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The Politics of Gender Women and the Left

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The Politics of




Gender

Women and the Left

COMMUNISM  AND  WOMEN

What  did  women  gain  in  the  revolutionaryyears?  Lenin  insisted proudly on  Bolshevik  success:  “Not  a  single  state . . . has  done  even  half  of  what the Soviet Government did for women in the veryfirst months.”11  Allowing for  nongendered  exclusions  of  propertyowners  from  the  franchise  in  the

1918 and 1923 constitutions, women had full citizenship in the Soviet state, sharing  equallyin  the  new  political  communityof  labor.  Equalitywas grounded  in  economic  independence,  as  the  right—and  obligation—to work. Impediments to equalitywere removed—the gendered apparatus of nineteenth-centuryliberal reforms no less than the patriarchalism of tsarist law.  Residential, property, and inheritance laws gave women equal rights in  land,  households,  and  communes.  Radical  labor  laws  provided  extra protections and equal pay. New family law addressed the household dom- inance of fathers, introduced civil marriage and divorce on demand, abol- ished  illegitimacy,  and  legalized  abortion.  Women’s  treatment  in  Muslim Central  Asia  was  also  addressed.  This  was  Western  feminism’s maximum program, to which no government in the West ever came close to agreeing.12

Treatment  of  motherhood  as  a  social  responsibilitywas the dark side. If childbearing was a collective good (as against individual and familyful- filment),  political  egalitarianism  and  sexual  radicalism  could  be  twinned with equallystrong programs of maternal and child welfare. For Kollontai at  the  Commissariat  for  Social  Welfare,  collectivized  living  freed  women from the familyto discharge their duties as workers and mothers. Indeed, she argued, attaching intimate relations, child-raising, and social reproduc- tion  to  the  nuclear  familywas  historicallyoutmoded:  “The  familyceases to  be  necessary.”13   But  few  Bolsheviks  were  comfortable with Kollontai’s advocacyof sexual freedom and antifamilial critique, and by1923 her ideas were  being  attacked  as  irresponsible.  Sexual  danger  replaced  sexual  free- dom in Bolshevik rhetoric. The familyform allowed sobrietyand discipline to  be  restored.  N.  Semashko,  People’s  Commissar  for  Health,  hammered this lesson home in 1925: “Drown your sexual energy in public work. . . . If  you  want  to  solve  the  sexual problem, be a  public worker, a comrade, not a stallion or a brood-mare.”14

This conservative turn decided the fate of Zhenotdel, the CPSU Women’s Department,  created  from  the  First  All-Russian  Congress  of  Working Women  in  November  1918.  Charged  with  raising  women’s  political con- sciousness, it was disregarded bymost partymen. It came to be channeled


in the usual ways—to socialization of housework and childcare, provision of social services, food distribution, caring for homeless children, or nursing the wounded in the Civil War. Kollontai colluded, distinguishing the public sphere  of  men  from  women’s  everyday  life.  Zhenotdel,  initially  used  for other  purposes,  was  seen  as  a  troublesome  diversion  and  in  1930  was closed.15

If the Russian Revolution’s legacyfor women was inconclusive, Stalin- ism consigned the issue to silence. In 1917–30, there were 301 Partydecrees and  resolutions  on  “women”;  in  the  next  thirtyyears  onlythree.16   This pattern  was  repeated  in  the  Communist  International.  The  second  Com- intern  Congress  launched  an  International  Women’s  Secretariat  with  sec- tions in Moscow and Berlin, unified under Klara Zetkin in November 1922, but  Soviet  insistence  on  a  single  model  of  women’s  agitation  created ten- sions from the start. In April 1926, the Comintern Executive replaced the Secretariat  with  a  new  women’s  department  directlyunder  itself.17   In  the individual CPs, the record varied. In the earlyyears, women’s membership was  weakest  in  Catholic  countries  where  women’s  suffrage  had  failed:  6 percent in Belgium, 1.5 percent in Italy, 2 percent in France. It was stronger where  Communists  carried  larger  numbers from the  existing labor move- ments with them in the splits of 1920–21, notablyin Germany(12 percent) and Czechoslovakia (20 percent).18

Particularlyin the smaller or illegal Communist parties, a women’s strat- egybarelyarose, as priorities were elsewhere. In Italy, socialists had seen the “woman question” in strictly“workerist” terms, ruling anything else, from  women’s  suffrage  to  social  policies,  dogmaticallyout  of  order.  But the salience of women’s wartime protests changed the terrain, and after the

1921 split the new CP immediatelymade the questione femminile a leading cause, seeing women’s political rights as essential to the missing democratic revolution. Communists still focused on women as workers, treating them otherwise  as  a  potentiallyconservative  force.”  But  Antonio  Gramsci forced discussion onto the ground of culture, where noneconomic issues of family, schooling, and religion could be raised. From 1921, he persuaded Camilla Ravera to address these questions in l’Ordine nuovo—“problems of  contraception,  abortion,  the  burden  of  housework, . . . the commercial nature of marriage . . . the most radical aspects of the Soviet experience . . .

