Women and the Communist Party of Australia, 1920-1945

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Women and the
Communist Party of Australia,

This essay was written in 1998 as part of my Honours year in History at Macquarie University, Sydney

The emancipation of women has been a central objective of Marxism from the very first,1 and the early years of the Russian Revolution saw the most concerted attack on women’s oppression in history.2 The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920 in the hope that it could emulate the Russian Bolsheviks and lead Australian workers in a successful revolution against capitalism, and it clearly saw that such a revolution would need to involve women rising up against their special oppression.3 The party claimed to be the only organisation seriously fighting for the rights of working women, and waged bitter ideological warfare against feminists and feminism, which it saw as only concerned with the interests of bourgeois women. Over the years the party attracted significant numbers of women to its ranks. However, with the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the party became a major target for feminist criticism, including from members. Its politics were seen as sexist, it was accused of ignoring and marginalising women and women’s concerns, and its leaders accused of hypocrisy over their professed commitment to women’s emancipation. Others either disputed this criticism, or pointed to the party’s work over fifty years as the most advanced in support of women’s rights.

This essay will outline the party’s work amongst women and its work for women’s liberation, and discuss an approach for assessing the “masculinist” representations in its agitation. It will argue that the party mobilised women and challenged sexist structures and stereotypes (albeit unevenly); that it was more serious, but less influential at this in its early years and that the rise of Stalinism saw it compromise with existing prejudices for the sake of the Popular Front. The party’s “great betrayal” of women came during the Second World War when the party acted to limit a growing revolt by working class women. This essay will cover the period 1920-1945, when the party first confronted the gender politics of the Russian Revolution, and then abandoned them for the Popular Front, setting up the political tradition that would endure until the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Many relevant issues will not be discussed, most importantly the nature and impact of masculinist representation in the party’s agitation and propaganda. Instead, the emphasis will be on the party’s positive role, and the conditions in which it worked, in order to provide a framework for analysis.

The most substantial survey of gender politics in the Communist Party of Australia, and the experience of women in its ranks, is Joy Damousi’s book, Women Come Rally.4 She finds the party sexist at almost every conceivable level. The party’s Marxist theory was “masculinist”; when the party talked about workers it implicitly meant men; and women, because they were more likely to be based in the home, were generally regarded as “backward” and a “problem” for the revolutionary movement. Feminism was seen as a threat to the unity of the working class and a current to be fought. She acknowledges the appeal of the Communist Party to women; many joined during the 1930s and 1940s as it organised against the Depression and fascism. The party in turn gave women a space in which to be political and also did some work around women's issues. However it represented women in conventional ways, and reinforced the stereotypes, marginalising women in the process. The party’s portrayal and imagery of the class struggle was profoundly masculine, often sexually aggressive and at times violent. Before and especially after the Second World War, the party came to promote motherhood and the suburban nuclear family as the feminine ideal. Alongside this the party ran beauty contests and pictures of young women in swimming contests to please “the male gaze”. The specifically women’s issues the party raised were either focused on women’s role in the workforce (eg equal pay), or as mothers (eg for more kindergartens). Women were excluded from prestige tasks such as trade union work, public speaking, or editing party publications. The party was reluctant to discuss birth control, or sexuality, or inequality within the home. And when the soldiers returned from the Second World War, the party expected working women to make way for them to resume or gain employment. The sexual double standard was rampant amongst party men, and some women, such as Jean Devanny, faced incredible abuse from the male hierarchy for their supposed debauchery. The equality the party fought for in the wider world was absent from its own ranks.

