How do working class men fulfill their responsibilities as feminists? At first glance, this question seems like an obvious one: as working class men, most of us interact with women on a daily basis. Moreover, as Wobblies we are not unfamiliar with the reality of women’s struggles. But how often is this “obvious” question raised?
Just as the industrial struggle requires coordinated action to achieve working class goals, so too does feminism require its own daily acts of solidarity. Working class men who understand the spirit and practice of solidarity in one realm already possess what they need to apply it in another. They only need the confidence and determination to begin.
More than any other, the concept of solidarity has provided the working class with an affirmative answer to the question of what we are fighting for: we support each other in the face of injustice, in order to create a more just and supportive world. In this sense, solidarity is both the “means to an end,” as well as the “end” in itself. We care about what happens to other people, because this always has implications for us too. Veterans of the class conflict know these truths all too well!
But we should also know that any working class that fails to practice solidarity between any of its constituent parts – like that between men and women – leaves itself that much further from its stated goals. We have to remember that building the new society in the shell of the old means establishing now the kinds of practices that we hope to develop more fully in the future. Feminism can help us address one problem area that is ever-present in our daily lives.
As working class men of the IWW, we know the appropriate response to a call for solidarity from others in the broader labor movement, especially when they are engaged in a workplace action. It isn’t something we usually need to deliberate over, fight about, or otherwise render ourselves “missing in action” because we don’t agree with the leadership or ideology of the affected group. The world and its circumstances may not conform to our preferences or expectations, but we know well enough to offer support when it is asked of us – and that is very much to our credit. Extending ourselves in solidarity to others when they are in need creates possibilities for dialogue that might not be available when we neglect to do so.
Working class men who want to establish genuine ties of solidarity to women’s struggles will have to emulate this “openness of spirit” when it is women who are asking for help and support, and to remain cognizant of the fact that many times support is welcome even if it isn’t explicitly asked for. The principle of solidarity remains the same: we give the affected individual or group the benefit of the doubt and offer support, even if the situation is complicated by other legitimate concerns.
One important way that we practice solidarity with other labor activists that should be replicated in our relations with women is, first and foremost, to listen to what they are telling us. Again, as Wobblies it would be very strange to approach another union with a different organizing model by second-guessing the claims it was making from a picket line. We know that it is inappropriate to make firm determinations about what somebody else is going through, in a situation that primarily affects them. But when it comes to our relations with women, the “boss” role that is given to men by patriarchy may lead us into a false sense of confidence of “knowing what is best” – for example, in a situation where an experience is shared by both men and women, but interpreted differently.
Our everyday interactions with women are no doubt complicated by the fact that, as working class men, we are often implicated in the same situations equally. Unlike in the case of a strike action undertaken by others, if a female activist has the courage to raise questions of sexism in her organization, it might be easy for the men to think, “Well, I was there too, and I don’t think sexism has anything to do with it.” Both may have firsthand experience to back up their perceptions, but in the case of the men, they may not be assuming general conditions of patriarchy as the woman does.
These aren’t easy or straightforward problems to address in practice, but working class men have a lot to contribute in moving us all in the right direction. One of the best approaches comes from our own tradition as Wobblies: by extending the practice of solidarity to all members of the working class. This necessarily includes women, and it is a development that is ready to be advanced, just as soon as we are ready to carry it forward.