Denise Lynn. American Communist History. Volume 15, Issue 2. August 2016.
As fascism spread across the European continent and spilled over into Africa, women in the American Communist Party (CPUSA) fearfully looked on, warning that should fascism prevail all women’s rights globally would be jeopardized. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia prompted these activists to draw attention to the danger fascism posed, not just for Ethiopians but the Italian working-class family, as Italian women saw their sons and husbands shipped overseas for an imperialist venture. Though the Ethiopian invasion would garner Communist’s attention, it was the Spanish Civil War that shifted their focus. American Communist women pointed to the central role that Spanish women played in the fight against fascism. They were also troubled by how areas under Franco’s rule rescinded women’s rights. American Communists also feared that should fascism prevail overseas it could endanger all women’s rights. Party women expanded the traditional Marxist analysis by including the family as a point of oppression as well as liberation for women. Fascism threatened the security of the roles and rights women had fought so dearly for.
By the mid-1930s, it appeared that fascism was rapidly spreading across Europe. In the summer of 1936, General Francisco Franco and his military supporters launched a rebellion against the elected Spanish government. Only the year before, fascist Italy under its leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, one of the only two remaining independent African nations. While the Roosevelt administration in the United States was concerned, the American Communist Party loudly warned that democracy was in real danger. The Party was especially fearful because fascist leadership specifically had targeted and destroyed Left-wing parties and their leadership in both Germany and Italy. Communists, Socialists and Social Democrats had found themselves targets of government repression. As historian Larry Ceplair argues, the fascist goal was to counter what was seen as “Left-wing revolution” and to use “revolutionary means” to transform politics.
The Italian invasion revealed the vulnerability of the anti-fascist Popular Front. The Popular Front was meant to dial back the Communist emphasis on socialist revolution and shift focus to organizing, along with other liberal and left organizations, against fascism in a global United Front. While it was easy to paint the Italian invasion as a fascist aggression, Ethiopia’s government under Hailie Selassie was no friend to democracy and rejected radical Black Nationalism. American Communists were also limited by a myopic understanding of race, painting the conflict as part of the larger class war, rather than further European colonialism motivated by white supremacy. Limited by geography and laws preventing Americans from fighting overseas, American Communists nevertheless took it upon themselves to organize in opposition to the Italian invasion and eventual occupation. However, they failed to inspire a movement to defend Ethiopia. With the outbreak of war in Spain, the CPUSA found a new cause and quickly organized in support of Spain’s Popular Front government.
Women in the American Communist Party paid special attention to the spread of fascism, believing that it was a unique threat to women. The CPUSA formerly rejected feminism as a viable response to the “Woman Question”; it saw feminism as bourgeois and another enemy in the larger class struggle. But Party women forged ahead with a women’s rights agenda and campaigns that paid close attention to the differences among women. They highlighted the needs and rights of working and minority women and their families; and Black Party women wrote extensively about their own triple oppression. Party women also pushed the Party’s hierarchy to understand that class could not entirely explain the social and cultural oppression of women. While the Party focused its attention on anti-fascism, Party women were busy writing about fascism’s particular threat to women and minorities.
In the women’s Party publications, leading communists wrote extensively about the fascist threat to women’s rights. Within fascist Germany, Italy and eventually Spain, American Communist women noted a sharp decline in women’s status. It was around issues of reproduction and the family that Party women narrowed their focus. Women were celebrated in the nationalist rhetoric of these nations, but specifically for their roles as mothers. Communist women pointed to Nazi pro-natalism as evidence that fascism reduced women’s role to breeders of soldiers. The Party, following the Soviet Union’s lead, endorsed women’s rights to voluntary motherhood and access to birth control and abortion. Meanwhile, in Germany and Italy, women seeking autonomy from parenting were condemned and instead rewarded and praised for childbearing. American Communists sounded the alarm that restricting women’s reproductive and family choices in the United States amounted to fascism.
These concerns about women’s rights under fascism became more frantic when the fascist machine began to spread across its own borders. In 1935, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia, women in the CPUSA loudly condemned the invasion and attempted cross-racial alliances to highlight the importance of class solidarity against fascism. But their attempts to support the Ethiopians was limited by the inability to easily get supplies and funds to Ethiopia and the reticence on the part of Communists to support Hailie Selassie.
