Feminism and war: US from the origins to the First World War

19 March, 2021

Feminism and war

We begin a new series of articles that investigate the relationship between feminism and war since its emergence in the United States and Great Britain in the 19th century up to the present day. Why has feminism always been linked to the war effort and why has it hoisted up as its banner the mobilization of women workers for the world wars?

In this article…

Petty-bourgeois classism at the root of feminism in the U.S.

Seneca Falls, the birth of feminism in the United States
Women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, 1848

Like the suffragettes in Britain, the suffragettes in the United States were female property owners interested in abolishing the barriers to their social ascendance. However, there are some important differences. The differences in the way that capitalism developed in each country is reflected in the differences between the development of feminism on each side of the Atlantic.

Colonial states passed laws that mitigated the effects of English law on the status of married women. Also in practice, despite the law, married women in the United States owned property, ran businesses and sold property even before they were given the right to freely dispose of property in their own name. Furthermore, starting from 1839, the US passed laws that granted married women this right while the women of the UK could not benefit from such laws until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Thus US feminism, unlike that of Britain, never experienced any division between the spinsters and the married feminists.

But feminism would never have existed if the women of the petty bourgeoisie did not need it. That is, if they did not confront barriers to their social ascendance.

American petty-bourgeois women at that time were still not allowed access to many universities, which impeded their professionalization. This was all the more important since medicine at that time, was being professionalized. Petty-bourgeois women during the 19th and early 20th century like all women in the United States, also did not have the right to vote.

By the time of the Seneca Falls Convention, that is, when the American feminist movement was founded, the property requirement for voting had already been eliminated in many states, including New York, which was the state where the suffragettes were located. This process took place between 1776 and 1857, when North Carolina was the last state to completely eliminate its property requirement. Nevertheless, both women and blacks were still prohibited from voting.

This is why American feminism, unlike the feminism of Great Britain, spoke of the need to fight for universal suffrage… but this was only because the American feminists, unlike the British ones, had no other realistic way to obtain the right to vote. They were simply not in a position to demand suffrage only for propertied women. If we peer behind the thin veil of their universalist rhetoric, however, we can easily discover the class interests of feminism.

The main justification that the feminists gave for universal suffrage was that it would diminish the influence of the unpropertied masses.

We should not feel so sorely grieved if no man who had not attained the full stature of Webster, Clay, Van Buren, or Gerrit Smith could claim the right of elective franchise. But to have drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rum selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners… fully recognized, while we ourselves are thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens, it is too grossly insulting to the dignity of woman to be longer quietly submitted to.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Address Delivered at Seneca Falls, 1848

The anti-worker classism, anti-Irish xenophobia and anti-black racism of the American feminism

anti-Irish xenophobia , 1893
Puck’s caricature in 1893 of the American bourgeois classes’ rejection of immigrants, then Irish.

The feminists presented themselves as Whigs, that is, as continuers of the radical democratic tradition inherited from Puritanism. This was perfectly compatible with their own representation of themselves as women of class. The Irish migrants were not only impoverished peasants seeking work, they also migrated from a Catholic country that represented everything that could horrify the Puritan tradition: strong communal traditions, extroverted manners, and boisterous dances accompanied by homemade alcohol…

Anti-Irish xenophobia had for decades already accompanied the anti-working-class discourse of the British propertied classes. Irish migrants had formed the most precarious and lowest paid layer of the English and Scottish proletariat, and, for that reason, xenophobia served as a very useful tool both to control the cost of wages and to justify repression by the industrial bourgeoisie and the state. It is the first demonstration of an identity politics shared by the bourgeois left of the period.

American feminism inherited this xenophobic and racist mold from Britain. But at the same time, feminism presented itself as opponent of slavery and the oppression of blacks. This was something they also shared in common with their colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic: it is no coincidence that abolitionism was then the main expression of the Whigs in Great Britain and that British suffragism would emerge from its circles. .

However, the issue of the civil rights of blacks and their emancipation would end up splitting the feminist movement after the Civil War.

Racism and feminism in the U.S.: why feminism abandoned universal suffrage

NWSA, feminism in the United States
Group photo of the NWSA

The issue of the civil rights of blacks is the basis for the 1869 split of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). The AERA was an organization born out of the 11th National Women’s Right Convention an organization that was formed in order to secure equal suffrage for all American citizens regardless of sex or race.

This organization was formed during the Reconstruction period and ended up splitting over the proposed 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment, which ended up being passed in 1870, granted all males, regardless of race, the right to vote. It did not, however, grant women the right to vote. So the AERA split into two in 1869: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).

The NWSA, led by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment because they believed it was worse to give the vote to all males regardless of race than to keep both blacks and women disenfranchised.

