marriage, family, and sex roles
It is only recently, under the impetus of the women’s movement, that scholars have begun to examine systematically the domestic and familial aspects of political life.1 Although the political is not quite “the personal,” nor vice versa, personal and domestic life act upon one’s political behavior in definite and particular ways. It is therefore essential to examine domestic and personal life and their political consequences among thirties-generation Communists: courtship, decisions about marriage itself, the role of the Communist Party in marriage, the family, and sex roles, decisions about having and raising children, family dynamics, the particular choices women faced regarding marriage, family, and career, political or otherwise, and the kinds of lives—the lifestyles, to use contemporary jargon—established by Communists.
Although the proportion of women in the CPUSA rose from 26 percent in 1936 to 46 percent in 1944 and to approximately one-half in the postwar period, their status and power never matched their numbers.2 The Party was male-oriented and male-dominated. Since a woman typically worked within the Party as a part of a married unit, the sample includes seven paired couples among the twenty-six men and ten women interviewed. Communist men married at an average age of twenty-four, whereas Communist women wed at approximately twenty-two (22.2).3 How did young Communists decide to marry and what factors were considered in choosing a mate?
The vast majority, male and female, married fellow radicals—in fact, fellow members of the Communist Party. In most other instances, the nonmember (usually female) was soon brought into the Party by the member (usually male). In only a few cases did a couple consist of a Party member (male) and an uninvolved nonmember (female), not to speak of an anti-Communist. Most typically, young Communist men and women met in the midst of political activities—marches, demonstrations, meetings, club or branch socials, campus activities, and dances.
Harry Freedman met his wife at a YCL meeting and came to know her through American Youth for Democracy (AYD) activities. He agrees that it would have been “inconceivable” to marry a non-Leftist. One veteran Communist describes his wife as having been “antiboss” when they met; she was just getting involved in union activity at the time. Otto and Tessie Kramer, one of the sample’s seven couples in “progressive marriages,” met while working in support of Spanish Republican forces during the Civil War. In a number of cases, the man was the mentor, the woman the novice. Several Party marriages began through such teacher-student, organizer-organized relationships. Both Ike Samuels and Johnny Tisa met their future wives when Party headquarters assigned the women to do trade-union office work for them. I found no instance of a woman playing the mentor role with a man as neophyte.
Courtship was often brief, although several Communists delayed marriage because of such problems as unemployment and inadequate wages. Family pressures seem rarely to have intervened in the marriage decisions, although a number of left-wing couples married in religious ceremonies, usually Jewish ones, to placate and pacify traditionally minded parents.
Most were young and hopeful. Stan Wax met his wife, “a working girl who came to League functions,” already “socialist-minded from her family,” in the neighborhood in which both had grown up. Despite the Depression, “we were not really afraid to get married; we would make it.” Radicals in their twenties like Wax and his wife lived on politics and political community.
Moe and Ruth Levy married in the late 1940s. He was twenty-three; she was twenty-one. Ruth came out of a Workmen’s Circle background and was working with AYD at the time. Moe affirms that he had to marry a fellow Communist: “it couldn’t be any other way.” Sam Katz married a mild sympathizer. He was already a functionary and felt “a little uncomfortable” having a non-Party wife. But she became involved with union organizing, got much more active, and moved from sympathy toward full involvement and Party membership in a short time.
Sam Darcy married a woman, Emma, whose grandfather and father came out of the German workers’ movement and were old Socialists. Sam and Emma Darcy met at a Farmer-Labor convention in the early 1920s. Later, while he was looking up material at Party headquarters in New York, they met again and began to court. She was secretary to the Party’s Central Committee at the time. Sam Darcy remembers that her father gave them a special edition of Capital as a wedding present.
Few others were so immersed in the movement as the Darcys, but Meyer Weiner remembers that his YCL-involved wife brought him the collected works of Lenin as a wedding present, “which I proceeded to read.”
Communist tradition, rooted in the historical experience of clandestine activity and recognizing the instability and mobility of revolutionary life, allowed for honorable but informal sexual relations. Bolsheviks, like all revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, eschewed “bourgeois marriage” as a male-supremacist property arrangement and an empty formality. Affairs were not only allowed but required by the unpredictability of everyday life. But lechery, “womanizing,” and all forms of deceit were considered behavior unbecoming a revolutionary.
