Born in Trinidad and resident and politically active in New York and London, Claudia Jones, a feminist leader in the Communist Party USA, was a journalist, editor, theorist and co-founder of the Notting Hill Carnival in London.
This essay was first republished in Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment edited by Carole Boyce Davies (Ayebia, 2011). It is reprinted with permission from Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited.
An outstanding feature of the present stage of the Negro liberation movement is the growth in the militant participation of Negro women in all aspects of the struggle for peace, civil rights and economic security. Symptomatic of this new militancy is the fact that Negro women have become symbols of many present-day struggles of the Negro people. This growth of militancy among Negro women has profound meaning, both for the Negro liberation movement and for the emerging anti-fascist, anti-imperialist coalition.
To understand this militancy correctly, to deepen and extend the role of Negro women in the struggle for peace and for all interests of the working class and the Negro people, means primarily to overcome the gross neglect of the special problems of Negro women. This neglect has too long permeated the ranks of the labour movement generally, of left-progressives, and also of the Communist Party. The most serious assessment of these shortcomings by progressives, especially by Marxist-Leninists, is vitally necessary if we are to help accelerate this development and integrate Negro women in the progressive and labour movement and in our own party.
The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced.
Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the post-war reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence, which destroys the health, morale and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers and children.
Viewed in this light, it is not accidental that the American bourgeoisie has intensified its oppression, not only of the Negro people in general, but of Negro women in particular. Nothing so exposes the drive to fascisation in the nation as the callous attitude, which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women. The vaunted boast of the ideologists of big business – that American women possess “the greatest equality” in the world is exposed in all its hypocrisy when one sees that in many parts of the world, particularly in the Soviet Union, the New Democracies and the formerly oppressed land of China, women are attaining new heights of equality. But above all else, Wall Street’s boast stops at the water’s edge where Negro and working-class women are concerned. Not equality, but degradation and super-exploitation: this is the actual lot of Negro women!
Consider the hypocrisy of the Truman administration, which boasts about “exporting democracy throughout the world” while the state of Georgia keeps a widowed Negro mother of 12 children under lock and key. Her crime? She defended her life and dignity – aided by her two sons – from the attacks of a “white supremacist”. Or ponder the mute silence with which the Department of Justice has greeted Mrs Amy Mallard, widowed Negro school teacher, since her husband was lynched in Georgia because he had bought a new Cadillac and become, in the opinion of the “white supremacists”, “too uppity”. Contrast this with the crocodile tears shed by the US delegation to the United Nations for Cardinal József Mindszenty, who collaborated with the enemies of the Hungarian People’s Republic and sought to hinder the forward march to fuller democracy by the formerly oppressed workers and peasants of Hungary. Only recently, President Truman spoke solicitously in a Mother’s Day Proclamation about the manifestation of “our love and reverence” for all mothers of the land. The so-called “love and reverence” for the mothers of the land by no means includes Negro mothers who, like Rosa Lee Ingram, Amy Mallard, the wives and mothers of the Trenton Six, or the other countless victims, dare to fight back against lynch law and “white supremacy” violence.
Very much to the contrary, Negro women – as workers, as Negroes, and as women – are the most oppressed stratum of the whole population.
In 1940, two out of every five Negro women, in contrast to two out of every eight white women, worked for a living. By virtue of their majority status among the Negro people, Negro women not only constitute the largest percentage of women heads of families, but are the main breadwinners of the Negro family. The large proportion of Negro women in the labour market is primarily a result of the low-scale earnings of Negro men. This disproportion also has its roots in the treatment and position of Negro women over the centuries.
