Offshoots of Liberalism—Feminism
by Albert Weisbord
We cannot leave the subject of Liberalism without analyzing at least two connected subsidiary movements, namely, feminism and pacifism. In this chapter we shall deal with feminism.
In the narrow sense of the term, feminism is a movement striving for equal political and social rights for women. The movement developed around the question of women suffrage but took in also many other problems, such as equal protection of the law, equal rights to property, equal opportunity for education, better marriage relationship and the right to engage in professions, etc. In its broader sense, feminism means more than mere political and social equality with men; but it is designed to further the potentialities of womanhood to their highest point.
Human history, as far as we know, starts out, in the period of primitive communism of the savage and the lower barbarian, with placing woman in an exceptional favored position. This is the period of the matriarchate where women were deified in religion and controlled the major portion of the social life of the tribe or gens.
The reasons for this superior position of women are not hard to find. Dominated by nature, rather than controlling it, mankind in those days recognized at every step the unbreakable umbilical cord which tied him to mother earth. In the labor process which constituted his reaction to nature, to wring from it the things he needed and desired, it was not the means of production that he knew how to manage, since his instruments were as yet very poor. Only one productive factor remained distinctly within his control; that was labor itself. Women were important, therefore, as producers of labor, generators of life. In his struggle against nature, mankind turned to the technique of the rabbit to make up with large numbers of progeny and mass fertility what he lacked in mechanical technique. Only thus could the race be preserved from the dangerous vicissitudes of the struggle for existence that exacted such a heavy toll of life under primitive conditions. Women were worshipped, then, as mothers, not as women, as generators of life, much as the sun was worshipped for the same reason.
The researches of Morgan and others have amply shown that sex life was principally a matter of mating and fecundity. It was for this reason too, that at first the two sexes indiscriminately intermingled. Gradually, bans were established between fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons; later came the bans preventing brothers and sisters from sexual intercourse. With the appearance of private property, sex regulations took on not merely a negative character but a positive one, marriage implying not so much a negation of promiscuity, a prohibition taken for granted, as signifying the creation of an important social status with its burdens and obligations. Laws of fertility on the one hand, and such mores as infanticide, patricide, cannibalism and other forms of destruction of the human members of the tribe, on the other, eloquently testify to the bitter struggle merely to survive in primitive society. Under such primitive conditions there could be no thought of individual love as idealized by the Liberal.
As society emerged to higher levels with the domestication of animals and the development of the rudiments of agriculture, productivity was developed sufficiently to permit the labor of one person to support more than himself. From this time on slavery was possible and private property is in evidence. Simultaneously society evolved from a period where war was practically unknown to a period of incessant warfare. As mans control over the means of production grew, the necessity to produce large numbers of offspring in order to survive became lessened. Under these new circumstances women, physically weaker and inferior in the use of arms and at the same time no longer so much needed for the survival of the race, was reduced to the position of a piece of property and became a slave to the male head of the family. Matriarchy changed to patriarchy; the worship of woman as the source of fertility changed to the worship of the phallus.
In this period, so well demonstrated in the ancient societies of Rome and of Greece, women as well as children were held important chiefly because they now labored as slaves and they could reproduce more slaves, that is, further elements of property. Here, too, the Liberal’s ideal of individual love was unknown. The child may be mated to another in mere infancy. The will of the father and head of the household was in all cases completely decisive. Marriage was a family affair entirely, just as before it was a tribal affair.
The formation of the city-state in ancient society, coincident with the growth of trade and money, gave new desires to that portion of society released from care by the labor of the slaves. Supported by the luxury loving master class, certain women, the heterae, were able to rise far above the average and to give a glamorous foretaste of the intellectual possibilities of womanhood. It was under the stimulus of the heterae that art and poetry and science were developed in classic Greece.
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The breakdown of ancient slave society and the substitution of feudalism placed new conditions upon women. The incessant warfare for landed property in which the stronger mercilessly beat down the weaker and rendered the latter serfs placed the women, who had just emerged from the equality and superior status of the primitive communism of the barbarian tribes, in a particularly inferior position. With brutal physical force as a preponderant element of ethics, one could enlarge one’s standing only through conquest or amalgamation of family connections.
Among the upper classes in feudalism, concatenated with the transmission of property only through the male line, women’s rights were completely merged with those of the husband and father, women becoming perpetual wards and infants. However, with the breaking down of feudalism and the beginnings of trade, property was allowed to be willed; women were able to inherit realty as well as personalty. Because of the growing influence of women as holders of property and vast landed estates, because marriage to certain women in dominating families was the way to consolidation of estates and even kingdoms and thus was the course to develop political economy, the women of the upper class became endowed with specially privileged positions, and the age of chivalry was inaugurated. Marriage and love, however, were still strictly “state affairs” and had very little to do with ideals of Liberalism. Modern individual love begins with adultery under feudalism.
The Catholic Church itself opened the way for women to important positions. The convents in the Middle Ages were not only feudal castles, but also colleges and industrial establishments. In these convents women not infrequently ruled as abbesses, not only in purely female institutions, but even in mixed convents, as in Whitby in England, Fontaeburt in France, Wadstena in Switzerland, etc.
