Eileen Gersh, 1913-1998

Dianne Feeley

EILEEN SUTTON GERSH, a revolutionary socialist since the 1930s, died in London on March 18, 1998. Like many of her generation, she became radicalized by the political and economic crisis of the 1930s, including the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War. Sutton began to read Marx while studying at Somerville College in Oxford and joined the school’s Labour Club. In an interview she recalled being pressed into service in 1934 with the arrival of a hunger march from Wales:

We were drafted to help prepare meals for them, peel potatoes and things like that. We went out to meet the marchers and came in with them, shouting slogans. I was given a pail of water, a sponge and some rubbing alcohol to do their feet and treat their blisters! I don’t think they would have dreamt of asking men to peel potatoes—and they didn’t ask any of us women to do the important organizational tasks. But women were quite prominent among the speakers we invited to the Labour Club: I remember listening to Dora Russell, Charlotte Haldane, Naomi Mitchison. (interview from Socialist Outlook [London], November, 1988)

Among the activities Sutton was involved in was an antifascist demonstration when fascists affiliated with Oswald Mosley organized a meeting at Oxford. She was part of a group that went to picket the fascists. Some ventured inside to disrupt the meeting and then they all organized an antifascist march through the town.

The Labour Party grouping that Eileen was affiliated with had a number of students studying various sciences. She graduated in 1934 with a degree in Natural Science (Botany) and moved to London where she joined the Labour League of Youth. “We had secretaries, clerks, metal workers, dustmen. We had anything from a dozen to twenty attending each meeting.” The branch organized support for the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Eileen was vice chair and represented her chapter at national conventions. She became sympathetic to the political ideas of the Trotskyists—including Vic Carpenter and Arthur Wimbush—in her chapter.

In 1939 Eileen Sutton received her Ph.D. She came to the United States the year before, where she lived for over forty-five years. By the early 1940s she married Isidore Gersh, a prominent Trotskyist in Philadelphia and a fellow scientist. They had two children.

By the late `40s Eileen Gersh became active in the antinuclear movement in Chicago. But while their children were young, Eileen was primarily involved in family life and working as a researcher and teacher.

The Gershes returned to Philadelphia in the 1960s. Eileen joined the faculty at Pennsylvania University in 1963 and became a professor in 1968. Like many older socialist women I met in the 1960s and `70s, Eileen fully embraced the feminist movement. It was as if she had been waiting for it all her life.

Activism in the ’70s and ’80s

By the time I met Eileen Gersh, both of us had become members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—I as an anti-Vietnam war activist and she after her college-age daughter brought home a copy of the Militant, the SWP’s newspaper.

I remember staying at the Gersh household during a national convention of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the mid-’70s. Eileen was a small woman, but she seemed iron strong, almost fierce with her enthusiasm and determination. I recall how her blue eyes lit up as she discussed teaching science to young college women enrolled in women’s studies classes. Later she and Isidore collaborated on a book, The Biology of Women, which was finally published in 1981.

The membership of the SWP, unlike so many of the organizations of the New Left, spanned several generations. There were people who had been radicalized by the events of the 1930s and `40s, who had seen the formation of mass working-class institutions and general strikes. They had lived through the McCarthy period. They had worked, raised children and had hobbies they pursued. They showed younger members—the generation of the 1960s—that one could remain a socialist through both the good times and the bad times.

I think this generational wisdom is particularly important for women, who often become radicalized while we are in school, but find it difficult to be active or continue reading while we raise our children, hold down fulltime jobs and deal with the reality of our households.

Eileen Gersh was an example of a woman who found a way to remain politically active over the long haul, although there were periods of her life in which she wasn’t involved in overt political action. But when the circumstances of her life permitted, she became a political activist once again. As well as being a teacher, Eileen focused on issues of equal rights and reproductive freedom.

As socialist feminists, we saw that the right of women to control our bodies and reproductive lives was a fundamental right. Although the issue includes the right to birth control and abortion, it also includes the right to raise healthy children and opposes sterilization abuse.

Between 1971-73, Eileen and I were both active in the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC), she in Philadelphia, I in New York City. WONAAC was a coalition the SWP helped to form in defense of reproductive rights. It also organized internationally coordinated actions in defense of women’s rights to control our bodies as well as speak outs and tribunals.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion—and while it was clear that the right wing would try to prevent abortions by every means possible—women in the SWP recognized that WONAAC would not be able to continue. We hoped a broader formation would be able to defend legal abortion and several of us—including Eileen and myself—joined NOW.

  • We encouraged NOW to build a mass campaign around the Equal Rights Amendment—not just a lobbying campaign aimed at convincing politicians. We saw the need to debate the right wing over the issue of women’s rights, and to do so not by compartmentalizing feminist issues, but by integrating them into our defense. For example, while mainstream feminists might try to separate issues of reproductive freedom and sexuality from the ERA, we attempted to integrate them into our discussions. We said it was a public battle for the hearts and minds of the U.S. population and there would be no way one could sidestep the radical implications of feminism.