Following emancipation, and persisting to the present day, a large percentage of Negro women – married as well as single – were forced to work for a living. But despite the shift in employment of Negro women from rural to urban areas, Negro women are still generally confined to the lowest-paying jobs. The Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labour, Handbook of Facts for Women Workers (1948, Bulletin 225), shows white women workers as having median earnings more than twice as high as those of non-white women, and non-white women workers (mainly Negro women) as earning less than $500 a year! In the rural South, the earnings of women are even less. In three large Northern industrial communities, the median income of white families ($1 720) is almost 60% higher than that of Negro families ($1 095). The super-exploitation of the Negro woman worker is thus revealed not only in that she receives, as woman, less than equal pay for equal work with men, but in that the majority of Negro women get less than half the pay of white women. Little wonder, then, that in Negro communities the conditions of ghetto-living – low salaries, high rents, high prices, etc – virtually become an iron curtain hemming in the lives of Negro children and undermining their health and spirit! Little wonder that the maternity death rate for Negro women is triple that of white women! Little wonder that one out of every 10 Negro children born in the United States does not grow to manhood or womanhood!
The low scale of earnings of the Negro woman is directly related to her almost complete exclusion from virtually all fields of work except the most menial and underpaid, namely, domestic service. Revealing are the following data given in the report of 1945, Negro Women War Workers (Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labour, Bulletin 205): Of a total seven and a half million Negro women, over a million are in domestic and personal service. The overwhelming bulk – about 918 000 – of these women workers are employed in private families, and some 98 000 are employed as cooks, waitresses and in like services in other than private homes. The remaining 60 000 workers in service trades are in miscellaneous personal service occupations (beauticians, boarding house and lodging-house keepers, charwomen, janitors, practical nurses, housekeepers, hostesses and elevator operators).
The next largest number of Negro women workers are engaged in agricultural work. In 1940, about 245 000 were agricultural workers. Of them, some 128 000 were unpaid family workers.
Industrial and other workers numbered more than 96 000 of the Negro women reported. Thirty-six thousand of these women were in manufacturing, the chief groups being 11 300 in apparel and other fabricated textile products, 11 000 in tobacco manufactures and 5 600 in food and related products. Clerical and kindred workers in general numbered only 13 000. There were only 8 300 Negro women workers in civil service.
The rest of the Negro women who work for a living were distributed along the following lines: teachers, 50 000; nurses and student nurses, 6 700; social and welfare workers, 1 700; dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians, 120; physicians and surgeons, 129; actresses, 200; authors, editors and reporters, 100; lawyers and judges, 39; librarians, 400; and other categories likewise illustrating the large-scale exclusion of Negro women from the professions.
During the anti-Axis war, Negro women for the first time in history had an opportunity to utilise their skills and talents in occupations other than domestic and personal service. They became trail blazers in many fields. Since the end of the war, however, this has given way to growing unemployment, to the wholesale firing of Negro women, particularly in basic industry.
This process has been intensified with the development of the economic crisis. Today, Negro women are being forced back into domestic work in great numbers. In New York State, for example, this trend was officially confirmed recently when Edward Corsi, Commissioner of the State Labour Department, revealed that for the first time since the war, domestic help is readily obtainable. Corsi in effect admitted that Negro women are not voluntarily giving up jobs, but rather are being systematically pushed out of industry. Unemployment, which has always hit the Negro woman first and hardest, plus the high cost of living, is what compels Negro women to re-enter domestic service today. Accompanying this trend is an ideological campaign to make domestic work palatable. Daily newspaper advertisements, which base their arguments on the claim that most domestic workers who apply for jobs through USES “prefer this type of work to work in industry”, are propagandising the “virtues” of domestic work, especially of “sleep-in positions”.
Inherently connected with the question of job opportunities where the Negro woman is concerned, is the special oppression she faces as Negro, as woman and as worker. She is the victim of the white chauvinist stereotype as to where her place should be. In the film, radio and press, the Negro woman is not pictured in her real role as breadwinner, mother and protector of the family, but as a traditional “mammy” who puts the care of children and families of others above her own. This traditional stereotype of the Negro slave mother, which to this day appears in commercial advertisements, must be combated and rejected as a device of the imperialists to perpetuate the white chauvinist ideology that Negro women are “backward”, “inferior” and the “natural slaves” of others.