As for the serf, he wanted a woman not from the point of view of beauty or even goodness, but from the point of view of physical endurance and fertility. Essentially, this remains the point of view of the farmer even of today. The average farm cannot be worked by one person, or even two, effectively. It can be worked only by a family, and it is the women’s job to produce and take care of that family. It is this that demands that every farmer get a wife for himself at the risk of economic failure. Under feudalism, the serf needed the permission of the lord to marry; and since marriage had nothing necessarily to do with love, and since its stability, on the other hand, was vital to land tenure, it was no wonder that the moral code of the times as expressed by the Catholic Church permitted no divorce for any reason whatever.
It was only with the rise of capitalism that women began to play an important political role in society. With the development of cities, of commerce and finance, of art and science and luxury, a wealthy class emerged which transferred its activities from outdoors to indoors, and substituted the palatial mansion for the rough feudal castle. If the feudalists still lived in the realm of rude necessity, the capitalists dwelt in the kingdom of luxury. Immovable real property made way for movable personal property. The affluence and influence of the ruling classes were now demonstrated not by the amount of lands possessed but by the amount of luxury that could be lavished on the home. Women, as the leading factor in the home, rise in importance. The wealth of the husband was put to use in the adornment of the wife. The ladies of the day were called upon to exaggerate precisely those secondary sexual characteristics which distinguish them from the male, and to nurse carefully all the traits that the approbation of the day considered beautiful. The women of the wealthy moneyed class had the leisure to act their parts and to become veritable objects of art.
As the wealthy city patricians struggled for power in the State, their palatial mansions were turned into political salons where it was the women who presided and graciously dominated the scene. Among the upper classes, therefore, a considerable number of women were enabled to develop their capacities to an exceedingly high level. “When the lady reached her heyday of supremacy in the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, her class gave to the world many women of marked intellectual power and of special gifts in many lines.” (*1) Carried away with the feminist enthusiasm of the times, a Cornelius Agrippa, soldier and scholar, can write a book of thirty chapters on “The Superior Excellence of Women Over Men”, or a Peter Paul Ribera can publish “The Immortal Triumphs and Heroic Enterprise of 845 Women”, etc.
It is only in this period of the Renaissance that modern individual love advanced. Among the wealthy classes, women were no longer needed merely as laborers or slaves or as producers of children. They now became not a means to an end, but an end and object of affection in and of themselves.
The period of the Reformation, coinciding roughly with the transformation of money into capital through the rise of the factory system, witnessed a further change in the position of women. Slowly but surely the woman was being dragged into the factory to work side by side with the men. Gangs of mixed men and women would be sent out in the countryside as agricultural laborers. The systematic education which women had been able to obtain in certain convents disappeared with the suppression of religious orders. The protection of women, of the weak and helpless, which theoretically had been under the care of the Church, now broke down. In the cities, too, a new type of relationship appeared with the storekeepers wife and helper who pooled her little property with that of her husband and who toiled from early to late together with him. Thus the old subdivision of labor between men and women was being broken down and a certain equalization established.
The period of the Reformation laid the basis for a theory of individualism. The extreme Protestant sects, such as the Quakers, who had decided that God resides in the bosom of each person, could not deny that women too was a person and that God equally resided in her. So, among the Quakers, women were allowed to have equal rights with men in being the embodiment of the holiness of God and having the power to preach. The Quakers were destined to take a leading part in the Liberal feminist movement that sprung up later. However, even among the Quakers in the United States it was not until 1878 that they voted full equality to their women in managing property of the Society. (*2)
The struggle of the capitalists against the old order forced them into the rationale in which they expounded as fundamental the doctrine of the inalienable Rights of Man which he possessed as a human and which no one could take away. These theories could easily be embraced by the awakening of self-conscious women and become the basis for a Declaration of the Rights of Women.
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The industrial revolution came down like an avalanche to destroy the home. The Renaissance had witnessed the establishment of the home in the cities, the modern industrial capitalism began to break it up. Before the industrial revolution, women had played an important independent position in the prevailing social subdivision of labor. In their own field they were expert handicraftsmen. On the farm, where the family was a unit of production, the woman not only had to breed and rear her children, but had to spin and dye the yarn, weave the cloth, sew the clothes, knit the socks, make the carpets, take care of the garden, make and preserve the food, cure the meat, do the milking, churn the butter, make the cheese, manufacture the candles, etc.
The industrial revolution had terrific consequences on these home crafts, destroying them completely. Hitherto, the independent farmer and family unit had been able to subsist because of two factors: first, the use of the common lands in the village and town, and second, the existence of home industries under the control of the women. These two factors were now eliminated. The common lands were seized by the lords and ruling groups of the towns, villages and burroughs. Home industry went next under the batterings of factory machine production. Thus was the independence of the yeoman and farmer destroyed and the home broken up. Later on the women were to lose their ability not only to make clothes but to cook. No further excuse could now exist for the maintenance of the old family as the social unit.