We do not take the right step for this hour in demanding suffrage for any class; as a matter of principle I claim it for all. But in a narrow view of the question as a matter of feeling between classes, when Mr. Downing puts the question to me, are you willing to have the colored man enfranchised before the woman, I say, no…degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are. I desire that we go into the kingdom together, for individual and national safety demand that not another man be enfranchised without the woman by his side

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It couldn’t be any clearer. Although people often characterize this reaction as an example of pure racism, it is clear that it is also about something else. Her indignation is that of a petty-bourgeois woman who believes that her class makes her superior to the masses of black workers. As we have already seen, the feminism also constantly spoke of the injustice of being deprived of a right that working class males possessed…a class that included those inferior immigrants who couldn’t even speak English well!

The AWSA, on the other hand, supported the amendment since it was determined at the time to maintain its ties with organizations that supported black civil rights. The groups were also divided in their practical strategy for securing women’s voting rights. While the NWSA insisted that women’s voting rights be granted through a federal amendment, as was the case for blacks, the AWSA decided to pursue women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.

But during the 1890s, precisely when the Democrats began to reassert their hegemony in the South by disenfranchising blacks and establishing racial segregation, the feminists of both the NWSA and AWSA, which were losing influence, decided to change their strategy.

Both of these groups eventually merged in 1890 to form the NAWSA and came up with a strategy to capture the South. And to capture the South, the feminists decided to abandon any pretense of establishing a federal amendment. After all, strengthening states’ rights was the key to maintaining the system of racial segregation and with it, Democratic dominance in the South.

Moreover, suffragism (=feminism) did not exist in the South prior to this shift in the strategy of feminism. Southern feminists in fact would turn out to be the most virulently racist feminists and would explicitly tie their desire for suffrage to their intention to maintain the purity of the white race. The goal was to disenfranchise blacks and, at the same time, establish equal rights for women. That is why the feminists decided to stop talking about universal suffrage.

Meanwhile, a new feminist tendency arrived on the scene. It had been created by two former NAWSA members who had organizational experience in the WSPU (Pankhurst’s group in Great Britain).. They formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP).

This new tendency also counted on the support of the Southern suffragists. Even though it opposed the NAWSA’s strategy of state-by-state campaigning, designed to accommodate the Southern bourgeoisie’s desire to keep blacks disenfranchised, it was not opposed to using racism to recruit Southern allies.

The parade that the founders of the organization, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, organized in 1913 represented this in a highly theatrical way by forcing black women to march separately behind white women.

American feminism during World War I

Militarized women workers during the first world war effort in the arms industry
Militarized women workers during the war effort in the arms industry

Even before both the Senate and House of Representatives voted to approve the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, Carrie Chapmann Catt, the NAWSA president at the time, declared her support for the war effort..

Early in April, Catt instructed every NAWSA affiliate to register its members for war service. Across the country, local chapters threw themselves into war-related tasks: sewing, gardening, nursing, rolling bandages, etc., They also devoted themselves to selling Liberty Bonds; in New York City alone, the Woman Suffrage Party sold more than $1 million worth of bonds in just 6 months. […]

All through 1917, Catt was maintaining regular contact with President Wilson. Shortly before she committed NAWSA to the war effort…the president seems to have made it clear that, in exchange for NAWSA’s support of the war, he would do what he could to help the suffragists achieve their own goals. By then, both Wilson and the Democratic Party had gone on record in favor of suffrage at the state level, but neither had committed themselves to the federal amendment

When Women Won The Vote

The NWP during World War I, in contrast to the NAWSA picketed in the White House for suffrage. When historians distinguish between the different strategies of the NWP and NAWSA during this period, they often characterize the NWP as a revolutionary and anti-imperialist organization. They tell us that the feminists of the NWP were courageous because, unlike those of NAWSA, they had the courage to criticize the government during the war…

But the NWP explicitly pointed out that its task was to have women’s suffrage granted as a war measure. Its criticism of the government never for a moment calls into question the slaughter and the imperialist war. It only demands that women’s suffrage be realized before greater efforts are expended to defend democracy. In other words, pure rhetoric… of war.

The fact is that the appeal of women for democracy at this time is highly embarrassing to the Government. Politicians are asking the people to sacrifice everything for democracy; and many men and women are ready to sacrifice everything for democracy; but they are not willing to permit the Government to spend the life-blood of the nation for democracy somewhere in Europe while that same Government refuses to assist the peaceful and orderly establishment of democracy in our own country.

Why we picket. Texto del NWP

In other words, for them, the United States has no right to present itself as the protector of democracy if it does not guarantee women the right to vote… it is embarrassing that the United States, the best country in the world, is even more backwards than Russia when it comes to womens’ rights… which must mean that all it takes for feminists to sacrifice everything for democracy is for them to be granted a more significant role in the system.

The dream of the NWP ewas the dream of an indignant petty bourgeoisie demanding to be granted its rightful place.