[and] the implications of socialism for the transformation of the traditional family.”19   But this was terminated byFascism, which after 1922 smashed the  labor  movement,  dismantled  democracy,  and  reinstated  the  most  re- actionaryof gender regimes against women.20

A small CP like the British, with less than five thousand members in the early1920s,  couldn’t  mobilize  women  as  women.  The  party’s  industrial strongholds (mining in Scotland, South Wales, and the north, engineering in south Yorkshire and greater Manchester) were preciselythe labor move- ment bastions of skilled masculinitymost exclusionaryagainst women. Fe- male militants themselves opposed separate women’s sections, preferring an


ideal of emancipated and egalitarian comradeship instead. Female recruits— young women from socialist families, individual worker militants, teachers, and  educated women  radicalized  via the war—entered the mainstream of partywork.  This  worked  for  women  with  some  economic  independence, but ordinaryfemale “supporters” were connected vicariouslythrough their husbands.  Relieving  husbands  of  domestic  duties  itself  counted  as  “party work.” Women’s Sections held afternoon meetings in houses, keeping party wives  loyal  to  their  husbands’  political  activity,  providing  a  chance  for political discussion, and  counteracting housewifelyisolation. Yet this rep- licated  the  wider  society’s  sexual  division  of  labor,  with  women servicing their men—as “a sort of housewife to the party,” as one Communist hus- band disarminglyput it.21

Some of this came from the British party’s smallness. Recruiting outside the recognized working-class core was beyond its resources. It also resisted taking  noneconomic  oppression  seriously.  Conflict  over  birth  control  cli- maxed  in  the  summer  of  1922,  for  example,  leading  the  advocates  of women’s reproductive rights, Stella Browne, Cedar Paul, and Maurice Eden Paul, either to leave or take minor roles. Feminists radicalized bythe pre-

1914 suffrage campaigning were one of the CPGB’s founding groups, and it  squandered  the  chance  to  build  on  this start. The failure reflected both socialism’s gender blindness and the tightened discipline imposed byCom- intern in 1922–24.22

The  somewhat  larger  French  party,  60,000  strong  in  1924,  showed  a similar trajectory. In the early years it became a gathering point for diverse radicalisms  frustrated  with  available  political  options,  including  feminists and  sex  reformers,  offering  a  home  for  experimental  ideas  before  “disci- pline”  imposed  a  more  orthodox  frame.  In  contrast  to  the  Socialists and Radicals, the PCF consistentlyadvocated women’s suffrage, proposing bills in  1924,  1927,  and  1928,  and  vigorouslypressed  women’s  interests  at work.  Most  impressivelyof  all,  it  championed  the  cause  of  birth  control and  abortion  reform,  setting  itself  against  the  vociferous  pronatalist con- sensus of French public life and collaborating with Madeleine Pelletier and other radical feminists.23  On the other hand, Comintern directives steadily reduced the PCF’s openness, until after 1928 the partyhardened its sectar- ianism, asserting ownership over working women’s struggles, cutting its ties to  feminists,  and  sharpening  an  aggressivelymasculine  style. As member- ship halved by1930, women’s issues inevitablyreceded.24

The German Communist Party(KPD) seemed utterlytypical. It declared the  primacyof  the  class  struggle  in  industryfor  mobilizing  women  and ascribed emancipation to productive employment, backed by socialization of childcare, housework, and other domestic services. In the mid-1920s, it demanded  exclusive  focus  on  the  factory,  assigning  women  an  essential psychology  whose  “petty-bourgeois  backwardness”  required  undeviating emphasis on the class struggle. True proletarian consciousness, Ruth Fischer claimed, was impossible in the four walls of the household, and working-


class  housewives  needed  the  “hard  reality”  of  wage  work  to  escape  their backward mentality.25  Yet the KPD was an unrulyparty, fluctuating wildly in  membership:  from  a  notional  peak  of  450,000  after  fusing  with  the USPD in October 1920, it veered crazilyup and down, before plummeting from 294,230 to 121,394 between September 1923 and April 1924. This alone made the partyhard to control. Further, while the KPD became ac- cused of unimaginative Stalinist orthodoxy, it became despite itself a home for more complex agitations.