Damousi’s book is important, both for its scholarship, and because it is representative of a broad current of feminist thinking which rejects Marxism and the labour movement as “masculinist”, and which sees the Communist Party as having been an instrument of patriarchy.5 There is much in Damousi’s critique that is valid, as I hope this essay will show. However it ultimately fails on three related grounds: a completely inadequate treatment of the broader social context communists faced; a reliance on representation, rather than the totality of communist activity, for the bulk of her critique,; and a complete lack of any conception of how women’s emancipation could have been either furthered or won. Sandra Bloodworth has argued that:

To concentrate on the gendered imagery, language and assumptions, which permeate the working class movement is to suggest it is possible to overthrow the dominant ideas and culture of society without first destroying the social existence which gives rise to them. How this can be done is not clear, so the one-sided emphasis both reflects and entrenches the prevailing scepticism about class struggle.6

Marx himself had cause to fight the nowadays postmodernist view — and held more than 150 years ago by the Young Hegelians — that saw “all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute an independent existence, as the real chains” of people.7 He argued that workers were driven by their conditions of life to engage in class struggle, and this created the grounds on which they could begin to reject the dominant ideology. “In revolutionary activity the changing of oneself coincides with the changing of circumstances,” he wrote.8 However, no real mass struggle can be built without appealing to the beliefs and expectations of ordinary workers, and these will be shaped by the prevailing hegemony. So, for example, many male workers have felt driven to take strike action because they felt they didn’t earn enough to keep their family. If communists appeal to that sentiment, are they betraying the cause of women’s emancipation? Trade unionism could never have been built without appeal to such sentiments, yet clearly there’s a problem; Marx (and Lenin) argued that Communists have a responsibility to “represent and take care of the future of [the working class] movement” in every present-day struggle.9 An appeal to women as housewives to, for example, demonstrate against price rises, could reinforce the social stereotype of women. But without such appeals, the Communist Party of Australia would never have mobilised thousands of women into political life from the late 1940s to the 1970s. It must be remembered that an appeal to women as housewives had a different quality in the 1920s or 1950s, compared with the 1990s.

I would therefore argue that to assess the role and impact of “stereotypes” in political agitation by the Communist Party, we need to look at the wider politics of the time, whether or not the stereotype is being used to advance the class struggle overall,10 whether or not the party engages in other activities and propaganda that undercut the stereotype and the commitment of the party to organising women towards their own self-emancipation. This, I believe, will provide both a more valid, and a more historically interesting result than Damousi’s context-free, anachronistic and utopian critique.

An analysis based on this kind of approach shows that the quality of the Communist Party’s work with women and against sexism varied immensely over the fifty years covered by this essay; a shift over time barely even acknowledged by Damousi. From 1920-1925 the party was both politically and organisationally unstable. Its few excursions into gender politics were neither orthodox nor useful.11 Stuart Macintyre sees the new leadership provided by Jack Kavanagh from late 1925, as the turning point in the party’s fortunes, as everything about the party became more serious and systematic. In this period, the Communist Party undertook a wide range of campaigns for women’s rights — a level of activity that belies the party’s small female membership.12 The party established the Militant Women’s Group (MWG) in 1926, and then began to organise women’s study circles and train speakers and organised Australia’s first International Women’s Day in 1928.13 In the desperate circumstances of the Depression, the Communist Party was the only force prepared to consistently mobilise militant resistance, and this frequently involved large numbers of women. A demonstration of unemployed people in Newcastle invaded the local bureau and won their demands, which included immediate relief for six women. Women played “a bit part”. Women physically defended male unemployed leaders in Sydney when they were attacked by police. Women were active in the many (and often violent) eviction struggles.14 Jean Devanny recalls being arrested with six other women when an unemployed rally was attacked by police and the women attempted to break through police lines.15 The Communist Party focused particular attention on the trade unions and strikes, and were prepared to intervene from the outside when they had no members inside. One celebrated example came when the employers at Victorian spinning mills announced a fifteen per cent wage cut in 1932. One factory took quick strike action and forced management to reduce the cut in their factory to 7.5% — a significant victory. The party worked hard to help the militants in this predominantly female industry force a general union meeting to fight even that wage cut. The tactics proposed by the party reflected those used in male industries: speeches at the mass meeting attacking the weakness of the officials and motions that negotiations be conducted by rank and file delegates — which were carried. A week later a rank and file strike committee was elected, but the officials ignored the mass meetings and won an agreement with the employers for a general 7.5% wage cut.16 The party organised conferences of militant women and local women’s groups on a scale which belied its modest size and tiny female membership.

