Recovering Women’s Writing

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Constance Coiner

Labor and Desire:
Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America
By Paula Rabinowitz
University of North Carolina Press. $29.95 hardcover, $12.95 paperback.

DURING THE EARLY ’30s Michael Gold was probably the most prominent Communist writer and critic; at the 1935 American Writers’ Congress he was hailed as “the best loved American revolutionary writer.” His autobiographical novel, Jews Without Money (1930), was reprinted eleven times in the first year of publication and twenty-five times between 1930 and 1950; it has been translated into most European languages and into Chinese and Japanese.

When in the pages of New Masses, the Communist Party (CP) literary journal, Gold challenged proletarian writers to “write with the courage of [their] own experience”—addressing himself to machinists, sailors, farmers, weavers, tanners, ditchdiggers, and hobos – he thought he was speaking broadly, inclusively.

Ironically, it is as if the women writers included in Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor and Desire took Gold at his word and wrote “with the courage of [their] own experience.” It is as if they knew that the “man” on an East Side soap-box whose revolutionary oratory awakened the boy sophisticated cultural critic as well as a at the end of Jews Without Money was, in person concerned about understanding Gold’s actual experience, a woman— and improving the lives of “ordinary” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, then a Wobbly Americans, and one important dimension orator.

Two Sets of Revisions

In the preface to Labor and Desire, which surveys more than forty Depression-era novels by radical women(1) Rabinowitz says that the book “owes its beginnings to two unrelated sources”: an offhand remark by Marxist critic Fredric Jameson that radical scholars should “reinvent” the 1930s, and her grandmother’s telling her a “shame-filled memory she had from the Depression” having to do with a humiliating job she took just to afford a chicken for Sabbath suppers (ix).

If it was a prominent critic who suggested that scholars should rewrite the literary history of the 1930s, it was the grandmother’s story that suggested how: “It was the absence of almost any women’s names from Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left (1961, 1977, 1992) that led me to begin this study,” says Rabinowitz. “I knew from my own family and from films like “Union Maids” (1974) that women had marched on the picket lines, challenging not only the boss’s authority but also that of their husbands and fathers. Surely, there must have been women writers on the left who had told stories as powerful as my grandmother’s” (ix-x).

Labor and Desire’s refreshing departure from most literary criticism can be explained by its dual origins, by its belonging to both Jameson’s and the grandmother’s worlds. Rabinowitz is a sophisticated cultural critic as well as a person concerned about understanding and improving the lives of “ordinary” Americans, and one important dimension of Labor and Desire is its evident grounding in Rabinowitz’s own strong socialist-feminist convictions. Labor and Desire, committed as much to historic and economic concerns as to gender relations, opposes the flight from history evident in much literary theory, including much feminist criticism.

Labor and Desire, which extends the work of Rabinowitz and Charlotte Nekola’s important Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940 (1987), calls for “two sets of revisions.”

The first requires the scholarship on 1930s literary radicalism to include women’s participation. Much of the scholarship of literary radicalism, Rabinowitz observes, has been top-down, focusing on what Josephine Herbst termed the literary “head boys” and on the period’s major left publications, such as the Daily Worker, New Masses, and Partisan Review.

Most histories of literary radicalism have emphasized the ‘shifting political pronouncements” of the (mostly male) CPUSA leadership and the corresponding changes in literary values expressed by “head boys.” Rabinowitz rightly characterizes this rendering of literary history as “profoundly undialectical” and “also profoundly gendered” (5).

Because women were largely absent from Party leadership, we cannot learn how women maneuvered within the Communist movement by taking the elevator to Party headquarters on the ninth floor. The views and daily experience of rank-and-file women often varied from those of male Party bureaucrats, as Tulle Olsen, Meridel Le Sueur, and a dozen other former Party women I have interviewed insist.

“When gender is registered as a category” in the history of literary radicalism, Rabinowitz observes, “differences other than those between the Third Period and the Popular Front or between the Communist and anti-Stalinist Left appear. The differently gendered political subjects of women’s revolutionary fiction have other stories to tell” (62).