The Spanish Civil War provided another opportunity for Party women to organize against fascism. As American Communist women organized to support Spanish Republicans, they lionized Spanish women as heroes in the anti-fascist struggle. This would become their most publicized and far-reaching effort and was inspired, in part, by the failure to organize a viable coalition against Italian fascism in Ethiopia. As the world stood by as the Italians colonized Ethiopia, Communists loudly drew attention to it. When fascism threatened the democratically elected Spanish government, Communist activists were prepared and ready to confront the new threat. American Communist women would lead the charge highlighting the desperate need to keep fascism at bay; for the sake of Spain’s women and children as well as America’s.
Immediately after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the CPUSA called for members to condemn the action as fascist aggression. Ethiopia enjoyed a prominent status in the eyes of Black nationalists because it had been able to retain its sovereignty on a continent “almost entirely subjugated to colonialism.” Many African-Americans were drawn to the CPUSA’s condemnation of Italy. This prompted some to join the Party while others that did not join participated in actions along with Communists to denounce the war and pressure the international community to condemn the attack.
African-Americans interpreted the attack in the context of European colonialism against African peoples, while the CPUSA propagated the idea that the invasion was an extension of the global fascist threat and a move toward world war. In a 1935 Comintern memo, Moscow claimed that in carrying out a campaign against the attack on Ethiopia, which “is caused to a great extent by imperialist antagonisms,” the real danger is in it “becoming a war between the imperialist powers” and eventually a “world war.” The CPUSA was instructed to use its presses to “develop a campaign against Italian imperialism’s war plans.” In addition, “demonstrations before the Italian embassy and consulates” with the participation of “Italian and Negro organizations” and the League Against War and Fascism were to be conducted. The Party wanted to envelop African-Americans into its Popular Front and found the Italo-Ethiopian conflict provided an impetus. As the Comintern memo boasted, the war was an “opportunity now to draw the Negro people” into the Popular Front. The CPUSA felt that it could “build an anti-fascist and anti-war movement” among African-Americans in support of the Communist agenda, “for collective security.” However, for Communists, the war was “not only against the people of Abyssinia,” but was also “against the vital interests of the people of Italy.” The attack was certainly “imperialist aggression” but it was also a new theatre in the class war.
In an attempt to highlight the invasion as part of the class struggle, Communists sought to engender working relationships between African-Americans and Italian immigrant workers in the United States. The Party instructed its presses to offer “support for the courageous struggle of the Italian toilers,” under fascism, and to give greater energy to “hindering the transport of arms by Italy,” and “give the widest publicity to the numerous anti-war actions carried out,” in Italy itself. The Party focused on trying to present its United Front by allying the Italian and African-American working classes against the invasion. What it asked was for workers to forego ethnic and racial identification in favor of class solidarity; while this might have appealed to Party members, its appeal was limited among the larger working masses.
The CPUSA structure in Harlem is exemplary of the uphill battle to convince African-Americans that the war was not primarily about race. After Mussolini issued a set of ultimatums to the Ethiopian government in 1934, a number of existing Harlem organizations that represented “varying degrees of antagonism to all whites,” including the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA, created by black nationalist Marcus Garvey) organized the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia along with the CPUSA. As Mark Naison has demonstrated, the Garveyites in the movement wanted to picket Italian owned businesses in Harlem and exclude whites from the group, declaring they wanted to have “nothing to do with whites.” The Harlem Communists sought to convince them that there were anti-fascist whites, and anti-fascist Italian-Americans specifically, that opposed the invasion and wanted to be involved.
Another complication was Soviet policy itself. In April 1935, the Soviet delegate Maxim Litinov failed to condemn the Italian invasion at the League of Nations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent Litinov a telegram taking him to task for this failure. Harlem newspapers circulated the NAACP’s condemnation which put the CPUSA on the defensive; unable to see the accusations as “serious criticisms” rather than “personal slander,” the CPUSA wasted energy on defending Soviet policies. This did not stop Party members from continuing their efforts to work with Black organizations and individuals to condemn the Italian action.
