THE RISING OF THE WOMEN: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 by Meredith Tax

THE RISING OF THE WOMEN: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Tax wants to know what socialist women can do ""to organize for women's liberation in a nonrevolutionary period."" To find out, she turns to the period of 1880-1917, when a united front of socialists, laborites, and feminists temporarily existed in the Illinois Woman's Alliance, only to splinter after a short six years--with the result that later activism in the Women's Trade Union League, among the Wobblies, and in the push for suffrage reflected the class contradictions among different groups instead of their often shared concerns. Yet Tax never does justice to the historical material, largely because she never rises above the details of meetings and leadership struggles to an adequate level of analysis. Thus, while the short-lived (1888-1894) Illinois Woman's Alliance was remarkably successful in effecting reforms--including a child labor law, a compulsory education bill, the construction of new school buildings and baths--we never quite learn what made this remarkable un/on of some 30 women's organizations possible (strong unions and socialist women leaders existed in other times and places where union was not achieved) or what led to its fragmentation. Tax contents herself with blaming the middle-class women for failing to back the women of the labor movement, and these working-class women in turn for declining the leadership struggle and leaving the Alliance. To Tax, it is up to socialist women to seize control of feminist organizations: ""Where there is no battle, there can be no victory; and when leadership of the whole women's movement is voluntarily turned over to its bourgeois members, they will certainly take it."" Other historical segments simply elaborate this one point: the Women's Trade Union League, directed largely by the middle-class ""allies,"" emphasized union careerism for the rare and talented working-class woman instead of better working conditions for all women; the Wobblies made some women's issues such as birth control their own, but lacking any specific program for women, they could not sustain female activism and even protested against female suffrage. From all this historical material, Tax concludes that it's better to stay and fight than to leave feminism to the bourgeoises, that it's often better to have a women's organization as part of socialist parties than no separate organization. ""It would be pure formalism, however,"" she warns, ""to think that any organization offers a guarantee against chauvinism."" Talk of contradictions and formalism does not by itself a historical explanation make, and the complicated history of feminism and socialism does not yield to this rigid format.

Pub Date: Dec. 19th, 1980
Publisher: Monthly Review Press