Possibly the most successful work the Communist Party did amongst women in the period 1925-1941 was organising the wives of workers in traditionally militant, male-dominated industries. The Communist front group, the Militant Women’s Group, was intensely active during the three great strikes that preceded the Great Depression. When the timberworkers were locked out in early 1929, the MWG organised the wives and daughters of timberworkers to campaign for support for the strike and organise relief. Joy Damousi sees these as another example of women’s activism being defined through their “feminine” role.17 It seems an extraordinary comment; the women were wives (and mothers and daughters and friends), they saw that as their role, they had a material interest in the success of the strikes and this was the basis for bringing them together, and thus initially their activism was defined by the outbreak of class struggle in the industry. As one woman put it, “It wasn’t that the Women’s Auxiliary just supported men…it was our own survival we were fighting for.”18 And many auxiliaries (and women’s progress groups) were able to continue and develop beyond their origins, to become broad campaigning groups focused on union issues, issues facing women, and even international politics. At the end of his article on women in the mining industry, Andrew Metcalfe reported:

My female informants…were annoyed and insulted by the common misapprehension that, in establishing the Auxiliaries, they were not acting on their own initiative, but basically carrying out the plans of male Federation leaders.19

The impact of the women’s auxiliaries on the women activists was often cathartic, and some found their lives transformed, along with their expectations of what they, as women, could achieve. Audrey Johnson writes about the Timberworkers’ group in 1929 that, “Soon women who had never spoken in public before found themselves addressing meetings and reading the daily strike bulletins on 2KY, the Trades Hall radio station”. Led by Edna Nelson (Ryan), they also marched on a government-sponsored “Industrial Peace Conference” and on another occasion, raided the offices of the Timber Combine.20

Lucie Barnes helped set up the Railways Union women’s auxiliary in Casino in 1934. The auxiliary soon had some fifty members and moved beyond issues narrowly related to the union. It successfully fought an increase price of bread; it campaigned for a better income for women on the dole who were expecting babies; it was active in the protests against the widespread dismissal of married women in the Depression; and set up a free creche for members who themselves provided the care. It raised money for striking miners and steel workers and collected money for the republicans in Spain.21

Grace Scanlon was married to a Hunter Valley miner, and had picketed shops to stop them serving the police during the bitter 1929-30 lockout. In 1938 she helped set up the Cessnock Women’s Auxiliary associated with the Miners’ Federation, one of a large number of such auxiliaries.22 While the form of this activity was the conventional one of women supporting their men, the very fact that they were active themselves immediately confronted the sexist stereotype of women belonging in the home. Scanlon recalls that “lots of men found it very hard to see their wives going out and taking public actions,” and the agitation of men like her own husband, Henry, who supported their wives, was important in getting the auxiliaries accepted.23 Marie Gollan, who was also involved in the auxiliary, points out that it went one step beyond the traditional approach of setting up a women’s committee to organise relief during a strike. The auxiliary was an ongoing organisation and the miners were “terrified that the women were going to interfere in their affairs.”24 During strikes, women active in the auxiliary played a political role, convincing other women of the importance of the union’s action. Scanlon herself became a prolific writer of reports for the union journal and the local newspaper. When right wing women came to Newcastle to agitate against a strike, the auxiliary organised to counter them.25 Many years later she reflected:

There were some mighty militant women on the coalfields then that never thought they’d go out the back door and say “boo” and I was one of them. There’s been thirty years of intensive work.26

Diane Menghetti has described how a strong working women’s movement emerged in North Queensland from women’s progress clubs set up by the Communist Party during the Weil’s Disease strike of 1935 in the sugar industry.27 Initially they aimed to win the support of sugar workers’ wives for the dispute, but went on to mobilise women around local and international issues; supporting the waterside workers who banned the export of pig iron for Japan, opposing the setting up of a National Register of Women for the war, and raising money for Spanish and Chinese relief funds. The most successful of the WPCs, in Townsville, fought for better services for women and children, such as a free library, children’s hospital, and milk for school children.

