Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Hidden History of Women’s Liberation

Wed, May 28, 2014

by Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: Women and Class: Towards a Socialist Feminism (2011), by Hal Draper, August Bebel, Eleanor Marx, Clara Zetkin, and Rosa Luxemburg.
* Edited by E. Haberkern.

The organic connection between women’s liberation and socialism has been shoved so deeply down the Memory Hole that most people know nothing about it. Women and Class brings this rich history to light, revealing important lessons that our rulers prefer we not learn.
Part 1: “The Class Roots of the Feminist Movement” explains how the world’s first revolutionary women’s movement developed during the French Revolution, disappeared during the reaction, then re-emerged when the working class rose again in the mid-1800s.
Part II: ‘The Debate in the Social Democracy” chronicles the resurgence of the socialist and women’s movements during the later 1800s and early 1900s with a focus on efforts to combat capitalist feminism (commonly called ‘bourgeois’ feminism) in society and also inside the socialist movement.

A movement of women

As Draper explains, various women (and men) had written about women’s rights prior to the French Revolution, but no organized movement of women was possible until the mass of society began to move.
“[I]nsofar as a revolutionary upheaval reaches down into the recumbent strata of society to set them in motion, women too are set in motion; and insofar as popular social forces are inert and passive, the women’s movement too is quiet or only partial.”(p.13)
During the height of the French Revolution, between 1789 and 1793, the masses rose against their feudal oppressors, and the mass of women was an integral part of that uprising.
“[The women] had to feed hungry families. This formed their politics; this was their politics in the first place; and so they were not imbued with the superstition that only men could act politically. And in acting on their “politics” they did not typically react to issues by writing declarations or pamphlets; they went into the streets. And in the streets they assumed equal participation in the teeming life of sansculotte politics, without anyone’s say-so.”(p.45)
Working women were central to the capture of the Bastille, key to returning the king to Paris from Versailles, crucial to the storming of the Tuileries, and actively involved in every protest, insurrection, and battle to defend the revolution. In 1792, the women of Lyons seized control of their city in response to intolerable economic conditions.
“They dominated the city for three days. ‘Women police commissioners’ established controls over price schedules, which the city authorities were forced to countersign.”(p.42)
The emerging capitalist class rode to power on the back of this movement. After the last remnants of feudalism were dismantled, the Church disempowered, and the aristocracy defeated, the capitalists had to stop the revolution from growing into a force that would also sweep them away.
“The danger of invoking revolution even for a class-limited objective is that it suggests to all oppressed people that the power on top can be overthrown; in that sense, it is infectious or contagious. This is one reason why revolutions – real revolutions, that is, social upheavals that turn society upside down – are so often truly creative, fructifying, and personally liberating for masses of people. This belies the common historical myth that revolution is nothing but a bestially destructive force.”(p.12)

The Revolutionary Women

Having overthrown one class of tyrants, the masses were unwilling to submit to a new class of tyrants. Legal equality meant nothing to those with no property, so the left wing strained to push the revolution forward to achieve social equality and mass democracy.
In May of 1793, the most militant women organized themselves into The Society of Revolutionary Women (La Société des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires) also called the Revolutionary Women (Femmes Révolutionnaires). They did not counter-pose women’s rights to the needs of the revolution; they fought for women’s rights to advance the revolution.
“[The Society of Revolutionary Women] was one of the few citywide political clubs, as distinct from section clubs and assemblies. It was the first all-women’s revolutionary vanguard association. It was the extreme left of the Revolution in organized form.”(p.43)
In order to bring the masses to heel, the Jacobins (the capitalist party) moved to crush the left opposition and, in particular, the Revolutionary Women.
In September 1793, the Jacobin government slandered and then arrested a leader of the Revolutionary Women, Claire Lacombe, on trumped-up charges. A month later, the RW meeting hall was sacked. After that, women’s societies were outlawed. The following year, all women were denied the right of association. These escalating attacks on the movement were resisted, but the newly-born working class was neither large enough nor economically important enough to build an alternative to capitalism.
The history of all battles is written by the victors, in this case, the capitalist class. As a result, the achievements of the Society of Revolutionary Women and its leaders – Claire Lacombe, Etta Palm, and Pauline Léon – have virtually disappeared from the record. Instead, histories of the period highlight the writings of bourgeois feminists like Olympe De Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, and George Sand who had nothing but contempt for the mass of women who had fought to change society from below.

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