Interwar feminism in the US

13 April, 2021

Suffragette Minnie Fisher Cunningham, pictured here, ran for senator from Texas in 1927. She lost, but later held various positions in President Roosevelt's new New Deal institutions.
Suffragette Minnie Fisher Cunningham, pictured here, ran for senator from Texas in 1927. She lost, but later held various positions in President Roosevelt's new New Deal institutions.

In the second entry in our series on feminism and war, we will study interwar feminism in the USA in order to understand why during World War II it will be thoroughly used to recruit women workers for imperialist slaughter and war production.

In this article

An introductory warning regarding interwar feminism

U.S. Strike in 1927. All of the interwar feminist events and calls combined mobilized fewer women than a single industrial strike.
U.S. Strike in 1927. All of the interwar feminist events and calls combined mobilized fewer women than a single industrial strike.

Feminism recounts its own history as a supposed series of ideas that propelled a movement forward. That is, feminism unabashedly confesses and defines itself as an ideology. But it doesn’t have many other options either: nowhere is there any evidence of a material movement of women beyond class divisions. Even within the female petty bourgeoisie – whose aspirations were politically represented by feminism – it only rarely moves beyond being merely a tendency among a social elite within that same class.

Interwar feminism – even in the US – is a good manifestation of that. All the interwar feminism events and rallies put together mobilized fewer women than a single industrial strike. And there were many, many strikes. All the combined feminist militancy of the period not only in the U.S., but incorporating Britain, Germany, Denmark and all the countries where formal feminist organizations existed, added up to no more members between them than the modest Bavarian branch of the German Communist Party devoted to agitation among women workers.

If the history of feminism until very recently can only be illustrated through images of personalities and demonstrations rarely reaching a hundred participants in an era of mobilizations of millions, the history of interwar feminism in the USA cannot even be embellished with photos of the dozens of suffragette propertied ladies from the earlier period.

If we dive into interwar feminism it is not because we agree to enter into the game of ideas moving the world, so beloved by the historical narrative of the ruling class. Our interest in the almost non-existent interwar feminism is because we want to discover the clues that made the state notice it and use it as part of its ideological arsenal during the second imperialist world war.

It is then when feminism lived its first attempt at adoption as a state ideology. An attempt that would later be abandoned but that would return again and again until what today seems to be its definitive adoption into the ideological arsenal of the state. This relationship between imperialist war and feminism – openly present in its symbology and propaganda – had emerged already during the First World War, but it took root in interwar feminism.

The “happy” 1920s

The standard account of the 1920s in the USA asserts that:

World War I had brought prosperity to all citizens of the United States. At the same time, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment brought with it not only the massive incorporation of women into the labor market, but also their sexual liberation, embodied in the image of the flapper.

Nothing could be further from the truth. On a global scale the 1920s were only happy for speculators in the midst of the first great boom of fictitious capital. And if it is only true to a certain extent that the national capitals of the victorious states enjoyed during that period the benefits of the First World War. What is certain is that the workers paid in lives, misery and repression both for a victory that meant their massacre, and for a prosperity to which they never gained access.

In the US, accumulation‘s momentum after the recession of 1920-21 and up to the crash of 1929, was based on the country’s ability to assert a dominant position on the global imperialist stage after the end of the war. The opening of European markets allowed domestic capital to scale up production in then leading industries such as the automobile industry.

What we are told is that thisprosperity came to the working class in the form of higher wages, making American workers privileged thanks to the victory of the national bourgeoisie in the war, when in reality they mean that the progress and conquests of the workers in the USA depend on the victories of American imperialism.

This is obviously outrageous, even if it were true the conclusion is that each group of workers, on the scale of a country but why not of each company, has to work for their bourgeoisie to defeat the rivals and competitors it has at every moment, with the workers offering themselves as cannon fodder when needed.

Furthermore, in order to push this idea through they forget to mention how the increase in productivity far outstripped the increase in wages. That is, the level of exploitation was not reduced. On the contrary, it increased, and both in industry and in the economy as a whole the general picture was one of a reduction in the relative weight of labor income over capital income within national income. In other words: the percentage of the pie that remained for the workers became smaller and smaller, even if some of them had a little more in absolute terms.