Actually, the history of the Negro woman shows that the Negro mother under slavery held a key position and played a dominant role in her own family grouping. This was due primarily to two factors: the conditions of slavery, under which marriage, as such, was nonexistent, and the Negro’s social status was derived from the mother and not the father; and the fact that most of the Negro people brought to these shores by the slave traders came from West Africa where the position of women, based on active participation in property control, was relatively higher in the family than that of European women.
Early historians of the slave trade recall the testimony of travellers indicating that the love of the African mother for her child was unsurpassed in any part of the world. There are numerous stories attesting to the self-sacrificial way in which East African mothers offered themselves to the slave traders in order to save their sons and Hottentot women refused food during famines until after their children were fed.
It is impossible within the confines of this article to relate the terrible sufferings and degradation undergone by Negro mothers and Negro women generally under slavery. Subject to legalised rape by the slaveowners, confined to slave pens, forced to march for eight to 14 hours with loads on their backs and to perform back-breaking work even during pregnancy, Negro women bore a burning hatred for slavery and undertook a large share of the responsibility for defending and nurturing the Negro family.
The Negro mother was mistress in the slave cabin, and despite the interference of master or overseer, her wishes in regard to mating and in family matters were paramount. During and after slavery, Negro women had to support themselves and the children. Necessarily playing an important role in the economic and social life of her people, the Negro woman became schooled in self-reliance, in courageous and selfless action.
There is documentary material of great interest, which shows that Negro family life and the social and political consciousness of Negro men and women underwent important changes after emancipation. One freedman observed, during the Civil War, that many men were exceedingly jealous of their newly acquired authority in family relations and insisted upon a recognition of their superiority over women. After the Civil War, the slave rows were broken up and the tenant houses scattered all over the plantation in order that each family might carry on an independent existence. The new economic arrangement, the change in the mode of production, placed the Negro man in a position of authority in relation to his family. Purchase of homesteads also helped strengthen the authority of the male.
Thus, a former slave, who began life as a freedman on a “one-horse” farm, with his wife working as a laundress, but who later rented land and hired two men, recalls the pride which he felt because of his new status: “In my humble palace on a hill in the woods beneath the shade of towering pines and sturdy oaks, I felt as a king whose supreme commands were ‘law and gospel’ to my subjects.”
One must see that a double motive was operative here. In regard to his wife and children, the Negro man was now enabled to assume economic and other authority over the family, but he also could fight against violation of women of his group where formerly he was powerless to interfere. The founding of the Negro church, which from the outset was under the domination of men, also tended to confirm the man’s authority in the family. Sanction for male ascendancy was found in the Bible, which for many was the highest authority in such matters.
Through these and other methods, the subordination of Negro women developed. In a few cases, instead of legally emancipating his wife and children, the husband permitted them to continue in their status of slaves. In many cases, state laws forbade a slave emancipated after a certain date to remain in the state. Therefore, the only way for many Negro wives and children to remain in the state was to become “enslaved” to their relatives. Many Negro owners of slaves were really relatives of their slaves. In some cases, Negro women refused to become subject to the authority of the men. In defiance of the decisions of their husbands to live on the places of their former masters, many Negro women took their children and moved elsewhere.
Negro women in mass organisations
This brief picture of some of the aspects of the history of the Negro woman, seen in the additional light of the fact that a high proportion of Negro women are obliged today to earn all or part of the bread of the family, helps us understand why Negro women play a most active part in the economic, social and political life of the Negro community today. Approximately 2 500 000 Negro women are organised in social, political and fraternal clubs and organisations. The most prominent of their organisations are the National Association of Negro women, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Women’s Division of the Elks’ Civil Liberties Committee, the National Association of Colored Beauticians, National Negro Business Women’s League, and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Of these, the National Association of Negro Women, with 75 000 members, is the largest membership organisation. There are numerous sororities, church women’s committees of all denominations, as well as organisations among women of West Indian descent. In some areas, NAACP chapters have Women’s Divisions, and recently the National Urban League established a Women’s Division for the first time in its history.
