- New Views on Left Feminist Activism Before the 1960s
Since the 1987 publication of Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor’s Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s, scholars have produced a growing body of work that documents the persistence of women’s feminist and political activism across the chasm of the Cold War years.1 It is no longer news to women’s historians that women who cut their political teeth in the progressive movements of the tumultuous 1930s and the World War II years did not just cower before anticommunist repression and retreat to their homes and families in 1945; nor is it a surprise that these progressive women’s intellectual and political activities influenced the resurgent feminism of the 1960s. Nevertheless, these three recent books, which document the ways women activists bridged the gap between the popular front and the 1960s—and between the Old Left and the New Left—are significant contributions to the literature because they build on and complicate our understanding of women’s organizing for gender equality and social justice in the twentieth century. These historians’ focus on radical black women, interracial organizing for peace and equality, transnational connections between activists, and the interplay between American Cold War policies and women’s organizations in the United States and Europe, demonstrate that although the forces of anticommunist ideology and repression constrained feminist activism in the 1940s and 1950s, they did not succeed in eliminating it.
In his meticulously researched and engaging book, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism, Erik S. McDuffie uncovers the intellectual and activist roots of [End Page 204] Cold War era black left feminism and documents its impact on the American Left between 1919 and 1956. Combining substantial research in archival and published primary sources with more than forty of his own oral history interviews, McDuffie traces the lives of eleven black women whose work with the American Communist Party (CPUSA) “forged an innovative radical black feminist politics during the early and mid-twentieth century, [and] laid the groundwork for the black feminism of the 1970s” (3).
McDuffie begins his narrative in 1919 with the Russian Revolution and the creation of the groups that would soon become the CPUSA. Here he locates the first generation of black left feminists, which included Grace P. Campbell, Williana Burroughs, Maude White, and Hermina Dumont Huiswoud. These women made their way to the Communist Left through their involvement in the Workers Party (WP), the African Black Brotherhood (ABB), and the Socialist Party (SP), and traveled to the Soviet Union, where they were treated with dignity and exposed to “Bolshevik feminist discussions on women’s rights and sexual liberation” which connected sexism, racism, capitalism, and imperialism (54). McDuffie suggests that these women reframed Marxism-Leninism by viewing black women as the global vanguard, and offered a community and collective identity for other black women on the left.
McDuffie’s second generation of black radical women came of age politically during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Claudia Jones, Esther Cooper (Jackson), Louise Thompson (Patterson), Thyra Edwards, and Salaria Kee encountered the CPUSA through its work in Harlem and joined the organization because it demonstrated a commitment to the issues they confronted in their daily lives. Through their work on such domestic issues as the defense of the Scottsboro boys, and their experiences in the Soviet Union and anti-fascist Spain and Ethiopia, these women developed and expanded the ideas first conceptualized by their predecessors during the 1920s. In addition to challenging the politics of the church, women’s clubs, the NAACP...