Mari Jo Buhle

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Mari Jo Buhle, , along with her husband Paul, while graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, became involved in SDS and the publishing of Radical America.   Buhle contributed her early research on women in socialism, "Women and The Socialist Parties" which turns the predecessors of Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn into the foremothers of “women’s liberation activists of today.”

Her study describes “two principle categories of socialist women” “women who formed "autonomous, socialist-oriented groups” which the Socialist Party eventually recognized, and “women within the party who were reacting to the insurgency of the spontaneous women’s groups.” Buhle’s tale of the tragically divisive “question of primary goals” seems almost a foreshadowing of the women’s culture wars so closely do these divisions mirror those that occurred in the women's liberation movement. 

Despite the derision of their brothers-in-arms of “pink tea party propaganda” women within the Socialst Party remained committed to the “traditional woman’s role of providing a social auxiliary.” Gradually a splinter group formed a Women’s National Socialist Union” (shades of the sixties women’s unions) largely influential in a handful of states.As suffrage reached down to the working classes, the Socialist Party was forced to address the vexed woman question or risk seeing the workers coopted into reformism.

According to Buhle, "The Socialist Woman became the voice piece of women in the party who worked autonomously. The “other women” who organized separately “made it clear to male Socialists that women engaged in their separate branches were not only housewives in search for an education in socialism but in many cases articulate spokesmen of woman’s rights who seemed to draw most heavily from a volatile feminism, … Holding that, even under Socialism, women could not be free until they had developed the power of freedom within themselves, the organizers stressed the significance of separate women’s clubs.”

The Socialist Party, much like the New Left, continued to disregard the pleas of the women, until in 1908.   “The first joint meeting of the woman’s branch and the socialist woman’s league, … was held … for the purpose of effecting a national organization of Socialist women” separate from the party itself. Despite the creation of a National Woman’s Committee within the Socialist Party, “for many socialist women this historical event went by, not unnoticed, but without practical effect. The tensions between the women’s clubs and the male-dominated locals continued to reinforce their basic assumption that under then-current conditions women’s interests were not and could not be identified with those of men.”

In this tale of competing entities,  the party-funded National Women’s Committee that had more impact, as it could provide the educational resources to local groups, while the umbrella organization of those local groups, the Federation of Socialist Women’s Clubs, lacking the party resources, existed in name only.  Ultimately, thanks to an influx of female members supporting suffrage,  the National Women's Committee become a powerful player in the Socialist Party. The women, setting aside their “former attacks upon the men’s failure to live up to the old sex-equality platform … congratulated their male comrades for casting aside traditional prejudices against ‘feminine politics.’"

Still all was not perfect. Women still split in the party between those who “believe[d] that their tactics should flow from fundamental socialist theory” and women who sought “political expression in American society” particularly “reformist-suffrage.”  Unable to recruit working class women via the suffrage propaganda that had proved so successful in recruiting middle class women, Socialist women drew on Bebel and Engels to formulate a “materialist conception of the woman’s struggle” that “provided women with a view of history that denied a biologically determined role for their sex.”   However as suffrage became a mainstream movement, and the men within the Socialist Party pushed for more traditional socialist activism, the influence of women waned, and reformism won the day.


Radical America
Mari Jo Buhle