Meredith Tax: Feminist Author, Historian, and Activist

From a New York Times obit by Penelope Green headlined “Meredith Tax, Feminist Author, Historian, and Activist, Dies at 80”:

Meredith Tax, a second-wave feminist and author whose scholarship on labor movements informed her own class-conscious activism, died in Teaneck, N.J.

Ms. Tax was in London studying English literature on a fellowship when the Vietnam War escalated, and she and her roommate, Ann Barr Snitow, who would go on to help found the organization New York Radical Feminists, threw themselves into the antiwar movement.

Ms. Tax fell in love there with an American labor organizer, Jonathan Schwartz, who would become her husband, and they eventually moved to Boston, where Ms. Tax and others started Bread and Roses, a socialist-feminist collective. There, Ms. Tax began researching the labor and suffrage movements of the late 19th century.

That research led to her first book, published in 1980 and reissued just this year. Its title, “The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917,” might suggest that it would be a slog to read, but Ms. Tax was an engaging writer on a mission: to learn how the alliances of the past — when members of the nascent women’s movement at the turn of the 20th century worked alongside trade union activists, anarchists, Marxists and others involved in social change — might help the organization of second-wave feminism.

The movement had been devolving into factions in those heady early years, and Ms. Tax and many others had found it, as she put it, “too narrow in its social base, too white and too politically immature to be able to reach its goals.”

It would take 10 years for the book to find a publisher. In the meantime, Ms. Tax was busy.

She joined the October League, a Marxist organization, but was thrown out for criticizing its treatment of women. (Its leadership thought she had a bad attitude, she recalled later.) She worked on an assembly line in a Zenith factory in Chicago, then as a nurse’s aide. She contributed an essay to the buzzy feminist journal Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, where her writing appeared alongside that of Kate Millet, Carol Hanisch and other heroines of feminism’s second wave.

Her essay, “Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life,” explored how contemporary culture — capitalism and the patriarchy, mostly — alienated women from themselves.

“Our society,” she wrote, “could be described as one that drives women crazy.”

In 1977, in New York City, Ms. Tax, the feminist author Alix Kates Shuman and others formed a political action group that worked for abortion rights and the prevention of coercive sterilization, a horrific practice on the rise in the late 1960s and early ’70s that targeted low-income minority women. The group, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, had been galvanized by an effort in Congress to end Medicaid assistance for abortions.

Her continued focus on class made Ms. Tax a distinct voice. “She never stopped being a leftist feminist,” Ms. Shulman said. “She never abandoned her commitment to the working class and to the poor.”

Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” (1991), said: “Meredith had a very sharp class analysis, which is something often lacking in feminism today. We talk a lot about sex and gender identity and just about every dynamic except class.

“Meredith could speak about the importance of class in feminism,” Ms. Faludi continued, “partly because she had worked in a factory. She knew about organizing working-class and poor women, which is very different from an academic embodiment of feminist theory. She was an intellectual, but she regarded herself in proletariat terms and walked the walk.”

Ms. Tax was a contributor to The Nation, The Village Voice and other publications and was also a popular author. Her historical sagas “Rivington Street” (1982) and its sequel, “Union Square”(1988), followed the adventures of a Russian Jewish family as they fled the pogroms for Manhattan’s Lower East Side and through two world wars. In her review of “Union Square” for The New York Times Book Review, Eden Ross Lipson described Ms. Tax’s work as “edifying romances, airplane fiction with political content.”

“The point of Meredith Tax’s novels,” Ms. Lipson added, “isn’t the quality of her prose. She is telling gritty, satisfying stories. They are good pass-along fiction, especially for readers with daughters, because they are about women’s lives in that historically exciting near past some of our grandmothers and mothers actually knew.”

Ms. Tax wrote a children’s book, “Families,” that in 1994 — 13 years after it was published — was banned in Fairfax, Va., for its depiction of divorce and of single, gay and lesbian parenting. Drawn from Ms. Tax’s own experiences as a divorced single mother raising her daughter, Corey, in New York City, the book explored the variety among the parents of children at the Upper West Side public school that Corey attended.

Parents in the Virginia school district saw “Families” as “glorifying divorce,” Ms. Tax wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Times in 1994. The passage that appeared to most irk them, she said, was a “scene that shows the narrator going to see her father during vacation, and shows one of her friends saying what one of Corey’s friends did say to her mother at the time, ‘Why don’t you get divorced so I can go to Chicago on the airplane too?’”

Ms. Tax was annoyed that the book’s detractors didn’t get the joke.

Meredith was a National Merit Scholar and majored in English at Brandeis University, from which she graduated in 1964. She did graduate work in 17th- and 18th-century English literature at Birkbeck, University of London, but never finished her dissertation, having become more interested in the history of social justice than the themes of her thesis.

Ms. Tax was a founder, with Grace Paley, of the International PEN Women’s Writers Committee, which defended women writers against censorship. She went on to run other international organizations devoted to free speech and women’s rights, including two groups that supported an all-female Kurdish militia in northern Syria. “The Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State” (2016), her fifth book, is an account of that militia’s actions.

“She was a great organizer,” said Vivian Gornick, the feminist author and critic, who first collaborated with Ms. Tax when they and other female writers protested that the writers’ organization PEN was underrepresenting women at its International Congress in 1986, at one point famously interrupting a speech by PEN America’s chairman at the time, Norman Mailer.

“When the activism began to peter out in this country,” Ms. Gornick added, “women like Meredith, for whom activism was mother’s milk, turned elsewhere, to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She was utterly devoted and steadfast. She was difficult, demanding, often wildly insensitive, but she got things done.”

Penelope Green is a reporter on the Obituaries desk and a feature writer for the Style and Real Estate sections. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The Times Magazine.

 

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