Young Communists achieving maturity during the 1930s, under the cultural hegemony of the Popular Front, were torn between two unstated models of marital and familial behavior: conventional and Bolshevik marriage. The Bolshevik model viewed marriage as a mere form and stressed companionship and sharing.4 One woman had been dating a very active and ambitious YCLer who told her he wanted his wife to be a “Krupskaya,” a Bolshevik companion like Lenin’s wife. She blanched at the offer: “I was afraid I couldn’t meet his bill.” Consequently they broke up. She finally married a “raw, unsophisticated guy” who was “friendly and relaxed” and offered “a certain stability.” He was also, she adds, “attracted to me,” and she “slipped into it.” Both were YCL activists at the time. She had opted for the more conventional model of monogamous marriage, family stability, and child rearing.
Settling down, even within a patriarchal structure, was to many more attractive than a Bolshevik model that more often than not left the women at home base caring for the children while the cadre husband moved about serving the Party. In her autobiography Peggy Dennis recalls telling her mother, “an intense feminist,” about her pregnancy. Her mother advised her to have an abortion and said, when she refused, “The pity of it is it will change your life, not his.” Gene Dennis, her husband and a top Party functionary who served the Comintern throughout the world during the first years of their marriage, embodied the Bolshevik model.5
Both models are patriarchal, although the Bolshevik model offered women, at least in theory, the same opportunity as men to enter the field to make a revolution. Communist women had available such models of activism as Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and yet none of the ten interviewed opted for such a life. Some sought a partnership of activists along Bolshevik lines but usually settled for a junior partnership—a “progressive” but fairly conventional marriage and family life that included children. The early age at marriage of Communist men and women suggests that the period of courtship and premarital sexual relations, including sharing a home, was relatively brief. In a society in which underground activity was generally dysfunctional and in a period when the Communist Party was seeking to present itself as nonthreatening and familiar, Communists generally chose to marry and have children. As James Weinstein notes, “The struggle against male supremacy in the party conflicted with its emphasis on party members living like ‘ordinary workers’ and also with the Victorian standards that prevailed among the rank-and-file members.”6
When Mark Greenly married, he believed that his wife “supported . . . [his] perspective of being a professional Communist.” He expected her to follow him in his revolutionary travels, but she resisted, preferring a Party office job. “I was slightly disappointed,” he says. “I wanted a working-class wife.” The Party, however, persuaded him that she was needed in the office.
Before their marriage Greenly had said to her, “I want two boys and two girls,” and imagined, romantically, that it would be “us and the movement against the world.” The marriage broke up after many unhappy and rocky years; he wanted to become a full-time field organizer, and she always warned him, “If you do, there will not be any children; there is no discussion.” “I walked out,” he concludes, after years of resentfully yielding to her pressure.
Greenly’s dilemma is not necessarily typical of Party marriages, but it does reveal the confusion about the nature of Communist marriage that was characteristic of Communist men. Greenly’s wife was asked to be a Krupskaya and a housewife simultaneously—a revolutionary comrade and a full-time mother. Under such circumstances, a more conventional marriage appeared to be an attractive alternative.
In many instances marriage—at least before the children came—had little effect on the ability of Communist women to remain fully active. One couple describes going off to work together, sharing in the making of dinner, attending meetings and various political events, and then, late at night, sharing their experiences and thoughts over tea. The men usually expected women to perform such traditional duties as cooking, house cleaning, and bed making. In a fair number of cases, however, women report that such household chores were shared. The Samuelses say that throughout their marriage, Edith has cooked dinner, and Ike has set the table and washed and put away the dishes.
Many Old Leftists speak of a high degree of shared interest. The better marriages are more “companionate,” joint and complementary, similar to the arrangement Michael Young and Peter Willmot call “the symmetrical family.”7 The marriages are not egalitarian, since the husband’s work is still considered primary and the wife performs the more expressive role. Many Party couples, however, experienced such marriages as relatively egalitarian because of the shared interests and relationships that grew out of their involvement in the Party subculture. This experience provides a counter example to sociologist Elizabeth Bott’s thesis that only segregated conjugal roles are consistent with close social networks.8 Many married couples shared and still share interests in politics, theater, and the arts and do so within the social network forged by the old Party.
