1930s Women Writers: A Fresh Look

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Robbie Lieberman

Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940
Edited by Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz
Foreword by Toni Morrison
New York: The Feminist Press, 1987, $12.95.

IN THE 1930s the communist movement helped many women find the belief in themselves necessary to write, yet it deprived them of much-needed support and recognition. This contradiction reflects the Communist Party’s (CP) political approach to the “woman question” during the period.

While the CP acknowledged that women were oppressed, it focused only on the grievances of women in the paid labor force. The party expanded its approach during the Popular Front years, paying attention to such issues as high prices and birth control and working more actively on the recruitment of women into the party. Although the CP argued that marriage, family and sexual life should be based on equality and respect, in practice its approach to these issues — when they received attention at all — was rather conservative.

Throughout the decade the CP opposed the National Women’s Party — which campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — as reactionary and argued that feminism at best was a diversion from the class struggle. Not surprisingly, the effect of CP strategies and policies was ambiguous. While many women gained increased awareness of their potential through participation in the CP, others complained that the party was unconcerned about important problems, such as housework and child care.(1)

Optimism about the Soviet Union combined with the effects of the depression in the United States led many people, artists among them, to affiliate themselves with left in the 1930s. The feeling of being part of something larger than self, something that presaged a bright new future, inspired the creation of music, literature, film, graphic art, and soon-work that often went beyond any party line.

The communist movement helped give cultural workers the “conviction as to the importance of what one has to say.” But the movement’s success at inspiring artists was limited by its persistent lack of support and cultural vision.(2) Women’s writing from the period is a significant, too often neglected, part of the story of left-wing cultural activity.

Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940 addresses that neglect, revealing the talents and concerns of women writers through their short fiction, poetry, reportage and analysis. Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz have done us a tremendous service, bringing to life art that in many cases has been, in Tillie Olsen’s words “refused respect, recognition; lost.”

Nekola and Rabinowitz clearly achieve their purposes, demonstrating both that feminist concerns were alive during the 1930s (a period usually characterized as a “hiatus” between one wave of feminism and the next) and that women contributed to the literature of the period in significant ways.

Women writers faced obstacles that went beyond “the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life.” They wrote during the depression years, when that everyday work was harder than usual They wrote in the context of a movement that did not acknowledge women’s concerns and voices as being different from those of men, that did not view women’s issues as a priority, that expected women to fulfill their traditional roles, that defined the proletarian writer as “a wild youth … the son of working class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, steel mills, harvest fields and mountain camps of America..”(3)

In spite of all the obstacles, however, women did write, simultaneously as insiders and outsiders of the left-wing movements of the time. Women wrote about familiar themes from the 1930s: unemployment, the depression, strikes, union organizing. But they also wrote about Black pride, the double burden, mother-daughter relationships, marriage and family life. They wrote uniquely about gender, race, and class and the interrelations of these issues.

Unorthodox Visions

The most captivating selections in Writing Red are those that surprise in terms of themes and ideas, those that go beyond the visions of the left-wing movements of the time. Edith Manual Durham’s “Deepening Dusk” tells the story of a young fair-skinned mulatto woman who chooses to be Black, to stay with her Black boyfriend and her poor Black mother, rather than live the privileged life of a white lady.

Tess Slesinger’s “The Mouse-Trap” addresses the intersection of class and gender relations in the office; secretary Betty Carlisle learns she can only be on the side of the boss-sneering at the “mice,” who threaten to strike in the face of a pay cut-in return for sexual favors. Marita Bonner’s “The Whipping” depicts a woman denied relief who accidentally kills her hungry child.

Some of the poetry foreshadows feminist themes of the 1960s and ’70s. Lucia Trent’s “Breed, Women, Breed” must have been shocking in its day:

Breed, little mothers
Breed for the owners of mills and the owners of mines
Breed for the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men,
Breed for the war lords, the devouring war lords,
Breed, women, breed!

Margaret Walker’s “Lineage” evokes a theme familiar to feminists today but one that may have seemed somewhat strange in the 1930s:

My grandmothers were strong.
They followed plows and bent to toil.
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew.
They were full of sturdiness and singing.
My grandmothers were strong.

Tillie Olsen adapted a letter written to the New Masses in 1934 to create “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” a poem appealing to the potential solidarity of women:

I want you women up north to know
how those dainty children’s dresses you buy
at macy’s, wanamakers, gimbels, marshall fields,
are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,
down in San Antonio, “where sunshine spends the winter.”

The reportage and analysis also offer some unique stories and viewpoints, from “Bessie: A Garment Strike Story” Mary Guimes Lear’s story of a spirited and inspirational strike leader, to “Hard-Boiled,” Mary Heaton Verse’s sympathetic portrait of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the women who accused the Scottsboro boys of raping them.

