The Socialism Effect: Second Wave Feminism

    With the grand entrance of the second wave of feminism in the early 60s, there was much to break down in regards to the different factions that existed within the movement, along with the different social, political, and economical ideologies that they held. It was important to distinguish these different factions since it became apparent that not every single individual had the same ambitions for the movement as a whole. This era was important because it essentially solidified who believed in not only the fundamentals of equality, but who also believed in and partook in the fight for equity for those who have been (and still are) systematically oppressed by our institutions. The Socialist Feminists of the 60’s believed that the key to fighting for equality and equity was through targeting the cultural and economic aspects of our society that significantly put women in a position where they couldn’t be stably independent. Tillie Lerner Olsen, Esther Peterson, Myra Wolfgang, and Claudia Jones are some of the many individual women that dedicated their lives to fight for equality and equity in all aspects of life, including reproductive rights and workplace reforms. Socialism within the second wave of feminism has inspired many women to fight with those on the front line during the Civil Rights Movement, persist and fight for reform in the workplace in regards to equal pay and opportunity, and participating in the fight for other causes such as reproduction rights and environmental policies despite the reputation that this faction of feminism had within the media.

    In the early 60s, socialism (with what was considered progressive during this era) within the second wave of feminism had inspired many women to stand with and fight with those on the front line during the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was actually considered key in the reemergence of socialist feminism in the early 60’s, with Linda Gordon (a significant pioneer in socialist feminism) mentioning, “The stream called socialist feminism arose, like the rest of the New Left, from the civil rights and student movements of the 1955-1965 period.” [3]. This is significant because with the rise of a new generation of young adults came a new mindset, in regards to the political, economic, and social constructs of this nation. The reason why socialist feminists had a key role during the Civil Rights Movement was because, “They understood sexism as much as the civil rights movement had taught them to understand racism: not as epiphenomena of capitalism but as autonomous economic and cultural structures. These structures-or cultures-pervaded every aspect of life, and this had to be confronted in every aspect of life.” Socialist Feminists wanted to radicalize change in every aspect of life where we would be able to achieve equity. [3]. However, with every movement comes certain controversy, especially when we observe the subfactions within socialist feminism. One of the prominent criticisms of white socialist feminism is how this fraction of second wave feminism is usually exhibited as being ‘saviors’ of immigrants and African Americans who are oppressed in this country; this is a very problematic mindset to have when socialist feminists are notorious for having the “‘we-know-we’ve-been-wrong-in-the-past’ tone” [5] and having the “acknowledgement of racism as ‘wong’ has led in the past to patronizing liberal policies, which locked any formative radical movement for balck liberation…” [5]. Mirza continues to make her point by mentioning, “Socialist-feminsim cannot become radicalized or for that matter ‘blackened’ by merely attempting to come to terms with it ethnocentrism” [5]. This is important to acknowledge because even though socialist feminism has been championed for many decades, there are still factions from the early decades that did not take the steps to radicalize change for everyone, especially the steps that needed to be taken to push for equity.

    Claudia Jones is one of the many pioneers that have championed civil rights and feminism while maintaining herself as an influential Communist leader. Lynn describes Jones’ contribution by mentioning, “Jones contributed to American feminism as awareness of nonwhite and working-class women’s variant oppressions and differences among women that prevented a “universal” understanding of and feminism...while Jones synthesized and popularized the “triple oppression” paradigm to describe black women’s oppression, she also articulated a socialist feminism that took into account not just race, but the disparate struggles of all working women.” [9]. Even though she didn’t make it to see the reemergence of socialist feminism in the 60’s, much of work and contributions have inspired many key figures in the 60’s to expand her legacy. There also feminist groups that partook in the fight for equality and equity for BIPOC were systematically oppressed for many decades. When it came to the involvement of socialist feminists in the Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy mentions that a socialist feminist group, Bread and Roses, were one of the many factions of the movement that fully championed and pushed for the radicalization of the role of race, class, and gender in women’s oppression. Kennedy further argues this by mentioning, “In addition, the organization’s practice extended beyond individual betterment to challenge the power hierarchies in society, by participating in the antiwar movement, supporting the Black Panther Party, and challenging violence against women.” [7].

    Socialism within the second wave of feminism has inspired many women to persist and fight for reform in the workplace in regards to equal pay and opportunity. These ambitions were pioneered by many women in the New Deal era, such as Mary Dublin Keyserling who was a part of the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, labor feminists such as Addie Wyatt (UPWA), Caroline Davis (UAW), and Dorothy Haener (UAW), former Communists Myra Wolfgang, Betty Friedan, and Gerda Lerner; Gordon also mentions, “NOW continued the labor and social-democratic feminists’ focus on workplace organizing of working-class women, pushing unions to the left, constructing support for women’s unpaid labor, and -particularly among CP members- fighting racism.” [3]. One of the significant changes of the second wave was trying to get women back into the work place like they had been just a couple decades ago when the US partook in the second world war; there was also the fight to get women jobs that were considered a man’s job. Madsen goes in depth in regards to the main principles of socialist feminism and describing the main concerns that the movement had during the second wave, such as the “roles allocated to women that are independent of class status (mother, sister, housewife, mistress consumer, and reproducer).” She also goes on to discuss and argue how women, across the board, were essentially forced to pick occupations that pertained to their traditional roles before joining the workforce, such as caring professions that include teaching and nursing, because that’s all they have known. Not only were women encouraged to come back to work, but for those who were already working were also encouraged and partaking in making radical change in the workplace environment, where they experienced sexism, racism, and overall unsanitary environmental conditions. Not only did socialist feminists fight to improve working conditions, along with pushing for equal pay and opportunity, but they also fought for those who didn’t have what was considered a traditional ‘job’ at the time. Some of the progress that was made within the socialist aspects of the feminism movement during the second wave included collectivizing untraditional work that was not seen traditionally as what we typically think of when we think of “work” [4]. Many women considered their daily occupation as being a full-time mom and taking care of their home; capitalism never saw their work and labor as necessary to the economy [4]. This is reiterated by Fegurson when she states, “Women’s domestic work must be collectivized...because such work contributes to the overall wealth of society...The struggle against women’s oppression is neither optional nor contingent...It must not be sidelined if capitalism itself is to be transformed.” [4]. Either way, whether you worked at home or worked outside of it, the struggle to achieve equality and equity would not be possible without radicalization of not only our culture, but also our economy.

