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The New International, February 1946


Miriam Gould

Women, Biology and Socialism

Mothers as Revolutionists


From New International, Vol. XII No. 2, February 1946, pp. 46–48.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Psychology of Women
by Helene Deutsch, M.D.
Grune & Stratton, New York
Vol. 1, 1944, 399 pp., $4
Vol. 2, Motherhood, 1945, 498  pp., $5.

Dr. Helene Deutsch’s latest work has presented me with the long-awaited opportunity for clearing up certain out-dated ideas about femininity that still hang on in our movement, and for restating once again the basic position of socialists on the woman question. First, as to that misconception of womankind that lurks among us under the guise of a Third Period ultra-radicalism. It is hard to put a finger on this attitude, though we have all run across it. It is based on the assumption, always unstated, that motherhood, i.e., biology!, and socialism are in some way incompatible. This fallacy I hope to disprove historically, with the aid of Mr. Robert Briffault, and psychologically, with the assistance of Dr. Deutsch.

Few will admit holding such ridiculous views when they are put baldly, as above. Yet, we hear their echo in the suggestion that if a couple has a child, one of them – obviously the woman! – should drop out of the party. And in the idea that no woman revolutionist should have children (she must always be on call for the post of a female Lenin or Trotsky in the approaching American revolution). If a woman revolutionist does have a child, proceeding from the above-mentioned assumption, it is assumed she intends to drop out of political life.

This thinking stems from a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between women, motherhood, and socialism. Obviously, we can never become a mass party if we exclude all the women in America who are mothers. It is equally clear that not every woman revolutionist can become a Lenin, or even a Krupskaya. Each socialist woman, like every other comrade, must find her own best way of contributing to the movement: more often than not, it will not preclude motherhood. It would be impossible to complete the list of mothers who have made valuable contributions to the socialist cause – Clara Zetkin and Natalia Trotsky are two.

It is no secret that the women in the revolutionary movement are rebels, often against the treatment accorded their sex in our patriarchally-organized society. Truly, as the old mountain ballad puts it,

“Hard is the lot of poor womankind,
Always controlled, always confined.”

Twentieth Century American women certainly lead frustrated, monotonous, drudging, uncreative lives that should arouse resentment in every thinking person. The mental and spiritual emptiness of our women is abundantly revealed by the mass audiences of the soap operas, the multi-million circulation of vapid romance magazines, and the almost-equally-unwholesome slick-paper ladies magazines.

Economic Roots of Drudgery

Family and children are the most important real factor in the average woman’s life. Here especially, she is hampered at every turn by the criminal injustice and inequalities of capitalist society. 81 per cent of all American families earned less than $3,000 in 1942; 61 per cent earned under $2,000; and 47 per cent less than $1,500.

Those facts alone tell us that at least 81 per cent of the nation’s mothers engage in a continuous struggle to give their children proper clothing, school needs, nutritious food, and a decent home environment. Translated into real life, those facts mean for most women the endless round of housekeeping drudgery, the useless duplication of effort in millions of homes as housewives slave away on antiquated washing, cleaning and living equipment in obsolete, inefficient houses. All these conditions often add up to harassed, overworked mothers, forever unable to make ends meet, who create ‘the worst kind of home atmosphere possible for their impressionable, growing children.

Mothers who try to add to the family budget by working must accept many injustices. They can seldom attain skilled jobs in industry. Underpaid white collar jobs, selling jobs, or unskilled factory labor fall to their lot. They usually get less pay for doing the same work as men. Today, in the reconversion period, they are being indiscriminately laid off in favor of men.

We all know the picture, and we know the kind of women this set-up produces. Personalities limited to the minutiae of housewifery, and the “Escape-world” of popular culture. Women without a worthwhile idea in their heads. No person of any imagination, intelligence or understanding wants a life like that – including many of the working class women who are caught up in it!

But in reacting against this situation, our socialist women must not rush to the other extreme of denying (in greater or lesser degree) that they, too, are women. There is a lot to be said for women (they are here to stay!) even if they do continue so resolutely to devote themselves primarily to their families, ignoring, by and large, the temptations of success in artistic, literary, intellectual and political endeavours.

