Better Sex Through Socialism

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“Better Sex Through Socialism”


March 2, 2019

Andrea Tuttle Kornbluh






When I signed up for this talk, I thought, what do women need to think about now?


As a long-time women’s historian and a feminist, here are three things I am thinking


about right now—yet none of them are quite what I want to talk about today.  I will


tell you about the three anyway, through, because I think together they paint a portrait of feminism as anti-imperialist, pro-reparations for slavery, and capable of producing insights into the connections between economic justice, mental health, and violence.  And then I will turn to the history of International Women’s Day, which has become obscured, but which reinforces this portrait.


Someone, Lisa I think, reminded me that I probably have many fragments of talks I


might repurpose for this group.  And as I thought about that, I wondered about turning this into a kind of game show, and asking the audience which of these unfinished works you would prefer hearing about.  I came up with a list of three current, and woefully incomplete themes hanging around in need of further development.


First, for some time I have been talking, usually over cocktails, about an idea I had after reading the book, Base Nation by David Vine.  I found myself overwhelmed in learning that the US currently has more than 700 military bases around the world, ranging from small temporary “lily-pads” to immense campuses with housing, shopping, schools, hospitals, and entertainment centers.  700 seems like too big a number to handle, so I thought maybe I could develop a program which would ask people, such as yourselves, if they would be willing to adopt just one base, and report on it annually.  This would be kind of like the “Adopt-a-highway” program, but instead of picking up trash, or paying someone else to pick up the trash along the section of highway adopted, you would get a military base to learn about and report back on.  But that is about as far as that project has gotten.


Second, I have been working on a more developed, but still incomplete, project to learn whatever can be learned about the enslaved people held by a branch of my family that no one talked about when I was growing up in California.   I knew that the abolitionist John Brown was a cousin to a great-great-great-grandmother; I knew that her son had been a founder of the Republican Party in California, and an elector for Abraham Lincoln, but not about the slave-holding side of the family.  The son of the Republican Party founder married into a family who had been slaveholders for many generations.  In an interesting footnote to Barb’s paper on immigration, in the 1880s-1890s a fit of interest in genealogy hit the WASP sectors of America, as they sought to demonstrate their long-time American roots, and their superiority to the more recent immigrants.  Groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution flourished.  The need for evidence of bloodlines lead to families publishing extensive family trees, which sometimes included copies of wills, as a way to demonstrate their American credentials.  Armed with one of those books, I found the following:


Christian Lillington, My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother


  • Inherited human property from the 1741 will of her father, George Lillington.


  • She received “one negro man called John & one negro woman called Chatt, as well as other property.



Sarah Alston, Christian’s daughter


  • Inherited human property from the 1761 will of her father, James Alston.


  • She received one-sixth of her father’s “Negroes, stock and household goods,” and one-sixth of any income from his “young negro wenches,” as well as other property.



Anne Lillington Cain Davis, Sarah’s daughter


  • Inherited human property from the 1834 will of her father, William Cain


  • She received one-fourth of “all the rest of my slaves not before given or devised,” as well as other property.


I do know there is a “no genealogy” rule here, but I am much more interested in the


stories of enslaved people than those of the slaveholders, and have been slowly assembling those stories.



The third project is a mushrooming documentary video with the working title


“Who killed Buddy Gray?”  This has involved editing a video interview with the first


responder to the scene of the 1996 murder of housing advocate and all-round


activist buddy gray.  The immediate question is, “where did the killer get the gun?” It turns out that Sue Grafton novels are very good guides for thinking about murders and understanding official records like police reports and court documents.  So this is a project that probably will encompass gentrification, mental illness, gun control, affordable housing and city politics.  But it isn’t just my project, I am working with documentarian Barbara Wolf, and we are nowhere near done yet.


By now you can see the problem with my original scheme of having you vote on what you wanted to hear.  I would have had to finish all three of these if you were voting today, and none of them are near being done.  So clearly that approach is impossible.   Instead, and remembering that I asked Barb Rinto to let me have the March date for a topical reason, that being March 8 is International Women’s Day and the month of March is celebrated as Women’s History Month.  So, with that in mind, the title of my talk today is “Better Sex Through Socialism.”  But some foreplay before we get to the sex.


For more than 100 years celebrations marking women’s struggles for equality— economic, social, and political—have taken place in March.   March 8th, now celebrated around the world as International Women’s Day, begins in the United States as National Women’s Day; an event organized by Socialist Party and first held February 28, 1909. As historian Temma Kaplan tells the story, in 1911 the holiday spread to Socialist Parties in Europe, with a date change to March to commemorate the Paris Commune. They called the new holiday International Women’s Day (or IWD). In 1975 the United Nations celebrated International Women’s Year and the organization began the practice of marking March 8 as the official day for IWD. Today more than 100 countries celebrate International Women’s Day, twenty-five have made the day an official holiday.

