The Historical Struggle to Rid Socialism of Sexism

When it was founded, the Socialist Party of America proclaimed itself as the champion of women’s rights. The reality was much more complicated

Socialists in Union Square, N.Y.C.
Socialists gather in New York City, but the crowd is conspicuously male-dominated considering the party's official stance on women's rights. Library of Congress

In the earliest years of the 20th century, women’s rights left much to be desired. Husbands could beat and rape their wives with little worry of recourse; in 1910, the United States Supreme Court denied wives the right to prosecute their husbands for assault. It was illegal to disseminate information on contraception. Laws giving wives rights to their own earnings and property had slowly crept across most states, but women were still fighting for equal access to educational opportunities and professional spheres; campaigning for more practical clothing. In 1908, New York banned women from smoking in public. Only 19 states had granted women full or partial suffrage before 1920, when all U.S. women achieved full voting rights.

The nation’s major political parties, meanwhile, offered little to women agitating to upend the status quo. In the 1908 presidential election party platforms, the Democrats declared themselves “the champion of equal rights and opportunities to all,” yet never mentioned improving women’s rights. While they allowed women to participate in the Democratic national convention, only five delegates out of 1,008 were women, and all that the Republicans promised was to investigate women’s working conditions. The smaller Prohibition party wanted “uniform marriage and divorce laws” and suffrage based upon intelligence and English-language literacy.

The nascent Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901, seemed to be different. Its platform specifically called for women’s suffrage and had formed a Women’s National Committee with the specific goal of persuading women to join the party. By 1909, of its 50,000 registrants, 2,000 were women.

Socialists offered “a rather extraordinary space for women's involvement in politics, certainly unlike any other party,” says Paul Heideman, a historian of the American Left at New York University. Yet, even with the socialists’ doctrinal commitment, the party’s actual record of fighting for women’s equality and inclusion was lacking.

To firebrands like Lena Morrow Lewis, who had risen quickly to become one of the Socialist Party’s most well-known organizers and orators, the misogyny of the party’s male membership was blinding them to societal realities. Her political party had been around for a decade when, in 1911, Lewis issued a stern warning to her like-minded cohort: "because a man labels himself Socialist does not endow him with brains nor make him broad-minded and liberal in his views. ...The prejudice of small-minded men should not be catered to."

Many early (male) socialists argued that once socialism was in place, feminism would be rendered unnecessary, so a separate push for women’s rights was therefore superfluous; all energy, they argued, should be put toward advancing socialism. (Even today, some prominent socialists decry “identity politics” as a distraction from the key goal of achieving a socialist society.)

On the other hand, “women socialists pushed for a more aggressive approach to women's liberation,” says Heideman. “They argued that the party needed to do more to recruit women specifically, that the party had too often taken women for granted.”

Famed feminist writer Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ poem “The Socialist and the Suffragist,” published in the wildly popular socialist paper Appeal to Reason in 1912, reflected the tension between the socialist and women’s movements of the time:

Said the Suffragist to the Socialist:
‘You men will always find
That this old world will never move
More swiftly in its ancient groove
While women stay behind!‘
‘A lifted world lifts women up,’
The Socialist explained.
‘You cannot lift the world at all
While half of it is kept so small,’
The Suffragist maintained.

In January 1912, author and activist Ernest Untermann called out hypocritical behavior of his fellow socialists in the pages of the Railway Carmen’s Journal: “[I]t seems inexplicable at first sight that even … Socialists should look with indifference or disfavor upon the efforts of their wives, sweethearts, mothers, sisters to secure equality with men. The fact is indisputable, however. It does exist and persist in our own ranks.” Untermann identified his comrades’ sexism as being rooted in men’s fear that expansion of a woman’s horizons would make her more self-reliant and “less willing to swallow all the crooked logic of the ‘superior’ male mind.”

Things weren’t much better for socialists in Europe, where a burgeoning women’s rights movement was also at odds with the push for economic equality. It took until 1928 for the United Kingdom to grant women equal voting rights to men; France was even later to the party, with French women not legally casting a ballot until 1945. “Women’s suffrage was beyond the pale of practical politics, unlikely to be realized and still less likely to interest voters. Not only did socialists avoid the subject of the suffrage, but some actually opposed women’s suffrage,” historian Charles Sowerwine wrote in his book Sisters or Citizens: Women and socialism in France since 1876.

In both of Britain’s major socialist parties of the era, “hostile attitudes were at times expressed by individual leaders or branches towards the Woman Question and priority was rarely given to issues of interest to women, while female members … were confined to gender-specific roles,” Karen Hunt and co-author June Hannam wrote in Socialist Women: Britain, 1880s to 1920s.

Suffrage organizations, while seemingly fighting for more equality, were mostly advocating for voting rights for wealthy white women. Literature from groups like the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) called for literacy tests and nativity requirements for voting and encouraged black disenfranchisement. “In the early 20th century, the NAWSA had embarked on a explicitly racist and xenophobic path under Carrie Chapman Catt,” Heideman says. Catt famously declared, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.”

Carrie Chapman Catt
Carrie Chapman Catt Wikimedia Commons

But Heideman notes that some socialist women worried that in punting the political hot-potato of suffrage, their party was effectively “surrendering the movement for women's liberation to middle-class feminist groups who would never help working women.”

“The American suffrage movement has been, until very recently, altogether a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people,” acclaimed feminist anarchist writer Emma Goldman declared in 1911.

By challenging women’s emancipation as marginal to the socialist project, socialist women, Hunt says, reconfigured the meaning of socialism itself. “They were inspired by socialism’s promise of a new way of life. To imagine the development of a new kind of politics, which would provide the possibility for women to develop their full potential as human beings,” Hunt says in an interview.