Socialism and Motherhood

It is our job as socialists to show American women that only by fighting for and achieving socialism can they give meaning and dignity to their family life; only thus can they secure for their children the advantages and opportunities that make motherhood worthwhile. It is particularly futile for us to try to win the masses of women to our ranks by intellectual and theoretical appeals that will always remain secondary until the basic feminine biological needs are satisfied. We must recognize, and accept the fact that unless women (socialist women too) can find good and sufficient ways of expressing their biologically-rooted feelings of motherliness, they are apt to become no good to the socialist movement, or anybody else, including themselves!

Why should socialists be afraid of motherhood? Historically, it is synonymous with those very human values we are trying to make prevail in the social and economic organization of society.

This fact emerges very clearly from a study of Robert Briffault’s massive book, The Mothers. This work is an anthropological survey of the “origin of sentiments and institutions”; particularly the institutions of matriarchy, the family, religion, marriage, romantic love, etc.

I must warn readers at the outset that Briffault’s work is not too well thought of by most bourgeois American anthropologists. He practices a kind of comparative anthropology that strips present-day capitalism of its claims to superiority over earlier cultures, and undermines the idea that capitalism is the inevitable culmination of the march of human progress. Briffault conducts an all-out assault on patriarchy which, like Engels, he ties up with the emergence of private property.

Mothers and motherhood, however, find an ardent partisan in socialist Briffault. He traces the emergence of mankind from animality, to the biological group created by the mothers. It was not the male-dominated herd, he proves, but the mother and her family who were responsible for “social organization itself – the associated group to which humanity owes its mere existence.” [1]

Early Origins

The first human societies, the primitive communes discussed by Engels, were organized, molded and dominated by the instincts of mothers. (Mark this, you ultra-revolutionaries!) The first social ties were between mother and offspring: affectionate protection on the one part, dependence on the other. Inter-dependence, group loyalty, social solidarity developed among the children. These sentiments, says Briffault, passed through various transformations: loyalty to mother, priestess, tribe, priest, kings, nations. They have been the cement that held human society together, and made possible that complicated division of labor, and cultural development, which has “flowered” into Twentieth Century Civilization.

Those early matriarchal groups presented in many respects; a superiority to the capitalist barbarism of today. They were completely equalitarian. Although women carried on all the most important economic activities (agriculture, weaving, housebuilding, medicine, etc.) there was no trace of economic domination, or exploitation of any sort. Group solidarity and esprit sufficed to secure enforcemen: of all group decisions. No coercion was needed. The rise of patriarchy, according to Briffault, resulted in the growth of centralized authority vested in the military chief, and the emergence of the tyrannous kingships of antiquity.

“Upon the rude foundations which (the mothers) laid,” says Briffault [2], “the restless energy of man has reared a mighty structure; but the loftier and more complex the structure, the greater the danger in which it stands of crushing the realities of existence.”

He is right there: the economic and social structure of present-day industrial capitalism is no longer fit for human habitation. (And if we women do not have to take the responsibility for it, so much the better.)

It is becoming clearer every day, in face of the certain destruction promised us by capitalist barbarism and its atomic bomb, that another set of values must replace the “free competition,” private monopoly system of today. The human race is doomed unless ideals of sympathy and compassionate humanity, the standards of socialism (i.e., values originally derived from the most primitive of feminine biological instincts) reorient and reorganize society.

Briffault’s Conclusions

Briffault concludes on this theme [3]:

“Women have to learn that all racial ideals that are worthwhile are ultimately identical with their own elemental instincts, and are the outcome of them.”


“Upon women falls the task, not only of throwing off their own economic dependence, but of rescuing from the like thralldom the greatest realities of which they were the first mothers ... Honor to the women who can be mothers, not in the flesh alone, but in the spirit, who can choose, praise, and encourage a right ... the selections of what is truest and best in the complex ideals and efforts of humanity.”