The designation of March as Women’s History Month also commemorates International Women’s Day. In the early 1970s Gerda Lerner, a founder of the field of Women’s History, proposed the creation of a national weeklong celebration of women’s history. First proclaimed by President Carter in 1980, the week was expanded into Women’s History Month in 1987.

So what made American socialists think in 1909 that they should create a new holiday dedicated to women’s struggles for equality? And just whose idea was this? What relevance might this more than one hundred year old event hold for us today?

Let’s go back to 1909. American women did not yet have the right to vote, although they had been demanding it since 1848, and the suffrage movement had gained broad based support by 1909. America was a country of immigrants, some nine million people had come from Eastern and Southern Europe in the years since 1900. Crowded into tenements they lacked running water and faced piles of garbage in the streets. Working conditions were miserable, no right to an 8-hour day, no right to safety, and the union movement did not extend beyond skilled workers, which meant few women were unionized. Two years later, in 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would take the lives of 149 workers, mainly young immigrant women, many of whom jumped from factory windows to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. The disparity between the rich and the poor was obvious to all, Mark Twain called it “The Gilded Age.” This is the time of the rise of the corporation, and of the robber barons, and of a great growth in income inequality.

And in 1909 socialism was popular among many different groups, including trade unionists, progressive social reformers, populist farmers and immigrants. Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Helen Keller all called themselves socialists. Socialist Eugene V. Debs twice won nearly one million votes in presidential elections in 1912 and 1920.

And socialism had, by 1909, a long history of support for women’s rights.  Angelique Le Petit Martin, a follower of French socialist Charles Fourier, and immigrant to Ohio, is perhaps better known as the mother of the 19th Century artist, Lily Martin Spencer.  Lily is said to be the first American woman to make a living through her art.  But it is her mother who I find more intriguing.  Angelique and her husband settled in a socialist “phalanx” Trumbull County, Ohio.  Angelique corresponded with the women’s right’s activists of her day, as well as with fellow socialists.  In 1851 she published, titled in true 19th century style,  “Essays on Woman’s True Destiny, Responsibilities and Rights, as the Mother of the Human Race,  Contrasted with her Subordinate Subserviency to Adult Man, Assigned to her by his grossly selfish social regulations; Their baneful and unjust effects on woman, her offspring, and even grown-up man; The primitive cause of all this, and its remedy.”  Almost three decades later August Bebel (1840-1913), co-founder of the Social Democratic Workers Party of Germany wrote the influential 1879 book, Women and Socialism, and argued that “women would only be freed from their economic dependence on men when workers collectively owned and controlled the means of production.”  And he thought that women needed to be free from the property relations that distorted and suppressed their sexuality.  Bebel is now credited with being the first political figure to deliver a public speech in favor of gay rights.  Frederich Engels argued, in 1884, In The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, that women’s subjugation stemmed from the male desire for legitimate heirs to inherit his wealth.

Trying to put a human face on the creation of the celebration of International Women’s Day, I came upon the person responsible for the holiday—Theresa Serber Malkiel. Born in Bar, (about 150 miles from Kiev) in Russia (now the Ukraine), on May 1, 1874, she was one of four sisters in a Jewish family. Fleeing anti- Semitic discrimination when racial laws barred Jews from cities and expelled them from universities and businesses, the family moved to the United States, settling in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1891. The Serbers arrived in what was then a working-class tenement neighborhood closely associated with radical politics such as anarchism and socialism. Seventeen-year-old Theresa went to work as a cloakmaker in a garment factory, and within a year she had organized a union and became its first president. In 1893 she joined her first socialist organization. After ten years of factory organizing, she married a fellow socialist (Leon A. Malkiel, a lawyer) and a supporter of women’s rights. She left the factory, but not radical politics.  Theresa became the first working class female leader of the American Socialist Party. Her novel, “The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker, “ chronicled the massive eleven week general strike in the shirtwaist industry in 1909, telling the story of 20,000 women garment workers, primarily immigrant women, who struck in what has come to be called the “Uprising of the 20,000.”  The strike led to improved wages, working conditions, and hours for many garment factory workers.  And Theresa Malkiel, like other socialists, opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, seeing it as “workers killing each other in the interests of the bosses.”

Malkiel believed that only socialism could liberate women, and that socialism, in turn, could not survive without the full participation of women. In theory, the Socialist party was committed to equal rights for men and women, but in practice, it made no effort to reach out specifically to women workers and showed little interest in their concerns. Malkiel concluded that socialist women would have to fight their own parallel battle for equality. Her 1909 essay, “Where Do We Stand on the Woman Question?” expresses her frustration with this state of affairs:

“For the workingwoman of today finds herself between two fires—on the one hand, she faces the capitalist class, her bitterest enemy; it foresees a far- reaching danger in her emancipation and with all the ability of its money power tries to resist her eventual advent into the civilized world. In her anguish the workingwoman turns towards her brothers in the hope to find a strong support in their midst, but she is doomed to be disillusioned, for they discourage her activity and are utterly listless towards the outcome of her struggle.”