The introduction of machinery did away with all the old crafts which hitherto the men had monopolized in the factory. With the new machinery, women and children poured into the factories, at first, to meet the growing demands for goods, later, to displace the men from their jobs.
This new situation meant a terrific dislocation of the old social relations. The former mutual aid associations were broken up. Machinery deprived the craftsmen of their former standards of living. A new and far more helpless group, the women and children, dominated the working force of many factories. The pay of the men was reduced so that often the whole family received what he alone used to get before.
The entrance of women into industry made men take a different attitude towards women. No longer to the same extent the household slave of the husband, subject to his full control over her material circumstances and her life, she first appeared as a menace to the craftsmen whose job had been taken away. At the start, the organizations of the workers tried to adopt a policy of driving the women out of employment. In the United States, for example, at the Convention of the National Trades Union in 1836 a report was submitted on women labor declaring it an injury to women and a competitive menace to men, and urging laws prohibiting female labor. (*3) In 1850 the printers, hotel workers, shoe makers and tailors organizations took steps to rid themselves of the competition of women. Section 17 of the Constitution of the Journeymen Cordwainers Union provided that no women should be allowed to work in any of the shops controlled by the Union, “except she be a members wife or daughter.” (*4)
However, the old craftsmen could as little stop the influx of women into industry as they could stop the introduction of machinery. After the Civil War it became clear in the United States that women was in industry to stay. By 1867 the Labor Congress declared that in many trades women were qualified to fill the same positions formally occupied by men and demanded that they should get the same pay. The Convention of the National Labor Union in 1868 recognized the right of working men to strike and the necessity for their organization. The Knights of Labor welcomed women, some trade assemblies being entirely composed of women, one local assembly having fifteen hundred such members. Thus, in order to save their standards and preserve their own solidarity, the unions were forced to take women into their ranks and to treat them as equal in every respect. It is in the labor movement that political and social equality becomes first clearly practiced.
The industrial revolution provided the material circumstances and social conditions compelling the formation of a regular feminist movement. With the breaking up of home life, the woman was released from the idiocy of the kitchen, from the cow-like status of nursing children. She was now forced to enter into a new world of experiences, to stand on her own feet and to take care of herself. This meant a broadening of the character of women and an increase of her financial and material independence. Thus now, in contracting the marriage relation, more and more women of all classes could insist on being loved in their own right and not as a means to some other end. The same applied to the man. Not the family, nor the State, nor the feudal lord, nor the tribe could dictate any further women’s choice; this choice was now her own.
It must not be imagined that the life of the working woman is a rosy one under capitalism. Far from it. The host of factory laws that were enacted testify most eloquently to the ferocious exploitation in the factory and the degraded life in the slums that, unprecedented in history is woman’s lot even today.
Nor have the horrors of the new life by any means overthrown the burdens of the old. The married woman has the triple burden of the home cares and child-bearing as well as factory work. What awful consequences to society does capitalist progress entail!
With the new division of labor set up in one section of the country, regions predominantly male (mining towns, lumber camps, etc.) arise; in other parts “female towns” (textile, etc.) appear. Thus the old harmonious relations between men and women in society are completely shattered. In other places capitalist pressure becomes too great to maintain the structure of the family. Mass abandonment of responsibilities of family life occurs even more frequently on the part of the male. The female cannot abdicate so easily and is generally left “holding the bag.” Such action is stimulated by the turmoil of periodic unemployment and compulsory immigration so commonplace in our civilization.
This situation is particularly true among Negroes in the United States. The Negro woman is frequently the actual head of the family. Incidentally, this has tended to breed in her a great strength and ability to take care of herself that is quaintly illustrated in homicide statistics. “Negro women, it seems, are far more frequently slain with firearms than are white women. This may be because Negro women are more likely to injure or slay their assailants. Anyone, then, who plans to attack a Negro woman will prefer to use a firearm in order to avoid risk of a successful counter-attack.” (*5)
Such general conditions, as well as the helpless position of the women laboring population in the factory, have led to widespread prostitution, vice, adultery, etc. the old moral life is gone, no longer to return. Women are left to shift for themselves. Among the workers, Liberal individual love tends to turn into Radical free love. Among the bourgeois, marriage tends to be followed quickly by divorce. The love nest becomes a psychopathic ward. Here is the finest flower of industrialist individualism.
It may be said that America was the cradle of the Women’s Rights Movement as a mass political organization. It is true that under the spur of the French Revolution there had already appeared both in England and in Germany books dealing with the discrimination against women and calling for equal rights for women. In 1792 in England, Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of William Godwin, put out her book on “Vindication of the Rights of Women". In Germany, in the same year, Theodore von Hippel wrote his treatise on “The Civil Improvement of Women". But these books did not give rise to any organized movement. They were rather the individual expressions of the deep seated social transformations then taking place.
