July 11, 2010

A Red Look At Gender From The WW2 Era

[This piece was written by a gent named William Paul Ryan in the middle of World War 2. This being Fire on the Mountain, you will not likely be surprised to learn that he was a Red. Under the pen name Mike Quin, he was a journalist for the union and left press in the Bay Area during the Depression and up to his death from cancer in 1947, still a young man. Today he is best known for the Mike Quin book on the San Francisco General Strike of 1936, The Big Strike. He also knocked out three pulp mystery novels as Robert Finnegan.

It is a comic version of a Socratic dialog, featuring a couple of Irish working stiffs (seemingly inherited from Finley Peter Dunne), Murphy and O'Brien. As usual in the Mike Quin columns featuring the duo, Murphy the communist has to straighten out O'Brien, who's a bit hard of thinking. What lifts this above most of the O'Brien tales is the author's take on gender relations, a hot subject during the war as women flooded "male" jobs. While things didn't change as smoothly in the post-war period as Comrade Murphy seems to predict, the article adopts a stand that is both materialist and decidedly feminist, going past bourgeois equality to the crucial question--who gets to decide what women will do?]

The Bothersome Sex And O’Brien

Mr. O'Brien chewed the end of his pencil as if it contained the vitamins of thought. "I've got it all worked out but one matter, and that’s a puzzler," he said.

"What are you scribbling down there?" asked Mr. Murphy.

"'Tis a plan for what the world will be like after the war," said O'Brien. "I have everything nicely solved, but I don’t know what to do about the women."

"Why don't you just let them remain women?" asked Murphy.

“Aye, they shall still remain women. That's not the point. But what shall we do with them?"

"You mean you and me?"

"Now, Murphy, why do you insist on confusing things? I mean what will anyone do with them?"

"O'Brien, if you don’t know the answer to that I won’t tell you."

"See here, Murphy. There's no good trying to evade the issue. Here they are in the WAACS and the WAVES and crawling around with welding torches in the shipyards and running the streetcars and driving locomotives and heaven knows what. 'Tis all right for winning the war, but suppose they won’t go back?"

"Back where?"

"Back in the home where they belong."

"Well. O'Brien, if you want to provide a home for a woman, there is nothing to prevent you, unless she doesn’t want you."

"Why must you put it on a personal basis?"

"Because in the past there has been a great lack of men willing or able to provide houses for women and if they didn't go out and work they would starve."

"Aye, but even so, a lot of women who have had a taste of working in the world won't want to be housewives."

"Well, you can’t force a woman to sit home idle if she doesn't want to."

"Well, what are we going to do about it, Murphy?"

"We're not going to do anything, O'Brien."

"And why not? 'Tis a serious problem."

"It isn't up to us, O'Brien. We have nothing to say about it."

"And why not? Isn't this a democracy?"

"'Tis a democracy, indeed, and that’s why we have nothing to say about it. The women will decide for themselves."

"Aye, but they have no right to take away the jobs from the men."

"Jobs don’t belong to men any more that food belongs to men, O'Brien. Women have to eat as well as men and have just as much right to any job they can perform."

"But if a woman can't get a job, she's that much more likely to marry and settle down."

"What do you want to do? Starve women into marrying you?"

"That’s not the point, Murphy. There are just so many jobs and if the women are going to hold a lot of them, then that many men will be unemployed."

"O'Brien, there are so many things in need of doing is this world that there is no decent excuse why we can't organize things so that every human being has the right to work and live, be he man or woman."

"Aye, but if the man works and supports the woman there is no need or sense in her working."

"In the past, O"Brien, we have often had such difficulty earning our bread that we fell into the idea that money was the only reason why anyone worked. And sometimes the jobs were so tough and dull we couldn’t imagine anyone working if they didn’t have to.

"But the fact is, work is as necessary to life as the bread you earn. Leisure is only enjoyable when it is time off from work. And to be doing something interesting and useful in the world is as necessary to the women as it is to the men."

"Then who is going to have the children and bring them up properly, Murphy?"

"In that regard, O’Brien, Nature has provided you with biological protection. You need have no fear that anyone will require you to give birth to a child. That function will remain exclusively with women.”

"And how is she to raise children if she’s out in the world working?"

"In that regard, O'Brien, women have a tougher problem in life than men, and we should have the decency to help them as much as possible, and do everything we can to see that they may have their children, bring them up as they want and still live full and interesting lives. In the past we have taken advantage of their physical differences to elbow them out of life."

"You mean we should have nursery schools and that kind of business, Murphy?"

"All these matters, O'Brien, will be decided by the women for themselves when the war is over. Not by us. They are out from under our thumbs at last and 'tis a very good thing. You should start considering what women are going to do about men."

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