Negro women are the real active forces – the organisers and workers – in all the institutions and organisations of the Negro people. These organisations play a many-sided role, concerning themselves with all questions pertaining to the economic, political and social life of the Negro people, and particularly of the Negro family. Many of these organisations are intimately concerned with the problems of Negro youth, in the form of providing and administering educational scholarships, giving assistance to schools and other institutions, and offering community service. The fight for higher education in order to break down Jim Crow in higher institutions, was symbolised last year, by the brilliant Negro woman student, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher of Oklahoma. The disdainful attitudes which are sometimes expressed – that Negro women’s organisations concern themselves only with “charity” work – must be exposed as of chauvinist derivation, however subtle, because while the same could be said of many organisations of white women, such attitudes fail to recognise the special character of the role of Negro women’s organisations. This approach fails to recognise the special function which Negro women play in these organisations, which, over and above their particular function, seek to provide social services denied to Negro youth as a result of the Jim-Crow lynch system in the US.
The Negro woman worker
The negligible participation of Negro women in progressive and trade-union circles is thus all the more startling. In union after union, even in those unions where a large concentration of workers are Negro women, few Negro women are to be found as leaders or active workers. The outstanding exceptions to this are the Food and Tobacco Workers’ Union and the United Office and Professional Workers’ Union.
But why should these be exceptions? Negro women are among the most militant trade unionists. The sharecroppers’ strikes of the 1930s were sparkplugged by Negro women. Subject to the terror of the landlord and white supremacist, they waged magnificent battles together with Negro men and white progressives in that struggle of great tradition led by the Communist Party. Negro women played a magnificent part in the pre-CIO days in strikes and other struggles, both as workers and as wives of workers, to win recognition of the principle of industrial unionism, in such industries as auto, packing, steel, etc. More recently, the militancy of Negro women unionists is shown in the strike of the packing-house workers, and even more so, in the tobacco workers’ strike – in which such leaders as Moranda Smith and Velma Hopkins emerged as outstanding trade unionists. The struggle of the tobacco workers led by Negro women later merged with the political action of Negro and white, which led to the election of the first Negro in the South (in Winston- Salem, NC) since Reconstruction days.
It is incumbent on progressive unionists to realise that in the fight for equal rights for Negro workers, it is necessary to have a special approach to Negro women workers, who, far out of proportion to other women workers, are the main breadwinners in their families. The fight to retain the Negro woman in industry and to upgrade her on the job, is a major way of struggling for the basic and special interests of the Negro woman worker. Not to recognise this feature is to miss the special aspects of the effects of the growing economic crisis, which is penalising Negro workers, particularly Negro women workers, with special severity.
The domestic worker
One of the crassest manifestations of trade-union neglect of the problems of the Negro woman worker has been the failure, not only to fight against relegation of the Negro woman to domestic and similar menial work, but to organise the domestic worker. It is merely lip service for progressive unionists to speak of organising the unorganised without turning their eyes to the serious plight of the domestic worker, who, unprotected by union standards, is also the victim of exclusion from all social and labour legislation. Only about one in 10 of all Negro women workers is covered by present minimum-wage legislation, although about one-fourth of all such workers are to be found in states having minimum-wage laws. All of the arguments heretofore projected with regard to the real difficulties of organising the domestic workers – such as the “casual” nature of their employment, the difficulties of organising day workers, the problem of organising people who work in individual households, etc – must be overcome forthwith. There is a danger that social-democratic forces may enter this field to do their work of spreading disunity and demagogy, unless progressives act quickly.
The lot of the domestic worker is one of unbearable misery. Usually, she has no definition of tasks in the household where she works. Domestic workers may have “thrown in”, in addition to cleaning and scrubbing, such tasks as washing windows, caring for the children, laundering, cooking, etc, and all at the lowest pay. The Negro domestic worker must suffer the additional indignity, in some areas, of having to seek work in virtual “slave markets” on the streets where bids are made, as from a slave block, for the hardiest workers. Many a domestic worker, on returning to her own household, must begin housework anew to keep her own family together.