As well as its campaigning, the Communist Party also waged a propaganda struggle for women’s liberation, and it had at its disposal a sophisticated theory. Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State had drawn on the research of Lewis Morgan to show that there had once been a primitive communism in which men and women were equal, that sexual morality, family structure, and the role of women had all changed dramatically over the centuries and that there was nothing “natural” about the present-day arrangements. “The modern individual family is based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the woman,” Engels wrote, and argued that the defeat of the female sex had occurred with the rise of private property and class society. Where previous family structures had forced women out of social production, modern, large-scale industry was drawing them into it, and Engels drew two strategic conclusions; firstly, that the need to get rid of men’s domination over women would only become fully clear when women had won full legal equality with men, and that “the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.28

But for those who wanted an end to women’s oppression, the greatest inspiration of all was the Russian Revolution itself. Within months of the Bolshevik victory in October 1917, the new regime had destroyed the vast structure of legal inequality. Women gained the full right to vote, equal pay, and equal employment rights. Civil marriage and easy divorce were introduced, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was abolished, and the laws against adultery, incest and homosexuality removed from the criminal code. As a result of formal equality in interpersonal relations, and an atmosphere in which people treated each other with dignity, prostitution largely disappeared. In 1920, free abortion on demand was introduced, a right that “social democratic” Australia has still yet to recognise in the 1990s. Alongside this “legal” revolution went an attempt to begin tackling what Marxists saw as the fundamental source of women’s oppression in capitalist society, the family, and the social expectation that it is women’s role to do the housework and child care. Nurseries, laundries, mending centres and house communes were set up to free women from “women’s work”. In 1919-20, the vast majority of people living in Petrograd and Moscow were fed communally.29

This achievement was both celebrated and theorised in Alexandra Kollontai’s pamphlet, Communism and the Family, which was actively promoted by the new Communist Party and serialised in Working Woman in 1930.30 Kollontai talked about the double burden of work and domestic labour that women had been forced to shoulder under capitalism, argued that women’s liberation required that women be able to work in industry alongside men, with society (in the form of the workers’ state) accepting responsibility for domestic labour and child care. She described how this was happening in Russia.

Just as important as the communists’ ability to explain women’s position was their apparent enthusiasm for women to be involved in politics alongside men. The Russians celebrated the fact that their revolution had been started when the women workers of Petrograd went out on a dangerous, illegal strike on International Women’s Day in 1917. Edna Ryan was later to recall the way her own consciousness was jolted forward when she first heard Lenin’s statement that every kitchen maid should be a politician, and again when party leader Jack Kavanagh declared: “Ha, when the revolution comes most of the women will run away from their husbands because they are oppressed at home too”.31 Audrey Blake was drawn to communism in the late 1920s by “the incredible light shining still from October 1917.”32

The predominantly male party’s education classes studied Engels’ book, The Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State. The MWG published a duplicated bulletin, The Woman Worker, and in 1927, a major 16 page pamphlet, Woman’s Road To Freedom. This began with a summary of Engels’ pamphlet (“The Lesson of History: Women Not Always Subjected”), a description of the way capitalism had forced women into the workplace and the class struggle, a celebration of the achievements in Russia, a generalised discussion of the problems facing the housewife, and finishing with a five page detailed critique of wages and working conditions in six different industries in Australia. It argued that women should be members of their union, and “line up with the men against their common enemy — the boss class.”33 Joyce Stevens is right to point out that the pamphlet offered no other strategic ideas for dealing with women’s oppression.34

