Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender and Americanism in the First Red Scare by Erica J. Ryan
In about 2010, when I (successfully) proposed to the University of Illinois Press a book to be entitled Between the Great Red Scares: American Anti-Communism and Political Repression, 1921–1946 (to appear in about 2018–19), I argued that although there was by then a massive literature on the two great post-world war red scares (1919–20 and 1946–1954), the “inbetween” period has been relatively neglected, although anti-communism and political repression, even if diminished, had by no means disappeared. Therefore, I maintained, especially as what was available on these topics was scattered through very specialized books and articles (often on individual strikes and/or localities), that there was a crying, unmet need for a volume synthesizing existing relevant material.
During the six years since I made this proposal, the amount of relevant material, including the book under review here by history professor Ryan (Rider University), has literally exploded. But as it has continued to be quite specialized, the need for an overall synthesis is now greater than ever. Among the other relevant books of this explosion, just to mention the most prominent for only the last nine years, are Ernest Freeberg’s Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent (2010), which includes much on the amnesty campaign of the 1920s for World War I political prisoners such as Socialist Party leader Debs (who gained one million votes for president in 1920 while still jailed); Jennifer Luff’s Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars (2012), essentially on the vicious and highly self-interested anti-communism of the AFL (which saw communist-dominated unions, including those of the new CIO, as a major threat); Randi Storch’s Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928–35 (2008); Nick Fischer’s Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism (2016) (on the 1920s); Kirsten Delgard’s Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States (2011), also on the 1920s; Alex Goodall, Loyalty and Liberty: American Countersubversion from World War I to the McCarthy Era (2013), which covers the whole period but primarily through specialized chapters; Rebecca Hill’s Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (2009), focused mostly on the interwar period; and Landon Storrs’s The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (2015), with much on the pre-World War II background to the post-war red scare “loyalty program” which began in 1947.
On anti-labor repression, recent excellent books include Ahmed White, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America (2015), the best of four new books on the 1937 “little steel” strike and its brutal repression, including the notorious Chicago “Memorial Day Massacre”; Bryan Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 (2014); and Kathryn Olmsted’s Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which is a rather mistitled book focused overwhelmingly on the brutal (fascist is truly the more accurate word) repression of Communist-led California agricultural strikes/unions. Finally, on the extremely intense 1938–1941 red scare, see Shirley Wiegand’s Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland (2007), on Oklahoma; Donna Haverty-Stacke’s Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the age of FDR (2016)–– a bit misleadingly titled but an excellent study of the 1941 (pre-war) prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party; Clarence Taylor’s Reds at the Blackboard: Communists, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (2011), which includes material on New York’s Rapp-Coudert Committee and the anti-communist purge of teachers in the pre-war period; and Douglas Charles’s J. Edgar Hoover and the [End Page 99] Anti-Interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939–1945 (2007).
After that lengthy throat-clearing, Ryan’s book can be quickly summarized and evaluated. Very much complementing and often duplicating the book by Delgard referenced above, Ryan, who has very deliberately used the same title of a 1922 book by anti-radical Samuel Soloman (one of many anti-communist screeds of the interwar period, of which the most notorious were those by Elizabeth Dilling during the 1930s), focuses on the 1920s and argues that a wide variety of anti-radical groups attacked communism as not only an assault on capitalism but on the traditional American family. Largely reflecting a conservative backlash against the pre-war and World War I rise of labor and progressive social legislation, as well as the 1919 ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment, and especially spurred by the ludicrous but widely-believed claim that the Bolsheviks had “nationalized” women, numerous conservative organizations (led by many women’s groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, “patriotic” men’s groups, and business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers) attacked such developments as depriving individual workers and businessmen of their “liberty,” substituting the state for the authority of the traditional patriarchal household dominated by fathers, and enslaving women while simultaneously symbolically castrating men.
Ryan’s book is solid and substantial, although I found Delgard a bit better organized and more clearly written. Both deserve a wide audience.