Denise Lynn. American Communist History. Volume 10, Issue 1. April 2011.
In June 1935, Communist Ann Barton reported for the New Masses on a growing housewives movement against high food prices in New York City. As Barton explained, “for the past two weeks New York housewives have left off their washing and ironing, their scrubbing and cleaning and all their other household tasks, to join together in the mass action of a picket line.” That May, women in New York City, including a number of Communists, inspired by a similar boycott in Los Angeles, had organized a boycott to challenge an increase in meat prices.
The 1935 meat boycott, and the Communists who participated, appealed to housewives as political activists and democratic participants. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) recognized the working-class home as a site of class struggle. Within communist doctrine, family relations mirrored capitalism; therefore, socialist revolution began in the home. Women leaders in the Party insisted that housewives were the vanguard in that struggle. Writing for the Party’s women’s magazine Woman Today, Dora Rich appealed to the “modern, intelligent, working-class housewife” to become “a leader of organized housewives.” Barton and Rich argued that the American housewife and mother must move beyond prescribed “traditional” roles in the home and use her spending power to send a political message in support of unionization, anti-fascism, and increased standards of living. This message reverberated throughout CPUSA literature, and was aimed particularly at women. The Communist Party believed that organizing housewives advanced socialism by encouraging all working women, including housewives, to engage in the class struggle.
Studies of the working class have focused primarily on production; the family and consumption have often been overlooked in working-class studies. American Communists in the 1930s provide interesting insight into the link between the shop floor and the household. Women leaders in the Communist Party insisted that the home was a site of personal exploitative relationships, namely that of the father/husband over his wife and children. However, household relationships could also be a springboard for revolutionary change. Therefore, female Party leaders encouraged housewives and mothers to transform the “traditional” patriarchal structure in the home and become class-conscious activists. To usurp patriarchal authority, Communist literature instructed housewives to reject the “proto-fascist authority” of husbands and engage in political activity. To bring that revolution to the street, women were encouraged to flex spending power to support unions and working people.
The CPUSA provided tacit encouragement to organize housewives and consumers. In the eyes of Party authorities, socialist revolution would provide women equality; however, male leaders did encourage activism among its female members. While the home was a traditionally female-gendered domain, an arena where women could exercise authority, the Party recognized that during times of economic hardship this female space could be transformed into a site of resistance in support of the workplace and the family. Female leaders took the initiative to engage women in Party work. Many times these campaigns operated outside Party authority. The meat boycott during the spring and summer of 1935 was one such campaign.
Inspiration for consumer organizing did not come from the CPUSA. Women as consumers had exercised their spending power for decades before, in order to show support for workplace rights and the need for higher standards of living. Lawrence Glickman argues that it was after the Civil War when consumers began to recognize that concerns about production and consumption were linked to familial relationships. In his A Living Wage, Glickman notes that consumption and production as gendered categories were transformed dramatically after the Civil War. Before 1861, wages were gendered as feminine. The wage was seen as a form of dependence, fit for women or non-white workers only; hence the derogatory terms attached to wage workers including such phrases as “wage slaves” and in the case of women, “prostitutes.” White male workers wanted a status above that of women and non-white workers; therefore, male workers demanded a share in the profits of what they produced.
In the years between the Civil War and World War One, wages became the primary means of compensation and transformed the family economy. It was then that consumption was linked to gendered relations within the home and as Glickman notes, “class consciousness moved from the shop floor to the storefront.” Wages became a specifically male domain and consumer spending fell within the female sphere, the home. To uphold this rigid gender division in the household economy, workers began to demand a living wage. The living wage provided a male breadwinner with enough money to provide for a family, and presumably prevent his wife from working outside the home, thereby preserving gendered familial relationships.
Even with calls for the living wage, consumption remained central to workplace struggles, and efforts to involve the federal government in the regulation of manufacturing increased. In her Pocketbook Politics, Meg Jacobs argues that economic citizenship transformed American liberalism after 1900. No longer were Americans concerned primarily with production and workplace issues; consumption became a lynchpin in citizens’ relations with the federal government. As concerns about the cost of living increased, individuals and working-class organizations became proactive in demanding government controls in pricing and manufacturing. These “purchasing power progressives” encouraged consumers to use their income to force companies to regulate prices, improve labor conditions, and provide working families with a higher standard of living.