Party women specifically worked to bring women into the United Front fold by emphasizing fascism’s threat to women and families, both in Ethiopia and Italy, and potentially the United States. In September 1935, Grace Hutchins claimed that the Italian people did not support the invasion. Italian soldiers, she wrote in the Woman Worker, the CPUSA women’s magazine, “are forced to carry out the imperialist aims” of the “fascist” dictator Mussolini and “the capitalists behind him.” Meanwhile, she argued women were loudly protesting the invasion by literally putting their bodies on the line. In Parma, Italy, a number of women, with their children, claimed Hutchins sat on railway lines and “refused to move” in order to block the movement of troops that were being sent to Africa.
Hutchins noted that the Italian government was also withholding vital information from its citizens, to cover their own abuses against the Ethiopian people: families were also being barred from learning about their loved ones sent overseas. She wrote that the families of soldiers “hear nothing about the health of the men.” Suspicion of the government was at an all-time high. She claimed that families also believed that their loved ones who died did not die on the battlefield, but rather were killed “by the court martial” for their opposition to “the imperialist expedition.” Whether these concerns were genuine or not mattered little, Hutchins wanted to illustrate for her reading audience that the Italian people were victims of fascism as much as the Ethiopians. The stated goal was to unify Italian and Ethiopian workers against fascism; in the United States, the real goal was to unify Italian-American and Black American workers under the Communist banner.
Hutchins argued that a recent increase in wages and improvement in food quality was evidence that the Italian government was attempting to placate discontent among its soldiers. She emphasized that the people who fought and died in wartime were not capitalists or their children, but working people. This war was not merely a war about Italy’s imperialist ambitions; it was about manipulating Italian workers and rallying them around the nationalist project. Hutchins argued that it was a class war; what makes her understanding of it different from the Central Committee’s is her belief that war is also an anti-family enterprise. This made the conflict women’s business.
Publicizing these concerns in the Woman Worker, whose title would change to The Woman Today in 1936, was an attempt to draw out Communist women that otherwise might leave the political actions to their husbands. While the Party regularly emphasized its support of women’s rights and its belief that socialism would usher in true equality, in practice Party men carried with them the same hang ups as other men. Communist women regularly aired their complaints that their husbands attended Party meetings and actions while they were expected to stay home and care for the children. By the Popular Front, the focus on working men shifted toward the working-class family. Personal actions became imbibed with political consequences. Party women spent a great deal of time in their publications discussing the politics of child-rearing, equal marriages, reproductive choice, groceries and more. By focusing on the violation of the Italian family, Hutchins was calling to arms Communist women that had been politicized by the recognition that they too had a duty to protect their family.
Hutchins encouraged Party women to identify with the Italian family and the threat they were under. Italian mothers had to ship their sons off to war as their government stripped them of their political power. These women appeared helpless to protect their own children. Moreover, laws in fascist Italy and Germany that limited women’s reproductive choice put the private sphere of the family directly into the public world of politics. If American women did not want their own lives and families put on the line, then it was their duty to stand up against the ever encroaching threat of fascism.
The sensational accounts appearing in the Communist press galvanized party women. Along with engendering empathy for Italian women, the party’s United Councils (UC), a housewives consumer group, began to organize housewives in boycotts against Italy. The UC politicized the housewife by emphasizing that her every decision in maintaining a household, as in purchasing groceries, or boycotting Italian made products, was as important as shop floor actions. The UC also served to draw otherwise inactive housewives into Party programs. The Councils expanded traditional workplace politics and argued that housewives were as much workers as industrial workers and that the domestic economy was productive labor; therefore, housewives were integral to the class struggle and the home was the site of revolution.
In the case of Ethiopia, the UC sought to engender international unity by bringing “the horror and danger of this situation” to their “shop mates and neighbors and lodge and church brothers and sisters.” Fascism was everyone’s problem, and communists warned that American policy was not too different from fascist policy. Female cadres argued that a parallel existed between fascism giving its people “bullets and poison gas instead of bread and a chance to live,” and the Roosevelt administrations “attack on our living standards and democratic rights.” The UC was clear that their intent was to “draw ever greater numbers of women into the fight; to defend democratic rights” in the United States. They wanted to draw in Italian-American and Black women, and members of churches and parents’ associations in order to “publicize the fascist threat to American homes and families.” American women may not have been able to identify with Italians or Ethiopians; but the UC was banking on their investment in the preservation of their own families.
