for developing an exceedingly broad united front for successful endeavor.
By connecting the struggle against the seemingly little issues of crowded schoolrooms, unsanitary conditions, lack of child care facilities, etc, with the issues of reactionary content for teaching—racism, jingoism, etc—the political consciousness of the parent masses can be raised to the understanding of interconnection between the demand for lunch for a hungry child and the demand of the people for economic security; between the campaign for the dismissal of a Negro-hating, anti-Semitic Maw Quinn from the school system and the fight of the people for democratic rights; between the protest against he jingoistic school text and the broad fight for the people for peace.
In keeping with the spirit of International Women’s Day, tremendous tasks fall upon our Party. The mobilization of the masses of Americans, together with the enlisting and activation of women cadres, for heightened struggles for peace and for the special needs of oppressed womanhood, is indispensable to the building and strengthening of the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-war coalition. In working for a stronger peace movement among the women as such, we must draw the masses of women into the impending 1950 election campaign and thereby, on the basis of their experiences in the struggle, help raise their political consciousness to the understanding of the bipartisan demagogy and the hollowness of Truman’s tall promises. Large masses of women can thus be brought to a full break with the two-party system of monopoly capital and to adherence too the third-party movement. In the course of this development, with our Party performing it vanguard task, advanced sections among the working class women will attain the level of Socialist consciousness and will, as recruited Communists, carry on their struggle among the broad masses of women upon the scientific conviction that the final guarantee of peace, bread and freedom, and the full emancipation of subjected womankind, will be achieved only in a Socialist America.
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