The relationship between the state and the consumer went both ways, as the government often called on citizens to participate in price controls. One example is the World War One Food Administration headed by future President Herbert Hoover. His food administration called on American housewives to conserve food as part of the war effort, thereby politicizing American housewives and making food a “national and patriotic issue.” Hoover’s campaign, Jacobs notes, “elevated ordinary household concerns into a vital national cause and imbued it with patriotic fervor.” The campaign provided consumers with a political identity and a sense that they too were proactive in the administration of the government. Spending power, traditionally controlled by women, provided housewives with a civil identity and a purpose in democratic processes.
After the first red scare, radical activity, including consumer organizing, became suspect. Nevertheless, radical groups embraced consumer activism. While some mainstream consumer organizations, like the National Consumer League (NCL), sought to achieve price regulations, radicals in the Socialist and Communist Parties wanted more, including Soviet-style legislation like the municipal sales of bread, milk, and coal, in addition to stricter controls on business practices.
Organizing around the home and issues of consumer spending provided female leaders in the CPUSA an opportunity to appeal to potential women members. In 1926, Communists Clara Lemlich Shavelson and Kate Gitlow created the United Council of Working-Class Housewives (UC). The UC wanted to “broaden the class struggle by organizing wives and mothers.” For the UC, the workplace was not the only site of class struggle. The CPUSA’s Central Committee (CC), dominated by male leaders, had a single-minded focus on labor organizing and failed to address issues related to housing, education, and the cost of living. This frustrated UC leaders, particularly Shavelson.
Shavelson and the UC felt that organizing housewives would allow women to move out of the home and the confines of prescribed gender roles. As Annelise Orleck explains, Communist and consumer organizers wanted women to reject the “narrow roles to which their sex, as well as their class, had consigned them,” and to push women to advocate for the needs of working families. Another goal in organizing housewives was to emphasize “their role in politicizing the next generation.” The UC used this role to encourage the central committee of the CPUSA to broaden its focus toward the working-class family.
The Stock Market collapse and economic depression that followed between 1929 and 1931 increased activists’ resolve that consumption was central in labor struggles. The UC insisted that monopolies and corporations were to blame for the economic collapse. Gradually, Party leaders began sympathizing with Shavelson’s and the UC’s drive to include the entire working-class family in the class struggle. As Van Gosse has noted, the Depression led to a discursive shift in the Party away from the industrial worker towards a new focus on the working-class family.
As part of this new focus, in 1929, Shavelson and other Communist women created the United Council of Working Class Women (UCWW) out of the UC. The organization served as an umbrella group to organize housewives in New York City. It became the “‘model for housewives’ activism nationally.” The organization chose the unmarried Communist Rose Nelson as its leader. The UCWW found the 1930s its most active decade. And for the first time it would appear that the Federal government was willing to listen.
Lizabeth Cohen has pointed out two visions of consumers that emerged under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal beginning in 1933. The “citizen consumer” became responsible for pushing the Federal government to protect its rights in the marketplace. On the other hand, the “purchase consumer” made an impact with buying power rather than activism. Behind the New Deal was the sense that “enhancing the consumer’s status…was a way to increase the public’s stakes in society.” New Deal programs integrated consumer interests in an attempt to involve consumption in the nation’s recovery.
Agreeing with Cohen, Meg Jacobs argues that consumerism and purchasing power were the watchwords of the New Deal coalition. The National Recovery Administration’s (NRA) short-lived blue eagle campaign, for example, was an attempt by the Federal government to enlist consumers in national reform. Housewives were asked to patronize businesses that displayed the Blue Eagle and, therefore, support responsible labor practices. The NRA promoted minimum wages and maximum hours laws in an effort to promote consumption.
The NRA also included a Consumer Advisory Board (CAB), although those on the board complained that the NRA continued to focus primarily on production; neither effort would survive to radically alter the consumer’s role after the Supreme Court ruled the NRA legislation unconstitutional in 1935. But consumers would find a place in other New Deal legislation.
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) had an office of the Consumer Council. Its primary responsibility was to regulate supply in order to keep prices steady. The Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Administration provided rural consumers with electricity. And a number of other programs, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), provided consumers with a level of protection against business practices. While the consumer’s voice was important to many of these agencies, radical activists pushed the Federal government to take on an even larger role.
