For Confronting the Pitfalls of Female Solidarity: Read This
By R.H. Lossin
During the late 19th and early 20th century, women demanded the franchise, organized as workers, advocated for birth control and educational equality, and experimented with collective living arrangements. Women, as Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out, are extremely difficult to organize as women because their interests—as members of a race or economic class or, more intimately, as wives—often lie elsewhere. In The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 Meredith Tax traces the ways in which women of different social classes attempted, with varying degrees of success, to collaborate during a period marked by extreme violence and social upheaval on many fronts.
In 1913, the famed I.W.W. orator and organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn remarked that the “the queen in the parlor has no interest in common with the maid in the kitchen.” Alice Henry, a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, suggested that collaboration between women of different classes—the organization of women as women—was essential for the ‘uplift’ of the industrial poor as well as the increased political liberty of upper and middle class ladies. Displaying her own class politics Henry argued that “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…cooperative action to undertake the removal of industrial wrongs.”
Tax argues that “problem of unity among women is more complex than it seemed” to either Flynn or Henry and that “alliances across class lines have sometimes worked for and sometimes against the long-term political interests of working women.” The Rising of the Women offers a narrative of these failures and successes during a period representing the high water mark of both progressive reform movements and radical labor activity. It is also the moment when women took to the streets in large numbers to demand full inclusion in politics by way of the vote. Thus radical revolutionary politics eschewing the ballot box directly confronted one of the most important gains that women have made as a political class.
By tracing the history of women’s struggles as women alongside the struggles of women as workers, Tax corrects the received liberal wisdom of an Anglo-American Feminism claiming that increased access to the corridors of power—be that voting or C.E.O. status—is a sufficient basis for women’s emancipation. At the same time, reading working class history in the context of women’s organizing on a number of fronts, not only corrects the Marxist tendency to view women “as adjuncts to the main struggle,” but reveals the variety of ways that women’s interests differed from their male counterparts and exposes overlooked models of organizing and instances of militancy.
“When the experience of women is integrated into history, some Marxist issues become more complicated. An example is the theory of how working-class organizations and consciousness develop.” According to Tax, because of the relatively late date that women entered the workforce, and the time it takes in a typical Marxist model for workers to recognize themselves as a class, by the time women began to see themselves in terms of their common interest as workers, men were already organized. Thus, “women entered a situation in which male workers had an organization but seldom extended its benefits to their sisters. In fact, they viewed women as competitors.”
Because women were pitted against established organized labor, and because much of women’s work was still unwaged labor in the home, organizing working class women occurred on substantially different terrain. Finding no allies in traditional trade unions, women formed other partnerships. “Socialist housewives, settlement workers, and the left wing of the feminist movement were the main allies of working women between the period of the 1880s and World War I.” During this time, a high-point in the power and unity of the left this ‘united front of women’ was able to mobilize large numbers of people and forge important links between working women and the larger community.
By the time World War I ended, however, the labor movement was divided and the left significantly weakened. Thus middle class women began setting the agenda of the Women’s Trade Union League—emphasizing reform over organizing and fostering a female leadership class. This was no small thing, but it was hardly a revolutionary or even inclusive model. And it did nothing to structurally undermine the fundamental causes of women’s—especially poor women’s—marginalization.
Tax details the strikes, settlement houses, women’s suffrage campaigns, and a range of reform efforts in order to show how women negotiated their differences and did, in fact, make significant progress. However, it is difficult not to conclude that the Alice Henrys won. Feminism does not occur in a vacuum. Something made abundantly clear by the Sheryl Sandbergs and Hillary Clintons of the moment. When the left wing is weak, and a centrist, liberal politics in the ascendant, women’s movements follow suit. Tax’s book is important reading for the era of “lean in” feminism because it offers working historical examples of collectivism and modes of organizing that push against a definition of feminism hemmed in by liberal individualism. And it shows that organizing across classes—actually succeeding in organizing women as women—is more likely when middle-class sensibilities are largely absent. It also demonstrates that, despite assumptions concerning the incompatibility of workers’ interests and women’s interests and the entrenched misogyny of many unions, women have never been ‘adjuncts’ to historical change.