Learning in the Dark

Feminist writer and organizer Meredith Tax on her reissued classic The Rising of the Women, and the long, entangled histories of women’s movements and labor struggles.

Avi Steinberg
June 1, 2022

Six women march to City Hall during the New York Shirtwaist Strike, on December 3rd, 1909.

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

In 1972, Meredith Tax abandoned an academic career and her research for a history of women in the labor movement, and moved from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Chicago, where she joined a Maoist group called the October League. At the time, Tax, a founding member of the socialist feminist organization Bread and Roses, was best known as the author of “Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Everyday Life,” a 1970 pamphlet that sold 150,000 copies and is considered a critical early document of the women’s liberation movement. Upon arriving in Chicago with her husband and a group of their comrades, she took a job at a factory, where she helped build Zenith-brand TV sets on a notoriously unsanitary and dangerous assembly line. The goal was to organize her fellow minimum-wage workers into a union in the hopes that this would, as she put it in a conversation with me, “somehow eventually lead” to the founding of a new Communist Party in America.

Over the next two years she would find herself in almost constant conflict with the mostly male leadership of the October League, who considered her ongoing feminist activism bourgeois and resented her for openly criticizing their strategy. In 1975, Tax was expelled from the organization, her papers confiscated from her home and her former comrades ordered not to speak to her. Her husband, who remained in the group, severed ties with her, leaving her sole caretaker of their one-year-old daughter. Without support from her conservative parents, Tax was left to fend for herself.

This personal crisis, however shattering, did not translate into political disillusionment. On the contrary, it solidified Tax’s belief in the need for a broad left in which women’s organizing played a critical role. After leaving Chicago in 1976, Tax returned to the book that she had put on hold, a history of mostly forgotten political coalitions between women’s movements, labor organizers, and socialist activists that fueled labor struggles in Chicago, New England, and New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Published by Monthly Review in 1980 as The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917, the book was reissued in April by Verso, with a foreword by labor journalist Sarah Jaffe.

The Rising of the Women is both a nuanced historical account and a useful guide for organizers. Its comparative approach, which explores case studies from a range of times and places, documents a suggestive pattern in American labor history: The past successes that Tax examines all relied on the active role of a women’s movement, which deepened the strength of the political coalition and ensured that the interests of women and other marginalized workers were fully included. Tax’s work offers evidence—from history, not theory—that an autonomous women’s movement is not only compatible with class struggle but critical to its success.

I spoke with Tax recently about her experiences researching and writing The Rising of the Women, and about how it reads to her now, 42 years after its initial publication. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Avi Steinberg: What motivated you, in the 1970s, to write a history? If the goal was to reach organizers with practical advice, why look back to Chicago in the 1880s? Why not write, I don’t know, a report from a 1970s Chicago factory floor?

Meredith Tax: Well that would have been a book to write, too! When I started this book in 1970, I was immersed in feminist organizing, and many of my friends and I had a strong need to know what had come before us. I was in Bread and Roses, which worked on women’s issues, and also supported socialist movements abroad and the Black liberation movement here, especially the Panthers. We were trying to figure out a women’s program that would fit within those politics, but we didn’t even know what a program was. We didn’t understand strategy. My only political experience was a couple of years in the anti-war movement; other people came from SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. None of us really had a clue about how to organize women or what past women’s organizing had looked like, but we were intellectuals, so we started doing research. There weren’t very many books about American women’s history at that point, and a lot of them were really old. The three best were by Eleanor Flexner, Aileen Kraditor, and Gerda Lerner, and I soon deduced from the fact that they all wrote about Black women’s movements as well as white that they must have been close to the Communist Party. Nobody else did that. But these books did not cover all we wanted to know about who our precursors were.

When I started working on the book, I had a rather romantic approach to class. It was my assumption that the working class people were all good; the middle class people, well, you couldn’t really trust them; and the upper class people, forget it. But in studying the papers of the Women’s Trade Union League [a national organization for women workers active from 1903–1950]—the interactions between middle class women and the working class women who they wanted to help to organize, and the reactions of the working women themselves, how each group perceived the other—I realized, “It’s complicated!” So I kept going deeper into the archives, to learn about a past that we were never told about and barely even really knew existed.