Who was not enraged when it was revealed in California, in the heinous case of Dora Jones, that a Negro woman domestic was enslaved for more than 40 years in “civilised” America? Her “employer” was given a minimum sentence of a few years and complained that the sentence was for “such a long period of time”. But could Dora Jones, Negro domestic worker, be repaid for more than 40 years of her life under such conditions of exploitation and degradation? And how many cases, partaking in varying degrees of the condition of Dora Jones, are still tolerated by progressives themselves!
Only recently, in the New York State Legislature, legislative proposals were made to “fingerprint” domestic workers. The Martinez Bill did not see the light of day, because the reactionaries were concentrating on other repressive legislative measures; but here we see clearly the imprint of the African “pass” system of British imperialism (and of the German Reich in relation to the Jewish people!) being attempted in relation to women domestic workers.
It is incumbent on the trade unions to assist the Domestic Workers’ Union in every possible way to accomplish the task of organising the exploited domestic workers, the majority of whom are Negro women. Simultaneously, a legislative fight for the inclusion of domestic workers under the benefits of the Social Security Law is vitally urgent and necessary. Here, too, recurrent questions regarding “administrative problems” of applying the law to domestic workers should be challenged and solutions found.
The continued relegation of Negro women to domestic work has helped to perpetuate and intensify chauvinism directed against all Negro women. Despite the fact that Negro women may be grandmothers or mothers, the use of the chauvinist term “girl” for adult Negro women is a common expression. The very economic relationship of Negro women to white women, which perpetuates “madam-maid” relationships, feeds chauvinist attitudes and makes it incumbent on white women progressives, and particularly communists, to fight consciously against all manifestations of white chauvinism, open and subtle.
Chauvinism on the part of progressive white women is often expressed in their failure to have close ties of friendship with Negro women and to realise that this fight for equality of Negro women is in their own self-interest, inasmuch as the super-exploitation and oppression of Negro women tends to depress the standards of all women. Too many progressives, and even some communists, are still guilty of exploiting Negro domestic workers, of refusing to hire them through the Domestic Workers’ Union (or of refusing to help in its expansion into those areas where it does not yet exist), and generally of participating in the vilification of “maids” when speaking to their bourgeois neighbours and their own families. Then, there is the expressed “concern” that the exploited Negro domestic worker does not “talk” to, or is not “friendly” with, her employer, or the habit of assuming that the duty of the white progressive employer is to “inform” the Negro woman of her exploitation and her oppression, which she undoubtedly knows quite intimately. Persistent challenge to every chauvinist remark as concerns the Negro woman is vitally necessary, if we are to break down the understandable distrust on the part of Negro women who are repelled by the white chauvinism they often find expressed in progressive circles.
Manifestations of white chauvinism
Some of the crassest expressions of chauvinism are to be found at social affairs, where, all too often, white men and women and Negro men participate in dancing, but Negro women are neglected. The acceptance of white ruling-class standards of “desirability” for women (such as light skin), the failure to extend courtesy to Negro women and to integrate Negro women into organisational leadership, are other forms of chauvinism.
Another rabid aspect of the Jim-Crow oppression of the Negro woman is expressed in the numerous laws which are directed against her as regards property rights, intermarriage (originally designed to prevent white men in the South from marrying Negro women) – and laws which hinder and deny the right of choice, not only to Negro women, but Negro and white men and women.
For white progressive women and men, and especially for communists, the question of social relations with Negro men and women is above all a question of strictly adhering to social equality. This means ridding ourselves of the position which sometimes finds certain progressives and communists fighting on the economic and political issues facing the Negro people, but “drawing the line” when it come to social intercourse or intermarriage. To place the question as a “personal” and not a political matter, when such questions arise, is to be guilty of the worst kind of social-democratic, bourgeois-liberal thinking as regard the Negro question in American life; it is to be guilty of imbibing the poisonous white-chauvinist “theories” of a Theodore Bilbo or a John Elliott Rankin. Similarly, too, with regard to guaranteeing the “security” of children. This security will be enhanced only through the struggle for the liberation and equality of all nations and peoples, and not by shielding children from the knowledge of this struggle. This means ridding ourselves of the bourgeois-liberal attitudes which “permit” Negro and white children of progressives to play together at camps when young, but draw the line when the children reach teenage and establish boy-girl relationships.
