Women's liberation, then and now

Submitted by libcom on July 27, 2005

Women's liberation, then and now

"Life itself becomes too dear, So vast are one's dreams." -Louise Michel

"A work is never beautiful, unless it in some way escapes its author." -D.H. Lawrence


We have reached a turning point in our work which can by no means restrict itself only to Luxemburg and Marx. We must go both backwards and forwards in history and cover the globe. I dare say, since life itself began, woman has had to struggle; and in order to see the dialectic of development, both of our age and other historic periods, we will need to gather disparate strands that may, at first, look quite disconnected. I trust, however, that at the end a direction will manifest itself.

The phrases referring to "since life itself began" and "global" may seem too pompous but what I have in mind is quite simple. I'm referring to the never-ending rebellion whether we begin in 1647 with the first Maid's Petition to Parliament for "liberty every second Tuesday"(1); or whether we jump to 1831 when, in the very year Nat Turner led the greatest slave revolt in the U.S., a Black woman named Maria Stewart-the first woman to [do so] publicly, white or Black- spoke out in Boston(2):

"O ye daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! no longer sleep nor slumber but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties...How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?...How long shall a mean set of men flatter us with their smiles, and enrich themselves with our hard earnings: their wives' fingers sparkling with rings and they themselves laughing at our folly?"

Other "firsts" crowd into mind, whether we are referring to Flora Tristan who was the first to call for an International of working women and working men in 1844, the year that Marx discovered a whole new continent of thought; or whether we look at the 1848 revolutions in Europe and see that what looked of much lesser importance, the First Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, actually opened up a whole new force for revolution. That women did hear that call became clear in 1851, when Jeanne Deroin and Pauline Roland sent greetings to the Second National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts from the St. Lazare prison in Paris, to which they had been sentenced for their activities in and after 1848. On behalf of the Convention, Ernestine Rose declared: "After having heard the letter read from our poor incarcerated sisters of France, well might we exclaim, Alas, poor France! where is thy glory? where the glory of the Revolution of 1848?"(3)

The Black dimension is the most exciting of all. Not only did it inspire the creation of the 1848 Woman's Rights Convention, but it did so through its own activity; that is to say, when the white middle-class women in the antislavery societies saw the Sojourner Truths and Harriet Tubmans(4) as orators and travelers and thinkers, while their own work was reduced to auxiliary tasks, they recognized what it means to be Reason as well as Force. This became especially crucial in 1867 after the Civil War in the U.S., when even the most revolutionary Abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, refused to help collaborate with the women's fight for suffrage on the grounds that this was the Negro year. Sojourner Truth hit back at her own leader, Frederick Douglass, calling him "short-minded." Not only did she separate from her Black male colleagues and align with the white women, but it became clear that "short-minded" was more than an epithet. Rather, it was a new language-the language of thought-against those who would put any limitations to freedom.

In four years, the world had, indeed, become witness to the greatest revolution of men and women for a totally new, classless society-the [1871] Paris Commune. Why, may we ask, did it take nearly a century to learn all the facts of the breadth of women's actions, and why, even then, did it take a woman to write THE WOMEN INCENDIARIES?(5)

Nor should we forget...that the American labor struggles,(6) with very active participation by women, had been continuous since the very first National Labor Union was established in the U.S. and affiliated with the First International. However, it was not until 1908, when the infamous Triangle [Shirtwaist] Fire took the lives of 143 women working in that sweat shop, and Rose Schneiderman organized no less than 120,000 in the funeral march-not just to mourn but to declare solidarity with all unorganized women workers-that it first reverberated to Europe. By 1911, Clara Zetkin's proposal to the Second International for an International Woman's Day became reality.

Rosa Luxemburg becomes central here, but if we try to begin at some alleged high point on what was considered to be the "Woman Question," we will blind ourselves both to Luxemburg's multi-dimensionality and the newness that our age brought to the concept of women's liberation. Let's, instead, see what ground she laid in a letter that was, in the main, devoted to the anti-war work from which the revisionists stayed far, far away. In this letter [from prison] to Mathilde Wurm, seemingly out of nowhere, there suddenly appears a reference to the queen of the Amazons (and evidently, not as she is known in Greek legend as the one who was killed [by Achilles, but as] told by the famous German playwright, Heinrich Von Kleist, who had Penthesilea not only kill Achilles, but eat him). All this appears in a letter where she is so furious at her friend's defense of the revisionists' position on the war that she writes:

"I'm telling you that as soon as I can stick my nose out again I will hunt and harry your society of frogs with trumpet blasts, whip crackings, and bloodhounds-like Penthesilea I wanted to say, but by God, you people are no Achilles. Have you had enough of a New Year's greeting now? Then see to it that you stay HUMAN... Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life "on the scales of destiny" when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human..."(7)

It's this need to throw your whole life on the scales of destiny, it's this passion for revolution, it's the urgency to get out of prison confinement and open entirely new vistas, it's this need "to be human" that has characterized the whole of Luxemburg's vision, in the struggle for a new society. It has put the stamp on all she ever did, and ever longed to make real. And it is this which put so totally different a mark on her concept of women's liberation which was called the Woman Question in her day, that it makes it possible for our age to first understand it fully; in a great measure, more fully than she herself was conscious of...