Thus Robert Briffault on the relation between women, and altruism, humanity, socialism. He demonstrates clearly that socialism is certainly not incompatible with the unselfish love of mothers. Just the opposite: it is the essence of motherliness, sublimated and intellectualized.

* * *

So much for the historical angle. What about the women of today, and the socialist movement of today? Is there some fundamental antagonism between participation in socialist activity and motherhood?

Obviously, the socialist movement needs women. We have already touched on the economic and social reasons why women, especially those with children, should join. As mothers, as the continuers of the human race, they have a vital stake in creating a secure, happy and wholesome environment for their children, and their children’s children. There are other reasons, of a personal, psychological order, why women should be socialists. They need the socialist movement to grow and develop as normal personalities, and good mothers, in the insane world of today. For evidence to back up this assertion, let us tum to Dr. Helene Deutsch’s Psychology of Women.

Dr. Deutsch, a pupil of Freud’s in Vienna, Associate Psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and lecturer at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, approaches the woman question from the viewpoint of clinical psychology. This highly subjective, individual orientation, is removed as far as possible from the broad perspective of revolutionary sociologists and economists, yet she comes to the same conclusions we do. “All roads lead to Rome” – in this case, socialism.

Refers to Socialist Movement

Not, let me hasten to add, that Dr. Deutsch is handing out party membership cards. She does not specify what brand of “social idealism” or “ideologic movement” women need in order to develop normally. Although she gives these terms the concrete content of the European social democracy, and the early Russian revolutionary movement. As students of, and participants in the struggle for social emancipation, we can prescribe from our own experience the logical organization to fill the bill, in line with Deutsch’s general diagnosis.

Before starting her study of the normal development of feminine personality, Dr. Deutsch notes [4] “the increasingly strong tendency to explain the differentiated psychologic behavior of the sexes on the basis of educational and cultural factors, and to reduce the part played by biologic and anatomic factors to a minimum.” She declares [5]:

“All those to whom the ideals of freedom and equality are not empty words, sincerely desire that women should be socially equal to man. However, the experiences presented in this book show that woman’s achievement of full social equality will be beneficial to her and to mankind as a whole, only if at the same time she achieves ample opportunity to develop her femininity and her motherliness.”

These basic biological components of woman’s personality, Deutsch says, can be expressed either in the direct act of motherhood, or in some other altruistic, self-sacrificing activity. In this connection she studies the lives of various revolutionary Russian women to prove her point that the revolution does not eliminate biology, and that the mainsprings of feminine personality remain the same before as after the revolution. Chapter Ten in Volume One, The Influence of Environment, based largely on a novel by Mme. Alexandra Kollantai, the famous Bolshevik,will prove interesting to the women socialists of today.

To treat the problem of women and society, Dr. Deutsch divides her work into two volumes, according to the “fundamental duality of women.” [6] Volume I covers the individual personality development, Volume 2, women as the “servant of the species.” [7]

Problem of Adolescence

In the first volume, Dr. Deutsch considers, among other things, the problem of adolescence. How can the emotional storms of this period, the necessary break with the parents, be resolved in a normal fashion, and one conducive to the youth’s adjustment with the real world? One of the best ways is through participation in the socialist movement. The psychological mechanism works somewhat as follows.

First, says Deutsch, new ideals replace the parent in the child’s eyes.

“As adolescents grow more mature, however, their place is taken by an abstract ego ideal, the realization of which is reserved for the future. The identification with heroes, leaders, etc., made in a group or ideologic movement are valuable, but they cannot satisfy the need for a personal relation.” [8]

Later, discussing the ambitious dreams that develop around the adolescent’s ideal goal, she says [9]:

“The content of the fantasies is doubtless determined by the girl’s cultural milieu ... The daughter may see herself as an orator inflaming the masses to revolutionary deeds or leading an ideologic movement that is of public interest at the moment. The attempt to realize such fantasies is the expression of a maturer stage of development. Even though the motives for this idealistic aspiration are of a selfish ambitious nature, the activity that expresses it forms a bridge between the youthful ego and the surrounding world. The realization of such fantasies can be of great social value and simultaneously exert an educational influence on the further development of the young person. If the fantasies are not ideologic or social, but purely egocentric in character, their realization in most cases leads to disappointment.”