For the writings of women and people of color, we must also examine more obscure, noncanonical left journals, and Rabinowitz provides a useful list of now-eclipsed left journals from the period (186-187). Labor and Desire is allied, then, with the work of “new social historians”—such as Mark Naison, Paul Buhle, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others—that has augmented institutional histories of the CP by focusing on its rank-and-file members and on factors such as race, ethnicity, and local circumstances.

A second set of revisions would require feminist historiography to re-examine the ’30s. Rabinowitz points out that conventional histories of the U.S. women’s movement have generally depicted the “first wave” as ending in 1920 and the ’30s as a regression for feminism. “Yet within both liberal and leftist discourses,” Rabinowitz argues, “women’s concerns were voiced and acted upon during the 1930s. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped advance women into (symbolic) positions of power in government, while separate women’s journals, councils, and organizations challenged ‘male supremacy’ within the CPUSA” (5).

Women Vs. Hierarchy

I have argued in my own work that the experience of CP women in the ’30s should be carefully evaluated as part of the struggle for women’s liberation in the United States. That the CP’s leadership was overwhelmingly male and that its bureaucracy functioned undemocratically from the top down is a matter of record. But the resistance among some Party women to that patriarchal hierarchy—a resistance anticipating many concerns of feminism’s “second wave”—has yet to be thoroughly explored.

What Sara Evans has observed in Personal Politics (1979) about the New Left also applies to the Old: “…the new left did more than simply perpetuate the oppression of women. Even more importantly, it created new arenas—social space within which women could develop a new sense of sell-worth and independence … and having heightened women’s self-respect, it also allowed them to claim the movement’s ideology for themselves.”

The proletariat during the ’30s was encoded as masculine; “proletarian” and “manly” were nearly synonymous. Labor and Desire explores deviations from manly heroes and heroics in Clara Weatherwax’s Marching! Marching! (1935), Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl (completed in 1939 but not published in full until 1978), and Tulle Olsen’s Yonnondio (written during the ’30s but not published in full until 1974). These novels demonstrate “just how disruptive the female [working-class] subject is of the narrative of proletarian masculinity…. The collectivity envisioned foregrounds maternal bonds over the fraternal connections of working-class solidarity” (98, 100).

Labor and Desire also examines three novels that treat the female intellectual as political subject—Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), Lauren Gilfillan’s I Went to Pit College (1934), and Josephine Herbst’s Rope of Gold (1939). “For the female intellectual,” Rabinowitz argues, “sexuality and maternity are also fundamental to … subjectivity, but they are subsumed by linguistic alienation” (170). This linguistic alienation, like the female working-class subject’s sexual alienation, “impedes yet ultimately produces the bridge between her sell-consciousness and her political activism” (172).

Rabinowitz concludes that women’s revolutionary fiction “rephrased the rhetoric that encoded the proletariat as masculine by putting female sexuality and maternity into working-class narratives …. By foregrounding class conflict, they also sent women’s traditional narratives into the public sphere” (182). Feminist criticism generally devalues labor; ’30s literary history has generally devalued sexuality and maternity. Rabinowitz, then, has made her mark in both fields: She has “provided us with material for theorizing ourselves as laboring and desiring subjects” (182; emphasis mine).

Rabinowitz has contributed valuably to a revisioning of the ’30s U. S. literary left that has been undertaken by scholars such as James Bloom, Alan Filreis, Barbara Foley, Laura Hapke, Walter Kalaidjian, Barbara Melosh, Cary Nelson, David Peck, Jon Christian Suggs, Harvey Teres, Alan Wald, and Douglas Wixson. Revisioning Thirties’ Culture, for example, edited by Bill V. Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, will be published in 1995 by the University of Illinois Press.

But it is important to underscore what Alan Wald tirelessly points out to scholars re-examining the ’30s: Too often radical literature has been viewed within the narrow confines of the 1930s as if that decade were an aberration in U.S. history rather than part of a sustained resistance to capitalism. As Wald argued persuasively in a presentation at the 1993 American Studies Association Convention, the left cultural practices of the 1930s, ’40s, ‘SOs, and ’60s are all linked to the same tradition. Thus Wald is editing a series titled “The Radical Novel in the U.S. Reconsidered,” also to be published by the University of Illinois Press, which will focus on novels between the 1920s and the early ’60s.