The words most typically used to describe Communist family life, repeated many times by both men and women within the sample, are “partnership” and “teamwork.” Many state, “We have always been a team; he [or she] is my partner.” The Communist husband-father was not a tyrannical “king of the castle,” nor was the wife typically a simple homemaker devoted to children, household chores, and supermarket shopping. Communist marriage was a variation on a theme; the theme was always patriarchal, but the music allowed greater play for the women. The men seem to have accepted the idea of active women, supporting them politically and vocationally within the limits already noted. They were not always consistent, and there were underlying tensions that occasionally broke through. One case may shed better light on the dynamics of Communist marriage.
Ruth Shapiro compares her husband, Abe, with other Party husbands and pronounces him “much healthier, more stable, a husband-companion.” She complains, however, that his patriarchial values imposed traditional child-rearing and housekeeping functions upon her. She was the one, Ruth emphasizes, who took care of the children. Early in their marriage, Ruth took a one-day-a-week job, leaving her youngest child with her mother. Abe expressed concern and suggested that she did not have to work, that he could support the family. She continued to work, however, sporadically and part-time until the children were older. Even then, she claims that her career possibilities were limited by her inability to put in any evening or weekend work. Ruth resignedly accepted the reality that “the male was the chief breadwinner.” She could not hope to match a man’s salary; consequently, her income was always supplementary.
Sometimes the hectic pace of political involvement got to her: “I felt it consumed our lives. I wanted to feel like a bride and we had all these meetings.” At one point, she tried to put her foot down and exploded, “Is this a marriage . . . ?” But they continued to double up their lives with work, family, and politics. Ruth’s seemed tripled up.
Ruth angrily asserts that “few women were sent to training schools,” and even women in key posts were “treated differently.” She believes that for a woman to make it to the top of the Party leadership, she had to have “an exceptionally strong personality.”
“Behind the scenes” is the story of Ruth Shapiro’s political life. “I’m a good organizer, a good administrator,” she states. But because she was not an intellectual, she has always felt inferior to male leaders, including her husband. She recalls a discussion group in which the women were assigned the task of generating and leading discussion. “On the one hand we would lash out; on the other hand, we wouldn’t try it; we’d be afraid to try it.” Acculturated to deferring to men in public arenas, inexperienced at public speaking, and discouraged from organizing women to overcome such disabilities, most Communist women allowed their men to dominate all public forums, limiting their influence to the traditional behind-the-scenes conversations. The hostess might have inordinate influence over the host, but she still was expected to serve the coffee and cake.9
Ruth’s attitude toward her husband is a mixture of admiration, love, and a touch of bitterness. She says of him, “He’s a political animal, better than the rest,” noting his basic kindness, his decency, and his helpfulness around the house, “I respect him; look up to him.” But she resents always being identified with and through him. “If I said something, I would be asked, ‘Is that what Abe thinks?’” Such encounters caused Ruth considerable self-doubt. She would ask herself, “What did I have going for me?” When other party wives told her how fortunate she was to have such a decent, nonphilandering spouse, Ruth wondered, “Why is this so great? Why should I be so grateful?”
Ruth intentionally worked apart from her husband to establish her own identity: “I felt more secure doing political work apart from him.” Yet even in such quests for autonomy, she found herself reminded of the connection. After a speech and dinner for a prominent progressive, Ruth approached a female friend—a staunch feminist, she adds—desiring to discuss the speaker’s main points. Her friend ignored Ruth’s query, “What did you think?” and demanded “Would you tell Abe to look at such and such article, because I’d like to know how he feels about X, Y and Z.” Ruth was deeply hurt. The story speaks to a lifetime of frustration and ambivalence about Communist men.
A few Communists married nonradicals or less involved “progressive” women, with differing results. One working-class radical’s wife was “so politically uninvolved that she’d walk out when political discussions started.” Another radical, also working-class and Gentile, married a local girl he describes as “quiet”; she has stayed quite distant from his activities, though supportive of them. Yet such a sexual division of political labor is quite atypical, and it is revealing that neither of those men was deeply part of the Party’s social network and subculture. If they had been, the abstinence of their wives would have stood out and evoked some kind of subtle pressure. More typical and apparently more acceptable within Party mores were marginally involved wives. Fred Garst describes his wife as “only political because I was,” while another man concludes his description of his marriage with “we didn’t discuss politics much.” In this type of marriage, the form clearly outweighed the substance of engagement.