It is also true that in the French Revolution women played an extremely important role. The Liberals like Condorcet and Madam Roland came out for the equal treatment of women and there was even presented to the National Assembly a Declaration of the Rights of Women on behalf of the women’s clubs organized in France. However, this special women’s movement was, but momentary and did not sufficiently reflect the material conditions of agrarian France. If the women fought in the French Revolution—and fight most heroically they did—it was simply to protect their homes and lives and not for special feminist demands. When a revolutionary movement becomes deep-seated enough to threaten the breakup of the home, when civil war is the order of the day and members of the family are ranged up each against the other, house against house, street against street, village against village, under such circumstances women are naturally going to fight and, when once aroused, they can fight far more furiously than the men. None the less, their struggles are, after all, struggles of their class rather than of their sex.
In America, however, circumstances converged to precipitate earlier than elsewhere a definitely organized political movement of feminism. After all, where else was woman treated more nearly equally than in America; where else had she been forced to stand on her own feet, divorced from all the old customs and traditions of ancient Europe?
Americans have never been home builders in the European sense. The Frenchman, for example, seldom invites any but the closest friends or relatives to his home. In America, privacy of the home is little respected; there is generally open house to which the most casual acquaintance may be invited. The family in the United States appears to be built on the “club” plan, a sort of temporary arrangement where each comes and goes at will. It is not exaggerated to say that the American’s home, with its wide verandas and rocking chairs, has occupied much the same place that the cafe does for the Frenchman. And during Prohibition times this home frequently literally resembled a cafe, that is, a “speak-easy.” In America each member of the family, having friends often totally unknown to the others, makes free to invite them to his home, that is, to his “private club,” so to speak.
In the beginning of American colonization immigrants were mostly men. To obtain women, England often had to clean her streets of prostitutes and empty the jails, whence they were shipped to America to become the wives of the settlers. In many cases the death of the husband would leave the womenfolk absolutely without any other support but their own labor. The hectic periods of immigration, with their heavy death toll, and the difficulties of life in the New World, unsolvable by the Old-World manner of living, impelled many women to strike out for themselves.
Since the heavy preponderance of the male population made women greatly in demand, they were welcomed everywhere and much sought after. The treatment of women in America was far more favorable than in the Old World. They were not allowed to do the very heavy work in the field, and only among the Pennsylvania Dutch and German migration could there be found women who actually worked in the fields with their husbands.
Everywhere on the posts of danger women were to be found. They went shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, pioneers, backwoodsmen, frontiersmen of all kinds. They shouldered the gun to fight off the Indians. They developed a hardy independence and self-reliance that has been unsurpassed.
The exceptional position to which women were able to attain in America allowed them also intellectual opportunities early in life. Many of the women were well versed in the Bible and had for times a tolerably good schooling. Indeed, often the children’s education depended not upon the schoolhouse but upon their mother. Women quickly took to journalism and became well-known writers, poets, and people of note in the literary world.
Such women could not long be content with specializing in literature. They insisted upon broadening out to the general sciences and, although often limited to an elementary school teaching, a considerable number managed to acquire the knowledge of expert professionals. It is in America where first the struggle was made for women to enter the professions and to be recognized there. The first medical school for women was established in Massachusetts in 1848, and Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to practice medicine, in 1865 establishing her own medical school in New York. Other medical colleges were opened in Philadelphia, in Chicago, and elsewhere about the same time. Sooner or later professional women were bound to ask why they should not be treated politically as the equal of men.
With the development of industry in America, women were plunged directly into the mills. Already by 1850 in the cotton factories of twenty-five states, over sixty-two thousand women were employed, or sixty-four per cent of the total number of workers. Thus even before the Civil War women were coming into their own, not only as nurses, teachers, domestics, and to some extent as professionals, but, most important, as factory workers as well. The extraordinary demand for labor in America accelerated the process of drawing women into all sorts of occupations and giving them a prominent place in many industries.
Significantly enough, the Women’s Rights Movement started as a branch of the Abolitionists. In 1833 a Men’s Anti-Slavery Society had been formed in Philadelphia, followed immediately afterward by a women’s branch called the Female Anti-Slavery Society. The women of the independent middle class in their strivings to be considered as humans in their own right, could not avoid becoming closely attached to Abolitionism. The freeing of the slaves went hand in hand with a general democratic tendency to consider every being, including women, as worthy of equal treatment.
In the course of their agitation for the freeing of the slave, these advanced women soon came into violent conflict with prevailing prejudices. Lucy Stone, attending a church meeting on the Negro question, found her vote not counted with the argument that women have no rights according to the Bible. The Grimke sisters found themselves hooted and stoned when they appeared in public and finally had the roof of their hall torn down almost over their very heads. On all sides churches and halls were closed to women’s meetings and mobs attacked them.
The women persisted, however, and in 1839 the National Society, of Anti-Slavery Women, which had grown out of the old Female Anti-Slavery Society, applied to join the National Society of Anti-Slavery Men. Harassed by this question of permitting women to take part in political affairs as equals, the men’s group split into two parts, one siding with the women. It was this latter group which sent men and women delegates to London to the first International Conference for the Abolition of Slavery.
In London, the American delegates found that the women were barred from the Conference and were ordered to sit in the gallery. As a protest, two of the men delegates joined hands with the women and also retired to the gallery, where there was born the idea of forming a Women’s Party.
