A Nazi woman-leader declared at a Congress that children’s homes and nurseries should disappear as soon as possible. According to her, “the abolition of children’s homes would promote ‘family life,’ for the woman would be occupied only with rearing children, attending to the needs and well-being of her husband and would not take part in any public activity.”
Such are the blessings which fascism has in store for the German woman. In addition to worsening her economic position, fascism is heaping disgrace upon the women, pushing them back into the position from which they have emancipated themselves through long and hard struggles some decades ago.
Elimination from all public offices and leaving for her only the 3Ks (Kinder, Kirche, Kueche), the children, church, and the kitchen, the double enslavement of the women, by the capitalist state and male superiority, are the gifts which Hitler brought the woman in his Third Reich.
Those words are from an article my Oma wrote in 1934 for Working Woman, a monthly publication of the Communist Party, for the March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day. A friend found it while helping in a search for family immigration records of old – I had never seen this but the words brought back the person who meant so much to me while growing up. Her article was important then, for the true nature of what Nazism represented was not yet fully appreciated so soon after Hitler came to power. And it is important today, because too few remember how central suppression of women was to the fascist project. The nature of women’s oppression and resistance she describes speaks to a continuum visible in current movements to resist the particular burdens on women posed by capitalism in its neo-liberal phase as well as against the use of strident and overt appeals to patriarchal domination of women by right-wing authoritarians.
A review of that 1934 issue gives a sense of what that struggle for women’s liberation looked like when the Depression was still a reality. The combination of desperation for any kind of job, speed-up, dangerous work conditions and low pay was acute in the textile industry – one of the few centers for women’s jobs in industrial towns in New England and in the South. The result: spontaneous and organized protests. The violent suppression of a 1929 strike in Gastonia, North Carolina was a recent memory as was the death at the hands of armed vigilantes of worker/organizer and song writer Ella Mae Wiggins (her story has been memorialized by several novels, including Grace Lumpkin’s To Make my Daily Bread, which was excerpted in that issue of Working Woman). Worker discontent was to boil over a few months later in a national strike as 400,000 workers – mostly women – walked off the job in one of the largest national work stoppages in the U.S. to that point. This was one of the precipitating events of 1934 that was to culminate in mass unionism and the creation of the CIO. Unfortunately, though, the textile workers suffered a defeat that they were unable to overcome – the defeat in the South due to state-sanctioned and permitted extra-legal violence was to prove the Achilles heel for labor going forward. The violence of lynching – nominally done to “protect” women – fed into the culture that led to violence against the largely white women workers who sought to organize.
There was also an article about the miners strikes and the role of women in them. From the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s mining suffered from overproduction and layoffs. The United Mine Workers was divided and split while engaged in bloody strikes as sheriffs’ deputies patrolled mining towns as if an occupying army. A photo of Albino Cumerlato, a miner’s wife active in the Women’s Auxiliary who was killed during a strike in Southern Illinois, speaks to the war-zone atmosphere each time miners organized to assert their rights. And because those strikes pitted entire communities against surrounding authorities, miners’ women’s committees played a far more central role than in urban industry with a mainly male workforce. The article describes how women would rotate among themselves shared work in caring for children and cooking in the strike camps so that they could also rotate participation on picket lines and in meetings. The immediate battles described all ended in miner defeats (including the one in Harlan Country, Kentucky during which Florence Reece, a wife and daughter of coal miners, wrote Which Side are You On?) – but unlike textile workers, the years ahead would see a revival of union strength as the United Miners Workers (no longer at war with itself) regained lost ground and played a key role in the birth of the CIO.
As women were central to the life of mining communities, so women functioned as leaders in building community in struggle amongst the unemployed. Highlighted therefore in that issue was the demand of Unemployed Councils for passage of a bill for unemployment insurance, which had been a central demand of Communists and Socialists (but strongly opposed by old-line leaders of the AFL) since the Stock Market crash of 1929. Working Woman’s account focused on the black women from the South who took part in a conference in DC as part of that campaign to push a Congress that refused to budge. The legislation failed to pass but the agitation continued and contributed to the passage in 1935 of legislation that provided for the unemployed (through the Social Security Act and Federal Emergency Relief). The gains, even if not as far-reaching as initially proposed, made an enormous difference in people’s lives.
The articles about women in the unemployed movement and in the miners’ struggles emerged out of the reality that women were the primary care givers in most families. But International Woman’s Day was about the whole person – and so there was also an article about birth control and the effort to make it legal, alongside the demand for free medical care for women in labor. The need for women to decide how many and whether to have children was part and parcel to the demand for women to be treated with dignity and respect while giving birth, and to be able to do so safely and thus avoid all too common maternal deaths. The class arrogance of many doctors when treating working-class women was harshly criticized.
