"Women and The Socialist Parties"


"Women and The Socialist Parties"


Mari Jo Buhle, noted prof of women's history, is one of the pivotal figures in my history of the Politics of Women's Culture. Buhle, along with her husband Paul, while grad stus at the Univ. of Wisconsin, became involved in SDS and published Radical America.

In the first issue of Radical America to consider "the woman question" Buhle contributed her early research on women in socialism. "Women and The Socialist Parties" turns the predecessors of Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn into 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 SP 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 WLM.

Despite the derision of their brothers-in-arms of “pink tea party propaganda” women within the SP 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 SP was forced to addressed 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”hmmm shades of the radical feminist/politico split. Again, the parallels astonish me. Replace socialism with NL and we’ve the split into the autonomous WLM, a parallel clearly not lost to Buhle who repeatedly uses the word autonomous.

The Socialist Party, much like the New Left, continued to disregard the pleas of the women, until in 1908, in appropriately for the parallels I wish to draw, in Chicago, where in the 1970s the strongest socialist-feminist group emerged. “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 at a convention later that year “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”

Remove the dates, and the above serves quite well as a justification for separatism, in the sense of women working with women only, in the WLM. In this tale of competing entities, it is oddly 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, but 1910 the NWC had become a powerful player in the SP. 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” aka “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,” which reminds me of the earliest radical feminists, such as Firestone did, in their narrative of women’s oppression. These self-identified predecessors made a “special appeal to women as women [which] brought the socialists into the main line of the burgeoning feminist movement” like Mitchell and Bentson did in the late 1960s. 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.

One doesn't have to dig too deep into the historical parallels to see the cautionary historical tale offered here. If women don't get with the program in the women's liberation movement, then those N.O.W. ladies will prevail.


Mari Jo Buhle


Radical America


February 1970


Radical America




Mari Jo Buhle, “ "Women and The Socialist Parties",” The Politics of Women's Culture, accessed September 23, 2018, https://womensculture.omeka.net/items/show/3.