And they also omit another important detail: the high level of unemployment during this period. The massive increase in productivity also left masses of workers unemployed… because foreign markets had a cap and past that it made no sense to increase production, only to shed staff.

This cap paradoxically contributed to increase the purchasing power of industrial workers’ wages: the inability of Europe to buy the necessary amount of American grain caused agricultural prices to fall. To simply say that the industrial wage was able to afford better food and some extra consumption is to forget not only the unemployed produced by the lack of markets, but also the new unemployed created by the agricultural crisis whom the industry did not know how to employ because it could not find enough buyers.

But above all it should be noted that instead of progressing, the labor movement in the US suffered greatly during this period. Major strikes carried out after World War I, such as the Great Steel Strike of 1919, ended up being defeated by both the industrial unions and the AFL.

The happy twenties, the years of supposed plenty were marked by the passivity of the workers who had been defeated in 1919. The capacity for resistance in the face of the demands of capital was lower than ever.

What about women workers

Women workers on a loom. Interwar feminism as much as the subsequent discourse about it ignored the mere existence of women workers, then already massive.
Women Workers at a Loom. Interwar feminism as much as the later discourse about it, ignored the mere existence of women workers, then already massive

We are told that the 19th Amendment liberated women and got them out of the home for the first time. This is not remotely true. Working-class women have always worked outside the home.

What they mean is the so-called feminization of professional work, i.e., the mass entry of women into office or education positions during and after the war. There is certainly no lack of war propaganda designed to recruit women for office jobs, and even after the end of the war, the tendency to employ women in them continued.

Many of the women who entered these jobs were young petty-bourgeois women just out of high school or college looking for a temporary job before marrying a male of their class. That’s why employers could afford to fire women when they married. Women were not supposed to complain because they did not need to work. In contrast, women who worked in factories and other blue-collar jobs did not lose their jobs for being married. In fact, there was virtually no job discrimination of married women outside of professional fields, such as administration or education.

Throughout U.S. history until World War II, the teaching profession was always considered a temporary or supplementary job. And it was not a matter of gender: until the 1840s, most teachers were male.

The predominance of women in education is a consequence of a campaign to recruit women conducted in the 1840s in order to address the growing teacher shortage. Teaching in the United States, as in Britain, was one of the few jobs that the female petty bourgeoisie was willing to do… but only temporarily, since they were not planning to live on the low pay it offered. The situation for women in the UK Civil Service was much the same.

Young, unmarried petty-bourgeois women at the time were ideal for filling those low-paid intellectual jobs because they didn’t need to support a whole family and also found little reason to fight for a higher salary if they were going to marry anyway. Significantly, both in Britain and in the United States, female teachers who married disabled people, or married men who did not earn enough to support the family, did not lose their jobs as a result of being married.

To this claim was added an ideological justification that early feminism would soon make its own, as Sylvia Pankhurst relates in her memoirs: virgin and petty-bourgeois women are morally superior to males and should play the role of purifiers of society. Therefore, they are the ones who should be in charge of the education of the children.

The position and stability of petty-bourgeois women was still based on their ability to create a nuclear family and dominate the household sphere. It would not be until after World War II when the traditional petty-bourgeois family would be called into question and also when petty-bourgeois women would seek a career, rather than temporary employment.

Thus, the idea that the approval of the Nineteenth Amendment freed all women from home imprisonment is a pure fantasy designed to exalt interwar feminism after the fact. It did not even succeed in making petty-bourgeois women independent of their husbands. Which, on the other hand, had nothing to do with the ability of working-class women to work outside the home.

What about this idea that women became sexually liberated during this period?

Flappers, today converted into a symbol of a supposed sexual liberation driven by interwar feminism... somehow.
Flappers, today converted into a symbol of a supposed sexual liberation driven by interwar feminism… somehow.

The supposed sexual liberation of interwar feminism is based on the mythology of the flapper, which is presented as a symbol of a non-existent sexual liberation of all women in the 1920s. According to today’s official account of interwar feminism, her appearance and behavior were revolutionary because they scandalized the puritanism of the ruling classes. But this was not a revolution, but rather a family quarrel.

The flappers were daughters of petty-bourgeois families who owned cars and frequented speakeasies for partying and having fun during the Prohibition years in the US. But the rebellion lasted until they married to live the kind of life their mothers led.

