How Capitalism Feels in the Head

In January, Sheila Rowbotham presented her latest work, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (2008), at a conference at UCLA, which was cosponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. Her most recent study is of an Englishman living a century ago who advocated for and anticipated the struggle of a wide array of social justice issues: women’s rights, anti-vivisection, socialism, gay rights, anti-imperialism, prison reform, free love, and a general freedom of thought.

I first was introduced to Sheila Rowbotham’s work when Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2002) was published. My graduate advisor at the time had told me to read it to gain a better perspective of the anti-nuclear campaign in Britain. This aspect of the work was intriguing but what held my undivided attention was Rowbotham’s socialist feminism. Her strong, unfaltering voice of woman’s freedom came through clear and unmistakable. A few years later, when writing my dissertation on a radical social settlement in Greenwich Village, I stumbled across a personal narrative that needed such illumination that she could provide.

In 1905, Crystal Eastman, sister of radical journalist Max Eastman, was living in the Village while studying law at NYU. Before bohemianism had really set in, tales of a local hotspot circulated through the neighborhood. The young Eastman, looking to make friends, wanted to be there. Luckily, her occasional beau, Paul Kellogg, was a member. She later told her brother: “The settlement where Mr. Kellogg takes his meals and where he has taken me twice for dinner, Greenwich House – is the place of all places where I want to get next year. . . . The reason I like it is because they are all cranks and reformers, and sooner or later every really interesting up and doing radical who comes to this country gets down to Greenwich House for a meal.” She was certain that “if I can get in there and make them like me, I shall consider my future made as far as real living goes.”

Crystal was warm and personable, making it easy to like her. Within a year, she found herself exactly where she wished to be at Greenwich House. The fiery Eastman’s initial impression of its director, Mary Simkhovitch, must have been chilling, but her husband was a different story. In stark contrast, the handsome Vladimir, a professor of economics at Columbia University, was secretly attracted to Eastman. Within a short period of time, she found herself included not only in the midst of the activity of the settlement but also within the closest circles of Vladimir Simkhovitch, receiving invitations to exclusive and intimidating groups such as the Philosophical Society where she dined and conversed with those in the upper echelons of New York intelligentsia.

In the fall of 1906, Vladimir and Crystal began a love affair. As Vladimir recalled, the affair began one evening when Eastman called him outside to stand on Jones Street with her. There they listened to Shubert’s Serenade that was playing from one of the tenements. This “most wonderful of all God’s miracles,” as Vladimir remembered it, led to “a beautiful, wonderful sacred year.”

The following March, Mary Simkhovitch invited Crystal to stay with their children at Mount Kisco located just north of the city where the family occasionally went for retreat. Simkhovitch and her husband were to arrive a couple days later. Whatever transpired during her stay with them, shortly thereafter Vladimir reluctantly, but definitively, ended the affair. To comfort Eastman, Vladimir resolved, in his usual poetic way, that “these memories will fade and wilt and evaporate and nothing will be left, except what has become a part of me. Thank God, a great deal of you has become a part of myself.” Within a couple months, and after much fraudulent gossip and whispering, Eastman was forced to leave Greenwich House through the guise of an invitation by Paul Kellogg to join him in his research in Pittsburgh.

After leaving, Eastman confided to her brother: “I have been feeling lately, somewhat lost and stranded, as if I couldn’t tell where or with what people I belonged.” It seems she was suffering from paradise lost, despite taking with her all that which she had learned. In Gerald McFarland’s Inside Greenwich Village (2001), attention is given to this affair, suggesting that the socio-economic principles that had been instilled in the young Eastman at Greenwich House was merely a side thought to their personal lives. Yet, those ideals were precisely what had attracted her to Vladimir. McFarland overlooked the fact that passion, in whatever form it is realized, can propel one, as it did Eastman, to take interest in a deeper understanding of the work she already had divested herself in and can generate some of the most articulate and insightful accomplishments. Love was the bait that had hooked her into the struggle for workers’ and women’s justice. The affair between the two was not merely an entertaining anecdote. It was the point in time that Crystal Eastman found her voice and expressed it the best she could.

As it turned out, the research project that she joined gave her opportunity to meet with other heavy hitters of the labor movement and to investigate working conditions. Crystal herself worked tirelessly to uncover case after case of infuriating evidence of negligence: “Helper – flooring factory – age 18 – clothing caught by set-screws in shafting; both arms and legs torn off; death ensued in five hours.” Nor was this the end of such savage disregard. Left behind were the families who had lost their means of subsistence. While families fought for some sort of meager compensation, the children stayed at home with no food to eat. Alternatively, they were robbed by unscrupulous ambulance chasers who claimed false promises.

Eastman made it clear that it was not insurance and compensation that she wanted. Rather, after having revealed such a dismissal of the value of human life, she sought a revolution. Pragmatically, however, she put her mind towards the immediate passage of workmen’s compensation legislation. Such legislation, she believed, forcibly altered capitalism’s indifference towards the loss of life. Those deaths, with such legislation enforced, would prove costly to the employers.

