In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
by Adrienne Weller
In my mind’s eye, I see Clara Fraser focused on some task: a commanding presence, yet totally at your service—if your goal is to free the wretched of the earth.
I picture Clara in her Mt. Baker garden on a sunny day. Soaking up the rays, she is ensconced at a picnic table control center, surrounded by papers, pencils, phones, a typewriter, pets, iced tea and flowers.
Another memory: One of Clara’s many backyard barbeques. She’s dissecting movies and TV shows, recounting political escapades, defending the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class: “a self-confident, even smug class, practical, pragmatic, refreshingly romantic—and undefeated.”
And of course, I think of Clara in her element speaking from a podium. With her gravelly voice and gleeful chuckle, she makes sense of the issues of the day and enlightens listeners about dialectics, history, class struggle, culture, and Bolshevism.
For me, fresh out of the sexist New Left, Clara was a revelation: an inspiring teacher who trained women to be leaders and men to be feminists. Her boldness and radicalism far exceeded that of the day’s yippies and hippies. This Jewish woman was afforded enormous respect by Black and Native American militants because of her decades on the front lines and unwavering support for the unsung women stalwarts of these movements.
I was riveted by Clara’s honesty and profound understanding of society. She was a breath of fresh air—a godless communist and troublemaking, truth-telling rebel. I discovered that was exactly what I wanted to be, too!
A star of her class
Born in Los Angeles, Fraser learned radical politics early from her immigrant parents — her father was an anarchist from Latvia, her mother a union organizer from Russia. As a teen, she participated in the youth group of the Socialist Party.
In 1945, after graduating from UCLA, Fraser joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). A year later, she moved to the Northwest to help build the party and settled in Seattle’s South End.
As an assembly line electrician, Fraser joined the Boeing strike of 1948. When the union was slapped with an anti-picketing injunction, she put together a strike line of mothers and baby strollers. After the strike, Boeing fired and blacklisted Fraser. The FBI pursued her relentlessly from job to job for a decade.
But Fraser stayed active. In the 1950s and ’60s, she worked on labor issues, fought segregation, advocated for women, and opposed the Vietnam War. With co-thinkers, she developed the concept of Revolutionary Integration, which explains the interdependence of struggles for socialism and African American freedom and argues the key importance of Black leadership to the working class.
The Seattle SWP conducted a long campaign to try to win the national party to its perspectives on race liberation and the centrality of women’s emancipation. But a clampdown on party democracy brought this effort to an end. The Seattle branch left the SWP and launched the Freedom Socialist Party in 1966 on a program emphasizing the forefront role of the most oppressed in achieving progress for all of humanity.
In 1967, Radical Women (RW) was formed by Fraser, Gloria Martin, and young women of the New Left. RW’s mission was to inject women’s issues and leadership in the male-dominated movements of the time.
Fraser and her cohorts coalesced with anti-poverty organizers, mostly Black women, to win abortion rights statewide three years before Roe v. Wade. They supported Native American fishing rights, Chicano and Indian occupations of government land and buildings, and Asian American demands for low-income housing. They aided draft resisters, fought for childcare, coordinated Seattle’s first LGBTQ pride marches, and pushed to get women and people of color into the trades.
Beating City Hall
In 1973, Fraser landed a job as Training and Education Coordinator at Seattle City Light. She was charged with creating a program to hire and train women electrical workers. This she achieved despite the sabotage of management, which intended the program to be a short-lived publicity stunt.
A wildcat strike by union electricians erupted soon after Fraser arrived, and she inspired female office staff and workers of color to join the walkout. Afterwards, she maintained a visible lead in organizing against management abuses.
Fired in 1974, Fraser filed a discrimination complaint that documented pervasive political bias and sexism, typified by Vickery’s assertion: “If Clara were as loyal to me as she is to Karl Marx, I’d hire her back in a minute.”
Clara’s seven-year battle against City Light roused international support and ended in her victory and reinstatement. This set a tremendous precedent for workers’ right to free speech on the job.
Clara’s retirement from City Light in 1986 allowed her to focus her energies on advising new radical leaders — as well as enjoying food, opera, theater, and friends.
She died in February 1998 at age 74, a few months before the release of her book, Revolution, She Wrote <http://www.redletterpress.org/revolution.html>, a collection of her witty and profound writings and speeches.
Clara Fraser taught me to fight back and never shrink from doing what is needed, no matter how difficult. As one of the few American Jews to take a stand against the oppressive Zionist state of Israel, she helped lead me back to my working-class Jewish roots.
She embodied the fact that the struggle for a decent life for working people is worth living and dying for. She was gloriously optimistic and could pulverize the most determined doomsayer. She taught us that the best kept secret is the power of the working class in all its diversity.
“All we need is one short but good revolution,” Clara liked to say. And this grande dame of socialism, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer once dubbed her, is the one to show us how to do it with style, and to have fun along the way!
Adrienne Weller, a radical Jewish activist and retired AFSCME unionist, was the FSP’s Portland organizer for many years and now lives in Seattle.
featured image: Portrait of Clara Fraser. Photo by Kathleen Merrigan/Freedom Socialist.