The bourgeois ideologists have not failed, of course, to develop a special ideological offensive aimed at degrading Negro women, as part and parcel of the general reactionary ideological offensive against women of “kitchen, church and children”. They cannot, however, with equanimity or credibility, speak of the Negro woman’s “place” as in the home; for Negro women are in other peoples’ kitchens. Hence, their task has been to intensify their theories of male “superiority” as regards the Negro woman by developing introspective attitudes which coincide with the “new school” of “psychological inferiority” of women. The whole intent of a host of articles, books, etc, has been to obscure the main responsibility for the oppression of Negro women by spreading the rotten bourgeois notion about a “battle of the sexes” and “ignoring” the fight of both Negro men and women – the whole Negro people – against their common oppressors, the white ruling class.
Chauvinist expressions also include paternalistic surprise when it is learned that Negroes are professional people. Negro professional women workers are often confronted with such remarks as “Isn’t your family proud of you?” Then, there is the reverse practice of inquiring of Negro women professionals whether “someone in the family” would like to take a job as a domestic worker.
The responsibility for overcoming these special forms of white chauvinism rests, not with the “subjectivity” of Negro women, as it is often put, but squarely on the shoulders of white men and white women. Negro men have a special responsibility particularly in relation to rooting out attitudes of male superiority as regards women in general. There is need to root out all “humanitarian” and patronising attitudes toward Negro women. In one community, a leading Negro trade unionist, the treasurer of her party section, would be told by a white progressive woman after every social function: “Let me have the money; something may happen to you.” In another instance, a Negro domestic worker who wanted to join the party was told by her employer, a communist, that she was “too backward” and “wasn’t ready” to join the party. In yet another community, which since the war has been populated in the proportion of 60% Negro to 40% white, white progressive mothers maneuvered to get their children out of the school in this community. To the credit of the initiative of the party section organiser, a Negro woman, a struggle was begun which forced a change in arrangements which the school principal, yielding to the mothers’ and to his own prejudices, had established. These arrangements involved a special class in which a few white children were isolated with “selected Negro kids” in what was termed an “experimental class in race relations”.
These chauvinist attitudes, particularly as expressed toward the Negro woman, are undoubtedly an important reason for the grossly insufficient participation of Negro women in progressive organisations and in our party as members and leaders.
The American bourgeoisie, we must remember, is aware of the present and even greater potential role of the masses of Negro women, and is therefore not loathe to throw plums to Negroes who betray their people and do the bidding of imperialism.
Faced with the exposure of their callous attitude to Negro women, faced with the growing protests against unpunished lynchings and the legal lynchings “Northern style”, Wall Street is giving a few token positions to Negro women. Thus, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who played a key role in the Democratic National Negro Committee to Elect Truman, was rewarded with the appointment as Assistant to Federal Security Administrator Ewing. Thus, too, Governor Dewey appointed Irene Diggs to a high post in the New York State Administration.
Another straw in the wind showing attempts to whittle down the militancy of Negro women was the State Department’s invitation to a representative of the National Council of Negro Women – the only Negro organisation so designated – to witness the signing of the Atlantic Pact.
Key issues of struggle
There are many key issues facing Negro women around which struggles can and must be waged.
But none so dramatises the oppressed status of Negro womanhood as does the case of Rosa Lee Ingram, widowed Negro mother of 14 children – two of them dead – who faces life imprisonment in a Georgia jail for the “crime” of defending herself from the indecent advances of a “white supremacist”. The Ingram case illustrates the landless, Jim Crow, oppressed status of the Negro family in America. It illumines particularly the degradation of Negro women today under American bourgeois democracy moving to fascism and war. It reflects the daily insults to which Negro women are subjected in public places, no matter what their class, status or position. It exposes the hypocritical alibi of the lynchers of Negro manhood who have historically hidden behind the skirts of white women when they try to cover up their foul crimes with the “chivalry” of “protecting white womanhood”. But white women, today, no less than their sisters in the abolitionist and suffrage movements, must rise to challenge this lie and the whole system of Negro oppression.