  • We raised the issue of the particular way women of color are dealt with in U.S. society and called for the formation of caucuses within the feminist movement for women of color. We saw these as necessary for African-American, Native American and Asian-American women to gain the power they needed in order to make their particular needs known.

  • More specifically, after the media exposed how women on welfare and women of color were forcibly sterilized, we supported the proposal to extend the waiting period for sterilizations (from three to thirty days). While many liberals in NOW maintained that we could not “choose” between two groups of women and prioritize one over another, socialist feminists along with many others in NOW explained that asking middle-class women to wait thirty days for a sterilization operation represented a minor inconvenience while protecting poor women from documented abuse. Although we lost the debate at a national level in NOW, we helped to educate a whole generation of women about the particular issue and provided a mechanism for how to think about issues of race, class and gender.
    • In these various debates in NOW, Eileen did not play a dominant role, but she was there and obviously had some authority within her own chapter. That is, for Eileen being a socialist and activist was an important part of her life—but she didn’t have an exalted opinion of herself and worked best with the network of women at the local level. She was very much a “team” player.

      Between 1982-84 the SWP leadership expelled approximately 125 comrades on various phony charges. Eileen’s turn came during a SWP convention, held in a small college town in Ohio. She was ordered out of bed in the middle of the night and hauled before a Control Commission. They severed her SWP membership and threw her out of the facility. Since she was not allowed to contact the people she had driven with, she had to call friends to help her get back to Philadelphia.

      It wasn’t until the end of 1985 that I had a chance to talk with Eileen. Her husband had died, her daughter remained in the SWP and was unwilling to discuss much beyond the weather with her. She decided to return to England. She lived with an old friend from college in Hackney and began to rebuild her life.

      Eileen enjoyed those years of retirement from paid work, in which she had time to go to see ballet or to museums. But she actually worked harder than most people during their working lives. She regularly sold Socialist Outlook, supported the group’s political ideas, and gave generously to its various projects and to those of the Fourth International. She was active in the National Abortion Campaign and her local Labour Party branch.

      Educating Activists

      As a scientist she felt she had a contribution to make in both the anti-racist and environmental movements. Eileen organized and taught classes on genetics and racism, attempting to refute the biologically determinist ideas represented by the authors of books like The Bell Curve. For example, she pointed out that there is a wider genetic variety in determining eye color than in determining skin color so that the logical racist should be more concerned about miscegenation between people with different eye color than skin color! In this kind of argumentation she would delightfully combine her scientific background with her keen wit.

      Eileen Gersh could explain how the data asserting that intelligence is genetically determined was “cooked” or why the “Boycott Nescafe” campaign could be an important contribution to the well being of women and children, particularly in the Third World.

      She was active in the environmental movement, most especially in local campaigns against the construction of further urban motorways. The British anti-roads movement is one of the most dynamic and controversial strands of ecological activism. But while many on the far left criticized its direct action approach, Eileen supported these campaigns, as she had embraced feminism in its early rebirth.

      She also used her scientific background to expose health hazards—such as the rise in asthma—which result from excessive road building. Eileen was a rich source of scientific information. She could explain how all renewable energy on earth can be traced back to photosynthesis or other effects of the sun, why a low megaton cruise missile has to be a first-strike nuclear weapon or why climate change and ozone depletion should be of concern to working people.

      Eileen Gersh was a warm and generous friend. Many people thought she was a very private person, but I’m not so sure it wasn’t more of a case that she had no need to advertise herself. She left Socialist Outlook in 1996 and, at the time of her death, belonged to a small socialist group, Workers Action. At the memorial meeting that was sponsored by both Socialist Outlook and Workers Action in London on July 4, 1998 many spoke of the example of activism Eileen Gersh set.

      Perhaps, one speaker remarked, we will remember her best because she was so much a team player, always willing to do her share—or a bit more—but with a sense of humor and a joy of life. Leonora Lloyd, who had been chair of the national Abortion Campaign for a decade, noted that Eileen came to NAC meetings until her final illness. Lloyd said Eileen’s presence was a way of expressing her solidarity with younger women—and her presence was important to the younger activists.

      The socialist movement is richer for having Eileen as part of our movement. Presente Eileen Gersh!

      ATC 77, November-December 1998

1 comment

  1. I knew and worked with Eileen in Philadelphia during the 1970s & 1980s as a fellow member of the SWP. As Dianne Feeley states, Eileen was a warm, witty and friendly person, at the same time private in maybe an English way not always grasped by Americans. She was a hell of a hard worker, with a physical stamina greater than most of us twenty-somethings. She always had time for the young, and she was a mentor to some of us. Eileen allowed me to interview her in 1976 about her life growing up in England, her coming to the U.S., and her subsequent life here. She told me about the very same Hunger March, described in Dianne’s eulogy, that began her political radicalization. Her interview is on tape and in print, available for those interested by calling 484-213-0100.

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