AS: Let’s talk about that buried aspect of leftist history. What were some of the research challenges you had in excavating this story?

MT: The written record had its gaps. Clara Lemlich [a leader of the 1909–1910 shirtwaist strike in New York], whom I write about in The Rising, left us with less than complete records because one of her daughters burned all her papers during the McCarthy period. Many Communists did. They were scared. Gerda Lerner, the mother of women’s history programs, was active in an organization called the Congress of American Women, which was put on a subversive list during the McCarthy period and basically put out of business. I met her at a party, where I went up to her and said, “I’m very interested in the Congress of American Women. Would you ever be willing to talk to me about it?” She got enormously upset and she said “no” and left the room. Later I heard that she thought I was red-baiting her. That was in 1983, and she was still scared. That’s how traumatic the McCarthy period was. Getting information was not simple.

Much of what I did know at first were things I learned from my ex-husband and his parents, who had been involved with the Communist Party. But they didn’t know much about women’s organizing as such, or the period before World War I. By the late ’60s, there also just weren’t very many older women around who could tell us what they did in the ’30s and ’40s. We didn’t have elders.

AS: How did your history first take shape, narratively? What was the story you were trying to tell when you first set out to work on it?

MT: I was looking for ways that the women’s movement expanded into the working class, and got working class people into feminism. That, at least, was the point of view I had when I started. I mean, it changed.

AS: How so?

MT: I’d been focusing on the Women’s Trade Union League, which began in 1904, but then I read the papers of the Illinois Women’s Alliance, which was operating in the 1880s. It was a different generation, a different political setting, a different city: Chicago, not New York. It was a time and place when the labor movement was much stronger. The women who came out of that labor movement were in a position to lead a whole women’s movement that formed around them. Reading their papers, I realized that it isn’t only a question of which women are organizing, or of what they’re doing, but of which forces are strong at any particular time. It’s a question of the relationship of the whole left to the women’s movement, and vice versa.

AS: In your book, what are the noteworthy historical instances in which we see a women’s movement as essential in the struggle of labor?

MT: A well-known example of feminist aid that I discuss at length is the 1909–1910 shirtwaist strike in New York. The shirtwaist industry was made up largely of teenage girls, and, since they were mostly Russian Jewish immigrants and isolated on the Lower East Side, it was months before they got any public support. Meanwhile they were beaten up by goons and arrested in droves. Strike leader Clara Lemlich was arrested a total of 17 times. This happened in a period when the labor movement was growing, but it was also split between the “pure and simple” trade unionism of Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies). The women insisted on a general strike, in which all the trades involved in making shirtwaists went out at the same time. For this reason, the AFL wouldn’t help them—Gompers considered the strategy too radical, and anyway, he didn’t favor organizing women.

Unable to get help from the men in the labor movement, the strikers turned to the feminist movement and asked the Women’s Trade Union League, which was made up of progressive feminists involved in suffrage and reform work, for help. The league raised money for strike benefits and helped on the picket lines. When the first “society woman” was arrested, the event made headlines and made the rest of the city realize that there was a strike going on downtown. While the strike did not achieve all its aims, it established Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and, with it, women’s unionism in the garment industry. It also built a relationship between working women and their middle class allies which soon extended into suffrage work.

AS: You mentioned the Illinois Women’s Alliance, and how they were operating a generation earlier, in the 1880s. Can you talk a bit about that piece of the history?

MT: That was a period of rapid, brutal industrialization, during which radicals captured leadership of the Chicago Trades and Labor Federation, and the women’s movement was on the rise. In 1888, Elizabeth Morgan, whose husband, Tommy, was head of the federation, persuaded Gompers to charter a federal labor union for women in Chicago. The Ladies’ Federal Labor Union (LFLU) kept women workers segregated from men but allowed them to form a sizable unit comprised of women from many trades, including housewives. While some of its members focused on organizing women into unions, others, including Morgan, a housewife, and Corinne Brown, an ex-school teacher who had married money, decided to reach out to the broader women’s movement and formed the Illinois Women’s Alliance in 1889.