After 1935, the CPUSA devoted itself to a reform program under the Popular Front mandate that encouraged the Party to work with liberal organizations against fascism. The Party was able to embrace the New Deal and other mainstream political activities, “including electoral politics.” With more members increasingly drawn to the CPUSA, it “emerged as the core of a mass progressive movement that provided leadership to diverse activist efforts,” including union and consumer organizing.
Gender played a particularly potent role in consumer organization as women, bound by tradition to the household, were empowered to participate in politics. More important, as Annelise Orleck points out, using maternal images made consumer activists and involvement with radical activism appear less threatening. Communists could draw in supporters by appealing to them as wives and mothers. Paradoxically, once women became involved in the strikes, Communist leaders recast motherhood and housework as political. Women were encouraged to reject tradition and see the home much like the shop floor, as a site of politics and potentially revolution.
While Communists in general encouraged women to take on manufacturers as consumers, it was the unstated mantra of the CPUSA to encourage that these gendered activities be led exclusively by women. While offering public platitudes for women’s rights, the Party essentially left women’s work primarily to women. The official CPUSA line was that socialist revolution would usher in gender equality; in the United States the Party recognized the need for some immediate reforms. However, male party leaders generally focused on labor organizing and racial issues, while women were left to work for the so-called “women’s issues.”
After 1935, the Partys central committee encouraged female cadre and the UC to organize housewives. The UCs were transformed into United Councils for Working-Class Housewives (UCWH), which formed alliances with working women’s organizations. That same year, beginning in Los Angeles, local women’s groups began a boycott to protest inflated meat prices. The UCWH used the Los Angeles example and brought similar boycotts to New York and eventually Detroit.
There is some question as to the role of Communist women in the boycotts that took place in New York and Detroit. Annelise Orleck claims that Communist influence in the boycott was minimal at best. She argues that while major Communist figures, including Clara Lemlich Shavelson and Rose Nelson took on prominent roles during the boycott, Party membership was not compulsory and Party directives were generally ignored. While it is true that Party membership was not compulsory, Party women were central, as both leaders and rank-and-file organizers.
Additionally, Orleck is correct that Party directives were ignored, but this reflects the gap between Party directives and rank-and-file action. Party women involved organized, directed, and advertised the boycott; meanwhile, Party papers reveal that the CPUSA was caught unaware of the success of its female cadre. The central committee had to quickly play catch up with its female members, claim credit for the boycott’s success, and concede female cadres, effectiveness.
The 10,000 housewives in Los Angeles began the boycott in March 1935 with a citywide boycott of meat, primarily beef and pork products, to protest against inflated prices. Placing enormous pressure on local butchers and distributors, the women secured a five-cent reduction in prices. While the Los Angeles boycott began at the local level, it set off a series of boycotts across the nation. On the East Coast, women began to follow the Los Angeles example and initiate their own strikes. In New York, Clara Lemlich Shavelson and Rose Nelson led a citywide boycott.
The New York City boycott began on May 22, and “sympathetic” butchers kept their doors closed. In its first days the media reported a number of butchers posting signs that read “closed in sympathy with the strikers,” while others allegedly joined picket lines. In addition, a number of violent incidents against consumers who did not heed the boycott appeared in the local papers.
The New York boycotters organized into the City Action Committee against the High Cost of Living. This organization represented an amalgamation of women from the local UCWH, settlement houses, mutual benefit societies and churches. The committee began by pressuring local butchers to sign a pledge to support the boycott and force the meat “trusts” to reduce prices. New York City housewives declared war on manufacturers and producers for taking advantage of the consumer, and they hoped to solicit support from local retailers. The pressure mounted by the housewives soon caught the attention of dealers and meat packers.
On May 27, the New York State Association of Meat Dealers reportedly held a meeting in response to the pickets. The association, representing 3000 non-Kosher butchers, protested “the trade practices of the meat packers which were described as unlawful and unconstitutional.” The meat packers, the association concluded, were one of “the worst monopolies this country is suffering from,” and signed a resolution that recommended “an investigation into the acts and conduct” of leading meat packers. The pickets found that local butchers were largely sympathetic to the housewives. As one butcher claimed, “The poor devils … you can’t blame them. I see them come in here, a quarter in their hands, look at the meat prices, then go out again.” Leaders of the strike felt that butchers and consumers could work together to reach their own ends.