To further emphasize the global class struggle, the Party focused on the danger of fascist war to workers. Communist women asserted that while there were soldiers “feverish from poor water, hungry for good food,” and unable to sleep, there were mothers who “earn their living working in a factory or store.” Hundreds of miles away, her male relatives are forced to fight a war they have no investment in. With macabre detail, the Left writer Josephine Danzel described what Italian women faced. The child she bore would be “lying smashed to a pulp,” her loving husband or boyfriend would be “buried in mud, head torn off, body twisted, legs gone.” To drive home the point that war was economic exploitation, Communist women lamented that while Italian working families were forced to sacrifice their sons, somewhere there were “comfortably dressed men, men who’ve just eaten a pleasant breakfast,” and were making money on, “the uniforms, the socks, the shoes that the soldier is wearing.” These are, according to Danzel, “the cold facts of the Italo-Ethiopian war.” In effect, the war was about profiteering, while Italian and Ethiopian workers paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Party women also insisted that the war itself was a ploy by fascists to direct attention away from working conditions. Communists argued that the people of Italy, facing low wages, high prices and suppression of speech, had grown uneasy. Danzel claimed that the people began to clamor for trade unions, and the war added to the general discontent. She wrote that Mussolini, along with Italian business, believed that, “they will turn the attention of the Italian workers away from their sorrows at home” by increasing profits from the war and gaining the resources of Ethiopia. Therefore, the war was ultimately for profit, but workers could be convinced it was to their benefit as well.
Communists used the voices of American women workers to extol the virtues of the United Front. In the November 1935 issue of the Woman Worker, Naomi Davis, identified as a “Negro Woman Worker,” exclaimed that “Every worker, Negro and white must rally to her [Ethiopia’s] defense.” She claimed that “the Italian workers do not want to kill or be killed,” and that the “slaughter of innocent Ethiopian men, women and children has been brought by the lying of Italian Big Business.” Davis called for “Negro women” to “Join with your Italian brothers and sisters,” to mobilize against the war and lay the blame at “the bloody feet of Mussolini and the bankers.” Italian workers were the victims of fascism, not the perpetrators.
Alongside Davis’ appeal was that of an “Italian Woman Worker” named Alberta Borrini. Borrini pleaded with her fellow Italians to “join hands with my Negro sisters and brothers in the name of Italian working women,” to band together to “end a useless, horrible slaughter.” She argued that Italian workers did not want war but were “forced into it and fooled into it through the murderous lies spread by Mussolini’s fascist papers and radio.” In the spirit of communist agit-prop, whether Naomi Davis or Alberta Borrini were real made little difference, the article was a bold-faced attempt to create interracial worker solidarity and counter any strict Black Nationalist identification for black workers.
The communist women’s press emphasized that the working-class family was in danger and insisted that fascist aggression against Ethiopia undermined women’s rights to secure their reproductive labor as their families’ autonomy and security was prey to the fascist war machine. Interestingly, Party women’s analysis did not extend to include African independence or Black Nationalism. The bulk of their writings focused primarily on the Italian family and worker; Ethiopians were understood to be victims but there was no real connection made in their writings. The barriers of race and African nationality prevented Communist women from including the Ethiopian in their analysis of the family as a political unit. This is a telling omission and perhaps simply reflects a limited understanding of race and international politics. More disturbing, however, is that this could be a reflection of the Party’s racial myopia and failure to acknowledge Black Nationalism beyond empty Party Policy.
In the end, Ethiopia fell and American Communists attempts to organize a strong resistance to Italian fascism appeared paltry and ineffective; however, efforts on behalf of Ethiopia continued even after the Italians occupied it. In Harlem, an amalgamation of organizations came together to create United Aid; its goal was to raise funds for Ethiopia, and rally in support of Ethiopian independence. As the left-leaning Naison argues, the group was held together by its opposition to “nationalist street orators” that insisted the Ethiopian conflict was a race war. Eventually, Hailie Selassie would alienate a number of Black Nationalists, including Marcus Garvey himself, by rejecting black identity and instead putting faith in Western white nations to support an independent Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the CPUSA remained convinced that the Italian invasion represented the spread of fascism and it continued to rally behind Ethiopia. However, the Party’s attention was soon diverted to Spain.