During the six years of its existence, the Illinois Women’s Alliance accomplished an enormous amount in terms of political education and practical reforms benefiting working class people. Its members included working class women, housewives married to union or radical activists, professional women, and middle class socialists. It drew in virtually every women’s organization in Chicago. Each of the 30 organizations in the alliance sent three delegates to its meetings, but press reports make it clear that left and labor delegates led the work. The three fundamental principles of the alliance were: One, the actual status of the poorest and most unfortunate women in society determines the possible status of every woman. Two, the civilization of the future depends upon the present condition of the children. Three, public money and public officials must serve public ends.

The alliance focused much of its energy on a campaign for universal public education, which kept kids out of factories. Within a few years, it won new jobs for factory inspectors, new school buildings, sweatshop regulations, and public baths—and built huge campaigns for an end to child labor and the enforcement of compulsory education laws. It also exposed police victimization of sex workers, whom it considered part of the working class. A key example of a united front of labor, the left, and the broad women’s movement, the alliance shows what unity can achieve even in a situation where public policy is openly made by corporations and enforced by one of the most highly developed big-city political machines.

AS: How do you think that this book helped you think about your own work as an organizer?

MT: I think it helped me avoid sectarianism. As I was writing the final version of the book, I was also working very intensely in an organization called CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. This was right after the Hyde Amendment was passed, which cut off Medicaid funding for abortion. The broad women’s movement in New York held a couple of meetings to decide how to respond, and it was clear that the big organizations, like NOW [the National Organization for Women], didn’t have a clue what to do. The radicals in the room wanted to try something different; we started meeting together, and we adopted a program of coupling abortion rights with [the fight against] sterilization abuse. Sterilization abuse disproportionately targeted Black women and Puerto Rican women; the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, founded by a Puerto Rican doctor named Helen Rodriguez, had already started organizing about it. By coupling sterilization abuse with abortion rights, CARASA showed that some white feminists would throw their weight behind positions taken by Black and Puerto Rican and Indigenous women. We eventually got regulations passed, first in New York and then nationally, to demand informed consent and a waiting period of 24 hours before people got their tubes tied. It was a big achievement.

At first, the big women’s and reproductive rights organizations couldn’t have been less interested. Some were quite hostile to it. But I was able to utilize the things I had learned from researching my book, especially from looking at the Illinois Women’s Alliance. I didn’t want us to make the kind of sectarian mistake that the left, including the left wing of the women’s movement, makes all the time, of standing on the sidelines and calling people “liberal” or “bourgeois.” We did convince some people, and, as we kept working at it, we were eventually able to influence the movement for reproductive rights.

AS: What do you hope today’s younger readers will take away from this book?

MT: This generation is different in some ways than mine. But one thing we share is a sense of having become intensely political. The errors they make are familiar to me from my own process of learning in the dark. What they need to realize is that the US has, and has almost always had, a strong right-wing movement and a powerful state, sometimes conjoined—and that this matters a lot. What is it going to take to win anything in this environment? It’s going to take more than ideas, more than being right. It’s going to take actual political skill, it’s going to take organizing, it’s going to take lots of work. It’s also going to take ideological clarity, but unfortunately the people who have the most clarity are always the purists who know exactly what’s right and wrong and can prove it by referring to the history of the Russian Revolution [laughs].

I hate to say it, but no left I’ve ever been part of was capable of running a country. There has been a tendency to rush for the margins as fast as possible in order to stay pure. It never works. It always leads to the same thing: splitting and splitting and splitting.

Another thing that was important to me, in writing this book, was to avoid getting into the business of making saints out of lost causes, exalting the times that the left was persecuted, put in jail, marginalized, or killed. I see that a lot in the way young anarchists idealize the Wobblies, trying to reimagine them in a way they never really existed. I can understand why anyone who has grown up since the ’90s, in a period of stifling conservative hegemony, would have trouble imagining victory. But to me it’s more important to examine the times when we won, and to figure out what it took to win.

Avi Steinberg is working on a biography of Grace Paley, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.