At the height of the Depression, the party press actively took up the issues of abortion and birth control, sponsoring a long discussion of them. There were good reasons to do so; from 1931 to 1935, 230 women died from illegal abortions in NSW alone, while more than a thousand died in child birth.35 And there was a hunger for knowledge about sex and contraception.36 In November 1931, the Working Women’s Conference, organised by the party, unanimously passed a radical motion supporting:

the rights of every man and woman to determine the size of their families. To make child bearing a voluntary function we must demand that birth control knowledge which is today monopolised by the rich, be made available to the millions of mothers of our class, many of whom lose their lives or endanger their health though ignorance and the dread of giving birth to another child… We demand that abortion be carried out under skilled medical attention in public hospitals, in all cases where requested by pregnant women, provided that the circumstances are considered justified by a committee of women workers attached to the local clinic.37

This motion was discussed and passed at a time of increasing censorship and hostility to the open discussion of sexual matters.38 Joyce Stevens describes this resolution as “exceptional” for the time, noting that “even local feminist groups were reluctant to publicly confront such issues.”39 There were considerable limits to this sexual radicalism, however. The women’s conference resolution did not become party policy, and the party constantly insisted that “the class struggle cannot be solved through birth control or abortion.”40 The communist most identified with agitation for the rights of working class people to safe abortion and to scientific information about birth control and sexuality was Jean Devanny, and the party viewed her speeches on the issues with a certain distaste and concern, yet it is clear from the enthusiastic response she got that the party missed an opportunity to strengthen its appeal to working class women.41

Thus the Communist Party was a profound contradiction. It was a party overwhelmingly of men that argued and organised for women’s emancipation. Yet its male members often refused to take this work seriously, and continued to see women’s role as in the home looking after them.42 The party press repeatedly exhorted its male members to stop assuming that their wives were not interested in politics and approach them, an indication of rank and file male attitudes.43 Yet when it did recruit women, it all too frequently saw them as little more than a resource to do “shit work”, such as folding and addressing envelopes, letterboxing and entertaining contacts.44 Its male members, and leaders were often personally sexist. Party leader Jack Henry used to “pick off” women members at party dances and when challenged over his behaviour said it was his own business, not the party’s.45 Joy Damousi has pointed to the masculinity of the party’s imagery.46

It is important, for those of us who care about the future of the socialist movement, to uncover and criticise all these elements of sexism in the past. But it is just as important to keep a sense of perspective, something Damousi singularly fails to do. The Communist Party did not create the gender-divided workforce, the gender roles of society, nor was it responsible for imbuing women with the ambition of becoming housewives and mothers, and men with the idea that they had to be breadwinners and they were inadequate if they could not create and sustain a family. These were ideas embraced by the vast majority of communists, as well as most of the rest of society. Although from a later era, Bernice Morris wanted nothing more than to be her new husband’s housewife,47 an attitude shared by every single communist woman whose memoirs I was able to read. The Communist Party faced, not just the normal institutions of sexist hegemony such as the churches and mass media, but a militant campaign by the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire, at the height of the Depression, against working class militancy and in support of the “sanctity of the family” and women’s role as housewife.48 The Guild was generously funded by big business. Nor was it the only right wing women’s organisation. In November 1930, an anti-communist meeting was held in the Sydney Town Hall organised by the women’s section of the Sane Democracy League, the Feminist League, the National Association of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Progressive Housewives’ Association.

Women, they said, must take the offensive to defend Country, Religion, and Morality, and marriage itself would be smashed if “these fiends” had their way.”49

The decisive question for assessing the party’s role in gender politics is: to what extent did it stand against this oppression and organise women to ultimately break from it. And for the period 1925-35, the evidence I believe is overwhelming. The party’s own complaints about its male members are not just evidence of sexism, but leadership concern at it. Indeed, it is precisely the politics of democratic centralism, so reviled on the left today, that saw a relatively more advanced leadership push the party towards a more anti-sexist position. It is significant, for example, that the winning of communist influence in the Railways Union saw the elimination of racist and sexist photo captions in the union journal, and the substitution of serious articles aimed at the wives of members.50 The active organising of women into politics utterly challenged their own view of themselves. The only woman member in the early days of the Tully (North Queensland) branch felt so isolated amongst all the men that she “confessed a sensation of ‘immorality’.51 Marie Gollan recalls the trauma she felt the first time she held up a placard, and the immense difficulty she had speaking for the first time in a meeting.52 This lack of confidence, or “arrested development” in Daphne Gollan’s words,53 was not created by the party. It may not have made it easy for women to start speaking, but it was virtually the only organisation that provided a means by which women could begin political struggle for their own freedom.