That is, it was a youth rebellion confined to the petty bourgeoisie and which did not even have real consequences on the stability of the traditional petty-bourgeois family. In fact, the justification given by the flappers for their rebellion was that they actually… would strengthen the nuclear family and lower the likelihood of divorce, as the woman would have experienced in her youth. And obviously, even within that socially limited sphere, they were not the result of the influence of interwar feminism and its organizations either.

The Great Depression and the petty bourgeoisie

The Great Depression precipitated the closure of retail stores, a traditional activity of the petty bourgeoisie.

The real advance of interwar feminism did not begin until the Great Depression…precisely because the boom of the happy twenties and all the illusions the petty bourgeoisie harbored about them had come to an abrupt end.

Small businesses were disappearing, and the number of professionals and academics was dwindling. The petty bourgeoisie felt the noose tightening around its neck and was desperately looking for a way to free itself.

Since the responsibility of the married petty-bourgeois male was to maintain the nuclear family, both he and young women without suitors of his class felt themselves victims of unfair competition from marriages in which both members could boast secure, comfortable, and even prestigious employment. These couples, despite the drop in income, were able to save money and secure their class position in the midst of a depression that threatened to proletarianize quite a few petty-bourgeois families.

The government was very concerned about the impact of the Depression on these unemployed artisans, engineers, farmers, churchmen, and officemen whom the head of the CWA, Harry Hopkins, ranked as the best people in America. He was in fact far more concerned about their fate than he was about the masses of unemployed workers. The fall of the petty bourgeoisie would mean the destruction of the American dream … the disappearance of the big house in the suburbs, the maid in the home, the car and the dog.

Government, business and universities adopted policies throughout the period of the Great Depression that were intended, at least in theory, to mitigate this problem.

Universities began to dismiss academics through anti-nepotism policies. These policies stated that only one member of a married couple could work as an academic at the university in question. And, these policies, while officially impartial, were based on reports that spoke of the need to fire married women who were on the payroll and whose husbands could support them. Again: these were not working women, cleaners could intermarry without losing their jobs, but rather the academic petty bourgeoisie.

After all, the role of the petty-bourgeois woman was still household management, it was only logical that they should be the ones fired. So newly graduated, unmarried women began to have difficulty finding employment. According to one law graduate:

The Depression gave law firms another excuse not to hire us. At every interview, I was asked how I could expect to be considered when there were unemployed men with families to support. It was bad enough that I wasn’t going to get a job at any of those law firms, but they also insisted on making me feel guilty.

These policies, instead of saving the petty-bourgeois family, ended up putting it in jeopardy. The depression was changing all the social values of the petty bourgeoisie. Petty bourgeois women and men were no longer going to passively accept the bans on married women now that the situation had become much more precarious for the whole of petty bourgeois families.

Each family was interested in ensuring as much of its own security as possible against the threat of proletarianization. That is why both partners were willing to extend their engagement or lie about their marriages or even separate to save money. Those who fought against the restrictions talked about how they led to the scandalous cohabitation of unmarried couples and decreased the reproduction of good middle-class children… in short, they predicted the destructionof the family if the employment status of petty-bourgeois women was not changed.

They were right in their own way: the consensus, adopted during the Depression, to prioritize unemployed and married males in new contracts worked to the disadvantage of single petty-bourgeois women.

Interwar feminism and the Great Depression

A famous case of “nepotism” at the University of Washington

The right of women to work, meant nothing other than the right of the petty-bourgeois woman to have a career, especially in times of economic depression. It was no longer a question of female independence… but of preserving the class position of the whole family. This was the banner and the key to the growing acceptance of interwar feminism within the petty bourgeoisie.

As we discussed in the first part of this series, the feminist movement in the U.S. was split between two types of feminism:

  1. The anti-union, Republican feminism that fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and was represented by the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and
  2. The unionized, Democratic feminism that was against the Equal Rights Amendment.

Although the NWP supported Hoover’s campaign in 1928, it was sorely disappointed after the government passed the Economy Act of 1932. Section 213 of this act prevented the government from hiring both members of a married couple in the Civil Service. As the depression showed no signs of improvement, they went on to reject Hoover for his inability to play the role of unifier of the nation.

