Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Role of Women’s Movement Debated at Guardian Forum

First Published: The Call, Vol. I, No. 10, July 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Is women’s liberation a progressive movement? Will passage of the Equal Rights for Women Amendment (ERA) do more harm than good for the working people? What is the best way for women to fight for their rights today? These were some of the questions debated at the latest forum organized by The Guardian, an independent revolutionary weekly newspaper in New York City. The program, “Women and the Class Struggle,” was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of 600.

Speakers at the forum were: Carmen Cruz of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO), Vivian Rivera of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), Fran Beale of the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), Mary Lou Greenberg of the Revolutionary Union (RU), and Karen Davidson of The Guardian newspaper.

All the speakers agreed that the role of women has been neglected by large sections of the left movement in the U.S., and that too little investigation and organizing has been done. Furthermore, all the speakers agreed that only Marxism provides a scientific explanation of the oppression of women and that socialism is the only way for women to gain freedom.

What should happen between now and the achievement of socialism, was the area of differences. For example, the speakers differed whether to support the Equal Rights for Women Amendment (ERA), and whether it is necessary to build a mass movement of women.

Defining the present situation in the women’s movement, Guardian writer, Karen Davidson noted:

“The women’s movement today faces a clear-cut crisis. .. that was bound to develop from the spontaneous character of the struggle’s development, from its national and class character and from the inevitable vacillations and dis-unifying forces in its alternately reformist and ultra-’leftist’ leadership.”

But despite its middle-class roots, Davidson said, the women’s movement to date “can be summed up as the struggle for equality and the means to make (equality) possible.” In the recent period, women have been fighting for four main demands; she said:

1) Equal pay for equal work; 2) free, 24-hour, community-controlled day care; 3) control of reproductive functions and an end to forced sterilizations of minority women; 4) and equality in the broad area of social life and in the home.

Carmen Cruz, speaking for the PRRWO, stressed that “the oppression of women is a class question. Women are ’39 per cent of the labor force.. .Third World women, especially Black women, suffer national oppression in addition to class oppression.” She de-emphasized the need for a mass movement of women, although she warned against negating or neglecting the woman question.


“Statistics show that Puerto Rican women (here in the United States) are different from the total population of women because a lesser percentage of them work,” reported Vivian Rivera of the PSP.

“Puerto Rican women are taught to be servants or slaves and neither she nor her husband see her as a vital or integral part of the revolutionary struggle.” The Puerto Rican Socialist Party, said Rivera, hopes to defeat these backward, anti-woman attitudes by making a concerted effort to organize Puerto Rican women both on the job and in the communities.

The Black woman has been super-exploited ”since her arrival on these alien shores,” asserted Fran Beale, of the Third World Women’s Alliance. She vividly described the position of the Black woman, “as a worker.. .the object of continual exploitation, occupying the lowest place on the wage scale and restricted to the most demeaning and uncreative jobs. As a woman, she has seen her physical image defamed and subjected to all the ideals of white womanhood as a model to which she should aspire.”

The Black woman, she said, must strive for equality with Black men, and not walk behind them, as some otherwise progressive men would have it. Black women will take an active part in changing society, she stressed. “The slave of a slave is a creature of the past.”


Characterizing the women’s movement as generally decadent or reformist, Mary Lou Greenberg identified two trends within it. One, she said, has carried “petty bourgeois tendencies of individualism, self-indulgence and the search for so-called personal freedom and self-expression to their decadent conclusion: radical lesbianism and sexual freedom.” The other tried to reject this route “and generally saw itself as part of the overall anti-imperialist movement,” but, “many of these women are being drawn into petty bourgeois reformism, Trotskyism and revisionism.” Thus, neither wing of the present women’s rights movement is viewed as progressive by the RU, but rather is seen as fundamentally antagonistic to the working-class movement.

The National Organization of Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (with 30,000 members each) are “all solidly backed by the monopoly bourgeoisie,” according to Greenberg. She ruled out any alliance between working women and such organizations as NOW, even though it is presently fighting for many democratic women’s rights such as child care and equal pay. These rights are vital to the interests of working, as well as middle class women.

While taking a dim view of the existing women’s movement, Greenberg failed to mention any of the educational value of this movement, or to advance any new alternatives as to how women should fight for their rights.