The City Action Committee took its protests beyond local butchers to city hall. On May 29, a delegation was sent to meet with William Morgan, the Markets Commissioner. He claimed to have no power over packers and instead tried to enlist the women in his anti-racketeering campaign. Racketeering, Morgan was convinced, was behind the rising prices. Although Morgan appeared sympathetic to the boycott, he had no plans to interfere. Not satisfied with this answer, the next day the Committee sought an audience with the mayor.
Mayor Fiorella La Guardia put off meeting with the delegates for more than a week. Meanwhile, the City Action Committee sent representatives back to Morgan’s office where they were to meet with Pendleton Dudley, New York representative of the Institute of American Meat Packers. Dudley, leaving before the women arrived, offered the New York Times an explanation on rising costs. He claimed that a drought in the Midwest, coupled with the destruction of eight million head of cattle for “relief” in the Federal corn and hog reduction program, and increased labor costs led to high prices. Dudley claimed that packers felt a more than one hundred percent price increase, paying 16 ½ cents compared to 6–8 cents the previous year.
By 1935, concerns about livestock slaughters were apocryphal at best. In 1933 when Henry Wallace, head of the AAA, had to convince farmers to not only leave crop land fallow, but to plough up existing crops and slaughter some six million piglets, the program drew a lot of flack. This counterintuitive approach to farming, however, was soon transformed into paying farmers a “benefit payment” to leave certain croplands fallow or shift to “growing nonsurplus crops.” But the image of the AAA destroying viable food supplies remained, and “the drama of their (crops and piglets) destruction fixed the image of the AAA in the minds of many Americans.” The Federal government engaging in the destruction of food supplies was a powerful symbol; however, Shavelson and Nelson rejected Dudley’s excuse and shifted blame to meat manufacturers reaping profits off the so-called shortages.
Shavelson and Nelson claimed that the blame should not be shifted to the Federal government; instead they blamed a “profiteering packers’ monopoly which fixed prices.” As evidence they cited an Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) report that claimed despite the losses from the drought, meat supplies remained above normal. The women also took issue with Dudley’s assertion that labor rates added to the price hikes. Shavelson and Nelson argued that it was not local butchers who were inflating prices but the meat packers who forced high rates on both butchers and consumers.
Forced into action by the continuing protests, and accusations that Communists were behind the boycott, Mayor La Guardia asked Washington to investigate meat prices and to see if the increase was justified. In addition, butchers began requesting “protection” from intimidating picketers. They accused the women of “violence in the strike, assaults on customers, smashing of store windows and other acts of intimidation.” The mayor was feeling the pressure from both boycotters and manufacturers.
Although the women found sympathy among many local butchers, some butchers were wary of the influence of Communists on the boycott. The Hebrew Butcher’s Union charged that Communists in the strike were attempting to “establish domination of a dual Communist union.” The Action Committee, they claimed, was composed of auxiliaries of the “Communist Party.” Rose Nelson denied the action was “communistic” as early as May 30, but it is clear these fears were not wholly unfounded. As the boycott grew, the presence of the Party became more apparent. Additionally, the Party’s later claim that it was the impetus behind the movement, and the obvious partisanship of some of its leaders, including Nelson and Shavelson, made hiding the Communist influence impossible. Nevertheless, the growth of the boycott reflected the growing network of housewives, encouraged by CP and front groups.
While the committee attempted to navigate city bureaucracy, pickets continued and spread to other neighborhoods. On June 8, the City Action Committee called a conference of sympathetic organizations, including unions, neighborhood action committees, and “Negro organizations.” The conference concluded that the meat boycott would serve as an impetus in a general fight against the high cost of living. The boycott’s appeal rapidly spread and its ranks swelled as women sought to exercise their political muscle. Barton claimed that “women who never ventured farther than a neighbor’s flat to voice their views have flung themselves into the activities of the meat strike.”
The boycott attracted housewives because, as they claimed, meat soon became a “luxury item.” Working-class households suffered tremendously from the astronomical increase in prices. However, African-American homes faced higher meat prices as a result of unscrupulous dealers who manipulated the African-American community. Harlem soon became a center in the New York City action.
Boycotts were no stranger to Harlem’s residents. As early as the 1920s, “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns targeted stores that refused to hire African-American clerks. This movement galvanized African-Americans to spend their dollars to support African-American-owned businesses and those that did not perpetuate segregation.
