Communist women leaders in the 1920s and 1930s

Alan Campbell and John McIlroy share headline findings from their research into the lives of the women who sat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain in its first two decades.

Election poster featuring a photograph of Helen Crawfurd
Helen Crawfurd: Communist candidate for Govan in the Glasgow municipal election of 1 November 1921, and one of the best-known figures in the study.

In two recent articles, we examine a small group of women active in the labour movement who participated in the leadership of British Communism between the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920/21 and the outbreak of the Second World War. We were able to assemble reasonably fully data on 15 of the 18 women who sat on the Central Committee (CC) of the CPGB during its first twenty years. They range from well-documented figures such as Helen Crawfurd and Dora Montefiore to hitherto largely unknown women such as Annie Cree, Esther Henrotte and Nellie Usher. The sample included women who feature in the historiography but largely as names, such as Kath Duncan and Beth Turner.

The two essays provide miniature life histories of our protagonists which focus on factors such as their social origins; ethnicity; religion; education; occupation; previous affiliations; political attitudes; and career in the Communist Party.

In accordance with prosopographical method, collective biography is complemented by a statistical survey of this cohort of unusual women who made up no more than 13% of the total CC membership between the wars. This figure is small, even when compared with the percentage of women in the party as a whole, and is suggestive of the subordination of women not only in society but in a self-proclaimed revolutionary party. The group was substantially proletarian but they were more middle-class than their male CC counterparts or of the party at large. A majority of women leaders (60%) had Communist partners; however, it is perhaps surprising that in 70% of such cases it was the woman who was more prominent politically. We found high turnover among the female CC representatives – a factor which hindered construction of a strong cadre – 83% of our sample served only a single term on the committee. If children and the calls of family life intruded, in these cases it did not preclude high levels of activism. Moreover, measured by longevity of CPGB membership, these women exhibited greater loyalty to the party than comparable male CC representatives. Leading women exercised the right to be active in a revolutionary organisation and participate in the general activity of the party as well as specialist work amongst women. On the whole – and on what we know – they respected conventional gender roles and sexual mores and with some exceptions offered little explicit critique of the bourgeois family or the subordinate, secondary role women usually played in the CPGB. These and other findings are further explored in the two essays.

The study contextualises the lives and practice of Communist women in the theory of women’s liberation adopted by the early Comintern and the CPGB. This derived from the innovative work of Friedrich Engels and its development and application by Marxists such as August Bebel and Clara Zetkin in Germany; Alexandra Kollontai and Konkordiya Samoilova in Russia; and in Britain Dora Montefiore of the British Socialist Party and Lily Gair Wilkinson in the Socialist Labour Party. Their approach was blessed by the Second International but received a fillip from the 1917 Russian Revolution. It was carried over from the Second to the Third International, approved by Lenin and spearheaded by Zetkin. Any successful struggle for the meaningful liberation of women, the Comintern asserted, could not pivot on the struggle of women of all classes to achieve equal rights and overcome male oppression within the economic and social status quo. What was necessary was a struggle of women workers in partnership with their male, working-class comrades to overcome capitalism – the root cause of women’s oppression and exploitation. The feminists, the ‘equal rightsters’, who pursued equality between the sexes, sometimes within the bourgeoisie, invariably within the limits set by capitalism, would never liberate women in any complete human sense. That required that women transcend their role under capitalism in the reproduction of labour power. They would only experience full parity and full humanity as equal partners controlling a socialised productive process and managing the means of production.

The CPGB never really implemented this approach, which demanded the participation of male Communists working beside their female comrades in the organisation and execution of agitation among women. The party never adequately educated itself in the Marxist theory and practice of women’s liberation – or critically examined the failure of Marxist theory to come to terms with patriarchy and chauvinism within the working class. Inability to explore the material and social factors underpinning socially structured prejudice contributed to the party’s failure in practice. Thwarted by the antagonistic context of interwar Britain, a weak, overburdened, economistic party and leadership permeated by conventional consciousness, the degeneration of the Comintern and encroachment of Stalinism, women’s liberation was shunted into a siding signposted ‘women’s work’.

Recuperating revolutionary women frequently hidden from history and representing suppressed traditions is its own reward. At a time when the socialist left is entering a fifth decade of sequential decline and feminism has been substantially co-opted by capitalism, revisiting this past may provide insight into how we reached the present impasse and provoke rethinking as to how we transcend it.

Both articles can be found via the links below.

Alan Campbell is a former chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History and former editor of its journal. John McIlroy is a former secretary of the Society.

Black and white photograph of the audience at a large public meeting.  Seated in the front row are five men and two women. One of the woman has her head in her hands, eyes covered. A man on the right of the photo has his chin resting on his hand - he appears glum.
Front rank: audience at a pageant organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the Empress Stadium, Earls Court, London, July 1939. Click for larger image.

Further reading

A new investigation of the leaders of British Communism in the 1920s: John McIlroy and Alan Campbell introduce two papers on British communist leaders 1923-1928.