Karen Davidson pointed out that the Guardian “wholeheartedly supports, learns from and works to strengthen” the women’s movement for full equality. “Since the women’s liberation movement got started,” she pointed out, “’male chauvinism’ has become a household word.” Many people – both male and female – were first awakened to the problems women face as a direct result of the agitation of the women’s movement in recent years.

“It is dogmatic,” she continued, “to characterize feminism as primarily reactionary. This sets the class struggle and the democratic movement of women against each other, narrows the scope of the united front, and isolates the workers’ movement from other progressive movements of the people.”

There are hundreds of organizations throughout the United States which are fighting in some way for women’s equality. Some are trying to win it in the courts, while others march for it, and still others try to build awareness and educate on the issues. Almost every women’s group in the movement, regardless of its method of struggle, is in agreement that women need child care, decent health care, equal pay for equal work. Davidson pointed out that a united front of these organizations can be built, and that within it, the way for women to fight must be learned through experience, not by standing outside the struggle, or opposing it.

The Equal Rights Amendment, for which millions of working women and men have struggled is “nothing but an attack on the working class,” said Greenberg, of the RU. She claimed that the passage of the ERA would “repeal all protective laws for women.” “We think the ERA is in the interests of the bourgeoisie.”

Greenberg predicted that the ERA will enable women to take jobs away from men. “Let’s suppose a few token women will be hired. What will this mean, given the present economic crisis? It will probably mean that men will lose jobs or that introducing women into jobs formerly held by men will be an excuse to lower job standards generally.”

In other words, if women win the equal opportunity in employment, Greenberg claims this will be bad for the men workers. This thinking is similar to those opponents of civil rights for Black people who argued that hiring and training Black people in better jobs and professions would hurt the whites.

Greenberg stated that communists should not support the ERA for the same reason that they should not support Nixon’s forced work plan for welfare recipients; or the ”right to work” laws; or “jobs for the unemployed” when that means unemployed will be used as strikebreakers against the working class.

The question of the ERA is, of course, just one aspect of the overall question of women’s equality. Because it is closer to passage than ever, many groups are now taking a position on it. Opponents of the ERA beside the Revolutionary Union, include George Meany and the Executive Board of the AFL-CIO, and the Communist Party, U.S.A. It is also opposed by right-wing groups like the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Independent Party and the Southern Baptist Convention, Other supporters of the constitutional amendment granting full equality to women include the United Auto Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the National Organization of Women, the October League and the recently-formed Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Davidson, of the Guardian, noted. “Women are fighting for equal job opportunities, breaking down the bourgeoisie’s barriers between men’s work and women’s work and for equal access to higher pay, better treatment and responsibilities. This is why we support the ERA, even with its possible negative aspects. We believe it can serve as a step forward in bringing more women into the working class and enhance the class struggle.”

Rather than attacking the women’s struggle for full equality in all areas of society, revolutionaries should lead the fight for equality, and at the same time, organize the working men and women to fight and hold on to all protective labor laws which the capitalists may try to take away from them. Several successful struggles have been won so far, where bosses have attempted to lower men’s wages to the level of women’s or to force women to give up any protection the workers had already won. Such an example is the struggle of the workers at Fibreboard in Antioch, California, where the men and women got together and forced the company to back down rather than lower the men’s wages after passage of the California Equal Rights Law in 1971.

In the United States, where women make up only 5 per cent of the professional doctors, engineers and lawyers, it is clear that many women can benefit from the equal rights laws. Single, working mothers now constitute the largest single “poverty group” in the country – women need access to jobs as a means of support, not for “pin money.” The right to seek employment, equal pay and equal opportunity can hardly be labelled “scabbing” by the vast majority of women in America today!


Basically the Guardian Forum brought out two attitudes towards the women’s movement; one, that it is a progressive movement which should be supported when it fights for demands in the interests of most women (i.e. child care, equal pay) and the other, that it is a hopelessly confused, middle-class movement which should be opposed. Secondly, the question of the Equal Rights Law, brought out two attitudes towards the rights of women in the work force–either to oppose the right of women seeking opportunity as equals of men, or to support the democratic rights of women.