The anthology ends with theoretical writings on the positions of women, again writings that were in significant ways ahead of their time. Mary Inman writes about “The Pivot of the System”– that is, housework done by women — part of a series that sparked major controversy within the communist movement and that convinced Inman to leave the Communist Party.

Rebecca Pitts’ “Women and Communism” finds private property to be the root of the problem, making it impossible for women to have both productive work and marriage. Grace Hutchins writes about “The Double Burden” of work in the paid labor force and work at home, paying special attention to the problem of the unavailability of information about birth control.

Yet the writings here are also of their time and of the movements of their time. “For my people,” Margaret Walker’s stirring ode to Black people past and present, ends with the line “Let a race of me now rise and take control.” (Emphasis added.) Also, there is an assumption — implicit in some of the short fiction and poetry, more explicit in the reportage and analysis — that women’s position is better under socialism. If women can’t be free under capitalism, communism provides an answer.

Rebecca Pitts writes: “Only Communism offers women the right to be an independent productive worker … [and] the right to a freer, more natural sex happiness. In the Soviet Union we already find proof that to liberate woman as worker means to liberate her also as sexual being.” (Emphasis in original.) On balance, however, insights about women’s oppression and potential are more striking in these selections than acceptance of traditional roles or party lines.

Optimism in Despair

What comes through in many of these writings, as in some of the music, art, film from the same period, is a moving sense of optimism in the midst of despair. This optimism likely stemmed from many sources, not least from being part of a movement that was convinced (mistakenly or not) of its own importance for shaping the future.

Some writers probably were encouraged by the CP’s relative acknowledgement of the “woman question,” a recognition that opened a space for women’s issues to be addressed and, ultimately, redefined. Radical women writers felt that their work could help shape the future – their writing mattered.

Though Nekola and Rabinowitz take pains to put these writings in context, they don’t stress enough the importance of belonging to a movement. “Writing Red,” they say “refers … to a very loosely defined group of women writers who, to a greater or lesser degree, contributed to and were themselves moved by the intellectual, literary, and political energy of the left during that turbulent decade.”

This definition may have pacified writers who didn’t want to appear in a “communist” anthology; it tells us that this is not “party line” writing; and it justifies the inclusion of such writers as Dorothy Day and Mary Heaton Vorse.

But it also glosses over an important part of the context in which these women wrote. Women writers may have a “radical tradition” of their own, but they also have one that they share with others who were part of the 1930s movements — communist, Black, labor — for better or worse.(4) Many of the selections here were first published in communist periodicals, periodicals supported by an energetic and optimistic movement. It was the shared energy and outlook of a movement that helped inspire these women to write – it was the failure of that movement to address many of their concerns that makes their writing so interesting and important.

This thoroughly enjoyable book has a few minor problems. The editors could have made one clear statement about their selection process. The selections are great, but why these and not others? What are we missing?

The editors tell us they were interested in expressions of feminist concerns, variety of form, and a broad spectrum of issues (race, class, gender and international). They have chosen selections from working-class and middle-class women, Communists, Trotskyists, Catholic workers and others. The writers range from well-known to anonymous. The selections first appeared in periodicals ranging from New Masses to Partisan Review, the New Republic and Crisis. Yet they never explain how they weighted all these criteria. Is this anthology representative of women’s writing at the time? Is it the best, the most interesting, the most important?

Scholars may find annoying the difficulty in locating the dates of publication for these works, dates that enable us to better understand these selections in historical, political and cultural context. For example, what are we to make of Joy Davidman’s poem, “Twentieth-Century Americanism”? Was it written before or after Earl Browder’s famed statement that “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism”? The reader is often required to look both in the Contributors and Acknowledgements sections at the end of the book to find this pertinent information. Some works are never dated, such as Florence Reece’s song, “Which Side Are You On?”

Small criticisms aside, we owe a debt of gratitude to Charlotte Nekola and Paul Rabinowitz for their fine, painstaking work of selecting these materials, putting them in context, and presenting them to receive the recognition they deserve. We can only hope that their work helps inspire other scholars to focus more attention on the contributions made by women to left-wing ideas and movements and to cultural life in the United States.

Notes

  1. See Robert Shaffer, “Women and the Communist Party, U.S.A., 1930-1940,” Socialist Review 9 (May-June 1979), 73-118.
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  2. The movement’s inspiring and limiting of cultural workers is discussed in William Alexander, Film on the left (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981) and in Robbie Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989).
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  3. Michael Gold, “Go Left, Young Writers!” New Masses 4 January 1929): 3-4.
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  4. The editors cite Deborah Rosenfelt, “From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition,” Feminist Studies 7 (Fall 1981): 370-406.
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May-June 1989, ATC 20

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