The Popular Front and Feminism

Report on Congress of American Women (LexusNexus).

James R. Barrett writes about the Communist Party USA’s strategy of the Popular Front during the Great Depression and the Second World War:

[M]any of the roots of modern feminist movement are located in the Popular Front organizations of the postwar period. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, as women poured into the Party, they organized national and state commissions on the status of women, raised the issue of women’s rights, and joined with liberal middle- and working-class women in consumer and feminist organizations. The creative thinking of Mary Inman, a theorist whom the feminists of the 1970s often invoked as a mother of the new movement, outlived her 1943 expulsion from the CPUSA. Communist women built on her ideas regarding the special exploitation of women, going beyond the Party’s usual language of class. By the late 1940s, such activity had pushed the CPUSA beyond its narrowly economic interpretation of women’s oppression and produced a campaign within the Party against what came to be called “male chauvinism.” The Party launched the Congress of American Women (CAW) in 1947, which was deeply influenced by Communists but also included many prominent and many anonymous early feminists. Born in the midst of political reaction, the organization was short-lived, but what survived of Popular Front-era women’s activism brought the issues of feminism into the labor movement and a variety of consumer and community groups. The Party’s activities also drew African American women to feminism, highlighting their tripple oppression, and laid the roots for Black feminist theory…The tragedy of these Popular Front women activists, as Landon Storrs (2003) has shown, was that while the Communist party provoked and to some degree nurtured this early feminism this same political link, in the context of postwar political repression and CPUSA sectarianism, helped to isolate them and limit their potential to create a mass feminist movement. The effect of such repression was severe enough that left-wing feminists covered up their close contacts with the CPUSA and their early feminist work in unions, consumer groups, and other Popular Front organizations even as they pioneered “second-wave feminism” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Barrett, 544)

Source:

Barrett, James R. “Rethinking the Popular Front.”  Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 4 (Oct. 2009): 531-550.

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