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.

I knew and worked with Eileen

Submitted by Mike Finley (not verified) on April 11, 2014 - 11:00pm.

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.