In 1936, the democratically elected Popular Front government under President Manuel Azãna in Spain was attacked by the Spanish military led by the Right-wing leader Francisco Franco. For the next four years, a brutal civil war was waged; Germany and Italy sent military and financial aid to Franco’s forces. International Brigades organized by the Soviet Union and Communist Parties and other radical groups from several countries provided voluntary troops and limited financial and military aid to the Spanish Republicans. The Roosevelt administration, hampered by neutrality acts and fear on the part of the American people to get involved in another European conflict, attempted to provide limited aid, but was never empowered to offer enough support.
American Communists, frustrated by what appeared to be Roosevelt’s indifference to the spread of fascism, began to organize volunteers and supplies to support Spanish Loyalists. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade comprised primarily of Communist Party members and other radicals, sent over 2000 volunteers to Spain. Without the geographic and political barriers supporters confronted in Ethiopia support for Spain was much more direct and immediate. The Party turned to its existing network of activists from the Italian–Ethiopian conflict to become allies for the Spanish Loyalist cause and attempted to rally them behind the slogan “Ethiopia’s fate is at stake on the Battlefields of Spain.”
The CPUSA instructed cadre that all aid collected for Ethiopia would be sent to Spain once Ethiopia became unable to get shipments. This did not sit well with many activists; particularly Black Nationalists who rejected the idea that Spain and Ethiopia were “part of the same battle.” While the CPUSA focused its efforts on the belief that fascism was the threat, Black Nationalists continued to emphasize the influence of white supremacy. As Robin Kelley has noted, however, a number of prominent black newspapers and cultural figures took up the Spanish cause and supported the Spanish Republicans.
The Italo-Ethiopian conflict and the Spanish Civil War were both instrumental in raising women’s awareness about the fascist threat, some of these women would be drawn into the Communist Popular Front. Erik McDuffie argues that the fascist invasions were “critical in radicalizing black women” specifically. Claudia Jones and Esther Cooper are two examples. Both were drawn to the Communist Left by its “global, multiracial” emphasis. Claudia Jones, for example, was turned off by the masculinism of some of the nationalist organizations; while Esther Cooper found political protest as a student at Oberlin. Both women were drawn to the CPUSA’s cross-racial work against “racism, fascism, and social inequalities.” Salaria Kee is one of the few women who volunteered to go to Spain with the brigades.
As a nurse, she had helped to collect medical supplies for hospitals in Ethiopia. When she was rejected as a volunteer for the Red Cross, who refused black nurses, Kee traveled with the brigade to Spain. Organizing around the Spanish loyalists and participating as a volunteer brought to bear the very real struggle against fascism and its implications for women and minorities globally.
Party women feared the changes they witnessed in Spain as Franco’s forces took over territory. Between 1931 and 1933 Spanish women had gained a number of rights including the right to vote and the election of female deputies to parliament. In 1938, while the war was still raging, Franco’s regime began to repeal legislation that expanded women’s rights within the nation as well as the family. All separation and divorce petitions were suspended and civil marriages were annulled and in 1939 the divorce law was repealed entirely and all divorces of church wed couples were “declared null and void.” Women’s right to a separate nationality than her husband’s, guaranteed in the 1931 constitution, was dissolved and legalized abortion in Catalan was rescinded. Also in 1938, the labor charter within Franco’s regime promised to “liberate married women from the workshop and factory.”
Education was targeted as a means to prepare young girls for their future role as a housewife and mother. Co-education was ended and girl’s schools were required to have only female teachers. As the British historian Frances Lannon points out, there were so few University educated women available to teach that the quality of education and the academic rigor compared to boys education suffered. These teachers were instructed to prepare young girls for “their elevated function in the family and home.” As Lannon argues, Spain was in a violent military civil war, but clearly it was also in the midst of an ideological war. She insists that it would be difficult and wrong “to evade the conclusion” that one of the major issues of the civil war “was the future position-legal, economic, cultural-of women.” Some of the women that had been instrumental in gaining women’s rights in the early part of the decade were not only disappointed but they found that they clearly had no place in a fascist Spain. When they resisted Franco’s “new order” they were imprisoned, exiled, and in some cases, executed. It was clear in Spain that fascism would only relegate women to roles many had rejected and fought long and hard to escape. American Communist women recognized the danger to Spanish women if Franco’s regime triumphed.