The Communist Party involved itself in many ways in marital affairs. For example, Sammy Cohen married a woman “who never had a political thought” while attending school. He explained his political life and experiences to her before proposing. The district leadership opposed the marriage and initially fought it. “They wanted to meet her,” he adds. Meetings took place and, as a result, the leadership approved the marriage. What would have happened if they had not remains unclear. She was judged a “progressive,” that is, a non-Communist ideologically in tune with Popular Front positions on race, foreign policy, and social justice. That was enough. She gracefully declined the Party’s offer of membership. What mattered was that she was not a security risk or a reactionary; beyond such bottom-line considerations, the Party remained oblivious, implicitly upholding patriarchy.10
Sam Katz emphatically asserts that the Party was male-chauvinist, like the rest of society, and that “women were still considered subordinate.” He shrewdly adds that “the fact that a person is politically advanced doesn’t mean that he’s advanced in other ways, that he’s personally a good guy; some people who are good politically are lousy bastards otherwise.” In describing his own conventional marriage, he concludes, “We were intellectually bourgeois.”
On the other hand, Sally Turpin, a cadre married to a working-class radical, stresses that “he had an attitude toward women that was unusual in its age, not feminist but conscious of the abilities of women.” She feels that the Party had “a more conscious and theoretical approach” to what was usually called male supremacy, relying extensively on Engels’s study of the family. Typically, however, practice lagged far behind theory.
Party literature occasionally provides a glimpse of the contradiction. The Worker Sunday supplement often carried pieces on marriage, family, child psychology, and sex roles. The tone of all such articles was sexually egalitarian, upholding a formally democratic approach to family decision making:
Children, father and mother all must make decisions together, whether of money, of discipline, or anything else indeed. . . .
A family, to be healthy, must be democratic. Women and men are equal. Children and parents are equal.11
But the emphatic words suggest uneven practice. As one woman wrote
My husband could give an excellent lecture on the necessity to emancipate women. . . . If I have time to read the editorial in the Daily Worker I am lucky. I can jump up from a meal a dozen times, but my husband will pass the knife for me to cut him a slice of bread. . . . He’s not the only one—I’ve met dozens like him.12
Mark Tarail, the child psychology columnist, emphasized that Communism included the “way of treating your wife, your husband, your children” and concluded,
You can’t be a nine-to-fiver, a true Communist in your shop and in your Party branch, and a reactionary in your own home. . . . Let us not have bossism in our homes.13
But the very existence of a supplementary section on the family directed toward women (it included fashion tips) marks the tension within Communist attitudes toward women and marriage. Typical of articles is one entitled “How Housewives Aid the British Communist Party,” a very conventional piece that assumed that women, even Communist women, have their primary place in the home.14
Edith Samuels and her husband lived for some time in a working-class area. He was organizing heavy industry, and occasionally union leaders would exhibit what she calls “sexual looseness” or “carousing.” The wives would call Edith’s house asking for their husbands, and she would be uncomfortably aware that the men were likely to be involved in extramarital liaisons. She also speaks of being shocked and dismayed by the behavior at some Party socials where “they were practically screwing each other on the front steps.” Exhibitionism was as distasteful to many old Leftists as infidelity.
Edith Samuels believes that in too many cases women rose within the Party because of the men they slept with but adds that she came to see this only in retrospect. Peggy Dennis, in her memoirs, gives some personal confirmation of this hypothesis. Upon returning from Party work abroad and finding her with a new, prestigious Party job, her husband angrily demanded, “How many nights with whom did all this cost you?”15 Edith Samuels believes that the worst examples of such immoral and manipulative behavior occurred in the large urban areas and “at the highest levels.” For the most part, as Peggy Dennis concludes, not without a certain contempt, “burgher-like stability” was the norm.16 I myself heard many allegations concerning one district leader’s sexual peccadillos, but little else.