Labor and Desire also contributes valuably to efforts—including the pioneering and ongoing work of the Feminist Press and Radical Teacher, Lillian Robinson’s Sex, Class, and Culture (1978,1986), Working Classics: Poems of Industrial Life, edited by Peter Oresick and Nicholas Coles (1990), and Calling Home: Working-Class Women’s Writings, edited by Janet Z.andy (1990)—to promote U.S. working-class writing as a legitimate category of literary analysis. Despite its place on the now-familiar list of issues that concern progressive scholars—race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality—class remains the last taboo among categories of literary analysis, including feminist criticism.

I agree with Lillian Robinson’s assertion in Sex, Class, and Culture that “the most massive and brutal attempts to deny the existence of an analytic category occur with respect to class.” Thus Labor and Desire—which brilliantly demonstrates that “women’s revolutionary fiction of the 1930s narrates class as a fundamentally gendered construct and gender as a fundamentally classed one” (8)—is a groundbreaking work in cultural studies.

Putting It All Together

Multicultural canon reformation has legitimized the study of literary texts by women and people of color, but multicultural educational reform will defeat its egalitarian purpose if gender and racial identities are allowed to submerge and suppress class identities.

Radical literary scholars must expose the common working-class basis of much of the writing now identified solely on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Readers typically identify Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek (1991), for example, as both Chicana and women’s literature but not, additionally, as a working-class text; Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) as both African-American and women’s writing but not as a working-class novel as well; and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) as a lesbian, but not as also a working-class novel.

I am reminded of classroom experiences in which students react with surprise and confusion at their strong identification with the “wrong” text—the Chinese American who wonders why Eva in Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” (1961) “is my grandmother”; the puertorriquena who says she never expected to find her mother’s story in Olsen’s Yonnondio; the African American who sounds an alarm when Anzia Yezierska’s “Children of Loneliness” (1923) resonates more for her than Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Progressive scholars must also create a space in cultural studies for work by Euro-American radical and working- class writers that have been ignored even in recent efforts to broaden the parameters of the U.S. literary canon. Again, I am reminded of a classroom experience: A working-class Euro-American, virulently opposed to multicultural education, found her miner-grandfather’s struggle in Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven (1987) and announced that “if including texts like Storming Heaven in the curriculum is part of what multiculturalism is all about,” she must begin to examine her prejudices.

The emergence of class as a literary category could have significant implications for progressive social and political change in the United States. Reading and analyzing multicultural working-class literature encourages alliances across identities of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality and fosters a political consciousness capable of decoding the U.S. myth of classlessness. Is it too much to hope that identity politics, a politics of “separate” issues, might be scrapped in favor of building the coalitions necessary to improve the lives of the majority of Americans?

In an essay titled “A View from the Garden,” Alexander Saxton—a labor historian, working-class novelist, former CP member, and victim of McCarthy period harassment—challenges left academics to forge “linkages between intellectuals in the still rather privileged gardens available to them, and those who labor in the limbs and stomach of the monster outside” (Monthly Review, November 1984, 29-39) Labor and Desire, by both engendering the history of literary radicalism and treating class as a necessary lens of literary analysis, has forcefully met this challenge.


  1. To further define the novelists included in Labor and Desire, I will reproduce here the first note of the preface: “This study is limited to the novels by white women literary radicals. Although I was able to identify a number of African-American women writers on the Left, for example Marita Bonner and Margaret Walker, none had completed a novel during the 1930s. These writers—along with the many other contributors to Crisis and Opportunity—deserve fuller study for the ways in which their writings produce a complex rendering of the race/cIass/gender nexus. Of course, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Nella Larsen wrote significant African-American women’s novels during the 1930s, but none of these writers demonstrated an active involvement with the Left” (183).
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  2. July-August 1994, ATC 51