In 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York, there was held, under the leadership of Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the first National Convention of the Women’s Rights Movement. From that time on until the freeing of the slaves the Women’s Rights and Abolitionist Movements closely intertwined and the Abolitionist Paper, “The Liberator”, became open to articles by feminists in which not merely chattel slavery but the slavery of women also was the subject of attack.
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If we analyze the Women’s Rights Movement as a whole we can see that it is a thoroughly bourgeois Liberal movement, entirely dissociated from any but middle class elements. It starts as a general conception of human rights; it later narrows down to an emphasis on women suffrage. Wealthy women of property, as well as intellectual and professional women, felt that it was intolerable that they should be considered lower than the Negro slave or the ignorant servant immigrant, and it was they who articulated a protest for an extension of democratic rights for women.
It should be kept in mind that in colonial days certain women could vote in a number of the colonies. Before 1783 in nine states the right to vote was exercised by “free born citizens” or “taxpayers” and “heads in families” and these categories included many women as well.
In the West the issue of suffrage did not come up until Jackson’s time since there the population generally did not find the ballot important enough for use. However, once the men obtained a vote, the Western women who had struggled side by side with their menfolk on an equal plane in every respect, who had educated and brought them up in many cases, and who were esteemed and respected by all, refused to be denied what their husbands and sons had been able to secure. The frontiersmen and Western pioneer owed too much to their women to be opposed to such a demand. Besides, the participation of women in politics could only increase the strength of their own class. It was not until after the end of slavery, however, that the women members of the Western farmer elements could think of presenting their own claims. Prior to that only the women of the wealthier and intellectual city classes had publicly voiced their demands.
The unstable marital conditions that existed in America made it imperative that women should own the property which came into their possession. Otherwise, as family life tended to be too transient and unstable, there was hardly a sufficient guarantee of protection for a woman. Thus, the question of property rights was raised to a prominent position in the Liberal Women’s Rights Movement, as was her claim to entrance into the professions and to economic security in her own right.
The Women’s Rights adherents early took the program of Liberalism and developed it in their own interests. They first attempted to appeal to the natural and inalienable rights of women, as being superior to the law and by which the law should be guided, just as the early Liberals who formulated the Declaration of Independence had done. The women, however, found themselves in the embarrassing position that whenever they appealed either to the Bible or to Natural Law, or to some other eternal principle of morals hallowed by the past, the argument was stronger against them. Reference to the Bible, for example, could bring little solace to the women demanding equality and soon enough the Women’s Rights Movement had to pass a resolution “That whatever any book may teach, the rights of no human being are dependent upon or modified thereby, but are equal, absolute, essential, inalienable in the person of every member of the human family, without regard to sex, race, or clime.” (*6) Thus the women were forced to a position of Radicalism and to deny the Bible to which they opposed their ideas of inalienable rights. (*7)
Nor did the doctrine of natural law and inalienable rights get women very far either. Women’s Rights protagonists could always be informed that from time immemorial, where supposedly brute force had prevailed, women’s position had been far inferior to what it then was. In those days the researches of Morgan and others relating to the favorable position of women in primitive society were as yet unknown. Natural law could hardly give what the Bible had refused to yield.
Thus women were forced to make their fight not only on religious or even moral grounds, but on traditional political and social grounds. This became clear after the Civil War when the women’s movement separated itself from Abolitionism, and put forth such slogans as “No taxation without representation,” and “No government except by the consent of the governed,” etc., to persuade the Liberal State to accept their demands.
Soon all of these traditional arguments were brushed aside and women boldly based their claim on American individualism, the right of each person for complete development of personality. Women’s suffrage was the means by which women would be able better to protect themselves. It was un-American for anyone to seek protection from another, to be the permanent child and ward of some other person or group. In the name of each one’s right and duty to take care of one’s self, women suffragists tried to prove that thereby not only would their own individuality develop but thus they could also become far more socially effective.
After the Civil War, the National Women’s Suffrage Association was formed, later becoming the American Women’s Suffrage Association, with Henry Ward Beecher as the first President. A concerted drive was initiated, in the course of which the women were compelled to move more and more to a radical position.
In the late part of the nineteenth century, the principal economic demand of the women could be expressed in the slogan “the right to work,” that is, the opening up of professions and jobs to women as well as to men. The popularity of this demand was in direct proportion to the great need of American business men for an adequate labor supply. With the twentieth century, however, a different set of circumstances arose, driving a section of the Women’s Rights Movement into entirely different channels. As the Women’s Rights Movement began in the question of chattel slavery, so did it end in the question of wage-slavery. The women problem was but one aspect of a larger social problem. Once women, for example, were put to work in factories, it was found that mechanical equality was disastrous for them. Theirs was not equal pay for equal work; nor did they have the strength of the men whom they displaced. Besides, women were loaded with the triple burden of factory work and toil at home, as well as the trials of motherhood. Capitalism in its rampages of individualism could wantonly destroy its male workers and thereby affect only the present generation. In its destruction of the lives and health of the women population, however, it threatened the future of the whole race. Night work for women, industrial hazards, general working and social conditions, were abuses crying aloud for remedy and social regulation.
