- Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall
A preeminent scholar of southern women’s history, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall is the author of foundational studies such as Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York, 1979) and Like a Family: The Making of Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, 1987) that explore the intersection of gender, race, and class in southern history. As a teacher, scholar, mentor, and advisor to countless scholars and graduate students, she has defined and expanded southern history and women’s history in numerous ways. Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America, a blended biography of Elizabeth, Grace, and Katharine Lumpkin, represents yet [End Page 143] another significant scholarly contribution and the culmination of a career of considerable significance.
Sisters and Rebels explores the intellectual evolution of a remarkable set of sisters: Grace Lumpkin, a socialist activist and author of To Make My Bread (1932), one of the most significant examples of socially conscious literature in the twentieth century; Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, best known for her memoir The Making of a Southerner (1947) but also the author of four other scholarly books; and Elizabeth Lumpkin Glenn, a well-known orator for the Lost Cause. They each took their origins in a prominent southern family in astonishingly different directions. Elizabeth’s intellectual trajectory was the most opaque of the three. She embraced the past and became a noticeable speaker at Confederate reunions. After her spectacle of a wedding, she withdrew into a more traditional domestic life. Grace and Katharine blazed more notorious trails. Grace moved north and embraced a socialist worldview, and until a midlife about-face, she was entrenched in leftist circles. Her novels used the “‘non-epic everyday,’” or a focus on family and domestic life, to bring the lives of the southern poor into view and to expand awareness of the problems of the working class, and especially of women (p. 146). Katharine followed a more academic route, beginning in college to question the racial mores and the class stratifications of her birthplace. She, too, left the South for a life of ideas and scholarship with a female companion at her side.
Katharine’s and Grace’s lives were almost breathtaking in their scope. Unlike Elizabeth, who receded into a more traditional role, Grace and Katharine embarked on lives of almost unimaginable consequence, vitally engaged with the many social questions of race, class, government, and justice that consumed the 1920s and 1930s. Katharine especially, haunted by the South’s racial division and the poverty she witnessed among tenant farmers, sought throughout her career to get “‘the world’s work done,’” believing that study and reflection could lead southerners, and all Americans, to rid themselves of their biases and change the world (p. 182). Though operating in distinct circles, each sister was profoundly concerned with questions of gender, familial structure, and inequality, well before the development of feminist language to frame these issues. Those passions brought Grace to work in left-wing causes, including the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys, and to write a steady stream of articles in leftist and progressive journals. Katharine, along with her partner Dorothy Douglas, were entrenched in women’s progressive networks and engaged in New Deal policy debates. Both sisters moved in circles filled with intellectuals, politicians, academics, and others. Their status as highly intellectual and educated white women, and their freedom from the traditional encumbrances of family, allowed them the privilege and independence in the 1920s and 1930s to devote their lives to ideas in action.
Their enthusiastic participation in socialist circles in the 1930s reverberated through their lives to profound effect in the 1950s. Katharine’s partner Dorothy was accused of communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, upending their academic lives and ultimately pushing them apart...