American women looked to the brave Loyalist women who in the early months of the conflict took up arms to defend their homes and country, and ultimately their own individual liberty. One woman in particular captured communist’s attention, Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionaria, translated as the “passion flower.” Ibarruri had been a member of the central committee of Spain’s communist party before the war, and in that role she served as a delegate to the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1935 where the Popular Front was articulated. She also headed the Spanish division of Women Against War and Fascism and she served as a Parliament deputy in 1936. She became famous in the early months of the war when she took to the radio and declared that the fascists “shall not pass.” Ibarruri became an important propagandist for the Loyalists and as Lannon argues, few Spanish figures became as popular as her.
American Journalist and fellow traveler Anna Louise Strong wrote a pamphlet for the CPUSA on Ibarruri in 1937 titled Spain In Arms. The pamphlet was widely circulated among cadre and publicized the prominent role of women in the war. Strong wrote that Ibarruri’s “passionate love for human beings, passionate indignation over the wrongs they suffer, burn in her with a pure intensity akin to genius.” This, Strong noted, explained the affectionate nickname, La Pasionaria, given to her by the workers of Spain. A child of miners, Ibarruri was portrayed as someone with an acute empathy for Spain’s working people and scorn for businessmen. Her wrath, however, was primarily focused on Franco and his brutality.
Gender identity became an important point of convergence for American Communists as they sought to emphasize women’s shared concern for children and the family. As evidenced by Spain’s legal liberation of women, Spanish women were interested in liberty, but radical Spanish women like Ibarruri, recognized the home and family as women’s terrain. While Franco’s forces exalted women as housewives and mothers, Loyalists pointed to the brutality meted out to Spain’s families by fascists. Ibarruri demonstrated the radical potential of the family by highlighting how the enemy purposefully used the family as pawns during wartime. She argued that American women needed to be alerted to Franco’s “bombing … of women and children,” which she claimed had become, “characteristic of General Franco’s method in his attack on Madrid.” For their part, Ibarruri claimed, Loyalists respected the homes of their enemies and did not hold women and children responsible for the wrongs of the enemies; “for we are human beings, not assassins; and for the many crimes of our enemies against us, we do not hold their wives and children guilty.”
Isabel de Palencia, Spain’s first woman minister under the Popular Front government, became another admired figure in the American Communist women’s press. In 1936, de Palencia conducted a tour in the United States to appeal for aid. During the tour, she told of the unprecedented role of women in the war. She particularly emphasized what would be lost under Franco’s regime. Spain, she claimed, has until recently, only trained its women for “their place in the home” or some of the most undervalued and “despised” work as agricultural laborers or “servants.” But the war had proved women to be extremely capable. They organized shelters and protection for the war’s “20,000 homeless children” left behind so their mothers and fathers could fight. De Palencia claimed that Spanish women were behind the war effort, unlike other wars. This was fueled in large part because Spanish women identified with “the other peasants and workers” that knew a fascist victory meant “the end of democratic freedom.” The end of those freedoms meant the end of “the good hope of work and decent living conditions” for Spain’s women and children.
Both Ibarruri and de Palencia knew how to appeal to the American public, and especially to their radical supporters like the women in the CPUSA. Pointing to the end of women’s rights under a fascist Spain and highlighting how that affects its children was certainly a propaganda tool. But as Franco’s leadership demonstrated, these were not hollow threats, and the urgency with which Ibarruri and de Palencia pushed for Americans support demonstrated that.
Just as in Ethiopia, the war’s effect on children and the family garnered a good deal of attention in the Communist presses as part of this emphasis to appeal to some universal sense of woman and motherhood. The treatment of children by fascists in Spain was a central rallying point. The Woman Today circulated reports of brutalities perpetrated against Spanish children. Fascists were painted as the archetypal enemies of women, children and the home. “Mothers of Spain,” wrote Margaret Cowl, head of the Parties Women’s Bureau, “see their babies torn apart by bombs, their homes destroyed through air raids, their husbands and sons maimed, mutilated and murdered by fascist invaders.” The Woman Today also published graphic pictures of children’s maimed and mutilated bodies.
The Communist women’s press also insisted that women were the backbone of the Spanish resistance. Party women wrote extensively on the importance of international gender unity between Spanish and American women. This unity was based on a shared experience of gender discrimination. French Author Andre Malraux, who also fought for the Republicans during the war, argued that while Spanish peasants faced “starvation, toil and oppression,” the lot of women was far worse. Malraux claimed that “not only had they to till the soil, but care for the home and children.” Communists emphasized that Spanish women were also burdened with the double work-day at home and at work. The war was a battle not only to secure a Popular Front Spain, but also to forge a new role for women in Republican Spain.