By 1935, many housewives in the African-American community had already been organized. The Housewives League of Detroit, founded in 1930 by Fannie B. Peck, was an organization of African-American housewives who sought to secure jobs and fair prices for African-Americans. As Lizabeth Cohen explains, African-American housewives, while concerned with prices, also sought to “preserve their rights as producers” by patronizing businesses that hired African-Americans. In 1933 the organization went national, and in 1935 it joined forces with white consumer leagues in the meat boycott. African-American housewives were already organized to take on the meat manufacturers; however, their goal was two-fold, to provide a better standard of living and to undermine racism in stores.
Barton claimed that Harlem’s unemployment rate and food prices were “higher than anywhere else in the city.” Along with the National Housewives League, a number of organizations got behind the campaign led by Communist Bonita Williams. In Harlem, Communists were conspicuous in the ranks of the Action Committee. As Barton notes, alongside the African Patriotic League, the Consolidated Tenants’ League and more than one hundred churches, the CPUSA and front groups, including the International Labor Defense, the Unemployed Councils, and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights were in the ranks of Harlem’s Action Committee. “God bless the Communists,” one woman reportedly shouted at a Harlem consumers’ meeting.
Three hundred housewives gathered at the doors of one Harlem butcher chanting, “Don’t buy meat until the price comes down!” These actions saw some prompt results as 300 Harlem butchers agreed to close their doors from June 12 to 15 and sell the remaining stock at a 25 percent reduction. Organizing marches and open air meetings, Harlem housewives were propelled into the spotlight. As Barton reported, one housewife found herself speaking to a large crowd: “We’re only trying to stave off death a little longer … this is a fight for the right to eat—for the right to feed our children. Isn’t it so, sisters?” Communists stressed that in Harlem, meat quality was poorer, while prices remained far above white neighbourhoods. In addition, Harlem’s children faced malnutrition not only from poor diets but high unemployment and low wages. Communist leadership recognized Harlem housewives as an important tool in class struggles.
Unlike Harlem, Communists did not always find welcome in every part of the city. When one committee attempted to enter a synagogue, a Rabbi reportedly dismissed them and claimed “It is forbidden by the Bible to strike.” One Jewish woman defied her husband’s authority and joined the striking housewives: “My husband told me not to come … he said, ‘They are all Communists.'” In a testament to the power of resisting tradition, the woman allegedly rejected patriarchal authority and joined the boycott. “Communists or not,” Barton writes, the women claimed, “It’s for the right. Let us all be together in this thing.” These kinds of revolutionary actions reported in the Communist press, fuelled Communist attempts to engage housewives in usurping gender expectations.
After weeks of boycott, a compromise was reached on June 22, 1935 between the boycotters and meat packers. Gradually, butchers began to re-open their doors, some with contracts in hand signed by the City Action Committee agreeing on prices. Others defied the boycotters and re-opened without confirmed reductions. In the end, Communists declared the boycott a success. Shavelson claimed that local butchers reduced prices anywhere from 4 cents to 5 cents, with Harlem seeing the most dramatic reductions from 25 percent to 50 percent. As Shavelson argued, the success of the boycott was in its scope, forcing butchers and packers to contend with a coalition of housewives.
The Party took little time in claiming credit for the action. The boycott, according to a June 26 EPUSA directive, “proves to us how the Party is able to move very large masses into action against the high cost of living, on a united front basis.” The central committee also claimed that the Los Angeles boycott, “flowed out of directives on March 8,” and that the New York strike was not “spontaneous … since January this has been planned by the women comrades.” The committee belatedly claimed that it had instructed female cadre to boycott.
Evidence shows that female cadre in New York City took it upon themselves to initiate the boycott. On May 6, a directive was circulated by the central committee to district organizers in large cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit to “develop a mass campaign against the increasing cost of living,” particularly for foodstuffs. The committee claimed that the UC in New York began to organize a strike around meat, and had asked sympathetic butchers to take meat from the market on June 8. The Party, it seems was planning to have June 8 as a day to begin a mass boycott. But the UC had other plans; party women moved ahead without waiting for the CC.
Although the committee claimed to have planned the action, in central committee reality, the party leadership took responsibility for it only after female cadre organized and conducted the boycott. Additionally, the Party’s propaganda machine responded slowly in reporting the boycott. The Party leadership blamed the delay on rank-and-file comrades who allegedly ignored the capitalist press. “For weeks,” the central committee claimed, “the capitalist press and some magazines in many large cities gave columns of news about the meat boycott.” Unfortunately the New York CP district leadership and the Daily Worker “did not move at all until they were forced by the capitalist press and the enemy.”
Aside from the delay, the party also criticized its male cadre for other problems. The central committee credited its female members with pushing the boycott forward, while chastising trade unions for failing to see the action’s potential. When women approached unions for support, “they were just laughed away,” even more problematically, “by our own unions.” The CPUSA argued that “trusts” could antagonize tensions between consumer groups and unions, particularly when the women picketed markets that would affect workers. The central committee suggested that the slogan “prices must come down but not at the expense of the workers and the small owners” should be popularized. There is no evidence that female boycotters ever used that slogan.
In addition, the central committee claimed that the Party “failed in another respect.” It claimed that comrades did not “mobilize the women’s organizations, the clubs, etc.” The committee argued, that it was necessary to invite women of the neighborhoods to “become members of these committees,” and by extension the Party. The committee instructed comrades to send representatives to recruit women into neighborhood committees, leadership they were as well as seek support from small “owners,” presumably of butcher shops. The central committee focused much of its criticism on male cadre who failed to realize the potential of the boycott. Female cadre did not escape criticism as central committee accused them of failing to see the recruitment potential of the action.
Women comrades took the lead in the boycott and pleaded for greater Party support, but they were ignored until the central committee recognized the missed opportunity. Is this an implicit recognition that rank-and-file male cadre and Party leaders did not take women’s work seriously? Indeed, it can be seen that way, yet it also reflects the power of Communist women to push the ranks of the Party from the outside. The central committee’s eventual criticism can also be read as a lackadaisical response on the Part of Party leaders. The Party’s mantra was to leave women’s work to women; however, the central committee could not help but take the credit for such a successful action. The central committee leadership found itself trying to catch up to its female comrades, yet at the same time, in Party circles, claiming credit for instructing women to take up the boycott.
The boroughs of New York did not confine the success of the New York City boycott. By July, women in Detroit exploded into mass action against meat prices. In Hamtramck, a predominately Polish neighborhood of Detroit, a coalition of women decided to follow the example of Los Angeles and New York.
Annelise Orleck claims that only in New York City did the organizers have “explicit ties to the Communist party although charges of CP involvement were levelled against nearly all the housewife leaders.” Evidence suggests that rank-and-file Communist Party members planned these actions and organized coalitions of non-Communist women. As in New York, the Party leadership would claim credit for the Detroit boycott explaining how it instructed cadre to organize the boycott. The evidence demonstrates that the rank-and-file cadre deserve the credit.
The Detroit section organizer reported in The Party Organizer that in early June, when the section met to plan future actions, they planned a meat boycott. The Detroit CP section decided to hold a conference, which was postponed for weeks until the Party finally decided to send a comrade to meet with the working women of Hamtramck “to convince the women that action must be taken.” Party and non-Party women attended a section meeting and agreed to issue leaflets to call for a larger conference on Friday, July 19, 1935, in the name of the Provisional Women’s Committee against the High Cost of Living, a local group formed to combine organizations into one body.
As Newsweek described it, “1500 housewives met in a united-some-divided-we-spend spirit” and out of this meeting came the Woman’s League Against the High Cost of Living, led by a working-class housewife named Mary Zuk. The Party approved of Zuk as “a housewife who has been a worker in the shops and is a truly militant organizer.” For Communists, Zuk was an appealing symbol for the struggle. A miner’s daughter, she had worked in factories since she was 12 years old. As a mother of two and the wife of an unemployed factory worker, Zuk felt the effects of the Depression acutely and sought a redress of working-class grievances by continuing the battle against the high cost of living.
The boycott proved to be fodder for journalists’ commentary on gender role reversals. The Detroit Free Press noted that while housewives went on the picket lines “daughter had to do the dishes.” Police told reporters that they were not concerned about women getting out of line, “they’re all right,” instead concern was for potential Communist disruption. The women themselves were disregarded, as the “real” danger was potential Communist influence and possibly an untended household.
It appears that the threat from the strike was not in fact women engaged in politics. Instead, the media accused Communists with stirring up otherwise passive women. Soon mainstream media, like Newsweek, claimed that Detroit women employed excessive force and harboured Communist sympathies. The housewives were accused of yanking “less militant shoppers’ hair,” harassing butchers, and disturbing the peace. In one incident, three women and one man were arrested after a melee ensued when protesters allegedly attempted to pour kerosene on meat. When the four were brought to jail they were released shortly after when “a crowd of 300 gathered at the jail.”
As in New York, the Detroit boycott spread rapidly. By August, 400 butchers had closed their doors and those still opened were picketed. Meanwhile, Zuk had to answer attacks of Communist coordination. She told one reporter that “it’s nothing of the sort … we are not reds. We merely don’t intend to pay high prices that are unjustified.” To another reporter Zuk claimed that the accusations were “part of a ruse on the part of the butchers and meat packers to frighten timid people and split the ranks.” The Party endorsed Zuk’s claim that the boycott was a larger action with many different opinions represented.
Housewives as political activists did not play in the media. Instead, housewives manipulated and influenced by radical communists constructed an image of boycotters endangering normative gender roles. The implication was that good housewives would never engage in activism unless manipulated by radicals. This interpretation stripped women of any agency in the strike and painted Communists as antagonists; rather, the strike was an initiative of women, among them Communist party members.
While Zuk and the League were attempting to downplay the role of the Party, the CP itself instructed comrades to take on a larger role. At a section meeting “a decision was made that all Party members must show up at the picket line,” and the League, Party officials claimed, “accepted the aid of these comrades.” In addition, Party women were canvassing neighborhoods soliciting support, signing up members, selling the Daily Worker, and holding open air meetings about the boycott.
The strike, the Detroit Section organizer claimed, offered a lesson for the Party as a whole: “The struggle showed that women workers and housewives are a militant section of the labor movement and therefore the necessity of particularly militant men, in assisting the development of a militant women’s movement.” This revelation was hardly news to Communist women who, from their earlier actions, pressured the Party to realize that women were a formidable force.
The Detroit section organizer urged fellow comrades to appreciate female cadre influence and scolded them for not doing so. Party comrades, the organizer claimed, “must pay tribute to the splendid work of the women in this strike and particularly to the women Party members.” The women demonstrated their ability to take on leadership roles and initiate mass actions.
The section organizer also warned of the potential for proto-fascism in household relationships. He warned that husbands in the Party, “must not abuse their wives any longer by allotting them a minor role in the movement.” It was only “Hitler who wants them to stay in the kitchen and take care of children.” The organizer admonished comrades for dismissing women’s value to the class struggle, and he claimed that women, “are not only able to take care of the home and the children, but are willing and capable of fighting for better living conditions, filling their position better than men.” As with other Party members, while the section organizer acknowledged the efficacy of women pushing for consumers’ rights, he continued to insist that women were particularly suited for this work.
The Detroit section organizer’s article in The Party Organizer offers an indication that women’s work in the Party was not taken seriously. The tone and force of the organizer’s article suggests that women’s Party work went largely unacknowledged. Part of this can be attributed to the gender division of activism within Party ranks. By virtue of marginalizing women’s concerns to women organizers, the central committee acknowledged that women’s issues were marginal. The Party demonstrated its lack of interest by only praising the meat boycott after its successful conclusion.
Nevertheless, although the boycott was recognized as another success, the central committee found problems. It claimed that one weakness was the “failure to involve the Negro workers,” who, it claimed, were extremely sympathetic. Although the committee made these claims, female cadre answered that the boycott “involved everyone, regardless of their nationality, race, color or political beliefs,” and that many women, “Negro and white,” were involved. This disagreement between Party leadership and rank-and-file suggests that CPUSA leaders were too distant from the action and were looking for things to criticize. Coupled with the Detroit section organizer’s rebuke, the leadership played a small role in the action but revelled in its success.
Whatever the involvement of the Party leadership, the boycotters used their organizing skills to get the entire city behind the action. The success of the boycott became apparent when Detroit butchers turned to the Federal government for aid. The New York Times reported that “Harassed Detroit Butchers want the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to explain existing meat prices to the army of women whose buying strike has cost them thousands of dollars in spoilage and lost sales.” The Detroit housewives also took it upon themselves to go to the Federal government for an explanation of inflated meat prices.
