On Sunday May 24, people from wide-ranging political backgrounds joined in the Melbourne celebration of the extraordinary life of Marxist feminist trailblazer, Clara Fraser, who died of emphysema on February 24 at the age of 74.
Fraser’s many achievements included the launching of history’s first revolutionary feminist party, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), which co-hosted the event with its sister organisation, Radical Women (RW), also initiated by Fraser. “Clara was many things,” said Melbourne FSP organiser Alison Thorne: “a mother, writer, trainer, newspaper publisher, orator, graphic designer, gourmet. But there was one unifying passion in her life and that was fighting oppression and its root cause — capitalism.”
Indigenous justice activist Ron Murray opened the meeting with a short dedication on his didjeridu. Friends, comrades and activists inspired by Fraser’s revolutionary life testified to her immense talents and wide-ranging interests as an organiser and keen political and cultural analyst.
Guests enjoyed a moving musical tribute by Chilean feminist Marisol Salinas and Mapuche activist, Robinson. The pair performed songs in the memory of all anti-imperialist fighters who have served the struggle. After the tribute, guests enjoyed a Russian stroganoff dinner.
Clara would be jubilant. The gathering was enriched by the presence of international guest Andrea Bauer, the managing editor of the Freedom Socialist newspaper. She worked directly with Fraser for nearly two decades. “Clara was effective — she set out to advance the cause of working people, and she did it tremendously and uniquely,” she said.
Andrea conveyed the sense of optimism which flowed from Fraser’s ideas: “She knew the enormous resources that working people can call on when they are roused to fight, because she had studied and lived through world-changing events, and she had every confidence in the Marxist idea that socialist revolution is both necessary and inevitable… She would be celebrating the fall of the billionaire tyrant Suharto. Sure, she would recognise that Habibie is no improvement. But her joy would stem from realising that it is the power of the Indonesian people that pushed that nasty dictator from his perch, and what they have done once, they can do again.”
Fraser was schooled by the pioneers of Trotskyism in the USA, but she had no precedent for creating a socialist feminist party of men and women of all races, ages and sexual orientations. Together with her longtime colleague and friend, Gloria Martin, Clara Fraser did what had never been done — she founded a female-led Leninist party, the FSP.
Andrea reminisced about her experience of working in this female-led party. She described Fraser as a great teacher: “Everything and every person she came in contact with she improved. Clara not only knew how to critique and fix things, she taught other people these skills. When you worked with her, you not only came up with a good product but you expanded your abilities and you grew in confidence.”
Profound impact felt internationally. Brenda Hunter, from Melbourne Radical Women, never met Fraser, but was influenced by her on a daily basis: “The chain of leaders that Clara trained has taught me to take on more than I believed myself capable of. Many attributes and skills have surfaced through my membership of Radical Women.”
Fraser’s influence reverberated around the globe. A committed internationalist, she conceptualised and helped build the first International Feminist Brigade to Cuba, organised jointly in 1997 by Radical Women and the Federation of Cuban Women. Brenda Hunter was a participant in this historic event and the Australian brigade coordinator.
Condolences from the Federation of Cuban Women were conveyed to the Melbourne meeting. Maria Luisa Fernandez, the Cuban Consul General in Australia, sent a message describing Fraser as “among the world’s most outstanding women.” Fernandez encouraged “women all over the world to follow in Fraser’s steps.”
A greeting from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba paid tribute to Clara as “an aggressive organiser” and acknowledged organising for “women’s emancipation as an essential factor in the struggle for socialism.” The Cuban Communist Party vowed that “as a tribute to Fraser’s memory, the relations between the FSP and CCP will continue to develop and go forward as they have in the last few years”.
The meeting also heard greetings from Socialist Action in Canada, the Organisation of People’s Fedayeen Guerrillas and The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
While addressing the gathering, Bill Hartley, from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, commented that Clara was typical of many Jewish Marxists in her strong stand against Zionism. Hartley expressed confidence that just as Cuba will win, the Palestinian people will win.
Chilean feminist Cecilia Saravia, representing the Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean, showed how Clara’s ideas about women’s leadership are being vindicated around the globe. “In the last 20 years, a new phenomenon has appeared in Latin America,” she said. This new trend is “the feminisation of the resistance…The women of the new century are confronting the capitalist domination and are assuming a vanguard role in the socialist struggle. This situation in Latin America confirms the revolutionary perspective that Clara Fraser brought to her work.”
From Red Diaper baby to unquenchable party builder. Chairperson Peter Murray presented a biographical sketch of Fraser. She grew up in the multi-ethnic, blue collar neighbourhood of East Los Angeles with her younger sister Flory. Their mother, Emma Hochtfater Goodman, was a Russian-born socialist and business agent for the International Ladies Garment Worker Union. Their father, Samuel Goodman, was an anarchist from Latvia and a Teamsters union stalwart.