This appealed to women’s rights advocates who sought to aid in achieving gender equality worldwide. But party women also wanted to demonstrate that under a Popular Front government, as in the Soviet Union, Spain’s women had a better chance for equality. The Communist women’s press carried accounts of women creating vast networks “for manufacturing and distributing clothes, overseeing the distribution of food, giving hygienic training to the untrained, illiterate soldiers of the Republic.” These women also reportedly forced open clothing factories to produce uniforms for the military where women worked eight hours each day, while others “care for their children; give both mothers and children their noon lunch,” so that women could “clothe the army.”
The effort to secure a democratic Spain was an effort that integrated the skills of mothers, housewives, factory workers and soldiers. Party cadre insisted that Spanish women hoped for more than victory; they expected that at the end of the conflict, “the government they have helped create will give them the same complete equality and protective labor legislation that women enjoy in the Soviet Union.” Spanish women expected equality for their efforts.
Some American women volunteered to serve with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as medical aides, many with the Red Cross. Salaria Kee is one example. Rejected by the Red Cross because of her race, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade accepted her in March 1937, and she went to join white nurses on the front. These women volunteers witnessed a nation in which segregation and sex discrimination had no place, where women had the right to vote and peasants helped to lead local governments. It was, as historian Robin Kelley noted, “one of the few examples of the Popular Front in practice.” For Communist women, it was what democracy was supposed to look like; here women, minorities and the working class shared the burdens of defending democracy, and the experience profoundly shaped their lives and the anti-fascist movement.
Lini Fuhr, an American nurse, recounted her experiences in Spain in the pages of Woman Today. She did not want to leave because the experiment there had deeply touched her. “It’s hard to explain,” she claimed, “but for the first time in my life, I felt I was actually doing everything for which I had been preparing for years.” Fuhr told Woman Today that her mission to Spain had been “something overwhelmingly worthwhile,” where she “could use all her knowledge of human beings needs.” While there she helped to train young Spanish women in how to administer hypodermics, she aided in the creation of a nurses’ training school, and she had planned to return to inaugurate a Public Health Education service. Just as Spanish women hoped to ensure gender equality, Party women argued that American leftists could help secure women’s equality in the Popular Front. Within the women’s Party presses, the fight against fascism overseas was a fight from women’s rights globally.
Unfortunately, Spain collapsed under fascist rule in 1939, the same year the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Germany and officially dissolved the Popular Front. Events within Spain foreshadowed the end. As author and former Republican soldier George Orwell claimed, “this alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essential an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other.” While Communists produced propaganda on the efficacy of Popular Front alliances, ultimately the coalition was short lived largely because of the dogmatic conflicts the Communists had with other Left-wing groups and its insistence to control the terms of American aid to the Spanish.
Nevertheless, for American Communist women devoted to gender and race equality, the defense of an Independent Ethiopia and later a Republican Spain remained a primary battle against fascists who, they believed, sought to turn the tide against women’s rights. Interestingly, the focus of the Party writings was primarily on western women’s rights. While Party women used the invasion of Ethiopia to try and draw in African-American activists of both genders; they exhibited merely sympathy with Ethiopian women. The majority of their writings focused on the victimization of the Italian working-class under fascism. This is an indication of the failure of communists to truly integrate Black Nationalist and internationalist understandings into their programs. Fascism remained an enemy of the working-class primarily and not another expression of global white supremacy.
Women in the Party did manage to elaborate and extend that analysis to include women and the family. For them, the family was a site for liberation as well as oppression. Fascists targeted families as a means of state control over the individual; meanwhile in the United States, laws that limited women’s autonomy in regards to reproductive rights and workplace rights appeared to mirror the fascist states. However, even as Party women expanded the Marxist class analysis to include women including African-American women, they were as incapable as the Party hierarchy to include African independence into a traditional Marxian analysis. Nevertheless, Party women felt compelled to draw attention to the danger fascism posed to women especially and that fascism took on many guises. But fascism in all its expressions compromised women’s rights in the home, workplace and politics, and therefore had to be defeated for the rights of women globally to be secure.