The Stalinist counter-revolution was to have a profound impact on the sexual politics of communist parties around the world.54 In Russia itself, the position of women had already started to deteriorate significantly with the New Economic Policy of 1921; even a limited reintroduction of the market led to widespread unemployment, profiteering and a resurgence of prostitution as poor women struggled to survive.55 The first five year plan put the accumulation of capital (in the form of heavy industry) as the regime’s central priority and investment in production for consumption — so necessary for working class women — slumped.56 The Stalinist regime wanted a dramatically larger workforce and army, so access to abortion was at first restricted and then in 1936, divorce was made more difficult and abortion virtually banned and motherhood once again promoted as women’s most important role. The sexual freedom of the early years of the revolution was now condemned as “debauchery” and the conventional family promoted instead.57 However unlike most western countries, women were expected to work as well as raise children, providing a continued veneer of radicalism for western communists to point to (along with the showcase child care centres).

In Australia, the initial impact of this shift was delayed.58 However in 1936, the party publicised the interview Lenin was supposed to have given to Clara Zetkin in which he supposedly compared a woman who had many sexual partners with a “glass with a rim greasy from many lips”, in an unmistakeable attack on the attitude of sexual freedom which had characterised the party in the early years of the Depression, when a drag queen was welcome as a member. There appears to have been a purge of “bohemian” elements.59 When the issue of deaths from backyard abortion came up in Workers Weekly in 1938, the Editorial Board pointed out that “abortion is now illegal in the Soviet Union.”60 This did not mean the party itself had a formal position against abortion; nor did it stop party members arranging abortions for each other.

Equally important in the long run was the Stalinist policy of building a Popular Front against fascism, one of very many twists and turns imposed by the Russian leadership on communist parties around the world. The Popular Front abandoned communism’s earlier radicalism, and aimed to attract middle class people and even “patriotic” capitalists with the assurance that the Communist Party was an “Australian Party par excellence”. The party’s Working Woman became a magazine from 1934 and showed signs of wanting to model itself on mainstream women’s magazines. Then in 1936, it was dropped for a new publication, Woman Today. The class politics of Working Woman were toned down so that it could “unite all classes of women to meet the growing threat of fascism”.61 To facilitate this unity, the magazine ran articles on Hollywood stars, beauty hints and alternative health. Yet even in its toned down form it remained a highly political magazine.62

The full logic of the Popular Front was played out from June 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked Russia, as the Communist Party flipped once again from opposition to Australian participation in the Second World War, to become enthusiastic champions of Russia’s new allies.63 In this position, the party became fanatical champions of the war, sending thousands of their own members to the front line, and working tirelessly for maximum production in industry, and opposing most strikes. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, there was a shortage of labour, especially in the metal trades and munitions, as production was dramatically expanded. An estimated 100,000 women moved into industry. In the metal trades they found themselves on wages far lower than those of men: In 1941, toolmakers were being offered $24 a week when the award was $13.10. Adult women with 12 months experience (ie not tradespeople) received $7.20 and a woman under 16 as little as $1.25. Women also faced considerable hostility from the metal unions and male workers who feared, with considerable justification, that women and the war emergency would be used to break down conditions. Women were not, until 1943, even allowed to join the main craft union the AEU.64 The Communist Party fought such attitudes from male trade unionists.65 However, once the union changed its rules, it employed the well-known feminist Muriel Heagney to organise their women members and published leaflets advising women how to deal with hostile male colleagues.