A large partylike the KPD had contacts with women that were denied to a small cadre partylike the British. Aside from wage workers themselves, it  had  three  bridges  to  working-class  women:  consumer cooperatives; ed- ucational work; and protests against shortages and prices. The last affords the  best  example.  Beginning  as  spontaneous  protests  byhousewives  and youth  in  late  1919  and  summer  1920,  repeated  in  winter  1921–22,  and peaking  in  the  second  half  of  1922  with  a  major  coda  in  summer  1923, such  actions  negotiated  fair  prices  with  shopkeepers and local authorities but also escalated into riots, with looting of food, shoes, and clothing, and battles against police. The KPD tried to shape this activityfor its own ends byforming “control committees” based on works councils to monitor local prices,  blurring  the  link  to  women’s  direct  actions.  Such  committees  had diverse  origins,  including  citywide  parliaments  of  works  councils,  local union  initiatives,  mass  meetings  at  big  firms,  or  informal  assemblies  of workers and housewives. But the KPD typically imposed its own structure. It  hitched  women’s  militancyto  the  works  councils,  subsuming  it  in  the



class struggle” of the (male) worker in production. The 840 delegates to the national congress of works councils in November 1922 included only

16 housewives and 16 working women. Women’s grassroots militancywas coopted into a bureaucratized revolutionaryposture. A separatelyinitiated women’s movement was demoted to auxiliarysupport for the old factory- based ways.26

The KPD practice was based in the dogma of the emancipatorynecessity of wage labor. Yet, however well-grounded in Marxist economics, this ap- proach  scarcelyappealed  to  hard-pressed  working-class  mothers:  in  one course for female cadres, the class bridled at the idea that housework was

unproductive.” Women’s discussion evenings in Berlin-Neuko¨ lln in 1922 replaced the factorystruggle’s exclusive primacywith a batteryof women’s demands: cooperative households to ease the domestic burden (as against the  KPD’s  program  of  factorycanteens,  municipal  provision, and  nation- alization of services); the “real eight-hour day” (in the home as well as the factory);  wages  for  housework;  free  choice  of  profession  for  women  (re- jecting  assumptions  about  women’s  work);  and  genuine  sexual  freedom

(beyond abortion reform and civil marriage).27

The  KPD  leaders  tried  to  make  this  local  militancyconform  with  its official line. And the KPD’s size and militancycontinued to attract radicals angrywith the SPD’s compromising: this applied to radical women no less


than radical men. Among German parties, the KPD did have the strongest program of women’s liberation, including not onlyfreeing women from the home, via the right to work, socializing domestic labor, and complete civil and professional equality, but also reproductive rights to birth control and abortion. In short, the KPD’s assumptions about women’s “backwardness” hardlyencouraged  women’s  equalityin  the  movement,  but  it  was  still  a place where women’s political militancycould be articulated. Later in the

1920s, this took surprisinglydeveloped forms.28

SOCIAL  DEMOCRACY  AND  THE GENDERING  OF  CITIZENSHIP

One effect of the war was a new prominence of the state in domestic life: if husbands, fathers, and male “breadwinners” were absent, then women’s resulting new “presence” needed attention. The earliest example was help for  soldiers’  wives,  and  as  war  continued  expenditure  escalated.  ByJuly

1918 in Britain, 1.5 million wives and 1.5 million dependent relatives were receiving  armyseparation  allowances  (plus  several  million  children),  re- quiring 120 million pounds per year, or two-thirds of annual central gov- ernment  spending  before  1914.  Government  became  involved  in  four ad- ditional areas: general income support and poor relief for the hardships of the war; controlling shortages and prices (especiallyfood and rents); social services for working women; and moral anxietyabout the absence of men, stressing  disruption  of  marriages  and  the  crisis  of  fertility,  the  spread  of prostitution, sexuallytransmitted diseases, youth criminalityand control of children, and women’s sexual independence.

Just  when  the  familywas  not  “there,”  it  became  vital  to  insist  on  its presence. Women’s de facto independence—the “unhusbanding of women,” in a phrase of the time—fed fears of moral endangerment. It not onlymade women heads of households and breadwinners, it also conjured huge anx- ieties  around  female  autonomy,  lack  of  restraint,  and  the  “abnormal  ex- citement” following removal of the husband’s or father’s moral authority. The  further  connection,  from  unhusbanding  and  immoralityto  militancy and troublemaking, was easy.

Domestic surveillance of women and families bypolice and social work- ers  was  universal  among  the  First  World  War’s  combatant  governments. Welfare  payments  gave  the  leverage.  In  Britain,  soldiers’ allowances were tied to the domestic competence and sexual chastityof wives, first through the  volunteer  casework  of  the  Soldiers’  and  Sailors’  Families  Association and  then  directlyvia  government  in  the  StatutoryCommittee of military, political, and philanthropic representatives (1915) and the new Ministryof Pensions (1916).29  In France and Germany, factory nurses or social workers

(“companyhousewives”)  coordinated  working  women’s  needs  for  child-


care, housing, nutrition, and health, while encouraging sobrietyand orderly living. The German state created the Women’s Department attached to the new  War  Office  in  November  1916,  under  the  social  worker  and  future liberal   parliamentarian   Marie-Elisabeth   Lu¨ ders.   It   wanted   to   ensure