Woman’s Second Crisis

Once the problems of adolescence are surmounted, woman’s second great crisis develops. How will she manage the relation between her own now largely formed personality, and her biological drive toward motherhood? Here again, Deutsch points to one Verinea as a prime example of the successful resolution of this conflict.

Verinea is the heroine of a novel whose action takes place during the Russian revolution. Married to a revolutionist, she is expecting a child, and is in charge of other comrades engaged in some action. She bears her child, and leaves to fulfill her revolutionary duty. Returning later to nurse her son, she is killed by the Cossacks.

“Verinea,” says Deutsch [10], “who was once a prostitute, loves. She loves the revolution because she loves suffering humanity and wants to help it. She loves her husband because he has given her an opportunity to express herself. She loves her child with instinctual, elementary force, ‘like a she-wolf’.”

Now Verinea is no primitive woman, capable solely of maternal instincts. She is a product of the class struggle of the 20th Century.

“She not only grasps the revolution emotionally, but knows its goals, and methods. Verinea is a woman of insight and understanding. But because she is capable of love, and free from fear, she is free of conflict between her ego and her motherliness.” [11]

Other women have so many problems reconciling biology and ego because “their social goals and individual strivings are too far removed from the sources that give motherliness its strength.”

Gorky’s Heroine as Example

The last major crisis of women is what Deutsch calls “the tragedy of motherhood”: the inevitable necessity to let go her children and find other outlets for the emotions hitherto tied up in them. In treating this period, she once again holds up as a model a revolutionary Russian woman, Pelagia Vlassova, heroine of Gorky’s novel, Mother. Pelagia [12] achieves

“the mother’s deepest life purpose – to preserve her son, or have the illusion of preserving him. Pelagia Vlassova is the only one ... who goes further by making her son’s ideals her own, and really helping him in his hard and dangerous struggle: ‘The words of my son are the pure words of a worker, of an incorruptible heart! Learn to recognize the incorruptible by his fearlessness!’”


“Pelagia Vlassova perhaps found the most reliable method: she entered into her son’s life interests and through her love for him learned to love something impersonal, the ideal of social emancipation.”

So we see that, according to one of the leading workers in the field of human personality, at each step along the road to normalcy (if we can speak of such a thing under capitalism!), the socialist movement stretches out a helping hand to women.

It is no accident that the road to psychological normalcy, just like economic, and social normalcy, leads through the socialist movement. The new sciences, psychology, social architecture, are merely trailing in the footsteps of their older brothers, philosophy and political economy, when they rediscover the need for a socialist, idealistic and intelligent organization of human environment. Modern research is giving us new tools to use in our task of bringing the promise and potential of socialism to American women


1. Briffault, The Mother, Vol. 3, p. 609.

2. Same, Vol. 3, p. 520.

3. Same, Vol. 3, pp. 619–20.

4. Deutsch, Psychology of Women, Vol. 1, p. x.

5. Same, Vol. 2, p. 487.

6. In the matriarchal communes of The Mothers, this duality did not exist: There were no social obstacles to the operation of any feminine instincts. There was no social life apart from them. Only subsequent material and cultural developments, which opened new horizons for human personality, brought conflict between woman’s biological duties and her socially-conditioned ego. It is to be hoped that after the economic and social emancipation of women under socialism, this conflict will disappear.

7. A great part of Volume 1 is devoted to an analysis of the “basic feminine personality types.” Deutsch works out a classification of all women into feminine-passive, masculine-active, and the in-between feminine-active-moral type. This section, while interesting because of the author’s profound understanding of people, did not strike me as important as her general appreciation of feminine problems.

8. Deutsch, Vol. 1, p. 93.

9. Same, Vol. 1, p. 98.

10. Same, Vol. 2, p. 284.

11. Same, Vol. 2, p. 285.

12. Same, Vol. 2, pp. 316–317.

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