Theresa Malkiel, who was elected to the party’s Women's National Committee in 1909 and today is best known as the founder of International Women’s Day, observed that all of the women at the 1908 New York Socialists Women’s Conference were “tired of their positions as official cake-bakers and money-collectors” and eager to take on more active work within the party. (A conference, Malkiel notes, that most of the men laughed at.)

“Women socialists voiced considerable discontent over their status within the party. ‘Not all men who call themselves socialists,’ one noted, ‘are fully so where women are concerned,’” Heideman wrote last year in Jacobin magazine.

Elsewhere in Untermann’s screed, he describes this seemingly good guy who supports women’s rights so long as it benefits him personally to do so, but quickly puts her back in her place once it infringes upon the status quo: “This type of man is willing to flatter, cajole, pet and champion women, so long as they are willing to be his playthings. But when a woman stands upon the level of equality and attempts to lift this sort of admirer to her own noble plane, this champion quickly ...drops his mask of chivalry, and frowns upon her.”

Malkiel wished men in her party would embody the platform statement: “There can be no emancipation of humanity without the social independence and equality of sex,” but they always came up short. “How bitter is our disappointment whenever we come to look upon matters as they really are—men who ... follow their promise to the letter, as far as generalities are concerned, but stop short where the question comes to the practical point of sex equality,” Malkiel wrote in an essay published in International Socialist Review in 1909. “What revolution will yet have to take place in the conceptions of men! What change of education, before they will be able to attain the knowledge of a pure human relationship to woman!”

As a Russian immigrant who became a New York garment worker at age 17, Malkiel was a champion of immigrant rights and fair and safe working conditions for women. Her novelization of the shirtwaist factory strikes was published in 1910; a year later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, mostly women. Her book and the fire are credited with pushing the state to adopt 36 new worker safety regulations.

Without women’s full participation, Malkiel knew socialism would fail. She lamented her party’s lackluster efforts to address the needs of working-class women. If one turned to a socialist man for support, she was “doomed to be disillusioned, for they discourage her activity and are utterly listless towards the outcome of her struggle.” Socialist women would have to launch their own endeavor for equality.

Theresa Malkiel
Theresa Malkiel Wikimedia Commons

Members of the Women’s Committee served as convention delegates, organized rallies, engaged in extensive campaigning and canvassing, gave lectures and authored articles and pamphlets, with the aim of recruiting women to the cause and advocating for increased prominence of women’s issues in socialist platforms.

“These units often had great success, with some of their organizers bragging that they were bringing men to socialism through their wives, rather than the other way around,” Heideman said. “Especially on the Great Plains, where socialist politics often took the form of large, revival-style encampments, women played a central role.”

Many prominent socialist women also founded their own socialist publications and formed their own groups was a way to overcome the practical barriers to political participation. But Hunt says socialist women disagreed as to whether such separate initiatives should be regarded as “patronising” and “evidence of a socialist sexual division of politics” or as a positive effort toward accommodation and inclusion.

When asked about sexism among prominent socialists, Hunt said the most infamous example is Ernest Belfort Bax, a staunch men’s rights advocate who joined Britain’s first organized socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation.

“He was overtly misogynist, claiming that women were inherently inferior and liable to hysteria, and therefore not a fit as men for ‘political, administrative or judicial functions,’” Hunt says. But Bax’s views were not representative of all socialist men of the era, and both male and female party members regularly challenged him. At least one socialist woman took Bax on in print, arguing “not only that he was prejudiced, but that his anti-feminism was incompatible with his socialism and his membership of the SDF,” Hunt said. But the party believed a member’s stance on women’s rights was a matter of individual conscience, so it was ultimately impossible to censure or oust him.

Hunt cites multiple instances of sexist language in the SDF’s newspaper in the late 1800s: “half a dozen good looking girls would treble and quadruple the usual collection made at any open air meeting.” “Now if we were to constantly point out to women that under Socialism ... their chief duties would consist of ‘shopping’, and selecting articles which would beautify themselves and their homes … we should soon get them on our side.” Some socialist men argued the distractions of consumption—“frocks, bonnets and fashions”—kept women from empathizing with socialist politics.

There was a sort of ‘feminizing,’ Heideman says: “Women's supposed domesticity and kindness were elevated as values which socialism would enshrine once it did away with the brutish exploitation of capitalism. Both male and female socialists advanced this kind of gendered vision of social transformation.”

Sometimes, socialist women embraced these stereotypes. A delegate to national socialist conventions and to the international congress of 1910, May Wood Simons endeavored to show that she could be a wife who was both domestically devoted and intellectually stimulating. The prevailing ideology of the time was the “cult of true womanhood,” which glorified supposed differences between the genders. Women were weaker, likely to be exhausted by too much education or work, but more moral and spiritually pure, and such attributes were best suited to crafting a sanctuary-like home for one’s family. The Women's Labour League in Britain, for example, described itself in 1910 as “an organisation to bring the mother-spirit into politics.” Some feminists used these theories as a springboard for their own efforts, arguing for women’s superiority based on their reproductive capacity and moral superiority, but this only reinforced society’s narrow view of women’s abilities.

“Few countries have produced such arrogance and snobbishness as America. Particularly is this true of the American woman of the middle class,” Goldman’s 1911 essay continues. “She not only considers herself the equal of man, but his superior, especially in her purity, goodness, and morality. Small wonder that the American suffragist claims for her vote the most miraculous powers.”

Even Untermann, after explaining “an interest in public life means more efforts for emancipation from home drudgery,” went on to note it would lead women to “exert their power to make the home more beautiful, more worthy of its name,” and that a “more active interest of the children in their mother’s public duties” would produce “a better grade of citizens, a cleaner public and private life.”

That early socialists were even open to grappling with the “woman question” was radical, giving women hope that a more equitable future was possible.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.