Eastman’s contribution to the survey, published as Work Accidents and the Law (1910), directly resulted in the passage of the first workmen’s compensation laws in the United States. No small feat for a twenty-nine year old woman uncertain of her future. This led her to work as an investigative attorney for the United States Commission on Industrial Relations and honored with the title of “the most dangerous woman in America.”

In addition to labor rights, Eastman directed her attention in the coming years towards mobilizing opinion against imperialism and war. She helped establish the Woman’s Peace Party and acted as president of the New York branch. Seeing the need for more forceful efforts against imperial terror and violence, she co-created the American Union Against Militarism. This organization was to produce a response to war-mongering hysterics and sought to end such crude aspects of World War One as the profiteering from contemporary Haliburtons of her day. Perhaps her most successful anti-war protest came in 1917 when she and Roger Baldwin, who had come to New York the previous year to assist her with the AUAM, organized the American Civil Liberties Union. In so doing, she sought to defend wartime dissenters and conscientious objectors given little representation and branded as inside enemies of democracy and freedom. Or, as she might say, to have something left to come home to after the war.

In addition to workers and pacifists, Eastman focused on the liberation of women. Drawing from her own experiences, the time at Greenwich House played a pivotal role in forming her perspective. Agency existed within its community. There was, however, a lack of feminist mindfulness. As she later suggested, the feminist “knows that the whole of woman’s slavery is not summed up in the profit system, nor her complete emancipation assured by the downfall of capitalism.” Elsie Clews Parsons, another feminist who Eastman knew from Greenwich House, supported this hypothesis when she proposed, “long after the problem of economic monopoly will have been solved the question of human monopoly will continue to harry us.” Parsons, an acclaimed anthropologist, proudly found herself on the “Who’s Who in Pacifism and Radicalism” list created by military intelligence in 1919. Randolph Bourne once said of Parsons: “If you are interested in rare persons, there she is.” Yet, she was as perplexed as Eastman by women’s inability to express their free will within socialist circles.

Fifty years later, Rowbotham took up this issue once more. In an article appearing in the January 1969 issue of Black Dwarf, she discussed the link between Marxism and sexual humiliation. Shortly after its publication, she resigned from the editorial board as her contribution caused internal controversy. Her parting words to the other members of the board was to suggest that “they sit around imagining they had cunts for two minutes in silence so they could understand why it was hard for me to discuss what I had written on women.” This farewell, while imaginative and cutting, also speaks to the heart of what it was she was saying. Rowbotham found difficulty in writing about the causation between Marxism and sexual degradation. As she later reflected, this was not the least because Marxist indoctrination often leaves out for women “how it feels in the head.”

Through writing the article, she combated “a hopeless bitter rage,” and worse, feeling like “a completely neurotic freak.” This was because, despite the liberation that Marxists offer the worker, capitalism still exists in the head when the same notions are applied to women. While often a subtle and even undetectable exclusion, it can be exasperating to the women who find themselves engaged in such groups that speak of freedom of the body while still restricting the freedom of the mind. This anger comes not simply from those inflicting such restrictions, but also from not being able to identify clearly for women themselves what is the root of the problem. In the head, it does not feel good.

Eastman and Rowbotham both understood this feeling. Eastman supported the notion when she stated: “all feminists are familiar with the revolutionary leader who can’t see.” These must have been the thoughts that manifested after she was unceremoniously forced out of Greenwich House. To be sure, these thoughts did not come until later, confessing to her brother at the time of her departure from the settlement that she felt lost. Nor did she defend herself from the gossip and accusations that ensued. In response to this antagonism, Rowbotham offers up an explanation to young Eastman’s graceless exodus. Rowbotham states that “for people who have no name, who have not been recognized, who have not known themselves,” communication is difficult. When they cannot speak, they feel a bitter, hopeless rage and those who hold themselves to be superior mistake this silence as a sign of stupidity. Then comes the gossip, the accusations, the attacks, ostracism, and demonizing. What is worse, Rowbotham points out that the gossip in particular often is generated by the older, more established women who yield it as a powerful tool against liberation for the younger. It is Rowbotham’s conclusion, of which Eastman would agree, that “the so-called women’s question is thus a whole people question not only because our liberation is inextricably bound up with the revolt of all those who are oppressed, but because their liberation is not realizable fully unless our subordination is ended.”

Eastman did return to Greenwich House. She and Kellogg were invited back, along with other members of the Pittsburgh investigation team, to discuss their work. Even having achieved national recognition, it still was an awkward occasion to be back in the company of her estranged mentor for an evening. Regardless, she had the support of her brother, who had also joined Greenwich House and had a hand in arranging her visit. Learning of the affair only after Crystal left, he had become her confidant. In so doing, Max did not judge his sister harshly. Rather, he encouraged her to go forward in her ideals. Despite promoting his sister’s independence, however, he must have understood the softer side of love and politics. Throughout the years to come, he kept her informed of Vladimir, responding to such inquiries as “How does he seem? You know what I want to know.”

As for Sheila Rowbotham, there is not an exodus planned for the near future. A professor at the University of Manchester since 1995, the university administration attempted to force her into retirement last year. Students there, who must also have learned from her unfaltering voice, successfully protested the decision. Rowbotham was extended a three-year contract.

TRACEY BRIGGS lives in Chicago and can be reached at: