How the Red Scare Weakened Radical Feminism

two suffragettes carried their banner to a White House gate on June 22, 1917.

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Why you should care

The association between radical feminists and socialist Russia ended up splintering the feminist movement for decades.

This weekend, thousands of women will head to Washington, D.C. for the annual Women’s March. Around the world, millions more will take to the streets, many wearing signature pink hats. It’s been two years since protesters first rallied around resistance to the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump in 2016. But this year, infighting and allegations of anti-Semitism have caused splintering within the movement, with several groups even suing over attempts to trademark the name “Women’s March.” But disagreements over what constitutes inclusive feminism are as old as feminism itself. 

In June 1917, militant feminists Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) held a banner outside the White House, addressing the Russian delegates who’d come to the U.S. to meet with President Woodrow Wilson. The U.S. had just entered World War I, and it was time for the new allies to talk strategy. As the envoys rolled in, Burns and Lewis spotted an opportune moment to highlight that America was fighting for democracy abroad while women didn’t have the right to vote at home. The banner chided President Wilson’s hypocrisy, claimed he was “deceiving Russia” and demanded the U.S. “liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally.”

NWP picketers had generally been ignored by the White House for months, but President Wilson wasn’t enthused this time. Nor were the angry passersby who destroyed the banner, calling the picketers “traitors” and “a disgrace to womanhood.” Multiple NWP protesters were arrested, tried and imprisoned in the following days, writes Julia Mickenberg, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in her essay Suffragettes and Soviets: American Feminists and the Specter of Revolutionary Russia. The activists opted for imprisonment rather than paying the $25 fine, becoming the first Americans to be incarcerated for crusading for women’s rights.

Feminists’ interest in Russia’s experiment didn’t necessarily mean they advocated for socialism, but drawing attention to it enabled anti-feminists to tie the movement to subversion and undercut the women’s demands.

But President Wilson wasn’t the only one who was alarmed. The incident also distressed members of the more moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt. The situation had slowed a House vote on the formation of a woman’s suffrage committee. Catt’s strategy was to push President Wilson to pass women’s suffrage as a war measure, reasoning that any nation claiming to spread democracy around the world should begin at home. Fearing radicalism would jeopardize a chance at suffrage, NAWSA began to distance itself from the NWP. In this time period, all feminists were suffragists, but not all suffragists were feminists, says Mickenberg. Through 1920, the broader feminist platform grew to encompass aims like professional opportunities, sexual freedom, access to birth control and abortions, subsidized child care and the right to own property. Suffragists, on the other hand, pared back their goal: They wanted the vote.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 cast an even brighter spotlight on American class inequities. Even earlier, a woman’s role in socialist society had become a source of intrigue, and Russian women got the vote following the February Revolution, retaining it after the Bolsheviks took power. “Russia served as a powerful framing device for considering the nature of women’s citizenship in the United States, for reasons specific to Russia’s gender politics and its place in the U.S. imaginary,” Mickenberg writes. The creation of public laundries, dining halls and child care facilities exempted women from what Vladimir Lenin described as “the old household drudgery and dependence on men,” she writes in another essay, New Women in Red: Revolutionary Russia, Feminism, and the First Red Scare. Women also were granted maternity leave, while abortions were made free and legal (though still discouraged).

 

None of it was working that well in practice in Russia, Mickenberg says. Russia’s socialist revolution was violent and repressive, she notes. Plus, these new rights weren’t necessarily viewed in terms of freedom by Americans, some of whom feared Russian women and children were being “nationalized” like a train system, with children treated as state property rather than being cared for by their mothers. Even the framing of this discourse implies that it’s natural for women to be owned by their fathers and husbands rather than owning themselves, Mickenberg points out. “It was just the exchange of one kind of power over women for another,” Mickenberg says.

Feminist interest in Russia’s experiment didn’t necessarily mean they advocated for socialism, but drawing attention to it enabled anti-feminists to tie the movement to subversion and undercut the women’s demands. As the First Red Scare gripped the U.S. in 1917, expansion of the state was met with suspicion. The Espionage Act in 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Immigration Act of 1918 contributed to the fervor. The Overman Committee — a Senate subcommittee that was an early forerunner to the House Un-American Activities Committee — began investigating Bolshevism and other activities deemed un-American in 1918. 

At the same time, publications like The Woman Patriot cautioned against the erosion of traditional family life under socialist-inspired ideals. Anxiety about state control could serve as fodder to fight against laws like the Sheppard–Towner Act, passed in 1921, which provided federal funding for maternity and child care. What’s more, visible figures like Louise Bryant — a journalist and free love advocate who gave talks for the National Women’s Party and wrote about the Russian Revolution — didn’t help dissolve the feminist-radicalist association.

Beyond the Red Scare, a splintering within the women’s movement itself also weakened momentum. Suffragettes and feminists had put energy into securing the vote in 1920. That big victory, however, appeared to take “the wind out of their sails,” says Mickenberg. Suffrage had been one common goal; apart from the vote, the NWP and NAWSA couldn’t agree on a unified platform. Feminism’s more broad-based agenda subsided, narrowing the definition of feminism as the U.S. settled into the more conservative 1920s.

But the grass is always greener. Emma Goldman, an anarchist writer more radical than both feminists and suffragists, learned all about the fragility of idealism. Goldman, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was arrested in the U.S. for speaking out against the draft the day President Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law. She and other alleged radicals later were deported to Russia. Though initially supportive of Bolshevism, Goldman became disheartened by the repressive rule and left Russia for Berlin. Her writings on the subject were published in 1923 under the title My Disillusionment in Russia.

Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly referred to the Espionage Act as the Espionage Age.

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