On August 12, Zuk wired President Franklin Roosevelt and then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace for appointments. She wanted to discuss a 20 percent reduction in meat prices. The following Monday, Zuk and four others traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the President and Secretary. Zuk was dismissed by the President, Wallace agreed to discuss the issue. The discussion between Wallace and Zuk was reported in Newsweek:
Mrs. Zuk: Is the Government going to reduce prices 20 per cent?
Mr. Wallace: Under drought conditions it is impossible to guarantee future prices.
Mrs. Zuk: Why does the government pay farmers not to grow little pigs?
Mr. Wallace: The government is only concerned with not raising pigs for European consumption, a market that no longer exists.
Mrs. Zuk: Doesn’t the government want us to live? Everything in Detroit’s gone up except wages.
At that point, Wallace allegedly got up and left the meeting or, as Newsweek claimed, “gave up and fled.”
Detroit declared a victory soon after Zuk and the other women returned. Butchers conceded to their demands and prices fell. The success was hard-won, but as in New York and other cities, Detroit women declared that meat was only the beginning. Zuk announced to the press that, while Detroit housewives secured a reduction in meat prices, they planned to continue the fight until “they have won not only reduced meat prices, but also prices on milk, eggs, light and gas.”
While media and government leaders dismissed the housewives in the meat boycott, the increased power of consumers and housewives did not go entirely unnoticed. The president of Armour and Company, R. H. Cabell, in a conciliatory manner, acknowledged the power of the housewife as consumer. “Strange as it sounds,” he claimed, “it is really the housewives in the aggregate that have the final say in determining meat prices.” He explained that, although the women do not actually fix prices, they have the right to choose “by either buying or not buying at the price which the dealer puts on the meat.” The power of consumers was troubling for companies.
More troubling was the gender role reversal as women left the home behind and brought their concerns to the street. A cartoon that appeared in the Chicago Daily News and reprinted in The Woman Worker demonstrated the anxiety produced around housewives as political activists. The image depicts a rather stout “lady” wrestling a steer to the ground from her own “high horse.” The woman in the picture looks rather stern and militant while her home is left in the background. This suggests that the housewives engaged in the meat boycott took on masculine qualities, while the home was left behind, a troubling prospect.
Some conservatives feared not only gender role reversal, but the growing link between government and consumer activists. As Landon Storrs argues, the links between the consumer movement and the New Deal in the 1930s fuelled anti-Communist fears in the 1940s and 1950s. Under the New Deal the consumer advocacy offices opened within Federal agencies were largely headed by men; however, they were “staffed chiefly by women from the voluntary organizations,” many of whom had links to Left-feminist consumer organizations.
After the New York City boycott, a group of women that had been involved formed the League of Women Shoppers (LWS). The LWS eventually became a national organization. With explicit ties to the CPUSA, and members from prominent New Deal organizations, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the LWS enjoyed the status of having prominent members and contact with New Deal organizations. The LWS was also asked to intervene in strike mediation by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on more than one occasion. Landon Storrs argues that this link increased conservatives’ attacks on New Deal policies and eventually allowed a Republican-dominated Congress to begin eroding welfare policy established under the New Deal.
Although studies of anti-Communism focus primarily on unions, Storrs insists that consumer advocacy was a central fear in Cold War domestic politics. Unfortunately because labor and consumer activism are gendered movements, scholars have largely ignored the volatility of these women’s-led groups in anticommunism. Ignoring the female-led consumer movement leaves a wide gap in important feminist activity in the 1930s. Historians have made the same mistake journalists covering the meat boycott did, ignoring or dismissing the influence of consumer organizing and the effect of housewife activists.
Communist women like Shavelson, Nelson, and Party leaders in Detroit served as an impetus behind housewives campaigns. Communists pushed women to usurp gender expectations in the home and become political leaders in their own right. The housewives’ campaigns brought the working-class home into the class struggle, and no doubt many women into Party circles. The Party did not argue that these housewives belonged in the home; instead, party leaders and members argued that these housewives belonged in the class struggle.
Additionally, the boycott demonstrates the gap between Party directive and rank-and-file action. While Party women pushed the boycott from the streets, the central committee watched from a distance until the moment it could claim ultimate success, on behalf of the Party and not the individual women involved. The Party clearly did not take women’s actions seriously, at least not until these actions became a public success. Regardless, female cadre worked within neighborhood coalitions to broaden the class struggle and to effect immediate change for working-class families.