Yet there was another dimension of women’s rights highlighted– their full participation in the overall struggle for justice and socialism. The life and legacy of Louise Mitchell, one of the leaders of the Paris Commune in 1871, was commemorated as representative of the meaning of International Women’s Day past, as were the women who joined with her to fight alongside men on the barricades in its defense. Bringing that legacy to the then present, the women who joined men in the Socialist-led armed resistance in Austria to the imposition of a clerical fascism were honored. The victory of a form of clerical fascism closely aligned to Mussolini’s Italy (imposition of German fascism was still four years away) was one of the many global defeats of working people in the early 1930s and contributed to the mix of fear, anger and hope of the time. The dangers of war and of the need for peace – peace which the victory of German fascism put in jeopardy in a manner clear to many from the moment the Nazis came to power – was also written about in that issue. The articles reflected the anti-New Deal bias of Communists (and many Socialists) in the early years of FDR’s administration, but they also spoke to and reflected the radical upsurge and a broadening understanding of what could be possible that was to help propel the United States to the left in a decade when much of the rest of the world fell to reaction.
Taken as a whole what we see in the above was the legacy of International Socialist Women’s Congress which first called for the celebration of International Women’s Day rooted in the demand of equality – defined as respect for the rights of women as workers, and as full participants in the life of society; as the right of a woman to control her own body within and outside the family and the right to raise children with food on the table in a world without war; as the right for full participation in the struggle for freedom, for equality, for socialism. The language used and how these were understood were couched differently from today -- many in the socialist and labor movements only gave lip service in their support while others did not hide their acceptance of women’s subordination – but the underlying struggle for equality in society and within the socialist movement never ceased. And, for its part, right-wing power never ceased to denounce socialism for the possibility it offered for equality.
Which gets us back to my Oma’s article. She and my Opa had come to the U.S. in the mid-1920s; a coal miner, he was blacklisted in Germany after the union suffered a bitter defeat in one of the struggles between capital and labor in a Weimar Republic that was always on the edge of civil war. He next worked the mines in Western Pennsylvania (and was blacklisted after another lost strike). They moved to New York where my Oma worked as a house cleaner – a common occupation for working-class German immigrants in those years. They had, however, every intention of returning to Germany where my mother had stayed, being raised by her grandparents. But then Hitler came to power, my Oma’s father and brothers were arrested. Thus, instead of their going home, my mother came here early in 1934. The article quoted must have been written shortly thereafter when the impossibility of a return became manifest – neither were to go back to Germany until we went as a family in 1958.
My Oma had become a Communist as a young person following the horrors of World War I and in the conditions of poverty and deprivation which hit mining communities especially hard in the years that immediately followed. In the course of that – or perhaps inherent to that – she also became a strong advocate for women’s rights. One of the substantial achievements of the Weimar Republic under Social Democratic influence was the dissemination of sex education in public schools and legalization of some forms of birth control. In that atmosphere, a campaign emerged to pass legislation to end the prohibition on abortion, which became a core element in the German Communist Party’s work among women, especially in the urban slums where too many faced the desperate choice of another hungry mouth to feed or a dangerous back alley procedure. One of the central planks of the Nazis during the years before they came to power was an assault on “bourgeois feminism,” an attack on Social Democratic educational reform and fear mongering about “godless Communism” and the “dangers” of free love and the abolition of the family that, it was claimed, Marxists were to impose on all women. Once they took power the fascists acted swiftly to roll back women’s rights, force them out of the workforce and ban birth control. As Margaret Atwood imagines for a possibly dystopian future in A Handmaid’s Tale, women in Nazi Germany were consigned to breed men for the war machine.
Something of my Oma’s bitterness at what transpired comes through in what she wrote – I can still hear her voice through all these years telling me as a child that Hitler wanted to limit women’s lives to “Kinder, Kirche, Kueche.” All this is not too far from Trump and Pence’s program today; the dual sides of how women are devalued as human beings reflect not just their twisted personalities, they speak to the core of their reactionary politics aimed as suppressing democratic rights for all by putting women in their “place” as sex object or mother.
And in the struggles that she and so many others were going though in the 1920s and ‘30s we see what too many immigrant women face today – fleeing from war and repression, children and parents separated from each other by poverty and violence, exploitation at work all the worse because of a lack of rights, the need for peace with justice so as to have a home rather than live with an ever-present sense of loss. Absent that, women migrants remain the most vulnerable to the dangers around them, yet are relied upon for their strength to hold families together in the face of a hostile society. We should celebrate International Women’s Day in that spirit of resistance and hope that helped transform U.S. society after 1934, that helped defeat fascism a decade later, as we confront the urgent need in our present to create a world in which such sacrifices are no longer necessary.