- Editors' Note
Along the Axis of the Nation: Some Twentieth-Century Histories
Each of the essays in this issue uses the history of women to pivot the nation on a different axis—revolutionary, geopolitical, anticolonial, associational, and philanthropic—in order to register both the enduring power of national identity and those moments when collective identities emerge to challenge if not to trump it. We begin with Choi Chatterjee’s essay on American women who covered the Russian Revolution: journalists and travelers who bore witness to one of the most cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. The dispatches they sent home offered different perspectives on the nationalizing effects of the revolutionary upheaval than their more famous male counterparts. Rather than taking a panoptical approach, they most often recorded the view from the margins, producing narrative accounts that emphasized the dispossessed, the hungry, the everyday disruptions—offering in the process an explicit critique of the nationalizing narratives produced by revolutionaries and the emergent Bolshevik state. Such totalizing impulses were, Chatterjee implies, not merely nationalist but highly gendered, as John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World amply illustrates. American women who witnessed 1917 and its aftermath offered counterpoints to his accounts as well, often addressing a middle-brow public in venues such as the Saturday Evening Post and impressing on men and women readers both the difference that women’s reportage meant to assessments of the successes and failures of the revolution.
Helen Laville and Jacqueline Castledine propel us into the post-1945 period with essays that track American women’s role in the establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the convergence of African American and black South African women’s activism in the Cold War period, respectively. Laville anatomizes the halting process whereby the U.S. government and some U.S. women came to terms with the power of internationalism—which was at once an inheritance of the prewar landscape but was also subject to radically new pressures in the context of decolonization, and a very freighted public struggle over what exactly the role of U.S. women should be in a newly postcolonial world. Castledine, in turn, takes up one particular strand of this larger story by focusing on the short-lived linkages between Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an African American women’s group, and the African National Congress Women’s League in South Africa. The linchpins here were Eslanda Goode Robeson and Bertha Mkhize. Mkhize was by far the more militant. Rooted as she was in trade union organizing, she viewed labor law protest as the vehicle for anti-Apartheid politics. Robeson’s career was largely shaped by the celebrity [End Page 7] of her famous husband, though she was instrumental in the founding of the Council on African Affairs, which forwarded the anti-Apartheid cause and was one vehicle for feminist anticolonial solidarity. Both the Sojourners and the CAA were objects of FBI surveillance and McCarthyist attacks precisely because of the threat to national sovereignty that their collaborations represented.
The last two essays in our issue extend into the 1960s and beyond, highlighting the struggle for political and social reform in two different postwar contexts. Wendy Pojmann analyzes the associational work of Italian women in the Unione del Donne Italiane and the Centro Italiano Femminile. Though they did not always agree, they exerted significant pressure on Italian party politics—a domain where national/ist concerns were paramount in the Cold War world. The UDI and the CIF endeavored to keep women’s issues—labor, education, pensions, prostitution—to the fore, a task made somewhat easier by the fact that established political parties needed women’s votes. Jennifer Mittelstadt follows a rather different story in the postwar U.S., where she demonstrates how the Field Foundation spent several decades supporting efforts of southern African American women to address civil and women’s rights issues through what she calls “Left-liberal” philanthropy. In many respects the history of Field in this period (1960s—1980s) is a microcosm of the national story of liberal reform in the years between Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of Reaganomics...