    Socialism within the second wave of feminism has inspired many women to participate in the fight for other causes such as reproduction rights and environmental policies despite the reputation that this faction of feminism had within the media. One of the biggest issues socialist feminists faced during the 60’s was how they were supposed to label themselves or which fights they wanted to be more vocal about than others. Storrs lays out the suppression of socialist feminism that occurred during the McCarthy era, where women had to essentially silence some of their views in order to avoid persecution because of the policies they championed that they deemed as socialist ideas [10]. Women that were in high positions, such as Mary Dublin Keyserling, who worked in the Department of Commerce, who was forced to step down/resign from their positions because of accusations of being a part of the Communist Party and partaking in their activities, had to be careful with what they publicly partook in [10]. Many women were afraid of being vocal about their political ideologies and being labeled as Marxists because of the previous decade where many individuals were prosecuted because of the many accusations that were made by Joseph McCarthy, who was a US Senator at the time. Even though the McCarthyism era ended by the mid-50’s, many were still afraid to align themselves with those who were considered Communists or Socialists. Gordon reiterates this by stating,  “The political culture extended beyond those who explicitly called themselves socialist feminists. Many avoided the term because they abhorred the regumes labeled socialist, others because of the continuing impact of red-baiting.” [3]. Besides workplace reform and civil rights issues, many women also fought for other issues such reproductive rights. The US during the 60’s were still considered somewhat conseravative compared to some other western nations (especially western countries that were hardline socialists). Haug discusses paradoxes within feminism when it comes to progress in capitalistic vs socialist environments. One example of a paradox that Haug discusses is reproductive rights; Haug argues this paradox by mentioning how the west has always boasted about women being more free in this part of the world, however, reproductive rights in West Germany (capitalist) were much more limited than reproductive rights in East Germany (socialist) [6].

    Socialism within the second wave of feminism has inspired many women to fight with those on the front line during the Civil Rights Movement, persist and fight for reform in the workplace in regards to equal pay and opportunity, and participating in the fight for other causes such as reproduction rights, immigration, and environmental policies despite the reputation that this faction of feminism had within the media. What can we say about modern socialist feminists? Well, for one, it’s difficult to directly identify who’s considered a socialist feminist and who isn’t. This is because the current wave of feminism is currently focusing and fighting for the many ambitions that socialist feminists had during the 60’s that were considered radical at the time. As a whole, the current wave of feminism wants to radicalize change in all aspects of life, for both men and women. Not only this, but the current wave of modern day feminism, like the socialist feminists of the 60’s, is still very vocal and active in the fight against the systematic oppression of BIPOC. So is this to say that modern day feminism is considered socialist? Not necessarily (depending on who you ask…). There are still many factions within modern day feminism that don’t really identify with the platform that many feminists have on mainstream media (especially on topics such as abortion). However, it can be confidently said that the legacy of socialist feminists during the 60’s had been the powder keg of radicalization that inspired many women to become even more ambitious and continuing to fight till this day for even more change. The legacies of individuals, such as Tillie Lerner Olsen, Esther Peterson, Myra Wolfgang, and Claudia Jones, will continue to inspire future generations to fight for equality and equity in all aspects for all individuals, regardless of race, sex, religion, and sexuality.

[1] Cobble, Dorothy Sue. Feminism Unfinished: a Short, Surprising History of American Women's Movements. S.n., 2015.

[2] Shapiro, L. and Kaplan, J., 1998. Red Diapers: GROWING UP IN THE COMMUNIST LEFT. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois press.

[3] Gordon, Linda. “Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the ‘Second Wave.’” New Labor Forum, vol. 22, no. 3, 2013, pp. 20–28. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Oct. 2020.

[4] “Socialist Feminism: Two Approaches to Understanding Women’s Work.” Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, by Susan Ferguson, Pluto Press, London, 2020, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

[5] Mirza, Heidi Safia. “The Dilemma of Socialist Feminism: A Case for Black Feminism.” Feminist Review, no. 22, 1986, pp. 103–102. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

[6] Haug, Frigga. “The End of Socialism in Europe: A New Challenge for Socialist Feminism?” Feminist Review, no. 39, 1991, pp. 37–48. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

[7] Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky. “Socialist Feminism: What Difference Did It Make to the History of Women's Studies?” Feminist Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2008, pp. 497–525. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

[8] “Gender and Class: Socialist Feminism and Ann Beattie.” Feminist Theory and Literary Practice, by Deborah L. Madsen, Pluto Press, LONDON; STERLING, VIRGINIA, 2000, pp. 184–212. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

[9] Lynn, Denise. “Socialist Feminism and Triple Oppression: Claudia Jones and African American Women in American Communism.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, vol. 8, no. 2, 2014, pp. 1–20. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

[10] Storrs, Landon R. Y. “Red Scare Politics and the Suppression of Left-Feminism: The Loyalty Investigation of Mary Dublin Keyserling.” Liberty and Justice for All?: Rethinking Politics in Cold War America, edited by Kathleen G. Donohue, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, pp. 51–90. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

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