“healthysocial  relations”  for  “after  the  war,”  which  meant  “in  the  first instance protection of the family.”30

Despite  women’s  unprecedented  autonomy,  these  measures  carefully constructed their entitlements as a dependencyon men. Payments of allow- ance  directlyto  women  undoubtedlyreinforced  their  wartime  indepen- dence:  “It  seems  too  good  to  be  true,  a  pound  a  week  and  myhusband away,” in one British wife’s words.31   But supporting women and children remained a strictlymale responsibilityfor which the state temporarilystood in.  This  model  of  social  citizenship  made  “motherhood”  the  ideological complement to “soldiering.” If recognition of women’s wartime contribu- tion was mediated through their husbands, the effects of their independence as   workers   and   household   managers   might   be   contained.   This  over- determining impact of the war decisivelychanged the meanings of welfare for women, both as recipients and practitioners, tightening the institutional and discursive links to the state.32

Here, social democrats were entirelycomplicit. Theyfound recognition of public responsibilityveryattractive. Soldiers’ allowances fixed the prin- ciple of the state’s obligation to its (male) citizenryin a language of social citizenship, attaching social rights to social roles like soldiering or working. Charities, the private apparatus of middle-class moral reform, were finally replaced bystate-provided welfare, which socialists would eventuallycon- trol. The Labour Partyin Britain saw the Ministryof Pensions, headed by the trade-union parliamentarian George Barnes, as a building-block for the welfare state. The SPD in Germanywas less successful in establishing public control. As in Britain, the labor movement’s local government strength de facto dominated social services deliveryafter 1918, but the religiouslyor- ganized private charities survived in the confusing tangle of laws composing the Weimar Republic’s welfare sector. Nowhere were women’s rights given autonomous recognition. When women’s benefits were extended—in Brit- ain  for  unemployed  workers’  dependents  (1921)  and  widows’  pensions

(1925, 1929)—it was in virtue again of dependent status. Women remained secondarybeneficiaries of their husbands’ rights.

Reformist  socialists  congratulated  themselves.  Social  needs  were  re- moved  from  the  moralizing  of  middle-class  charitable  visitors  to  become the  nation’s  public  responsibility.  Family  welfare became a  class demand, legitimatelyvoiced bythe labor movements. Social rights became attached to citizenship. These lines ran directlyto post-1945 welfare states. But the erasure of working-class women as democratic agents with rights separate from  husbands  reflected  deeplyconservative  assumptions  about  women’s proper  place.  This  emerged  instantlyin  the  revolutionaryturbulence  of

1917–23,  when  German  and  Austrian  Social  Democrats  anxiouslyde-


fended  their  own  moral  reliability,  as women  arrived for the first time as voters.  Theyhad  no  interest  in  free  love,  in  introducing  a  “whore  econ- omy,”  or  in  removing  children  from  mothers  to  the  charge  of  the  state, theyinsisted.   These   were   “fairystories”   spread   bydemagogues   and priests.33

The SPD was the protector of the working-class family. It upheld civil equality  and  equal  pay,  but  its  priority  for  women  was  the  family:  sup- porting families-in-need via benefits, home visiting, and advice centers; ma- ternal  and  child  protection;  contraception  and  abortion,  ideallythrough citywide  “family  care  agencies”;  adequate  housing  and  a  “family”  wage; ethical partnership in marriage and democratic child-raising. This was the

social worker’s–eye view” of working-class daily life. It reflected both the SPD’s local government dominance in newlydemocratized urban Germany and a new professional cadre of socialist doctors, teachers, and social work- ers  in  public  life.  Social  Democrats  took  a  didactic  and  patronizing  view of the working-class poor, separating respectable working families from the rough   and   disorderlyresiduum,   whom   the   state   needed   to   manage. Working-class  familylife  became  either  the  solid  fundament  of  socialist culture or the pathologyrequiring cure. The social democratic familywas an  ideal  in  which  the  roughness  of  the  poor  could  be  recast.  The  skilled, regularly  employed,  unionized  working  class  displayed  the orderly family living that SPD ideologydesired.

These  familyimages  had  little  emancipatorypromise.  As mothers and social workers, women appeared as agents of familymoralization, not the autonomous  political  subjects  whom  dismantling  the  familycould  free. Whether through the budding welfare-statism of SPD cities or housing re- form  and  campaigns  for  rationalizing  housework,  socialist  social  policy made dependent places for women, bounded bythe home. In the domestic sphere, socialist creativitymostlyconcerned the young—free school exper- iments,  child  republics,”  and  youth movements—leaving sex-gender dis- tinctions  in  the  familyalone.  At  the  SPD’s  Heidelberg  Congress  in  1925, one  Leipzig  woman  delegate  accused  SPD  men  of  failing  “to  introduce socialism into their own families.”34  But such critiques were rare.



