- Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California by Beth Slutsky
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015; 286 pages. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978–0803254756.
Beth Slutsky’s Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth—Century California is a noteworthy entry in the emerging local studies approach to the Communist Party, one that offers insightful tracing of the broader movements of party activity in a turbulent period, as well as a more focused treatment of gender in that context, through a close examination of three key figures: Charlotte Anita Whitney (1867–1955), Dorothy Ray Healey (1914–2006), and Kendra Claire Harris Alexander (1946–1992). Though its lens is admittedly narrow, zeroing in on three individuals in one (not entirely representative) state party during a relatively short time span, Slutsky’s study does an admirable job of extrapolating larger trends from the particulars of Whitney, Healey, and Alexander’s experiences. In selecting these three women, Slutsky is able to produce a comprehensive and complex understanding of the California branch of the Communist Party, noting its unique character as something of a rogue chapter more indicative of an indigenous Communism. That selection also enables Slutsky to render a subtle reading of the complicating factors operating alongside and beneath the party’s prioritization of class concerns, chiefly issues surrounding gender and race.
It is in these two areas that Slutsky’s analysis makes its most significant contributions, particularly in the case of gender. Slutsky carefully observes how issues surrounding gender are consistently backgrounded by the party, though Whitney, Healey, and Alexander are selected for leadership positions in part due to their status as women, which enables the party to literalize its nominally progressive gender politics. Beneath that veneer, Slutsky anatomizes a more traditional attitude towards gender in the California party, where male leaders want their partners to be at once active in the party and fulfilling traditional roles in the domestic sphere, and Whitney, Healey, and Alexander demonstrate that tension through their own experiences during the signal moments of the move for women’s suffrage, changing notions of domesticity in the postwar era, and the rise of feminism. By looking at the nature of each [End Page 173] woman’s relationships and the motivations behind and outcomes of their decisions to marry, Slutsky exposes this contradictory aspect of the Communist Party and demonstrates how, for all of their revolutionary leanings, Whitney, Healey, and Alexander still found themselves inextricably bound to traditional notions of gender. Through her attention to Alexander, Slutsky also shines a light on the role of race in Communist Party politics, an issue that is present from the party’s conception but which garners increasing focus in the civil rights era and after. Born of racially mixed parentage, Alexander seizes upon the party’s attention to racial injustice as her entry point, finding other civil rights groups insufficiently radical in their approaches, and evinces a similar tension between foregrounding racial concerns while still maintaining the party’s emphasis on class as the root of all evil. Slutsky also makes a convincing case for the importance of local studies through both of these foci, as the California Communist Party is somewhat unique in its particular struggles with each issue and thus a worthy case study to draw attention to issues that might fall by the wayside in more comprehensive studies.
The only real misstep in Slutsky’s account is the somewhat curious decision to devote long individual chapters to Whitney, Healey, and Alexander, an approach that makes certain demands on the reader. While treating each of the women in turn, rather than focusing on broader thematic threads that run through each of their lives, is a productive approach, each of the main chapters (introduction and conclusion aside) verge on or exceed 50 pages, and do not include any section headings to guide the reader through the movement of the chapter. By sheer length alone, the chapters prove somewhat daunting (particularly in a text that, without notes, comes in just under 200 pages), and without section headings, the otherwise elegant flow of the analysis gets lost...