Under the impact of modern capitalism, the Women’s Rights Movement in America split into two divisions, especially marked after the women’s vote was secured in 1920 by constitutional amendment. One division, made up of out-and-out bourgeois elements, such as the National Women’s Party, insisted that women must be treated exactly as though equal to men, not in order to secure the welfare of women, but in order to permit the industrialists to remain unhampered by any legislation in their ruthless crushing of the lives and potential development of their women employees. Should there appear legislation calling for the abolition of night work for women? Then would the National Women’s Party come forth in the name of “Women’s Rights” to fight against such legislation protecting women workers, and would give argument that this protection would make women wards of the government and brand them as inferior children. The National Women’s Party, however, indignantly repudiated the charge that in their belated ardent advocacy of the doctrine of laissez-faire they were only the wards and childish tools of Big Business and the sweatshops themselves.
On the other side, the Women’s Rights Movement developed closer and closer ties with the labor unions and the Socialists. (*8) To this second group, women’s suffrage was no end in itself; it was a means to obtain the true development of womanhood. These women did not fear to ally themselves with every movement that would protect them in the new conditions of reckless industrialism.
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In America the feminist movement had been, in the main, merely a Liberal democratic one striving for the right to work and equal treatment of women in realizing the opportunities they all had under capitalism to advance. Plenty of opportunities to get out of the working class seemed to be present. All that women needed was to be allowed to grasp them. In Europe, however, there was no such illusion on the part of the masses either of men or of women that they could rise from their class station. How few opportunities were available for women to advance from their class could be seen by the figures of education in 1914 in Prussia. While there were 540 high schools preparing boys for the university, there were only 43 schools of corresponding grade for girls. The feminist movement of Europe, in the main, therefore, was not confined to mere bourgeois democratic demands for equal political rights of men and women. Only in England did the feminist movement have any such character and militantly concentrate on political rights. In England, feminism could keep its connections with Liberalism, for by this time Liberalism had broadened from the principles of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham to the Welfare-Liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Lloyd George.
On the continent, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, the feminist movement very soon linked itself up with the working class Socialist organizations. In countries where not even the head of the family and chief bread-winner had a right to vote and where the struggle for democracy was a mere by-product of the struggle for Socialism, naturally the women emphasized economic and social welfare rather than special rights of franchise. What women fought for was not so much the right to work as the right to social protection.
In Germany, vast numbers of women were thrown into the industries. In the years just prior to the War, there were about ten million women wage earners in all of the 207 occupations listed in the German industrial census, while in 25 of these occupations they were the majority. Of the thirty-one million women, one-quarter were at work, and of the approximately seven million unmarried women over sixteen years of age, about six million labored, over two million toiling in industry; 22 per cent of women wage earners were married. (*9)
For a time these women were excluded by law from unions and political activity. Thus they were forced to organize underground. Naturally these women turned to Revolutionary-Socialism. To counteract this trend and in order to insure that the future children of Germany would be fit for the imperial army, the State, under Bismarck, began to make efforts for the social protection of women. This, however, did not in the least move working-class women to the support of Bismarck.
In 1894, the German Federation of Women’s Associations was formed and rapidly rose to over two million members. In 1891, the Socialist Party took a strong stand on equality for women, one of the leaders of the Party, August Babel, writing a standard treatise on the subject, “Women Under Socialism,” in which vigorous effort was made to win the working women to the banner of the Socialist Party. At the same time, under the leadership of Clara Zetkin and Frau Guillaume Schack, a women’s paper, Die Arbeiterin, was put out in Hamburg and soon had a circulation of over eighty-five thousand.
By 1907, the Socialist International Movement had developed its policy so far as to organize a Women’s Congress at Stuttgart to which women delegates came from many countries. Clara Zetkin became the International secretary. Faced with this pressure, the German government the following year removed the ban from the organization of women. Two hundred thousand women flocked into the Social Democratic Unions and the women’s political organizations merged with the Socialist Party. (*10)
From that time, too, working women played a very important role in international Labor and Socialist affairs. A new Women’s International Congress was held at Copenhagen in 1910, to which many women delegates came from all parts of the world. It was at the Women’s International Conference meeting at Berne in March, 1915, that there first arose the cry of revolutionary struggle against the World War. This memorable meeting paved the way for the gigantic split which soon occurred between the Socialist and the Communist movements. (*11)
It was not only in Germany that the women’s movement advanced. Elsewhere, too, steps forward were taken. In Scandinavia, for example, where, as in Germany, illegitimacy was exceedingly frequent, the divorce laws in Norway and Sweden became very liberal. For the poor in Norway, divorce is practically free and is easily obtained. As in Germany, various social legislation was enacted to protect motherhood, illegitimate children, women at work, etc.
* * * *
The World War and its aftermath have caused tremendous changes in the conditions facing the women’s movements throughout the world. The last war has initiated an entirely new phase of military history in which the whole nation, both men and women, have been more or less completely mobilized.
The distinction between front-line trench and the factory rear has tended to become obliterated.