Validating  motherhood  in  a  separate-spheres  ideologywas  institution- alized in the SPD after the opening of female membership in 1908.35  Before

1914, the SPD still stressed the oppressiveness of private propertyorganized through  the  familyand  the liberating necessityof women’s productive la- bor. But with the wartime split, Marie Juchacz and others now celebrated women’s reproductive contribution to the nation: as mothers of future gen- erations, theybecame a priorityof national policy. In taking its place inside the maternalist consensus, the SPD typified the socialist parties of the old north-central European social democratic core—Germanyand Austria, the Czech lands, the Low Countries, Scandinavia.36

In  the  British  Labour  Party,  women’s  activism was less wholly shaped bythe politics of social work. Women activists were still shunted into ed-


ucation, health, and social services. Union bloc voting rigged annual Con- ferences  against  feminist  resolutions,  and  comparable  worth  strategies failed to budge the traditional line of “equal payfor equal work,” which directlybenefited  women  less.  Yet  in  1929  Labour’s  first  woman  cabinet minister,  Margaret  Bondfield,  took  the  Ministryof  Labour  rather  than  a welfare  brief,  and  other  leading  women  MPs,  like  Susan  Lawrence  and Ellen Wilkinson, made a point of speaking for the whole movement, with- out distinction of gender. During the 1920s Labour women enlivened mu- nicipal  socialism  bystrong  grassroots  movements  around  working-class welfare, including birth control and familyallowances, insisting that “sex” issues were really“class” issues. What most separated Labour women from feminists in single-sex organizations, notwithstanding overlaps of member- ship, was the feeling that the latter were middle-class individualists insen- sitive to the working class.37

FEMINISM  BETWEEN  THE  WARS

What  about  feminism  per  se?  Enfranchisement  problematized  feminism’s future  direction.  Suffrage  agitations  had  always  raised  other  issues,  con- cerning  women’s  social,  sexual,  and  civil  identities.  But  wartime  patriot- ism—with  the  exception  of  the  Women’s  International  League  for  Peace and  Freedom,  formed  in  1915—largelynarrowed  the  debate.  Following through on equalityof citizenship byattacking sex discrimination and cam- paigning  for  equal  paywas  one  response  to  winning  the  vote,  but  it  was eclipsed in most countries bya “new feminist” maternalism. By1917–18 prominent  British  feminists  like  Eleanor  Rathbone  and  Maude  Royden were advocating a “national endowment for motherhood,” and Rathbone’s tireless  propaganda  through  the  FamilyEndowment  Committee captured postwar  feminist  agendas.  Her  tract,  The  Disinherited  Family  (1924), sought to shift feminism primarilyonto maternalist ground.

Rathbone  was  president  of  the  National  Union  of  Societies  for  Equal

Citizenship  (NUSEC),  British  feminism’s  umbrella  organization,  during

1919–28.38  The NUSEC initiallybacked an orthodox “equality” feminism, embracing equal suffrage, equal pay, equal opportunities for employment, equal moral standards for divorce, equal parental rights, and pensions for widows with dependent children. But by1925, Rathbone added birth con- trol and familyallowances in a verydifferent overall perspective, invoking patriotic motherhood-as-citizenship arguments to insist that “real equality” transcended  equal  opportunities  with  men.  It  stressed  what  was  valuable and different in women themselves:

True equalitymeant freeing these women from economic dependence on their husbands bygranting equal honor and financial support to their work in “women’s sphere.” This could not be done through “old


feminist campaigns for equal payand open access to men’s jobs; la- bor market reforms would not answer the needs of the unwaged. Only State intervention could do so; welfare programs could circumvent the labor market to provide independent support for mothers.39

Equalityfeminism   vigorouslyresisted—via  the  London  Societyfor Women’s  Service  under  Rayand  Pippa  Strachey,  the  Women’s  Freedom League, the Six Point Group, and the weeklyjournal Time and Tide. When new feminists pushed another maternalist demand, protective legislation for women  workers,  equalityfeminists  regrouped  in  the  Open  Door  Council in  May1926.  The  NUSEC  annual  council  passed  a  motion  supporting protective  legislation  by81  to  80  votes  in  March  1927.  An  attempt  to reassert equal payas the main priorityover birth control and familyallow- ances was defeated, and 11 of the 23 members of the newlyelected exec- utive  resigned.  This  divisive  debate—plus  the  completion  of  women’s en- franchisement in 1928—ended British feminism’s unitybetween the wars. The conflict reflected larger visions.40   For equalityfeminists, equal pay struck at the heart of the underlying gender assumptions whose persistence familyallowances helped entrench; byforegrounding the latter, new femi- nists were perpetuating inequality’s root cause. New feminists, on the other hand,  saw  themselves  mounting  a  more  imaginative  challenge  to  existing gender relations, which were based on the male breadwinner norm and the ideologyof  the  familywage.  Familyallowances  payable  directlyto  the mother would break the chain of female subordination, recognize the na- tional interest in maternity, and constitute motherhood as citizenship. But in practice, Rathbone’s proposals were easilystolen bythe state, as in the laws for widows’ pensions in 1925 and 1929, which efficientlyassimilated her  thinking  to  the  prevailing  masculinist  rationale.  In  this  sense,  mater- nalist  feminism  was  a  trap.  Severed  from  political  alliances  and  lacking economic  and  institutional  power,  Rathbone  and  other  new  feminists couldn’t win byrhetoric alone: “in the end their maternalist, ‘separate but equal’ ideologywas pressed into service in the creation of policies encoding