Janey Stone has eloquently described the industrial militancy of women during the war, both in the metal trades and others. Two strikes of women workers at munitions factories in 1942 led the Curtin government to set up the Women’s Employment Board, whose job it was to set wage rates. There was a huge push by women for equal pay, and in some factories they won it. The WEB granted women in the metal trades and munitions work 90% of the male rate (and 100% for women doing a tradesperson’s work); but the rate was raised to just 75% for so-called vital industries, and not raised at all above 54% for women in service and other “non-essential” industries. Employers bitterly resisted the new rates, so there were may disputes and strikes as women fought to impose what they had been legally granted — often with the support of their male co-workers. At Kenvenagh and English in Sydney, women sheet metal workers went out for five weeks to enforce the WEB rates, and finally won. At Simmonds Aerocessories in Melbourne, 132 women sheet metal workers went out for over four months. They were supported by 150 engineers and won. When AWA in Ashfield, Sydney, refused to pay the WEB rate, 150 women joined the AEU and went on strike for three weeks. This militancy soon spread to other industries, where wage rates were far lower than in the metal trades and munitions. There were a series of strikes in the textile industry during the war; one, in 1941, involving 9000 workers who defied their male union leaders to go out. Joyce Batterham, one of the organisers of the strike, remembers getting support from a wide range of people who saw through the patriotic hysteria of the press — the factory made uniforms for the soldiers.66

The significance, for women’s liberation, of the large-scale entry of women into paid employment in industry during the war was immense. Lyn Finch described it as “the possible commencement of the process regarded by Engels as the undermining of patriarchy,” and it is clear that the Communist Party applauded its political potential, and the party shifted its priority from recruiting housewives to work with women in industry.67 But women were not merely workers during the war; here was the kind of working women’s industrial movement for which the Communist Party had hoped for two decades — and no Marxist should be surprised that it blew up during a war when all the contradictions of capitalism were greatly intensified. But the party’s role was to contain and smother it.

The list of strikes and the militancy of the women involved is inspiring: thousands of men and women at the Small Arms Factory, Footscray (Vic), 2000 women from government factories, a strike and lockout at Richard Hughes, Sydney, a threat to strike by 450 women from four Sydney factories which brought instant victory, daily stopwork meetings at a Footscray (Vic) munitions factory, a thousand women storming out of the Alexandria Spinning Mills (Sydney) and then setting up a strike committee, picketing and sending delegations to other factories such that 10,000 workers were out by the end of a week, mass resignations at the end of 1941 when the government tried to ban Christmas holidays (followed by a return to work in the New Year), porters and ticket collectors at Flinders Street and Spencer Street railway stations in Melbourne walking off the job and stopping peak hour traffic, 450 waitresses in two Sydney restaurant chains refusing to work Fridays and Saturdays, a thousand munitions workers (mostly women) on strike for ten weeks at Duly and Hansford in Marrickville (Sydney) in protest at the refusal of ten workers to join the union, and finally, the great 1944 Sydney newspaper strike which began the avalanche of post war struggles for the 40 hour week started by female compositors who were expected to work four hours longer than the men. The scale of industrial disputation was reaching historic proportions, with over 1400 industrial disputes in NSW in the 20 months up to August 1944, involving over half a million workers and nearly one and a half million days’ production lost.

And everywhere the reaction of Communist Party militants and trade union officials was similar: to argue for restraint. It both fought the employers for women to get the WEB rates, which were much higher than traditional rates, and urged militant women to accept the WEB rates. This in turn undercut the desire for real equal pay from areas such as textiles and catering where women had long been a major part of the workforce. Time and again communist officials urged women to return to work for the sake of “the boys in the trenches”, provoking the response, “We know all about the boys in the trenches…they’re our husbands and sons”. Betty Reilly, a leading communist in the Textile Workers Union, remembers the 1943 strike as “explosive”, with communists being howled down by a mass meeting when arguing for the strike to end.68 Reilly herself scabbed on the strike, and Sydney bookseller, Bob Gould, remembers Reilly describing it as the worst thing she ever did in her life.69

It is important to stress that opposition to equal pay during the war did not come from sexist communists, or indeed from sexist trade union officials. Once they had accepted that women would be entering male-dominated industries, union officials generally wanted women to receive equal pay as a means of making it less attractive to employers to hire them instead of men. Opposition to equal pay came overwhelmingly from employers, who did not want the principle to be assumed when the war was over. The employers were assisted by bourgeois feminists such as Jessie Street, who argued for the gradual introduction of equal pay during the war, undercutting union arguments for the full male rate. Communist resistance to strikes and support for the WEB compromise was entirely a product of its commitment to the regime in Moscow and the politics of class collaboration embodied in the Popular Front.

