The Politics of
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
sharing equallyin the new political communityof labor. Equalitywas grounded in economic independence, as the right—and obligation—to work.
law. Residential, property,
in land, households, and communes. Radical labor laws provided extra protections and
ished illegitimacy, and legalized abortion. Women’s treatment in Muslim Central
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
women was inconclusive,
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
but Soviet insistence on a
single model of women’s agitation created ten- sions
Secretariat with a
new women’s department directlyunder itself.17 In the individual CPs,
was weakest in Catholic countries where women’s suffrage had failed: 6 percent in
Particularlyin the smaller or
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
early1920s, couldn’t mobilize women as women. The party’s industrial strongholds
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
Theyfound recognition of
The SPD in Germanywas
(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”
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
through the familyand the liberating necessityof
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
employment. Economic dependency negated women’s ability to enjoy legal equalities of choice.
If women joined social
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-
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.
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
were dismayed. “Can [young women] really follow a
difficult scientific demonstration
again’?”57 Young women’s
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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