American history is rich in examples of the cost – to the democratic rights of both women and men – of failure to wage this fight. The suffragists, during their first jailings, were purposely placed on cots next to Negro prostitutes to “humiliate” them. They had the wisdom to understand that the intent was to make it so painful that no woman would dare to fight for her rights if she had to face such consequences. But it was the historic shortcoming of the women’s suffrage leaders, predominantly drawn as they were from the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, that they failed to link their own struggles to the struggles for the full democratic rights of the Negro people following emancipation.
A developing consciousness on the woman question today, therefore, must not fail to recognise that the Negro question in the United States is prior to, and not equal to, the woman question; that only to the extent that we fight all chauvinist expressions and actions as regards the Negro people and fight for the full equality of the Negro people, can women as a whole advance their struggle for equal rights. For the progressive women’s movement, the Negro woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Negro, and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness. To the extent, further, that the cause of the Negro woman worker is promoted, she will be enabled to take her rightful place in the Negro proletarian leadership of the national liberation movement, and by her active participation contribute to the entire American working class, whose historic mission is the achievement of a socialist America – the final and full guarantee of woman’s emancipation.
The fight for Rosa Lee Ingram’s freedom is a challenge to all white women and to all progressive forces, who must begin to ask themselves: How long shall we allow this dastardly crime against all womanhood, against the Negro people, to go unchallenged! Rosa Lee Ingram’s plight and that of her sisters also carries with it a challenge to progressive cultural workers to write and sing of the Negro woman in her full courage and dignity.
The recent establishment of the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family fulfills a need long felt since the early movement, which forced commutation to life imprisonment of Mrs Ingram’s original sentence of execution. This National Committee, headed by Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Coloured Women, includes among its leaders such prominent women, Negro and white, as Therese Robinson, National Grand Directoress of the Civil Liberties Committee of the Elks, Ada B Jackson and Dr Gene Weltfish.
One of the first steps of the committee was the visit of a delegation of Negro and white citizens to this courageous, militant Negro mother imprisoned in a Georgia cell. The measure of support was so great that the Georgia authorities allowed the delegation to see her unimpeded. Since that time, however, in retaliation against the developing mass movement, the Georgia officials have moved Mrs Ingram, who is suffering from a severe heart condition, to a worse penitentiary, at Reedsville.
Support to the work of this committee becomes a prime necessity for all progressives, particularly women. President Truman must be stripped of his pretense of “know-nothing” about the Ingram case. To free the Ingrams, support must be rallied for the success of the million-signatures campaign, and for UN action on the Ingram brief soon to be filed.
The struggle for jobs for Negro women is a prime issue. The growing economic crisis, with its mounting unemployment and wage cuts and increasing evictions, is making its impact felt most heavily on the Negro masses. In one Negro community after another, Negro women, the last to be hired and the first to be fired, are the greatest sufferers from unemployment. Struggles must be developed to win jobs for Negro women in basic industry, in the white-collar occupations, in the communities and in private utilities.
The successful campaign of the Communist Party in New York’s East Side to win jobs for Negro women in the five-and-dime stores has led to the hiring of Negro women throughout the city, even in predominantly white communities. This campaign has extended to New England and must be waged elsewhere.
Close to 15 government agencies do not hire Negroes at all. This policy gives official sanction to, and at the same time further encourages, the pervasive Jim-Crow policies of the capitalist exploiters. A campaign to win jobs for Negro women here would thus greatly advance the whole struggle for jobs for Negro men and women. In addition, it would have a telling effect in exposing the hypocrisy of the Truman Administration’s “Civil Rights” programme.
A strong fight will also have to be made against the growing practice of the United States Employment Service to shunt Negro women, despite their qualifications for other jobs, only into domestic and personal service work.