Many old Leftists understandably prefer not to discuss the most private sexual matters. It would appear, however, that most young Communists stood somewhere between repressed Victorian and modern, “liberated” attitudes toward sex.17 Several men speak of having been very inexperienced with women prior to marriage; one says that his wife was “my first experience with a woman.” While some males, particularly those of working-class and Gentile backgrounds, seem to have had extensive dating and sexual experience as adolescents, many more from lower-middle- or middle-class and Jewish families were virginal and chaste prior to marriage. One woman describes her (Gentile) husband as shy and backward sexually: “He never kissed me until he proposed to me.” It seems as if the majority of Communist men had little or no sexual experience before meeting their spouses and anticipated no extramarital activities in their futures. One woman recalls that although she was not a part of the conventional adolescent subculture, she had conventional views about marriage—she would meet the right guy, and they would fall in love, become engaged, marry in a proper ceremony, and then proceed to raise a family.
On the other hand, Communist youth were hardly Victorian in their sexual behavior. Although old Leftists inevitably colored their recollections about their sexual views and experiences in terms of their contemporary beliefs and several were critical of the sexual practices of others, both inside and outside the Party, few were self-righteous.
Ike Samuels says that initially he was uncomfortable with Party women and continued to date outside Party circles in the belief that Communist women “had a halo.” Such a view is in significant contrast with the mythology of Bolshevik debauchery at socials and vacation retreats. Samuels finally broke up with his non-Party girl friend when she did not develop a “class-conscious” viewpoint. He was ready to take a chance with the more “angelic” women in the movement.
Another male Communist speaks of living with his future wife, a fellow radical, for several years prior to marriage. A variety of sources indicate that Communist morality upheld such arrangements. Monogamy was primary, in or out of marriage. There was a slight touch of the bohemian in some young Communists; they enjoyed life and all its pleasures, including sex, but, on the other hand, they were decidedly wary of hedonism. Gabriel Almond argues that there was “a real effort to eliminate the bohemian atmosphere after 1935” with the coming of the Popular Front. A number of sources concur, but within the sample, there is no indication that “faithlessness” was ever in favor. The attitude toward the substance of relationships—that is, fidelity and honesty—remained constant. The attitude toward the form—that is, marriage and the family—tended to become more conventional as couples settled down.18
Most old Communists are quite earthy and matter-of-fact in discussing sex.19 They are neither bohemians nor philistines; instead, they uphold what came to be a strict Communist morality within both models of marital relationships. Communists always had to behave like a vanguard and were consequently under some pressure to show the way. Although this did not usually lead them to egalitarianism in marriage, it did induce most to affirm marital fidelity. In a sense, their viewpoint is a variation of “old-fashioned” behavior, Communist-style.20
This old-fashioned morality was often accompanied by a strong dose of egalitarianism and feminism. Edith Samuels recalls sharing an apartment with a very distinguished Party leader and his wife, also cadre. The leader would dictate his day’s calendar and activities over breakfast to his devoted wife. The wife seemed comfortable in her secretarial role, but Edith Samuels found the routine abhorrent. She finally blew up and charged him with male supremacy. The leader took Edith aside, “What am I doing?” he implored, genuinely shocked by her criticism. He was a rather courtly and cultured man and had never thought to question the appropriateness of his wife’s servicing his needs. But it all reminded Edith Samuels of how her own partriarchal Jewish father had behaved toward her mother: “I couldn’t stand the way she was a second-hand citizen.” Such Old World behavior patterns had no place in twentieth-century America.
She also recalls trying to organize a women’s auxiliary to her husband’s union. The workers came to Ike Samuels to complain about his wife’s “agitation.” They implored, “Tell Mrs. Samuels to leave them alone.” These militant unionists even refused to give their wives carfare to come to Edith’s meetings. Neither of the Samuelses felt that it would be worthwhile to directly combat such sentiment, particularly since the wives involved quickly and timidly retreated.
Communist women located in working-class communities seem to have had a harder time in achieving a modicum of equality with men. A Communist colonizer was under great pressure to conform to working-class mores in order to gain credibility in the community. Women in such situations had to either hold their tongues or ask out. Laura Blum remembers getting a job with the maritime union during the war and then being fired when the men returned. When she protested that there was still a need for her efforts, she was told that the NMU was “a man’s union.” Many women tolerated the prevailing codes and continued to do organizing work, often with greater success than their spouses. With Bolshevik self-discipline, they worked with the available material. Many successfully organized the kind of union auxiliary that Edith Samuels tried to form, and others managed human service organizations for neighborhood people—for example, helping elderly people get the federal and local benefits to which they were entitled.