dependence, not the value of difference.”41

Bythe  1930s,  feminists  in  Europe  more  generallywere at an  impasse. In north-central Europe, the vote was won. In the USSR, legal emancipation seemed  veryadvanced,  although  the  outlawing  of  abortion, restriction of divorce, and criminalizing of homosexualitywould shortlytell a verydif- ferent  story.  In  western  Europe,  equality  legislation  begrudgingly  ensued. In  Britain,  this  included  the  Sex  Disqualification  (Removal)  Act  in  1919, technicallyopening public appointments and professions; the Matrimonial Causes  Act  of  1923,  equalizing  divorce;  and  the  Guardianship  of  Infants Act  in  1925,  improving  mothers’  rights.  But  such  reforms  mainlysought to   head   feminists   off.   Discrimination   typically   regrouped   to   impede women’s  progress  via  marriage  bars  in  teaching,  civil  service,  and  public


employment. Economic dependency negated women’s ability to enjoy legal equalities of choice.

If women joined social democratic parties, theywere typecast as “car- ing”  auxiliaries  in  fields  like  welfare  or  health,  finding  feminist  goals blocked  bymale  decision-making  structures.42    Communist  parties  were more  promising  but  also  stifled  gender  politics  byunrelenting “proletari- anism.” The dailypractice of left-wing movements was riddled with mas- culine prejudices that rarelywere honestlyfaced. Even worse, counterrev- olutionary   repression—in   Hungary,   Italy,   and   Europe’s   eastern   and southern peripheries—reversed postwar gains or hardened existing gender oppressions.  New  right-wing  mobilizations,  disastrouslythreatening  for women, started in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in the West.

Feminist  maternalism—working  sexual  difference  into  a  program— sought  to  make  women’s  special  nature  into  an  instrument  of  empower- ment  rather  than  oppression.  Given  male  resistance  to  admitting  women on equal terms, this took men at their word, coopting the idea of irreducible differences based in biologyand asserting motherhood’s centralityas a pub- lic value. It, rather than the fruitless quest for equal pay, would be the basis of  women’s  independence,  the  argument  ran,  because  once  the  state  “en- dowed”  women’s  role in the family through a system of direct payments, the  case  for  the  male  breadwinner  norm,  the  need  for  men  to  support  a familyon their own wage, fell away.

But social conservatives alreadycommanded the language of maternal- ism.  Policy-makers—in  government,  business,  parties,  unions,  churches, press—made  motherhood  keyto  postwar  normalizing.  Maternalism  was the medium of gender restoration, returning women to the home; and by equating motherhood with citizenship, British new feminists like Rathbone moved women’s demands exactlywhere conservatives preferred. As mater- nalism seemed the onlygame in town, feminists joined in, bending things toward their own agenda. Antifamilyradicalism promised onlymarginali- zation. But left-wing maternalism remained a fateful choice: byembracing maternity’s virtues, new feminists learned a language that already assigned women a lesser, poverty-ridden, and dependent place.

Rathbone’s was not the onlyBritish feminist voice, and her opponents stayed active in many areas of public, professional, and intellectual life, as new  political  agendas  became  composed.43   Bythe  1930s,  moreover,  the contrast  between  “equal  rights”  and  “new”  feminist  positions  was  often blurred, not least in the Labour Party, where they were caught “in a rich and  complex  web  of interlocking  dialogues about the nature of the party and  its  relationship  to  the  British  state.”44   But  in  most  of  Europe,  Com- munist and left-socialist support for women’s civil and economic equality, social  democratic  welfarism,  and  the  varietyof  reformist  and  right-wing maternalisms left European feminists little independent space—as, for ex- ample,  the  contrast  between  Madeleine  Pelletier’s  Communist  period  in


1920–25  and  her  individualized  efforts  of  the  1930s  onlytoo  tragically showed.45  On the other hand, social changes were proceeding that over the longer term required feminist response: “the birthrate did decline, families did become smaller, women were more visible in public, the ‘woman and sex  questions’  were  discussed  differently,  and  the  role  of  doctors  did  in- crease.”46   In  the  1920s,  these  and  other  questions  affecting  women  were still awaiting the Left’s programmatic attention.