Feminism: the NWP picketing in front of the White House during the First World War
The NWP picketing in front of the White House during the war. The banner says: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

NWP feminists picketed in front of the White House for five whole months without being bothered in the least. Then, after two years of U.S. involvement in the war, the suffragists began to be arrested under the pretext that they were… obstructing traffic. At first they would arrest them and then release them without penalty. Days later they started arresting suffragists who did not pay the fine for obstructing traffic. They released those suffragettes after three days. In July, they began to extend the sentences to 60 days.

In August, they end up getting beaten up for it… but mostly by patriots that were insulted by the suggestion. The suffragists then demand that the imprisoned suffragists be treated as political prisoners and, following the example of the WSPU from which they drew their inspiration, go on hunger strikes.

Predictably, the American suffragettes would endure force-feeding in order to portray themselves as pious women willing to sacrifice their comfort for the sake of a cause that transcends the bounds of the material world.

Feminism: Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed like Joan of Arc.
Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed like Joan of Arc.

The similarity between the WSPU’s and NWP’s pursuit of martyrdom does not simply lie with the organizing experience that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had with the suffragettes in England…if the organizations appear strikingly similar it is primarily because they shared a class bond.

They shared the same icons, the same symbols, the same language. Both organizations wore on their sashes the colors they understood as representative of purity. They were petty-bourgeois women with a divine purpose to purify the nation and protect its integrity on the world stage .

Wilson, feminism and the meaning of women’s suffrage for the war

Warmongering Feminism. Promotion of conscription during World War I in the United States
The leap from raising Joan of Arc as a model to the fighting for access to positions of leadership in the military was seamless.

In 1918, two years before the Nineteenth Amendment was finally adopted, Woodrow Wilson wrote a speech to the Senate declaring the amendment a vital measure necessary to win the war and to prepare for battle..

…And not to the winning of the war only. It is vital to the right solution of the great problems which we must settle, and settle immediately, when the war is over. We shall need them in our vision of affairs, as we have never needed them before, the sympathy and insight and clear moral instinct of the women of the world.

The problems of that time will strike to the roots of many things that we have not hitherto questioned, and I for one believe that our safety in those questioning days, as well as our comprehension of matters that touch society to the quick, will depend upon the direct and authoritative participation of women in our counsels. We shall need their moral sense to preserve what is right and fine and worthy in our system of life as well as to discover just what it is that ought to be purified and reformed. Without their counsellings we shall be only half wise.

Address to the Senate on the Nineteenth Amendment

Feminism in the U.S. won the vote when the government realized that it was entering a new period in the history of capitalism.. To meet the new challenges ahead, it could not afford to ignore the pleas of these women. After all, they would be so useful to the democracy! And the truth is that, in this sense, the feminists were right.

Feminism and gender equality to cover up increased exploitation… and the permanent war economy…

Feminist United States poster. Feminism saw its opportunity to mobilize workers for the war effort and to militarize labor
Feminism saw its opportunity to mobilize workers for the war effort and to militarize labor

The triumph of feminism was inseparable from the development of imperialism and the establishment of a permanent war economy, that is, the state capitalism we all know today. The ruling class, in this context, discovered how the feminists could serve as a new weapon to attack and trap the working class in the name of gender equality.

After the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed in 1920, the NWP soon began working to pass an Equal Rights Amendment that would remove labor restrictions protecting women. The NWP wanted to remove all limitations on the types of employment women could hold, such as the exclusion of women from night work. They also wanted to abolish restrictions on the maximum number of working hours that women could work, on the weight of objects carried by women on them, etc.

Instead of abolishing unhealthy and dangerous work, night shifts and inhuman workloads, instead of equalizing the working day downwards… women workers were pushed to suffer the most brutal exploitation in the name of equality and feminism.

The amendment did not intend to eliminate hazardous work for both sexes, such as night work, but to grant the opportunity to do it equally to all workers.The feminists did not want to restrict overtime, but, on the contrary, to give employers a larger pool of labor that they could force to work overtime.

Feminists justified their position by declaring that female poverty -a concept which would later transform into the concept of the gender pay gap– is the consequence of these restrictions… although it is indisputable that eliminating the restrictions reduced the costs of labor of the companies. Moreover, this was carried out in the name of equality and with the blessing of Alice Paul, the great fierce and radical feminist .

But for feminism, the removal of restrictions was above all a way to remove any barriers to the advancement of female professionals.…including those of the military. After all, the proposed equal rights amendment would raise questions such as: Can women hold command positions in the military? Or, can women workers be subjected to compulsory conscription?

These questions do not contradict in the least the aspirations of feminism, not even those of the NWP. They are the inevitable result of a feminist vision of emancipation that has nothing to do with ours, but, on the contrary, is about the freedom of the capitalists and the petty bourgeoisie to exploit without limits, to equally distribute positions of power within their own ranks and to preserve their existence on our backs.

To be continued…