Clara Fraser was born to Jewish immigrant parents in multi-ethnic, working class East Los Angeles. Her father, Samuel Goodman, was a Teamster. Her mother, Emma Goodman, was a garment worker and later a Business Agent of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Fraser joined the Socialist Party’s youth group in junior high school.
By 1945, after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in literature and education, Fraser was a recruit to the ideas of Leon Trotsky, whose campaign against Stalinism had gained adherents worldwide. She joined the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that year. In 1946, she moved to the Pacific Northwest to help build the SWP's Seattle branch.
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 mothers' brigade to walk the line with baby strollers. After the strike, Boeing fired and blacklisted Fraser, and the FBI pursued her for a decade.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Fraser stayed active in the labor arena, worked to end segregation, advocated for women, and opposed the Vietnam War. She worked with her then-husband, Richard S. Fraser, in developing Revolutionary Integration, which explains the interdependence of the struggles for socialism and African American freedom and argues the key importance of black leadership to the U.S. working class.
The SWP, however, was supporting the Nation of Islam. The Seattle local conducted a long campaign to try to win the national party to its perspective. A clampdown on internal party democracy brought this effort to a dead end. Fraser co-authored the branch’s critique of the SWP’s political and organizational degeneration in a series of documents that have been re-published under the title Crisis and Leadership (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 2000).
Socialist feminist leadership
The Seattle branch left the SWP in 1966 and launched the Freedom Socialist Party, founded on a program emphasizing the leadership role of the underprivileged in achieving progress for all of humanity.
The new party faced an immediate test of its feminism, when Fraser sought a divorce from her second husband, Richard Fraser, another FSP leader. He attempted to deprive her of custody rights by depicting her in court as an unfit mother because of her political activism. Fraser won the battle in court and with the party majority as well. (Victory for Socialist Feminism: Organizer's Report to the 1969 Freedom Socialist Party Conference [Seattle: Freedom Socialist Party Publications, 1976].)
Fraser and her FSP and RW cohorts coalesced with anti-poverty organizers, mostly black women, to initiate the abortion rights movement in Washington. 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 child care, coordinated some of Seattle's earliest gay and lesbian pride marches, achieved city ordinances protecting sexual and political minorities, and pushed to get women and people of color into the trades.
In 1973, Fraser began work at Seattle City Light, a publicly owned utility. As Training and Education Coordinator, she was charged with implementing a program to hire and train female electrical workers.
A wildcat strike by union electricians erupted soon after Fraser arrived. Fraser jumped into the fray and inspired female office staff and workers of color to join the walkout. She further incurred the wrath of City Light management by representing the workforce on a committee negotiating an Employee Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and by participating prominently in a bid by city workers to recall the mayor because of his support for the utility's superintendent, Gordon Vickery.
Fired in 1974, Fraser immediately filed a discrimination complaint that documented pervasive political bias and sexism. After a seven-year battle, Fraser was victorious in a ruling that affirmed the right of workers to speak out against management and to organize on their own behalf. She returned to her former job at City Light just as a new furor broke out over discrimination against women in non-traditional trades. Fraser joined with women in the field and the offices and pro-affirmative action men to form a new organization to combat sex and race discrimination: the Employee Committee for Equal Rights at City Light (CERCL).
In 1984, an ex-FSP member named Richard Snedigar brought a harassment lawsuit against Fraser, seven other party leaders, and the organization as a whole. This case came to be known as the Freeway Hall Case.
Snedigar wanted to take back a substantial donation given years before to a fund for obtaining a new headquarters after the party was evicted from its homebase at Freeway Hall. He also demanded FSP minutes, membership lists, and names of contributors. At one point, Fraser and the party's attorneys were sentenced to jail for refusing to divulge financial information, but their sentences were stayed and ultimately overturned. The FSP pursued this case to the state Supreme Court, where civil liberties attorney Leonard Boudin argued that privacy rights are essential to the freedom to express dissent. The FSP was finally vindicated in 1992.
Fraser's retirement from City Light in 1986 allowed her to focus on her responsibilities as FSP National Chair, overseeing the work of the widespread party branches, advising RW on a regular basis, and mentoring and training new generations of socialist feminists.
A theoretician of Marxist economics, intransigent anti-Zionist, and a keen internationalist, she helped coordinate several delegations of members to the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba. She was an advisor to the first-ever International Feminist Brigade to Cuba, undertaken by RW and the Federation of Cuban Women in late 1997.
Fraser was the first chief editor of the Freedom Socialist newspaper and wrote a regular column that appeared in the paper for 20 years. These essays, along with speeches and other writings, are collected in her book, Revolution, She Wrote (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 1998) and the pamphlet Socialism for Skeptics. Her writings for Radical Women in the early 1970s produced such as feminist classics as Woman as Leader: Double Jeopardy on Account of Sex and Which Road towards Women’s Liberation: A Radical Vanguard or a Single-Issue Coalition? These documents were recently republished by Radical Women Publications.
Clara Fraser was the mother of two sons.
Articles and interviews
- Carol Beers, "Activist Clara Fraser Dead At 74 —– 'Life Spent Contemplating Your Own Navel... Helps No One'", Seattle Times, 28 February 1998.
- Florangela Davila, "Still Active — Radical Clara Fraser Turns A Feisty 73", Seattle Times, 17 March 1996.
- Jack Hopkins, "Seattle’s Grande Dame of Socialism", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11 September 1988.
- Lisa Schnellinger, "Socialism’s Flame Flickers on in Seattle", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5 May 1989.
- James Wallace, "The Socialist and the Holy Man", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 28 July, 1990.
- Jane Hadley, "Memorial Rite Set for Clara Fraser: Seattle 'Revolutionary' is Dead at 74", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2 March 1998.
- Imbert Matthee, "Boeing Strike has Parallels to '48 Walkout", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4 December 1995.
- Clara Fraser Defense Committee records. 1979-83. .42 cubic feet.
- Clara and Richard Fraser Papers. 1905-1949, 1970. 100 items (2 boxes).
- Melba Windoffer papers. 1933-1990. 7.42 cubic feet (8 boxes).
- http://www.redletterpress.org Revolutionary Integration: A Marxist Analysis of African American Liberation
- Barbara Love, editor, Feminists Who Changed America (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006).
- Gloria Martin, Socialist Feminism: The First Decade, 1966-76 (Seattle: Freedom Socialist Publications, 1986).
- The Radical Women Manifesto: Socialist Feminist Theory, Program and Organizational Structure (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 2001).
- They Refused to Name Names: The Freeway Hall Case Victory (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 1995).
- Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism: 1929-1985, A Documented Analysis of the Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).