EMANCIPATION  AND  ITS  DISCONTENTS

Official  socialist  and  Communist  views  of  sexualityitself  were  extremely conservative.  While  youthful  working-class  sexuality  inevitably  found  its own way, party cultures stressed self-control. The Austrian Socialists were typical. Sexuality should be “shaped and constrained” to produce an “or- dentliche (orderly, decent and respectable) family,” laying the ghost of sex- ual decadence and promiscuityand bringing the partycredit. There was no space for the sexual independence of women. Such thoughts bowed to the family’s  affective  needs.  Measured  by  the  latter,  youth  sexuality  was  an unhealthydisturbance,  comparable  to  smoking  and  drink,  for  which  the

cold  showering  of  physical  exercise—in  the  Workers’  Association  for

Sports and BodyCulture—was the answer.47

Nevertheless,  sexology,  or  the  scientific  construction  of  sexual  knowl- edge around naturalized ideas of health and well-being, began to authorize a new openness about sexual pleasure. A new genre of marriage manuals encouraged  women  to  see  themselves  as  sexual  agents,  including  Marie Stopes’s  Married  Love  (1918),  selling  four  hundred  thousand  copies  by

1923; Theodor van de Velde’s Her Volkomen Huwelijk (1926), translated byStella Browne as Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique (1928), with  editions in  all other European  languages; and  Helena Wright’s book The  Sex  Factor  in  Marriage  (1930).  Fiercelyrejecting  “the  conventional estimate of women’s sexual apathy” as a mechanism of male control, Stella Browne expounded a politics of reproductive rights focused on birth con- trol,  abortion,  and  women’s  sexual  self-determination.48   Population  poli- tics, maternalism, and the growth of women’s citizenship were also bringing sexual relations into political vision.

In  Weimar  Germany,  a  remarkable  sex  reform  movement  flourished. Growing from local working-class birth control leagues, it blossomed into a  panoplyof  educational,  counseling,  and  clinical  services,  guided  bya militant  ideologyof  working-class  entitlement.  By1928,  the  movement converged with medical networks and labor movement welfare organs. The League for Birth Control and Sexual Hygiene formed a national umbrella with  the  Societyfor  Sexual  Reform,  broadlyaligned  with  the  SPD  but rivaled in 1929 bythe apolitical League for the Protection of Mothers and Social  FamilyHygiene.  Despite  the  divisive  launch  of  a  rival  Communist


organization  in  April  1931,  cooperation  continued  among  Communist, SPD,  liberal,  and  nonaligned  left-wing  doctors,  social  workers  and  other activists, reaching its zenith in the 1931 campaign for abortion reform and the  undergrowth  of  sex  clinics  in  Berlin,  Hamburg,  and  elsewhere.49   The movement’s  leadership  was  still mainlymale centered, indebted to mater- nalist and eugenicist assumptions. But it did make ordinarypeople’s sexual enjoyment and women’s right to reproductive freedom into serious political matters and came closest to allowing a woman-centered sexual politics to break through.

Sex  reform  reflected  the  politicizing  of  domesticityduring  1914–18. Child-raising, motherhood, and housewiferyentered politics under broadly maternalist  auspices,  and  once  “the  working-class  home  was  opened  up, not onlyto closer state regulation, but also as a legitimate sphere of polit- ical struggle,” sexual relations came to the fore.50  But sex reform had con- trarypotentials.  If  claiming  privacyand  everydaylife  for  politics  could encourage emancipation, new opportunities for women, and new political alliances, it was also an invitation to control. Evoking Frederick Taylor and HenryFord under the banner of “social rationalization,” new managerial ideologies  engendered  a  powerful conception of the mobility-oriented nu- clear  family:  “comprising  a  skilled  worker  risen  to  plant  engineer,  a hygiene-conscious  housewife,  a  boy  in  whose  education  a  maximum  of moneyand  effort  was  invested,  and  a  decentlyeducated  daughter  who worked  in  the office  until marriage, with a well-groomed, discreetlyfash- ionable appearance.”51   Ideas like this also captured the Left’s imagination in the 1920s, permeating the common sense of the labor movement.52

Grandiose  speculations  were  voiced.  Reflecting  on  Fordism,  Gramsci saw modernityrequiring a transformation of sexual culture, for “the new type of man demanded by the rationalization of production . . . cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitablyregulated.”

It seems clear that the new industrialism wants monogamy: it wants the man as worker not to squander his nervous energies in the disor- derlyand stimulating pursuit of occasional sexual satisfaction. The employee who goes to work after a night of “excess” is no good for his work. The exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most per- fect automatism.53

But  the  Left  shared  too  easilyin  this  discourse  not  of  its  own  making. Women  were  unlikelyto  benefit  from  ideas  clinicallysubordinating  their sexuality,  where  the  “wife  waiting  at  home”  became  just  another  “per- manent  machine  part.”54   If  sex  reform  promised  women’s  emancipation, rationalization returned it to a new regime of regulation.

