Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture

Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture

Kathlene McDonald
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hzdp
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  • Book Info
    Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture
    Book Description:

    This book traces the development of a Left feminist consciousness as women became more actively involved in the American Left during and immediately following World War II. McDonald argues that women writers on the Left drew on the rhetoric of antifascism to critique the cultural and ideological aspects of women's oppression. In Left journals during World War II, women writers outlined the dangers of fascist control for women and argued that the fight against fascism must also be about ending women's oppression. After World War II, women writers continued to use this antifascist framework to call attention to the ways in which the emerging domestic ideology in the United States bore a frightening resemblance to the fascist repression of women in Nazi Germany.

    This critique of American domestic ideology emphasized the ways in which black and working-class women were particularly affected and extended to an examination of women's roles in personal and romantic relationships. Underlying this critique was the belief that representations of women in American culture were part of the problem. To counter these dominant cultural images, women writers on the Left depicted female activists in contemporary antifascist and anticolonial struggles or turned to the past, for historical role models in the labor, abolitionist, and antisuffrage movements. This depiction of women as models of agency and liberation challenged some of the conventions about femininity in the postwar era.

    The book provides a historical overview of women writers who anticipated issues about women's oppression and the intersections of gender, race, and class that would become central tenants of feminist literary criticism and black feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s. It closely considers works by writers both well-known and obscure, including Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Martha Dodd, Sanora Babb, and Beth McHenry.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-302-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction: Salt of the Earth and the Cold War Erasure of a Left Feminist Culture
    (pp. 3-13)

    In 1953, a group of blacklisted filmmakers went to New Mexico to makeSalt of the Earth, a film based on the true story of a sixteen-month strike against Empire Zinc, set within in a Mexican American mining community. Writer Michael Wilson’s screenplay emphasizes the integral role that women played in the strike, showing female community members’ insistence that domestic issues be included in the strike demands and their assumption of leadership roles in the union. In large part, the strike succeeded because of the solidarity between women and men and because of the support of women from nearby communities....

  5. CHAPTER 1 Domestic Ideology as Containment Ideology: Antifascism and the Woman Question in the Party Presses
    (pp. 14-33)

    Antifascism had been a subject of Left literature since the 1930s, but it was not until World War II that women’s relationship to fascism became a subject of discussion. The Communist Party established the American Writers’ Congress conference in 1935 with the goal of creating a revolutionary literature in America. While the original Writers’ Congress focused on the role of the worker, the political agenda in the second and third congresses had shifted to the battle against fascism. Although male authors dominated the first congress, women began to play a more active role by the third. However, despite the increased...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Fighting Fascism at Home and Abroad: The Cold War Exile of Martha Dodd
    (pp. 34-50)

    In her obituary of writer Martha Dodd, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes, “In death, as in life, Martha [Dodd] Stern will be best remembered for her indictment on unproven espionage charges”; and, indeed, little has been written on Dodd that is not about her numerous affairs and her alleged espionage involvement with the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, she supposedly had affairs with high-level French and German officials, including Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, and writers Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg, and was seduced into spying for the Soviet Union after falling in love with the Soviet diplomat Boris...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “In Her Full Courage and Dignity”: Alice Childress and the Struggle against Black Women’s Triple Oppression
    (pp. 51-75)

    In 1949, in response to an argument with Sidney Poitier and several other actors who claimed that only “life and death” issues like lynching mattered in racial protest plays, Alice Childress wroteFlorence(Abramson 189). Written overnight, this one-act drama expresses Childress’s frustration with the prevailing notion within the Harlem Left that only black male issues were central to the racial struggle. At a time when black women within the Left were pushing the Communist Party to reconsider its position on the Woman Question, Childress helped to educate the Left on what Claudia Jones referred to as the “special problems...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Antiracism, Anticolonialism, and the Contradictory Left Feminism of Lorraine Hansberry:
    (pp. 76-92)

    When Lorraine Hansberry arrived in New York City in 1950, she moved into the same building as Claudia Jones and quickly became involved with a cadre of black women activists who were helping redefine the Left’s approach to the Woman Question in order to address the specific problems facing black women. These women included Jones; Thelma Dale, a leader in the Harlem Left and a founding member of the Congress of American Women; and Alice Childress, a militant playwright who helped start the Communist-led Sojourners for Truth and Justice. The various women in this Left feminist community emphasized the centrality...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Ask Him If He’s Tried It at Home”: Making the Personal Political
    (pp. 93-104)

    In the pages of the Party presses and in Left discussion groups, women on the Left argued that sexism and male chauvinism permeated multiple aspects of society and that the battle against what they perceived as a fascist domestic ideology must extend to their personal and romantic relationships. Communist Party leaders instructed men to examine their own sexist behaviors and how they were manifested in their personal relationships. However, Party women did not necessarily experience the effects of this the new approach in their personal relationships. Screenwriter Norma Barzman describes the struggle between theory and practice in her relationship with...

  10. Epilogue: A Left Feminist Literary History
    (pp. 105-110)

    The literary works I have recovered for this project clearly attest to a vibrant and important Left feminist culture in the postwar era. However, I by no means mean to imply that the postwar era was a heyday for women on the Left. The pervasive political repression of the McCarthy era was very real and very damaging; the repercussions are still felt to this day. The crusade against un-American activity was not limited to Communist Party leaders and activists; it also extended to Left-wing cultural workers. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating the Hollywood branch of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 111-118)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 119-128)
  13. Index
    (pp. 129-132)