During the War, women played an exceedingly and increasingly important role. In all belligerent countries special women’s committees were immediately organized by the governments. (*12) In Great Britain, for example, “To the call for labor power British women gave instant response. In munitions a million were mobilized, in the Land Army there have been drafted and actually placed on the farms over three hundred thousand, and in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps fourteen thousand women are working in direct connection with the fighting force, and an additional ten thousand are being called out for service each month. In the clerical force of the government departments, some of which had never seen women before in their sacred precincts, one hundred ninety eight thousand are now working.” (*13) Millions of women are later mobilized as consumers. What occurred in England was far more drastically accomplished on the European continent, particularly by Germany and the Central Powers.
In America, an immense apparatus was created on a national scale, using the prominent bourgeois women’s organizations, which reached to the last corner of the country and attracted to the war not only the middle class women but the working women as well. Operating under the direct control of the Federal Government, this women’s war work systematically penetrated even the colonial possessions.
Fifteen days after war was declared on Germany, on April 21, 1917, the mobilization was begun by the creation of a Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, organized by Act of Congress August, 1916, and consisting of the Secretaries of six State Departments plus an Advisory Committee of seven. Nine women were put on the Committee, most of them heads of large bourgeois women’s organizations, such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Women, the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and others. Later two other women were added, one of them President of the International Glove Workers Union.
Within a few weeks the Women’s Committee had formulated a plan of action which was sent out to well-known patriotic women in forty-eight states, and national organization work commenced. Conferences were called consisting of the heads of women’s organizations, recognition given to clubs, religious denominations, fraternal and philanthropic societies, paternal and protective associations, etc. In every country, city, town, and village, local bodies were formed on the basis of individual membership.
Departments were established in all divisions for the following fields of work: registration, food production and home economics, food administration, women in industry, child welfare, maintenance of existing social service agencies, health and recreation, education, Liberty Loan, home and foreign relief. Some of the committees, such as food administration, women in industry, and Liberty Loan worked directly with Washington. Women were used to a large extent in recruiting campaigns where they had great significance, as they had also in the Liberty Loan and food conservation drives. In the pulpit, in press, in movie and school, in parade and mass meeting, the government campaign went on to mobilize the very last women to support the cause.
The actual concrete results of the campaign were of enormous help in conducting the war. After a few months of the campaign among women for the saving of waste bread, for instance, the National Commercial Economy Board stated that enough bread had been saved each day to feed a million people. Three hundred and fifty million dollars worth of crops were raised by women in backyard gardens during 1917, and in the same year thirty-six million dollars worth of garments made by women were sent to the troops abroad, according to Mr. Davidson, head of the American Red Cross.
Other organizations, too, were formed, such as the National League for Women’s Service and the Red Cross. The Red Cross Women’s Bureau mobilized the women so well for its work that in six weeks in the fall of 1917 women furnished 3,700,000 surgical dressing, 1,500,000 pieces of hospital linen, 125,000 articles of patients clothing, 302,000 articles of miscellaneous supplies, 241,000 knitted articles, and a large amount of other material.
It was not only at the rear that women played an indispensable role, but in the military forces at the front as well. In Russia in 1915 there was organized the famous regiment known as the Woman’s Battalion of Death, taking in thousands of women who fought at the front. All combatant armies had women’s auxiliary corps; many of them drove ambulances, tens of thousands were nurses and physicians, many thousands more handled telephone and telegraph sets. In the laundry work, in the commissary and cooking departments, in veterinary hospitals, in all the Red Cross work and social services attached to the army, women were absolutely invaluable. (*14)
Under such conditions it was impossible any longer to preclude women from active political participation and immediately during and after the War, in the Liberal countries of England and America, women’s suffrage was enacted; in America, on equal terms with male suffrage, in England at first under discriminatory conditions which later were abolished. (*15) In Germany, coinciding with the democratic revolution under the Socialists, women also were enfranchised.
Thus, in many countries, with the gaining of women’s suffrage, the old Liberal feminist and Women’s Rights movements passed into senility. They continued either as a direct appendage of Big Business, as the National Women’s Party in the United States, or changed their character in line with working class activity. The specific women’s program was merged in the general social problems of the working class.
In the Latin countries, precisely because of lack of industrial development, the tardiness in the breaking up of the home and the strong power of agrarianism, the women’s movement never strongly developed. The French movement is exceedingly weak even today. In Spain it has been only during the course of the present Revolution that women have been given the vote. Strangely enough, the very Radicals and Socialists who have advocated women suffrage in Spain mournfully confess that their women often vote for their hangmen and side heavily with the counter-revolution. There is no doubt but a similar result would be obtained in France today and women’s suffrage help greatly the Fascist forces.
This paradoxical situation is not new. The following table (*16) giving the women’s vote in Germany in 1922, for example, shows that this trend toward conservatism has been well known for some time.
percentage of percentage of men women Communist 63 37 Independent Socialist (Left) 59 41 Majority Socialist 57 43 Democrats 53 47 Centrists 41 59 Peoples Party 49 51 Nationalists 44 56Several reasons explain this difference between the voting trends among men and women. In the first place, the women of the property classes have more faith in parliamentary action, and are thoroughly awake to their political interest. Among the lower classes, however, in the past women have engaged in political action only when deeply stirred and then the action tended to be direct and physical rather than through the ballot. Besides, the women of the poorest sections of the population are often too exhausted and overworked to go to the polls.