Rationalization  also  invaded  the  sphere  of  consumption,  shaping  new languages of advertising, fashion, and design. But if “efficiency” provided


one model of consuming, in kitchens, furnishings, and the products of mod- ern  cheap  design,  “dreaming”  was  another,  borne  bynew  entertainment media  of  radio, gramophone, and film, in the expressive codes of fashion and style. The emerging culture of consumption had collective expressions, partlyin  the  physical  arenas  of  picture  palaces  and  dance  halls,  partlyin the  sociabilityof  tightlyknit  working-class  neighborhoods.  Another con- text  was  supplied  bythe  newlyflourishing  “keep  fit”  movements  of  the

1930s,  sometimes  regimented  bythe  state,  as  in  Fascist  Italyand  Nazi Germany, but often affording a new space of female companionship, self- affirmation,   and   “autonomous   pleasure   in   [the]   body.”55     The   British Women’s  League  of  Health  and  Beauty,  with  its  170,000  members—

where  standardized  precision  movement  was  performed  bywomen  vol- untarilyseeking fun and fitness”—reflected the same cult of rationalization. Its  members  were  “women  of  the  Machine  Age,  for  whom  the  machine meant employment, consumer goods, modernity, individuality, pleasure.”56

The Left rarelygrasped the importance of the “new woman.” Feminists were  dismayed.  “Can  [young  women]  really  follow  a  difficult  scientific demonstration or a complex piece of music, can theyreallyfeel the inten- sities of admiration or love when a good part of their thoughts is concerned with the question ‘Is it time to powder mynose again’?”57  Young women’s pleasure-seeking was frivolous and tawdry, male socialists complained. On his travels through northern England, George Orwell saw only“the same sheeplike  crowd—gaping  girls  and  shapeless  middle-aged  women  dozing over their knitting.”58   Worse, female consumers betrayed their class. They were  a  fifth  column  of  bourgeois  materialist  values  and  “cheap  luxuries which  mitigate  the  surface  of  life.”  “Of course, the postwar development of cheap luxuries has been a veryfortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likelythat fish and chips, artificial silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the football pools have between them averted revolution.”59

Interwar  socialists  had  no  political  language  for  new  generations  of young  working  women,  for  the  shopgirls,  hairdressers,  typists,  assembly- line workers, and cleaners—for the “destructive” pleasures of “the young prettily-dressed girls” pouring from the shops and businesses at the end of the  working  day.60   Large  movements  like  the  SPD  saw  the  problem.  The behavior  of  working-class  daughters  was  a  serious  hemorrhaging  from working-class culture. But moralizing talk of traditional working-class val- ues  was  hardlyan  appealing  answer.  The  SPD’s  solution  was  simplyto strengthen  the  subculture’s  socializing  institutions—to  find  working-class daughters reliable working-class husbands before the corruption began.

the   years  1914–23  were  a  time  of  revo- lutionary change in the arts. The high-cultural landscape  was buffeted by  storms of innova- tion.       New     artistic          movements—Fauvism, Cubism,  Futurism,  Expressionism,  Dadaism, Neo-Plasticism and De Stijl, Vorticism, Verism, Purism,   Constructivism,   Productivism—ap- peared in bewildering profusion. Centered on painting,  they  spilled  across  the  arts  and  na- tional cultures. Yet the convergence with poli- tics  was  no  foregone  conclusion.  The  avant- garde   had   flouted   the   concert-going   and gallery-visiting public before 1914, but this an- tibourgeois outlook shared little with the labor movement’s  socialist  culture,  whose  view  of the arts remained resolutely conventional. The pre-1914  avant-garde also eschewed political engagement. They assailed the art world’s de- corums and attacked the social order but did so in the name of authenticity, Geist, and art it- self  (or  alternatively,  “life”).  It  took  the  war and the Russian Revolution to fuse this crea- tive energy with politics.

Socialists  mobilized  Enlightenment  ideals against      inequality           and             injustice, but        to broaden  access  to  high  culture  rather  than challenge  it—democratizing  the  old  culture rather  than  creating  a  new.  Conversely,  the avant-garde’s  cultural  radicalism  was  apoliti- cal:  the  Parisian  extravagance of  the Russian Ballet might scandalize bourgeois sensibilities but expressed creative license rather than po- litical  emancipation.1    Beyond  both  was  the emerging “mass” culture of leisure, moreover, which  neither  socialists  nor  avant-garde  had faced. If political radicals and cultural radicals ignored  each  other,  this  new  challenge  out- flanked them both.




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