Where consciousness of the special role of Negro women exists, successful struggle can be initiated which will win the support of white workers. A recent example was the initiative taken by white communist garment workers in a shop employing 25 Negro women where three machines were idle. The issue of upgrading Negro women workers became a vital one. A boycott movement has been initiated and the machines stand unused as of this writing, the white workers refusing to adhere to strict seniority at the expense of Negro workers. Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing on this issue. Similarly, in a Packard UAW local in Detroit, a fight for the maintenance of women in industry and for the upgrading of 750 women, the large majority of whom were Negro, was recently won.
The struggle for peace
Winning the Negro women for the struggle for peace is decisive for all other struggles. Even during the anti-Axis war, Negro women had to weep for their soldier-sons, lynched while serving in a Jim-Crow army. Are they, therefore, not interested in the struggle for peace?
The efforts of the bipartisan war-makers to gain the support of the women’s organisations in general, have influenced many Negro women’s organisations, which, at their last annual conventions, adopted foreign-policy stands favouring the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine. Many of these organisations have worked with groups having outspoken anti-imperialist positions.
That there is profound peace sentiment among Negro women, which can be mobilised for effective action is shown, not only in the magnificent response to the meetings of Eslande Goode Robeson, but also in the position announced last year by the oldest Negro women’s organisation, under the leadership of Mrs Christine C Smith, in urging a national mobilisation of American Negro women in support of the United Nations. In this connection, it will be very fruitful to bring to our country a consciousness of the magnificent struggles of women in North Africa, who, though lacking in the most elementary material needs, have organised a strong movement for peace and thus stand united against a Third World War, with 81 million women in 57 nations, in the Women’s International Democratic Federation.
Our party, based on its Marxist-Leninist principles, stands foursquare on a programme of full economic, political and social equality for the Negro people and of equal rights for women. Who, more than the Negro woman, the most exploited and oppressed, belongs in our party? Negro women can and must make an enormous contribution to the daily life and work of the party. Concretely, this means prime responsibility lies with white men and women comrades. Negro men comrades, however, must participate in this task. Negro Communist women must everywhere now take their rightful place in party leadership on all levels.
The strong capacities, militancy and organisational talents of Negro women, can, if well utilised by our party, be a powerful lever for bringing forward Negro workers – men and women – as the leading forces of the Negro people’s liberation movement, for cementing Negro and white unity in the struggle against Wall Street imperialism, and for rooting the party among the most exploited and oppressed sections of the working class and its allies.
In our party clubs, we must conduct an intensive discussion of the role of the Negro women, so as to equip our party membership with clear understanding for undertaking the necessary struggles in the shops and communities. We must end the practice, in which many Negro women who join our party, and who, in their churches, communities and fraternal groups are leaders of masses, with an invaluable mass experience to give to our party, suddenly find themselves viewed in our clubs, not as leaders, but as people who have “to get their feet wet” organisationally. We must end this failure to create an atmosphere in our clubs in which new recruits – in this case Negro women – are confronted with the “silent treatment” or with attempts to “blueprint” them into a pattern. In addition to the white chauvinist implications in such approaches, these practices confuse the basic need for Marxist-Leninist understanding, which our party gives to all workers, and which enhances their political understanding, with chauvinist disdain for the organisational talents of new Negro members, or for the necessity to promote them into leadership.
To win the Negro women for full participation in the antifascist, anti-imperialist coalition, to bring her militancy and participation to even greater heights in the current and future struggles against Wall Street imperialism, progressives must acquire political consciousness as regards her special oppressed status.
It is this consciousness, accelerated by struggles, that will convince increasing thousands that only the Communist Party, as the vanguard of the working class, with its ultimate perspective of socialism, can achieve for the Negro women – for the entire Negro people – the full equality and dignity of their stature in a socialist society in which contributions to society are measured, not by national origin, or by colour, but a society in which men and women contribute according to ability, and ultimately under communism receive according to their needs.