The basic explanation is, however, that the pressure of capitalism works unevenly upon different elements of the same class. In France and Spain (particularly in Spain) where industry is not predominant and the home life has been traditionally stable to a greater extent than in other countries, the women stay at home while the men work. Entirely different material working conditions and cultural attainments prevail for the man than for the women. The politically awakened class-conscious worker must pay for the fact that he has not been able to make his wife partner in his social development. The Royalist, Clerical, and Fascist elements play upon the greater enslavement to habit and superstition that is women’s lot. They emphasize the need for maintaining the stability of the home, endangered by the activity of the husband, father, or son. Left to herself and brooding over the fact that political activity has apparently alienated the affections of her menfolk, the women then turns her own affections to those reactionists who can console her. Nor is this true only in agrarian countries. The figures given in the table above show that even in highly industrialized Germany women have not been drawn sufficiently into the mainstream of social movements as to work as consciously as the men for their own class interests.
Understanding this uneven pressure of capitalism, the revolutionary Communists have taken alarm at this condition which at times may be decisive against them in a given struggle. They point out that it is folly to wait until capitalism should emancipate the women equally with the man, since capitalism can never entirely complete the tasks it historically sets out to perform. Indeed, the mass of discrimination against women, far from decreasing, is steadily augmenting under the blows of Fascism.
Such Communists urge the necessity to close the gap by paying the greatest attention to the needs of women. Special women’s movements are created that wipe out the disabilities incurred in isolated home life. They engage in organizing the housewife against evictions, against the high cost of living, against slum conditions of vice, disease, etc. They interest the mother in the actions of school authorities and child welfare. They demand drastic enactment’s to secure motherhood and to obtain a protective system of pensions for housewives. A whole special literature for women is created in which there is repeated the cardinal principle that the revolution will be lost without the women.
The Communists need not worry too much. Once the revolutionary situation gives way to the actual uprising, the women will fight far more fiercely than the men in defense of their homes and families. Women are harder to arouse but when once aflame burn hotter.
Impending social convulsions, such as devastating wars, mass unemployment and cataclysmic revolutions, must tend to throw the women still further into political action. Future wars will close further the gap between front and rear and distinctions between men and women. The social revolutions will be of such a nature as to throw the women into the fray even more ferociously than the men. In both cases, individualism and Welfare-Liberalism vanish. The feminist movement becomes merely a subdivision of the class struggle.
1. Anna G. Spencer: Woman’s Share in Social Culture, p. 54
2. See, T. V. Smith: The American Philosophy of Equality, p. 121, footnote; See also Stanton, Anthony and Gage: History of Woman Suffrage, I, 783 (1881 edition)
3. Commons: History of Labor in the United States, I, 436-437. Women laborers were urged to cooperate with the unions and the latter to change their rules as to admit women.
4. The same, I, 595
5. H. C. Brearley: Homicide in the United States, p. 109.
6. See Stanton, Anthony and Gage: History of Women’s Suffrage, I, p. 383. (1881 edition)
7. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton actually put out a paper in 1868 which they called Revolution.
8. In the U.S. in the early 1870’s, two women, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, put out a weekly magazine which advocated women’s suffrage and at the same time represented a leading American section in the United States of the First International. They were later expelled for their fractious vagaries.
9. See Katherine Anthony: Feminism in Germany and Scandinavia, pp. 172, 188, 196.
10. In 1914 there were 472,000 women trade union members in Great Britain. In 1918 the number was 1,224,000. In 1922 in the U.S. the National Women’s Trade Union League had 600,000 members. (G. S. Watkins: An Introduction to the Study of Labor Problems, p. 361.)
11. In 1921, Reformist trade unions organized a new International Federation of Working Women, denouncing Communist membership.
12. For England, for example, see Edith Abbott: “The War and Women’s Work in England,” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. XXV, pp. 641-678. (July, 1917)
13. Harriot Stanton Blatch: Mobilizing Woman Power, pp. 37-38.
14. See, for example, Ruth W. Kauffman: “The Woman Ambulance-driver in France,” The Outlook, vol. 117 pp. 170-172; Elizabeth S. Chesser: "The Women’s Army in France,” Contemporary Review, vol. 113, pp. 680-684. (June, 1918)
15. Before 1928, in England, the qualifications for a woman to vote were that she must be thirty years of age and must either be an occupant of premises of the yearly value of five pounds, or the wife of a man entitled to be registered as a local government elector. Men over twenty-one had only residence qualifications to meet, although in local elections even men renting furnished rooms could vote. As a result however, of the “Equal Franchise” Act in 1928 women, at the present time, exercise the parliamentary vote on exactly the same terms as men voters. (See Maud I. Crofts: Women Under the English Law, pp. 4-8.[second edition] )
16. H. Puckett: Germany’s Women Go Forward, p. 248