It may seem ironic, but there was a significant growth in the number and proportion of women in the Communist Party during the years of the Popular Front and then the war. In 1942 alone, some 1900 women joined the party and the proportion of women briefly touched 25%.70 This influx was a symptom of the growing radicalisation in society, while the party’s more conservative gender politics does not seem to have alienated it from left wing women, who by and large shared some view of “woman as housewife”. When the party abandoned its Marxist vision for women’s liberation, there was no other force in society to fight for it. But it is also true that this great surge of female recruitment occurred before the great wave of struggle over equal pay and the open opposition of the party to women going on strike for their rights. One can postulate a connection between the two, and the possibility that the party could have had an immensely greater number of women members had its Stalinism not prevailed, and research on this point would be valuable. Indeed, Lyn Finch has argued that:

All too often, the “Winnie the War Winner” image of Communist women angered women workers suffering appalling working conditions. These women engaged in struggles in their workplaces understandably…rejected their leadership.71

With around 4000 male members of the party at the war, women moved in to full time party positions in unprecedented numbers, such that “its public face became distinctly female.”72 It was a two-edged sword; no other party treated women so seriously, but few women were raised about middle level leadership, and neither were they taken as seriously as men.73 The attitude to women in the party apparatus was the same as the attitude to them in traditional men’s jobs; their presence was a temporary expedient due to the stresses of war.74 But for Lyn Finch, it was the party’s dogged commitment to the war effort that meant that “The chance of Communist women gaining leadership positions in this climate was negligible and, in the long term, never eventuated.”75

With the party committed to supporting the prior claim of (mostly male) soldiers for post-war jobs — another consequence of its support for the war, rather than simply sexism —the party’s vision for women in 1947, Women in Our New World, was “rigidly encased in a conservative familial scenario.”76 From this point on, communist work amongst women would be focused on the Housewives’ Associations and the Union of Australian Women, which was nevertheless, “easily the most radical and class conscious group of people working in the field of women’s rights.” The party would occasionally, and ultimately, pay for its betrayal of the working women’s revolt of 1943-5. In 1947, party leader JD Blake had the temerity to point out that:

The strike-breaking activities of the so-called United Women’s Movement during the gas workers’ strike and the small attendances at meetings of women called in support of the strikers reveal the dangers arising from the weakness of the Communist work among women.77

The Communist Party of Australia was the most advanced organisation in Australia fighting for women’s liberation in the years 1920-1945. It inherited a convincing (if somewhat flawed) explanation for the oppression of women from Engels and the international communist movement, and worked to organise women workers and working class wives into political activity and the wider class struggle. In the mid-1930s, the party’s adoption of the Popular Front, and the sexual counter-revolution in Russia itself, combined to push the party’s gender politics significantly to the right, accommodating to the prevailing ideology that saw women’s role as being in the home, and which condemned “promiscuity”. Up until the Second World War, the party was not responsible for the small number of women in its ranks, or its overwhelming maleness: these were imposed by the structure of oppression in wider capitalist society. However the party’s betrayal of the great working women’s movement for equal pay and better conditions during the war meant that it missed an historic opportunity to both assist and lead the fight for women’s liberation and transform the gender balance and gender politics of the party itself. It held back and fought this movement, not through sexism (although that was undoubtedly a factor), but due to its commitment to the Soviet Union’s alliance with the western powers. Women would have to wait until a new upsurge created the opportunity that became the Women’s Liberation Movement of the early 1970s. Critiques which focus on the iconography and language of the party during its history fail to reveal the party’s social role at any point of time, and obscure the real opportunity the party missed to change the gender politics of Australia.

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