Sally Turpin tried to do a study of Communist women in industry after World War II to find out how many had drifted back to family or to less physically demanding work after the war. She discovered significant declines in the employment of Communist women in plants, but Party officials did not give her any encouragement to follow up her study or publish it under Party auspices.
The operating assumption within the Party was conventional: as in Ruth Shapiro’s case, the man’s career came first, while the woman had the responsibility of raising the children. Interestingly, the men more frequently than the women resisted having children. Ike Samuels opposed the idea while his wife pressed him. Finally she exclaimed, “If Earl Browder had children, you can have children!” She also argued that “having children was part of what I was fighting for.” (At this point in the interview Ike added, “She was more human than me.”) Asked about the Party’s role in such decisions, one Communist wryly answered, “There were some things about which we didn’t consult officials.”
There were occasions when the Party discouraged young cadres from having children, recognizing that family life limited mobility and commitment. One woman, married to a restless and very mobile activist and raising several children, saw her marriage fall apart: “I wanted to settle down, take care of the kids.” He resisted and finally departed. Another couple emphasizes how Party work competed with child rearing. Members were often called on to attend meetings in the evenings, never having enough time to give to their children. One woman, speaking as a child-rearer, saw herself “in competition with an invisible movement.” Several Communist parents blame themselves for neglecting their children during their years of activism and fear that psychological problems resulted.
In most cases, including those of cadres and functionaries, as family responsibilities became weighty, Communists became less mobile and more sensitive to family needs. Usually the wife took the lead here, at times imposing familial realities upon her spouse. In two cases, women drew the line by refusing to move to another area. Ike Samuels was asked to shift to another Party-oriented post after spending about ten years on the road. Edith Samuels, with several children nearing school age, emphatically refused, feeling that her children needed some stability in their lives. Consequently, they did not move. In another instance, after many years of living in one place, the husband was asked to move South. His wife refused, both because she felt settled into her neighborhood and because she did not want to raise her children in a conservative, Jim Crow region.
Was it problematic for Communists to have children? For some participants, the decision was automatic and made without any thought at all. One man simply notes that “you get to a certain age, your friends are having children,” and therefore you do too. Another says that the first children just “came along.” Others, however, gave more thought to the decision. Ethel Paine remembers discussions with her husband in which they asked, “Should we bring children into such a world?” But even in the anxious years of fascist triumphs, few Communists came so near to despair about the future. One woman recalls that her husband was going into the service and she was afraid of being left with nothing if he was killed; so she told him, “I must have a baby.”
More typically, couples assumed that they would eventually have children but that in the short run it was wiser to wait, either for financial reasons or simply so that they could be fully engaged in political acitivites without such responsibilities. It was always assumed that the mother would play the decisive role in nurturing and raising the children, and current child-rearing theories stressed the importance of the mother’s attention during the early years of life. One couple said, “We felt strongly at least for the first few years, the mother should be home.”21 In this instance, the wife left her job for several years. A male Communist says that his wife did not work “while waiting for the kids to grow up”; she did, however, get involved in her children’s schools, organizing parents for progressive causes.
Many, in fact, most of the child-rearing women cut back on their political activities for anywhere from three to ten years and stopped working full-time, but nevertheless continued to be as active politically as their maternal tasks allowed. One continued working at her Party-related job through eight months of pregnancy and then resumed part-time work within several months of childbirth. Edith Samuels had her first child while her husband was in the midst of a critical strike. They lived in an immigrant, working-class neighborhood made up of the kind of workers he was trying to organize. Edith, nursing her baby, became part of the community by serving as a de facto social worker to neighboring wives and mothers. She helped the sick find medical services, aided parents in getting their children into summer camp, and made sure that an invalid woman’s house was regularly cleaned. She also worked in electoral campaigns. To balance motherhood and politics, she tried to have as many meetings as possible at her home, but, as she admits, the situation became “hair-raising and very difficult.” She persisted as activist and mother but now worries that “the children were the ones affected.”
