Sukey Durham: Melba, you’ve been a radical for over 40 years. Why?
Melba Windoffer: I made a mistake in the man I married! Had he been well-to-do, I probably would have been a liberal! We married during the depression; we were young and without marketable skills. I came from a poor, small farm in Washington, and when Weyerhauser and other lumber barons started to log the forests, the surplus farm population became industrial wage slaves. IWW members used to talk with my father about this, and I would listen. And my husband was involved in giant demonstrations of the unemployed during the depression, and I heard many Communists speak.
SD: What turned you towards Trotskyism?
MW: We worked for the Mooney/ Billings defense and for the young Scottsboro boys; I baked for the International Labor Defense. And we supported Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California in 1936. After his defeat, a woman from Los Angeles attended a meeting of the campaigners at our house. I was the only other woman there and had to stay in the bedroom to keep my two babies quiet, but I listened Trotsky and Stalin. She didn’t convince the men — but she convinced me. I became a supporter of Trotsky.
SD: Were you always a feminist?
MW: Farm women had to milk the cows and do everything a man did so the family could survive. They had more children than they wanted, too close together. Women died terrible deaths because there was no health care for them. They were overworked, isolated, lonely and bitter. My mother and older sister would argue with my father over votes for women, and I became a partisan of women.
SD: You joined the Socialist Workers Party just before World War II. What was it like?
MW: We were tiny as compared to the Seattle Communist Party at that time. Our comrades were active unionists; I was among the first women to work at Boeing. The Communist Party was huge, controlling the labor movement and the Democratic Party, and it sold out to the Democrats and the bosses because of its super-patriotism about the war. The CP betrayed the principles of Lenin and the Russian Revolution.
The SWP never supported capitalist politicians then and opposed the war as imperialist. Our perspective was socialist and internationalist.
SD: You left the SWP in 1966. Why?
MW: My strongest motivation was what they were doing to the women. I’d been in New York in 1959 and was appalled by the treatment of Myra Tanner Weiss, a national SWP leader and feminist.
SD: You have said that an entire generation of women was destroyed in the SWP. How?
MW: Some were driven out of politics completely, as I would have been had it not been for Clara Fraser and our fortunate isolation here on the “east coast of China.” Others were suppressed by the sexism, or became conventional, secondary wives. The worst attack came from Joseph Hansen’s Militant article insulting working women who used cosmetics. That caused an uproar, but our feminist ranks were squelched. The party wouldn’t take feminism seriously.
SD: So you and Clara helped found the Freedom Socialist Party on the basis of feminism?
MW: Largely. We were also a minority tendency on the Black struggle, tactics in the antiwar movement, and the terrifying bureaucratism in the party.
Our first major struggle in the FSP was over feminism. It grew out of Clara’s attempt to divorce Dick Fraser. Because Dick objected, party men put her down and tried to destroy her as a leading figure. They refused to prevent Dick from red-baiting and slandering Clara in court. He labeled her an unfit mother because she worked and was political.
SD:> What were the other early FSP struggles?
MW: These same sexist men opposed democratic centralism — a disciplined, structured party that should have stopped Dick from contesting Clara’s divorce and child custody. They wanted a loose, anarchistic organization, like the Socialist Party or New American Movement. We were a majority of one, however, and we expelled Dick for violating discipline, and his minority walked out.
SD: When did Radical Women get started and what is its relationship to the FSP?
MW: RW started shortly after we split from the SWP. RW consumed us because it developed so swiftly.
By 1971, RW was firmly established; Clara became FSP organizer, all party women redirected a lot of attention to party work, and the FSP really got off the ground. Later, RW became formally affiliated with the party. Not all Radical Women belong to the party, and RW has autonomy in strategy, tactics, program-planning, and so forth.
SD: What .are the main problems of older women?
MW: People don’t see how critical they are. Poverty: women’s lower pay accounts for lower social security. Transportation: few of us have cars. Bad health, loneliness, problem housing. And older lesbians can’t get support and help from family or neighbors, and don’t know younger lesbians.
When my husband died, I was fortunate to get his longshoreman’s benefits, and I have a car, but most older women are isolated, with no respected role in the world.
SD: How can we combat the growing anti-feminist right wing?
MW: We have to organize and confront it, or we’ll badly compromise ourselves like the SWP. We should pull together everybody who’s going to be affected by the ultra-right and by fascism, because only a total united front will defeat them.
Our chances are better than in the thirties, because women are organized and conscious now. We are at least half of every oppressed group and we are the sector that can bring it all together.
It’s going to be a huge fight — like against Joe McCarthy, like the German people against Hitler. Women radicals will have to persuade union leaders, liberals and ex-radicals to take a stand.
SD: What is the importance of socialist feminism to you?
MW: It gave me a rebirth — in interest, mind, heart, everything. I’d been through so much in the movement, ground down, and socialist feminism gave me a whole new lease on life, new hope and enthusiasm. I really put my heart into Radical Women. I was a reborn socialist. I feel at last that we are going to make a revolution that will help me and people like me. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see it and I hope I live to see a true socialist society where women are really equal.