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1955: Lesbian organizing and ‘red feminism’

Lavender & red, part 52

Published Feb 5, 2006 12:42 PM

During World War II, the nascent military-industrial complex had pulled 6 million women out of their unpaid labor at home into the work force. After the war, as the predominately white male soldiers were cashiered out of the military, women were ordered back to their family homes again, to dawn-to-dark housework and no wages.

Historian Kate Weigand, in her well-researched book “Red Feminism,” explains that while many women who got pink-slipped did return to the patriarchal-dominated, heterosexual family home, “a significant number also fought back.”

“Those who liked their jobs and depended on the wages that came with them staged picket lines and petitioned their unions to protest their forced withdrawal from the skilled industrial workforce. Some women, particularly those who were members of such left-leaning unions as the United Auto Workers and the United Electrical Workers, made explicitly feminist arguments as they pressed their male bosses and co-workers to abandon traditional sex-based job classifications.”

She added, “But although the UAW women’s postwar efforts succeeded in winning permanent status for their Women’s Bureau within the union’s Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department, it would be years before they made any significant progress in their quest for gender equality.”

Weigand makes this important observation: “The anti-feminism of the post-World War II period was both intense and widespread, but it did not impede every segment of the [U.S.] women’s movement to the same degree. Mainstream feminists lost ground after 1945, but progressive women, who were accustomed to defining themselves in opposition to dominant political and cultural ideologies, continued to see the postwar period as an opportunity for new beginnings.”

Red feminism

Communist women—Black and white—helped push the struggle for women’s liberation forward politically and ideologically during that Cold War era. Their efforts reverberated strongly throughout the West Coast, as well as other regions of the U.S.

The political and theoretical contributions of Gerda Lerner and Eleanor Flexner are familiar to women who were a part of “second wave” women’s liberation—the great surging feminist and womanist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But the revolutionary moorings of these women’s politics are less known.

Weigand wrote, “These women, along with many others who are less well-known, worked for women’s liberation within their own political circles and in the United States at large during the hostile years of 1945-56. The group consisted primarily of women who had cut their political teeth in the Left and labor struggles of the 1930s.”

Weigand stressed, “They revolutionized [feminist theory] by conceptualizing the dynamics of women’s oppression and liberation within a framework that made race and class central. They sustained a small but vibrant women’s movement throughout the 1940s and 1950s and transmitted influential terminology, tactics and concepts to the next generation of feminists. Their bold new thinking about the interdependence of gender, race and class, and about the personal and cultural aspects of sexism, shaped modern feminism—both directly and indirectly—and laid absolutely crucial groundwork for the second wave.”

Many of the activists, organizers and theoreticians of the era of red feminism were members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) or were “fellow travelers.”

In the early 1930s, the Communist Party USA had actively encouraged rank-and-file women to organize women’s councils and neighborhood committees. By 1936, a quarter of the CPUSA was women. By 1943, the number of women in the party was equal to the number of men.

From 1946 to 1950, the CPUSA initiated the Congress of American Women. Weigand states that during that time, CAW leaders were able to develop “a sophisticated analysis of women’s oppression that recognized both the importance of women’s race and class differences and the need for women to unite on the basis of gender to fight for their own emancipation.

“Armed with this broad understanding of the factors that limited women in American society, CAW activists also created a program for women’s liberation that valued women’s roles as housewives and mothers, challenged the social and cultural structures that excluded them from work and politics, and insisted that women could be different from but still equal to men.”

Weigand concludes, “Why, then, has their story been overlooked? How have feminists and the general public come to believe that the critique of male chauvinism in personal and family relations emerged for the first time in the mid-1960s? The powerful legacy of anti-communism in the United States is largely responsible for their obscurity.”

Tragically, red feminism—both the movement and the theory it generated—could have been so much stronger if its leaders had understood the need to defend lesbians organizationally, politically and ideologically.

Those targeted by the red-baiting and gay-bashing Cold War repression needed to be armed with theory that showed why fighting oppression—including the criminalization and demonization of same-sex love—was key to class unity against a common class enemy. The basis for unity was there: Same-sex love was hounded and criminalized by the state. So were communists. Lesbian and gay workers were facing widespread employment purges. So were communists.

And a movement of women who wanted to win greater rights had to be able to move forward against a hurricane of lesbian-baiting from the political establishment of the Cold War capitalists. But the CPUSA membership policy barred lesbian and gay members. So we will never know how many of the communist women were lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual.

The CPUSA’s position towards homosexuality was that lesbians and gay men were degenerate. This wrong position hurt the communist movement as much as it hurt unity in the struggle against same-sex oppression.

The experience, insight and organization of lesbians, bisexuals and trans women and intersexual people could have strengthened the overall struggle for women’s liberation, then and now as well.

Daughters of Bilitis was certainly not a part of red feminism; it was not a radical organization in search of revolutionary partnership. DOB sought to secure a position in society by appealing to the establishment, not by confronting it.

But objectively DOB articulated a lesbian voice, raised to national audibility. The fact that this voice had to be raised, to speak in its own name, demonstrates that not all women shoulder the same burden of oppression, not even all women from the working class.

Black working-class women were making that point crystal clear in 1955, as well. They had a prominent and leading role in the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and for national liberation.

The civil rights struggle was rising, swift and strong, winning the hearts and minds of people of all nationalities across the United States and around the world.

The capitalist class unleashed the FBI against the early civil rights movement. Anti-gay baiting, too, was one of the weapons the political police agency used to try to fracture the movement and break it up.

Next: FBI gay-baited civil rights struggle.