Fraser graduated from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1944 and joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) the next year, moving to Seattle in 1946. After twenty years of organising there, her political career took a landmark turn in 1966 when the entire Seattle branch exited the SWP because of the organisation’s tokenistic stances towards women’s liberation and the Black civil rights struggle and its clampdown against internal debate.
Fighting and winning. Fraser beat the local power company, Seattle City Light, in an 8-year-long sex and political ideology discrimination case. The utility fired her in retaliation for her leadership in a massive 11-day wildcat strike and defence of a groundbreaking program she designed to bring women into electrical trades. After her triumphant return to work in 1982, Fraser remained a vocal opponent of discrimination at the utility. The headline of a Seattle Times story on her retirement in 1986 described her as “City Light’s In-House Conscience.”
Retirement allowed Fraser to be a full-time adviser to FSP and RW. When she and eight other FSP leaders were sued in a privacy rights battle, known as the Freeway Hall Case, Fraser was a leading strategist for fighting the case legally and publicly.
Bill Hartley reflected: “One of Fraser’s doctrines that I really like is that you go into struggles to win.” Barbara Morgan, speaking on behalf of the No More Intimidation of Teacher Unionists, was “inspired by Clara’s lifelong fight for workers and against discrimination on the job.” Barbara, who is fighting her own case against workplace discrimination, said she’s learned from Clara that “you don’t give up fighting, even though the odds sometimes seem pretty bad.”
Alison Thorne, coordinator of FSP’s International Executive Committee, won a landmark gay rights case at the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board in 1986. She also gave credit to Fraser: “Without the lessons of Clara’s fight, I would not have won my own case.”
Thorne reminisced: “Everyone around me advised, ‘Do what the union officials tell you! Follow the lawyers’ instructions! Go quiet, and whatever you do, don’t talk to the press.’ Fraser did not agree. With her guidance, I formed a defence committee to keep the pressure on the union leadership, went to the press to publicise the case and rally support — and I told the lawyers that they give advice, but I give instructions.”
Defender of Indigenous nations. Fraser’s understanding of necessity to defend the right of Indigenous nations to sovereignty ensured that both the FSP and Radical Women in Australia see the fight of Aboriginal Australians as a priority.
In the U.S., Fraser collaborated with Native American leader Janet McCloud on early fishing rights struggles and mobilised support for the Puyallup Nation when Tribal Chair Ramona Bennett led an armed occupation of Cascadia Juvenile Diagnostic Centre to reclaim the land and building for her people.
Ron Murray expressed his admiration for Fraser: “If she lived in this country, she would have been called an Elder.” Ron was also inspired by Fraser’s support for hunting, fishing and gathering rights and raised the need to “give more priority to that fight in this country.”
Gunditjmara activist, film maker and songwriter, Richard Frankland, commented on the importance of criticism for learning. He speculated: “If I’d met Clara, we would have had a couple of blues and I would have been educated a lot because leaders do that to me.”
Richard also stressed what became a theme for the meeting — that Clara’s work must live on in us all. He told participants: “I’d like to encourage each and every one of you to be your own Clara, to dare to be different and to dare to have a voice. The seeds that Clara Fraser planted have spread around the world and will be there for a long time. Irrespective of what the capitalist system tries to do to those seeds, they will grow.”
Allies and admirers. Lucho Requelme, from the Chilean Popular and Indigenous Network, explained: “In Latin America, when we pay homage to an anti-capitalist fighter who has fallen, we tell people that the best tribute is to follow their example.”
Julie Tisdale, from Campaign Against the Nazis, was inspired by “a life devoted to trouble-making. To have left the struggle richer, stronger and better organised is an outstanding contribution,” she said.
Local ALP member of Parliament Carlo Carli spoke about the importance of the American radical tradition. Carli acknowledged that those struggling to better the conditions for working people organise in different ways. Despite choosing to work for reform, he expressed admiration for revolutionary fighters. “Clara Fraser represents that spark which keeps alive the revolt and the rebellion we really need in our politics,” he said.
An exceptional teacher. Melbourne Radical Women Organiser, Debbie Brennan, told of Fraser’s impact on a new generation of feminists, including young women who refuse to be written off as apathetic and slackers by the mainstream media: “Clara’s leadership transcended the boundaries of Seattle and her own mortality. Clara was a link in a long line of political leaders and teachers. Clara herself learned from revolutionaries like James P. Cannon, who learned from Trotsky. Leadership is all about being spread around and passed on.” Brennan invited women to talk to her about joining RW so that they too could become the leaders they have been waiting for.