By inventing the Woman’s Day holiday Malkiel sought to make concrete the merger of the movement for economic justice and the movement for women’s rights. She wanted to push socialist men to recognize women’s rights and to push women’s suffrage advocates to support economic justice.

The holiday quickly spread, becoming International Women’s Day.  In 1911 women in the United States, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria celebrated March 8th, and France, Holland, Sweden, Bohemia and Russia soon followed.  In 1915, with world war underway, socialist women from neutral and warring countries celebrated the holiday and declared that they, as women, had nothing to win from the war, and everything to lose. Perhaps most famously, in 1917 the celebration of International Women’s Day led to a mass strike and gave birth to the Russian Revolution.  Feminist Alexandra Kollontai led a protest over food rationing.  The czar ordered that if necessary, the women should be shot to stop the protest.  Rents and food prices had risen dramatically, and following the International Women’s Day protest more than half a million Russian workers, mainly in Petrograd, went on strike.  This marked the start of the February Revolution in Russia, and which would, within days, lead to the czar’s abdication.

International Women’s Day became a holiday celebrated throughout the socialist world, and by socialist women in capitalist countries.  In the United States, for example, March 8, 1946, marked the founding of the Congress of American Women.  This was the official branch of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, a pro-soviet and antifascist organization founded in Paris in 1945.  Leaders of the Congress of American women, Susan B. Anthony II (namesake and grandniece of the nineteenth century suffragist and feminist) and Mary Van Kleeck (Director of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Department of Industrial Studies) were long-time supporters of women’s rights and close to/or members of the Communist Party.  In the decade that followed, International Women’s Day celebrations continued until the McCarthy Era put an end to them.  But, as it turns out, a number of the activists in this post-world war II left-wing women’s movement developed a way to continue their work.  Founders of the field of Women’s History Gerda Lerner, Aileen Kraditor, and Eleanor Flexner, among others, placed the question of women’s equality within a larger framework that included class and race.

After a pause of about a decade, American socialist feminists of the New Left of 1960’s rediscovered International Women’s Day, and made it their holiday.  And at Gerda Lerner’s urging, the US began celebrating first Women’s History Week, then Women’s History Month, each year in March.  In 1981 Congress recognized Women’s History Week, and in 1987 Women’s History Month, authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month.  When I checked yesterday, Trump had not yet issued a declaration for 2019, although he did the year before.

On February 12 when I Googled International Women’s Day 2019, the first site listed was Internationalwomen’sday. com, which surprised me, since a .com URL is typically used for commercial sites, as opposed to education .edu or .org used by non-government organizations. But it turns out the .com designator was quite appropriate. The home page features a young African-American woman holding her hands like this —and the hash tags “Balance for Better“ and “IWD2019”.  Visitors to the page are called on to “strike the pose” for the year’s campaign.  The campaign declares:  “Better the balance, better the world” and asks visitors to the webpage “How will you celebrate women’s achievements on Friday March 8, while calling for a more gender-balanced world?  Planning is underway by groups worldwide.  Partnerships and Collaborations are invited for 2019 (& 2020) so don’t delay making contact.”  And the site explains the campaign further:  Let’s build a gender-balanced world.  Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage…”

The website says of IWD:

“The first International Women’s Day occurred in 1911, supported by over one million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.”

No mention of the American socialist Theresa Malkiel.  No mention of women’s groups, immigrant groups, or unions, or the vile conditions they fought against.  The list of sponsors includes a number of major corporations, but no unions and no women’s organizations.

To take just three of the corporate sponsors

(1) Northrop Grumman, One of the leading arms merchants of the US, with military sales of $21.4 billion a year. The US has spent some 5.6 trillion dollars on wars since 9/11, helping to make Northrup Grumman and other arms supplies very profitable. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs reports that the U.S. is waging the war on terror in 76 countries – or more simply put, in 40 percent of the countries on this planet.

(2) Amazon has lots of documented problems with working conditions—12 hour shifts for warehouse workers, no bathroom breaks, so people pee in bottles.  According to a study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Greater Cincinnati, hosts four Amazon facilities for which Amazon received taxpayer subsidies.  Our local Amazon workers receive 15% less than the average warehouse worker in the area.  Cities and states have given over $600 million dollars in incentives to Amazon warehouses.  Just last month Amazon announced it was pulling out of a planned New York City facility.  A campus that the mayor and the governor promised would have $3 billion in public subsidies.  Jeff Bezos is, of course, the wealthiest person in the world.  Socialism for the rich, indeed.

