The Problem of Equality: Black Communists and the Women’s Charter
Black Communist Thyra Edwards was not privy to the language of equity, intersectionality, and identity politics used today to describe the effect oppression has within identity formation. Nevertheless, she and her comrades in the American Communist Party (CPUSA) outlined those very ideas in the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) debate in the 1930s.
After the National Women’s Party introduced the ERA in 1923, many women’s rights advocates immediately criticized it for its failure to mention class or race equality. The CPUSA denounced the ERA’s exclusive focus on gender equality almost as soon as it was introduced and worked to defeat it. Thyra Edwards and other women in the Party highlighted the problems of defining gender equality without accounting for women’s class and race oppression.
While Party leadership believed socialism would ameliorate race, class, and gender oppression, women and minorities in the Party pushed for protective legislation that could improve their immediate condition. The ERA was believed to be a threat to some of the sex-specific labor legislation many activists, including Communists, pushed for in the first decades of the twentieth-century. Communist opposition to the amendment was not solely about securing labor legislation; the Party argued that the ERA was a racist document because it failed to acknowledge the oppression of Black women. It also noted that constitutional amendments failed to achieve equality for men therefore it could not provide equality for all women.
Also alarming for the CPUSA was the rise of fascism throughout Europe. In 1935, the Communist International (COMINTERN) in Moscow initiated the Popular Front—a concerted effort by global Communists to counter fascist aggression by opening up alliances with liberal and left organizations. Women and minorities noted that fascism was dangerous for everyone, but it specifically targeted women’s and minorities rights, thus it was imperative to secure those rights.
In 1936, the CPUSA would participate in efforts led by the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor to push for the Women’s Charter. The Charter was an alternative to the generic equality language of the ERA and specified the rights needed to push for class and gender equality. The Charter text read in part:
Women shall have full political and civil rights; full opportunity for education; full opportunity for employment according to their individual abilities, with safeguards against physically harmful conditions of employment and economic exploitation.
The Charter sought to ensure women’s equal wages “without discrimination because of sex,” and to protect women from reproductive discrimination by “the safeguarding of motherhood.” The Charter also sought to recognize the rights of women to unionize and, more importantly, the protection of labor legislation: “where special exploitation of women workers exists, such as low wages, which provide for less than the living standards attainable, unhealthful working conditions, or long hours of work which result in physical exhaustion and denial of the right to leisure, such conditions shall be corrected through social and labor legislation, which the world’s experience shows to be necessary.”
The CPUSA immediately cried foul when the Charter failed to mention civil rights for minority women. Though the Party became a loud and important anti-racist voice during the Depression, its leadership was less sure about the intersectionality of oppression, particularly what Black women in the Party described as “Triple Oppression,” the race, class, and gender oppression unique to minority women.
The Party leadership was happy to leave those conversations to the women, who according to historian Dayo Gore, created an “intersectional analysis” that highlighted how women’s experiences interacted with “racial and economic structures.” These women came to understand that there could not be equality without recognizing difference. Mary Van Kleeck, a fellow traveler of the Party and one of the leaders of the Joint Conference for the Women’s Charter wrote race into a draft of the Charter, and though it was not included, the Party did not give up on pushing the Joint Conference to include it.
Thyra Edwards specifically called attention to the absence of race. She argued that Black women, denied all civil rights, were the most exploited group of women in the country and they needed the protection of the Charter as much as, if not more than, other women.1 The “granddaughter of runaway slaves,” Edwards was born in segregated Houston, Texas in 1897. She moved to Gary, Indiana after finishing high school. Edwards was drawn to the labor movement and the CPUSA as the best “instruments of civil rights and social justice.” She worked as a social worker with the Joint Emergency Relief Service in Chicago and she was a leader in the National Negro Congress. Edwards also worked as a journalist, traveling to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War for the Opportunity where she witnessed the horrors of fascist war first hand.
Though Edwards believed the Charter was a “progressive move to draw women of all classes and interests” together for the security of all women, it could not be effective if it excluded Black women. She pushed for the Charter to create “safeguards” for “every woman in the population.” This was all the more important because of the rapid spread of fascism in Europe that frightened some Americans, but especially frightened women in the CPUSA. Edwards claimed that if the Charter was serious about “FULL POLITICAL AND CIVIL RIGHTS” for women, it must include race in its language. She noted that the Black population in the South was denied “all political and civil rights” and that “well over half” of Black American lived in those states. Thus “more than half” of Black women were “barred from participation in political life not only because of sex discrimination” but also because of the “added burden of race discrimination.”2
Edwards’s point was familiar to many women in the Party—namely that calls for women’s equality must account for differences among women. She called for a review of the Charter. Otherwise “a large section of the female population” would be excluded from its protection. And not just a large population but the most vulnerable. The Party saw the Charter as an important part of their anti-fascist Popular Front program; but Edwards noted that Black women were “more and more exposed to Fascist attack and reactionary discrimination” than other women in the United States. She warned that the United States was not immune to fascist aggression because “reactionary forces” were moving against all “liberal, democratic, and progressive elements” that were trying to secure American women’s rights. She advocated the inclusion of a phrase in the Charter that guaranteed women’s rights: “without discrimination because of sex, race, religion, creed or political belief.”3
Edwards was not the only Communist concerned about the exclusion of race in the Charter. Many women noted that the rights of women were all the more important and required an inclusive politics and appreciation for the differences among women. Clarina Michelson, for example, was concerned about the lack of representation in the Joint Conference Group. She was “sorry” that no Black women were in the organization finalizing the Charter’s language, because their needs were “far greater even than those of white women.” The Joint Conference Group was not a Communist-led project and thus there was no guarantee that the others involved in it valued anti-racism.
The Charter ultimately came to nothing but it would not be the last attempt by radicals to propose more inclusive legislation than the ERA. In 1946, the Congress of American Women (CAW), an interracial organization, would introduce another ERA alternative. Edwards served as the Executive Director of the organization. Unfortunately, with the public presence of Communists in the group, both the ERA alternative and the CAW became victims of Cold War hysteria. The lesson that Edwards and her Communist colleagues offer us is that in the face of fascist “reactionary forces” within the United States that seek to undermine progressive goals, the unique and unequal experiences of all groups must be accounted for. Otherwise, freedom and equity will remain an illusion for us all.
Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. Her articles have appeared in American Communist History, Women’s History Review, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, and The Journal of Cold War Studies. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseLynn13.