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ANNA SHANNON ELFENBEIN West Virginia University Troublesome Comrades: Male Chauvinism and Revolutionary Engagement in Olive Dargan’s Call Home the Heart They had reached the bridge, and were standing by the railing. Unthank was looking out, above the horizon, as if reading something there. [Ishma] knew he wasn’t thinking of her and her small confusions. He didn’t talk to her enough. It wasn’t, she had discovered, that she was uninteresting. She knew that he talked patiently, by the hour, to the most ignorant men in the mills. (Burke, Call 292) I AS A NUMBER OF FEMINIST SCHOLARS HAVE POINTED OUT, THE RADICAL women authors of the 1930s extended the reach of the literary genre variously called “proletarian,” “revolutionary,” “radical,” or “working class.” That extension was achieved through novels that were unmistakably proletarian but did not satisfy several of the criteria laid down by male critics of the 1920s in their definitions of the genre: that proletarian fiction had to be set in the workplace and had to be written by, for, and about men. The women who wrote such fiction in the 1930s showed that class consciousness can come into being not only in the factory and on the farm, where male workers must confront oppressive working conditions, but also in the home, where working-class women and their families also suffer from economic hardships brought about by capitalist exploitation such as unemployment, privation, hunger, and a lack of educational opportunity, medical care, and birth control. On the home fronts depicted by these authors, conflict occurs, not between social classes, but rather within the working class itself as its female members resist the efforts of their downtrodden men to dominate them. Conflict of this kind raises women’s consciousness concerning their condition, fuels their desire for a sexual revolution that will put an end to their oppression, and complicates the calculus of communist theory.1 1 These and other aspects of the proletarian fiction published by women in the 1930s are discussed in books by Paula Rabinowitz, Barbara Foley, and Constance Coiner. 198 Anna Shannon Elfenbein Whether they were members of the Communist Party USA or fellow travelers, the radical women authors of the 1930s resembled their women characters in that they inhabited a world in which men dominated women and excluded them from positions of power and responsibility. Even within radical circles, androcentrism was rampant. “For many on the Communist Left, ‘proletarian’ and ‘manly’ were nearly synonymous” (Coiner 6). Although the Communist Party fought for women’s rights, including their rights to work and to obtain birth control information, its leadership was almost entirely male, as were almost all of the contributors to its publications (42).2 In their public discourse, however, radical women seldom protested or even referred to the sexism of their confreres. When writing novels, plays, stories, or poems, these women generally skirted the issue, thereby avoiding the opprobrium and ostracism that were often visited upon “troublesome comrade[s]” (Marx 36). Refusing to shield themselves in this way, a few radical women authors of the 1930s broke ranks with their more cautious sisters and boldly exposed the male chauvinism that infected the revolutionary movement in that decade. The most accomplished novelist in this small group was Olive Tilford Dargan. In Call Home the Heart (1932), Dargan presented her readers with an implicit critique of the ways in which sexism was preventing radical women from engaging in revolutionary action and with implicit suggestions as to how such women might overcome this problem. A number of critics have praised the novel, but this important aspect of it has not yet been the subject of detailed analysis. As I try to show in this essay, Dargan captured the essence of the problem of male chauvinism by depicting the developing political consciousness of a radical woman protagonist who aspires to become a leader of her fellow textile workers but is hindered in her progress toward that goal by the sexism of her male mentor, a communist physician. By the end of the novel, the woman has learned how to surmount that obstacle by becoming more self-reliant and by collaborating with and drawing inspiration from a feisty...


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