All of the women interviewed stress that child-care facilities simply did not exist in those years and that this lack severely limited their options. A few admit neglecting their children, running off to meetings, leaving children with babysitters or neighbors, or sometimes alone. Ben Green recalls the strains placed on families when the men ran off to evening activities, leaving their wives at home with the children. I heard of only one babysitting co-operative, and that was in another city.
Whereas activists rarely took their children to meetings, they did bring them to Party-sponsored socials and rallies. Tim Palen asserts that he sometimes dragged his children to important political events despite their resistance because “it was necessary” for their political education. No other interviewed parents, however, mentioned imposing political responsibilities on their children. The pressures were more subtle and indirect. Harry Freedman recalls that his child became such an enthusiastic and persistent supporter that the neighbors began to refer to him as “little Stalin.” Certainly parents rewarded precocious radicalism with approval, but fairly normal leeway was granted for friendship and such childhood activities as play, schoolwork, and summer camp. Communist parents, like their nonradical upwardly mobile and well-educated peers, were achievement-oriented. They wanted the best for their children and saw academic achievement as the most promising path.
Several men speak self-critically of their behavior as husbands and fathers. Sam Katz views himself as “the outsider who was never home” to his children. He describes his wife as much more intimate with the children, then and now. “I laid problems on her,” he adds; for example, he sacrificed his Party income for others in greater need. Katz feels that patriarchy was built into the times and concludes that, now that his children are grown and he is retired, “I can afford the luxury of anti-male chauvinism.” Meyer Weiner acknowledges that he always dominated his wife politically: “She both accepted and rebelled against that situation.” He never wanted children and admits, “I wasn’t the best father.” Characteristically, he exalts his wife’s role: “She made up for my deficiencies.” The Communist sex-role pattern of female expressiveness and male instrumentalism indicates no variation from conventional norms.22
One Party veteran claims that the organization made considerable efforts to push women into leadership. Harvey Klehr, a political scientist, presents evidence that beginning in the 1930s, women moved ahead faster than men within the national committee. But Klehr suggests that this was only true of Gentile women, white or black.23 Peggy Dennis claims that the leaders of the Party’s Women’s Commission in the early 1950s were “without political career-women, husbands and children.”24 In some instances, the woman’s status depended on her husband. Speaking of the French Communist Party in this period, Annie Kriegel observes: “If a woman wishes to acquire any kind of status within the party, she will find that it is not enough to play a role in the economic and social life of her community. It is more important for her to be married and a mother—married to a militant fellow-Communist, of course.” She adds that seven of the nine women on the French Communist Party’s Central Committee of 1966 were the wives of other committee members.25 In District Three, other than Mother Bloor, the figurehead chairwoman of the district, no woman played a major role in decision making, although several were influential in front operations.
Communist marital and familial behavior must be labeled sexist, even though it is undeniable that Party women had considerably more leeway to achieve and produce and more support in the home and the work world than more conventionally situated women. What remains after countless stories of anguish, pain, bitterness, and, indeed, joy, sharing, and harmony are two intertwined and contradictory strands rooted in the unstated Party models of matrimony and the changing sex roles of twentieth-century America.
While some Communist couples felt the pull of the romantic, clandestine model of Bolshevik partnership, most settled for the more stable child-rearing model, some reluctantly, others more comfortably. They all assumed children, although some, particularly the men, tried to delay this for a number of years. When children came, the wives accepted their mothering duties, and most maintained political involvement on a part-time basis. Clearly, as in most American households, the man’s career came first. As James Weinstein pointedly concludes, “as party members aged, married, and went to work their lives became more and more like everyone else’s”26 Ruth Shapiro concurs: “Our everyday lives were just like everyone else’s; we lived one life and thought another.”
Yet with this pull toward conventional social norms, there was a push toward the Party ideal of egalitarianism and the weaker hold of conformist morality on all political radicals.27 In fact, they were not like everyone else; they were urban, mostly Jewish radicals with formal commitments to equality and with unconventional experiences that induced and sometimes encouraged men to work with women as comrades. As Edith Samuels says of her husband, “Ike always made it possible for me to function.”