(3) Oracle:  describes its work as Integrated Cloud Applications and Platform Services and the third largest software maker by revenue.

According to USA Today, January 23, 2019:

The U.S. Department of Labor is accusing Oracle of discriminatory wage practices that have resulted in losses of more than $400 million for female, black and Asian employees, according to a federal filing Tuesday…

The Department of Labor accused Oracle of using two main methods for discrimination. First, it claimed Oracle relied on prior salary when setting initial pay. And second, it accused Oracle of “channeling” female, black and Asian employees into lower-paid careers at the company.


Finally, the International Women’s website reminds me of Meg Wolitzer’s recent novel, The Female Persuasion, which features contemporary feminist leaders.  As a reviewer in The Guardian put it, the depiction of feminist conferences in the novel “will surely be familiar to readers attuned to the very modern disconnect of today’s feminist conferences, where fancy ladies pay a fortune to listen to speeches about poverty, raising a glass of prosecco to the plights of women before sighing off home with a cupcake, a tote bag and the slightly bloated feeling of having done all they can.”  Clearly, we need to look beyond lean-in feminism to find the heirs of Theresa Malkiel, the corporate approach is not sufficient.

But, yes, despite the famous declaration of Margaret Thatcher, there is an alternative.  We are in the midst of vigorous exemplary struggles—the many many teachers’ strikes, — Oakland, West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, and more– the campaign for universal health care, the fight for immigrant rights, etc.

And we know something is going on with socialism today, since Trump attacked it in his recent (delayed) State of the Union address.  According to a recent article by Dan La Botz in “New Politics,” the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have “become a phenomenon on the American left with more than 50,000 members.  It is now the largest socialist organization in the United States in the last 70 years.”

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is perhaps the most recognizable representative of this group, and her profile does remind us of Theresa Malkiel—young, female, working class, New Yorker.  DSA is involved in a variety of social movements, including health care for all, low income housing, opposition of police oppression and racism, immigrant rights, union organizing, climate change, and building a socialist feminist movement.  Its membership is mostly young people 25-35 with little experience in social movements or the left. other than Bernie’s campaign. According to La Botz, men outnumber women “but the difference between the two is not extreme” and he notes, DSA members are “conscious of race and gender issues and anxious to make the organization more representative of the American working class as a whole.” So this will be a movement to watch.

And to finally return to the title of this talk, “Better Sex Through Socialism”  — the title was inspired by a new book has gotten quite a bit of attention.  Kristen R. Ghodsee, who teaches Russian and European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, just published “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence.”  In an interview on Doug Henwood’s podcast “Behind the News”, she acknowledged that the title was her publisher’s idea, but the book certainly makes the case.  Ghodsee offers a detailed examination of women’s’ condition in the ex-socialist countries of Eastern Europe.  Very willing to criticize the failures of state socialism, she also cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and strongly suggests there are lessons to be learned.  A study comparing the sexual satisfaction of East and West German women, for example, found that the East German women reported better sex than their sisters living under capitalism.

Ghodsee says: “The argument of this book can be summed up succinctly:  Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.  If done properly socialism leads to economic independence, better labor conditions, better work/family balance, and, yes, even better sex.”  Ghodsee’s point is a political one that feminists fighting for equality should learn from the experiences of a variety of socialisms.  State socialism, democratic socialism, socialist feminism, all of which made, or make, or will make, demands on governments to create programs which promised to advance women’s equality.  Such initiatives would include, but not be limited to publically provided child-care, parental leave, higher education, and health care, none of which we enjoy in the United States today.  All of which would enhance women’s well being in all arenas, including sex.

In a 2017 editorial in The New York Times Ghodsee made her point very succinctly: “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.”  “Researchers”, she says, “marveled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction, especially since East German women suffered from the notorious double burden of formal employment and housework.”  “In contrast,” Ghodsee continues, “postwar West German women had stayed home and enjoyed all the labor-saving devices produced by the roaring capitalist economy.  But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than the women who had to line up for toilet paper.”

Ghodsee argues that while some liberal feminists in the West acknowledge the social supports afforded women through state socialism, today any “top-down political program that seeks to impose a universalist set of values like equal rights for women is seriously out of fashion.”  Government intervention, she notes, “may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change—which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things—needs an emancipation proclamation from above.”  And so, the story circles back to the ideas of Theresa Malkiel.

Perhaps you read the Matthew Desmond article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine on the current fight for a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage.  Desmond paints a clear picture of how economic sufficiency improves lives much more effectively than more targeted programs.  He declares,  “A minimum wage is an anti-depressant.  It is a sleep aid.  A diet.  It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy.  It prevents premature death.  It shields children from neglect.”  So, if that is what a $15 dollar minimum wage promises, it is probably worth thinking seriously about the benefits democratic socialism might offer all of us.   And worth remembering the ideas of Theresa Malkiel.


































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