The Black Dimension

When the 1907 Congress [of Russian Marxists]* referred back to the 1848 revolution, it was naturally mainly for purposes of debating the question of Marx's analysis of a revolution he participated in, as well as the theory of revolution that preceded the actual [revolution]-the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Peculiarly enough, it did not extend to the concept of permanent revolution that Marx projected in his 1850 Address to the [Communist League] after the defeat of the 1848 revolution. This is the more curious because Trotsky had projected his own theory of permanent revolution and Lenin referred at one point disparagingly to it in 1907. What none talked about was what was "in the air," be it 1848 or 1907, that is to say, the ramifications of an ongoing revolution into countries not experiencing it.

And yet, that is precisely the point that is of the essence to us today. Take the ramifications of the 1848 revolution, not as discussed in 1907, but in the period it happened. The very first women's liberation movement took place in the U.S. in Seneca Falls in 1848. Though none there, either, discussed a European proletarian revolution, revolution was in the air in the deepest possible manner in the U.S. both as a struggle for freedom against slavery, and as the beginning of a women's liberation movement. And there is no doubt that the inspiration for it came precisely from the Black dimension towards the middle-class women who were working in the anti-slavery movement, and moved to extend that towards their own very different type of liberation. And because [the] Black dimension was so crucial to any freedom struggle in the U.S., no matter what struggle you were engaged in, the Black dimension was the inspiration force, be it in the Abolitionist movement, in women's rights, or for that matter in the great literature of the day.

By 1860 when John Brown attacked Harper's Ferry, Marx considered it a WORLD signal for freedom, and, indeed, began leaving the library for actual activities which led to the establishment of the First Workingman's International. The point is that everything, most especially the theory of revolution, so deepened that whether it was his greatest theoretical work itself, CAPITAL, the organizational work of the First International, or woman as Reason as well as force, in the participation in his organization, it became a multifaceted total philosophy of revolution. In a way, an important way, this was prefigured** in the Taiping Revolution in the 1850s. That is to say, from Eurocentrism, Marx's world view was extending to Asian society, both Indian and Chinese. Even more important than global extension, as if that were narrowed to geography, was the concept of the forces of revolution, whether that be what he called a "second edition of the peasant revolution" as against the misused and most popular phrase, "rural idiocy"; a greater appreciation of artisans, or pre-capitalist society[;] and a greater hatred for capitalism as against playing up in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO the revolutionary features of capitalism when it overthrew feudalism.

It is fantastic, for example, for the [Women's Liberation Movement] today to so soon forget that not only the inspiration but the actual tactics of revolt for the activist '60s came from the Black dimension. And while not that direct a relationship to the development of the Marxist movement in Europe in the 1907 period, it is a fact that both the Black dimension and the [Women's Liberation Movement] that had begun as early as Marx's day and had come to a tragic climax in the famous Triangle fire, was made an international holiday by the first German socialist movement under the direction of Clara Zetkin. And yet we find no hint of any of this in either the discussions in the 1907 Congress or in the further development of Rosa Luxemburg. It is not as unconnected as it would appear to be, with the fact that she had what to this writer is a fantastically wrong position on the National Question. We will see this reappear again in 1917 when, though she hails the [Russian Revolution] as the greatest daring act, chooses to criticize the Bolsheviks [who were] actually carrying out instead of just believing in the principle of self-determination of nations. On the other hand, she herself turned to great new activity in women's liberation both during the suffrage campaign and in getting the greatest support for her anti-war activity among the women revolutionaries.

The reason that it is important before we get to the greatest period of [Luxemburg's] self-development, theoretically, organizationally, practically, and in the development and rejection of friendships-1910Ð1918-is that it's no abstract matter to talk about what is "in the air." There is, in fact, no other way to listen both to the voices from below, to anticipate both the subjective and objective developments, rooted in the economic and political crises of the day...


Notes for "Women's liberation, then and now"

1. Sheila Rowbotham, WOMEN, RESISTANCE AND REVOLUTION (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 15.

2. BLACK WOMEN IN 19TH CENTURY AMERICAN LIFE, edited by Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin (University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1967).

3. FEMINISM, edited by Miriam Schneir (New York: Random House, 1972).

4. See especially Earl Conrad, HARRIET TUBMAN (New York: Paul S. Erikson, 1943), and NARRATIVE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH, an Ebony Classic (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1970).

5. Edith Thomas' THE WOMEN INCENDIARIES was published in France in 1963 and in the U.S. in 1966 (New York: George Braziller) but is long out of print; and there never was a paperback edition.

6. Union WAGE (Berkeley, California) issued two pamphlets in 1974 by Joyce Maupin-Working Women and Their Organizations, 150 Years of Struggle and Labor Heroines, Ten Women Who Led The Struggle.

7. This letter, written Dec. 28, 1916, is included in Briefe an Freunde, edited by Benedikt and Kautsky, (Hamburg: EuropŠische Verlagsanstalt, 1950), pp. 44Ð6.

Notes for "The Black Dimension"

* In 1907, all the Marxist tendencies convened the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to discuss the then-ongoing, first Russian Revolution of 1905.

** A "?" appears above "prefigured" in the original text.