Interwar feminism in general, then, bet on Franklin Roosevelt…. and came out on top. Pro-Union feminists, such as Frances Perkins and Ellen Woodward, gained leadership positions in the Roosevelt administration. The petty bourgeoisie in general received special treatment from the government.

Roosevelt and the trade unions

F.D. Roosevelt signs labor legislation, introduced as “Magna Charta of Labor.”

One of the most important measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was the incorporation of trade unions into the state through the creation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1933. The unions, rejected by the workers at the beginning of the postwar period, then found themselves supported by the state. In parallel, pro-union and Democratic feminism took the lead in interwar feminism.

Much of the US workers pinned their hopes on Roosevelt and reconciled with the unions. They took the creation of the NRA as a sign that they could help them fight back against the attacks of capital. At the same time, the unions could not consolidate their power in open confrontation with a combativeness that was on the rise.

This was the framework of the strikes of the 1930s in the United States: strikes within the Rooseveltian order that disciplined the most reluctant companies, homogenized hiring conditions and, above all, strengthened the trade unions… and the illusions created around them. They were part of the Roosevelt administration’s effort to establish a state capitalism by effectively framing the vast majority of the working class.

In fact, the main aims of those strikes would end up being the creation of industrial unions and the reform of existing trade unions to function as industrial unions. Strikes by auto and transportation workers would lead to the formation of the industrial union, United Auto Workers, the growth of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO).

But the hope that strengthening unions would result in the strengthening of workers’ ability to defend themselves would end up crashing brutally against the state-run nature of the unions.

The Left Opposition in the United States was part of this movement primarily through its intervention in the Minneapolis trucker strikes. One of its main immediate objectives was to expand the membership of the Teamsters union and make it behave like an industrial union, including all those workers who were excluded from the possibility of joining.

The Communist League of America, which would eventually become the Socialist Workers Party, was careful not to challenge too much the Rooseveltian illusions shared by most of the strikers, even when the crackdown of the progressive governor, Floyd B. Olson came down on them. In the end, they succeeded in massively increasing the size and influence of the Teamsters union. But the union, sensing the Marxists as a foreign body within it, wasn’t long in driving the Trotskyists from its ranks.

What is even more telling: all the unions, including the industrial unions that formed during the strikes of the 1930s, would align themselves with national capital to enlist the workers and sacrifice them en masse during World War II.

It would not be Hoover but Roosevelt, president of the most unionist government in U.S. history, who would recruit workers for World War II. The unions, supposed defenders of the workers, were as interested as the state in leading the workers to a slaughter that would be useful for the recovery of the nation (=recovery of the profitability of national capital). A recovery that the New Deal alone could not achieve.

Interwar feminism and the New Deal

Margaret Sangers surrounded by co-religionists

Unions were not alone. Interwar feminism would do all it could to assist in the war effort…and to secure a share of the spoils.

Under Roosevelt the female petty bourgeoisie managed to get rid of the state’s ban on dual spousal employment in 1937 and was more unified than ever. It was unconcerned by the fact that the basic labor standards established by the state under the New Deal made labor legislation that specifically protected women workers virtually irrelevant.

The last years of peace before the war find pro-union feminism mobilizing women workers for war and American interwar feminism en bloc in full eugenicist swing. In fact both horrors, imperialist warmongering and eugenics, narratively supported each other.

Margaret Sanger herself, head in those years of the family planning movement, dolphin of the also Malthusian Emma Goldman as head of public anarchism and still today fetish of feminism, was not satisfied at the time with exalting the petty-bourgeois nuclear family, in 1938 she gave speeches on the harmful effect that the Great Depression had on the superior race.

The essential problem for Sanger was that there were too many inferiors, i.e., too many workers, who were being born en masse because of the lack of a birth control policy. The most humane solution, therefore, would be to prevent such inferiors from being born in the first place through sterilization of women of the imbecile class. But sometimes, writes Sanger, the problem of population surplus is so severe that war becomes necessary.

The militarization of industrial workers and the publicly funded sterilization of hundreds of Puerto Rican women – who did not know they were being sterilized – are not two isolated and dark elements of the era, two excesses which were the products of ignorance. They are two expressions of the same anti-human ideology that interwar feminism concentrated and placed at the forefront of its political action in support of the Rooseveltian construction of a state capitalism for the country.

American interwar feminism as a whole was already openly flying its main banner… the national flag.

More to follow…