At their worst, Communist marriages match the most painful of conventional ones. One veteran guesses that almost half of the marriages within her social circle dissolved in the 1950s. The tensions and frustrations generated by the McCarthy period made it particularly difficult for less than ideal marriages to survive. For some, political visions faltered, hopes soured, suppressed personal ambitions re-emerged, friendships collapsed. “Real incompatibility” that had been covered by political agreement emerged and festered. Significantly, in all the cases noted the man initiated the split and the divorce. Several women stress that in their era “separation was unthinkable while you were raising the kids.” Once the children were older, the man, feeling less responsibility, initiated the break.
One Communist man, an exception, bitterly reflects, “I was the woman’s libber in the family,” calling on his wife to share and participate, offering his aid. He claims that she did not want equality. While that may have been true in this particular case, too much evidence exists about the barriers facing Party women despite formal and verbal encouragement.
Party members, men as well as women, had no way to express their emotional problems. One Old Leftist delayed seeking psychiatric help for many years because of the Party taboo. Some members, of course, ignored the Party’s hostility to psychotherapy, but all members were affected by the damper placed on any serious consideration of the ways in which personal life relates to political efficacy. Men and women often misunderstood one another and misinterpreted each other’s behavior. Communist men, often sincerely, bemoan the silence of Party women, asking, “Why can’t they take advantage of the opportunities for expression, leadership, responsibility?”
As Tessie Kramer suggests, Communist women “were not docile, cowed, inarticulate. However, they catered to their men in the areas of nurturing, food, orderliness, and cleanliness.” And the men implicitly demanded such nurturing.
In brief, Communist women, with various degrees of reluctance, helped to sustain an environment that allowed the men to pursue their political and vocational careers. The men assumed the senior partnership role, mothered by their wives and congratulating themselves for the support they gave them in their lesser activities. The women accepted the junior partnership role, partly living through their husbands but investing enough in their own activities to feel fulfilled as wives, mothers, and activists. They too were part of the larger culture. And as a part of the Communist subculture, they could engage in activities beyond the dreams and experience of most American women, with the partial if not enthusiastic support of their husbands. As a result, Communist marriages at their best have a special strength and integrity.28
In some ways, Communist women patronized their husbands. The men blustered and pontificated, while the women sat back, exchanging knowing glances, realizing that “boys will be boys.” Vera Schwartz sees herself as a strong, independent woman, but one who never wanted to operate politically like her husband, Al, who played a public role in the Party. She emphatically wanted to be a mother, raise her children, and be active in her own way. She is a feminist but not “liberated” and, in fact, associates the concept with sexual obsession, selfishness, and irresponsibility. On the other hand, she is hardly passive or docile. Like many Communist women, Vera Schwartz believes in marriage and the family, accepts motherhood wholeheartedly, and operates within a framework that values interdependence and responsibility to family and friends. She identifies with her own mother, a fiercely independent artist who believed in hard work, loyalty to one’s own, and social justice.
Vera Schwartz in a sense both elevates and denigrates her husband, allowing him to occupy center stage but almost like a little boy who needs attention. She has taken care of the children with a sense of competence and continues to do the essential political work of mailings, phone calls, letter writing that later radicals would contemptuously call “shit-work”—in other words, women’s work, which is never done.
Some Communist couples, having spent decades together, ideologically attuned, sharing a rich variety of experience, surviving crises like the McCarthy period, seem ideal, if patriarchal, pairs. While generally neat, few are fetishistic about housework. In fact, the juggling of child rearing and political involvement was often aided by the sacrifice of some housecleaning chores. Tessie Kramer says that her mother, an immigrant Jew, would visit her home, scared to death about her politics, warning her, “You’re going to bring the Cossacks on your head.” But she respected her daughter’s idealism; what bothered her most was the sloppy housekeeping, which she struggled to tolerate. In a mixture of frustration and confusion and some pride, she would conclude, “In my daughter’s house, everything is different.”
And it was different; most Party women were activists, involved in innumerable meetings, developing skills and impressive political experience. They believed in the family as part of the struggle for a better, more humane world. Edith Samuels is emphatic in her belief that “the best fighters are people who have a family stake.” One story sums up the sexual dynamics of Communist marriage. Otto Kramer would ask his wife Tessie to darn his socks. She would yell at him, “Would Lenin have asked Krupskaya to darn his stockings?” Otto would mumble a weak reply. Meanwhile Tessie proceeded to mend his socks.