Women of The Masses

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Nora Ruth Roberts

Heretics & Hellraisers:
Women Contributors to The Masses, 1911-1917
By Margaret C. Jones
Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993, $13.85 paper.

WE SOMETIMES FORGET that there was a vibrant, volatile, dynamic women’s movement in this country before the 1960s that was not merely pegged to the suffrage campaign. It is Margaret C. Jones’ laudable ambition to remind us of an important group of our foremothers who wrote regularly for the pages of The Masses, that most radical of intellectual publications, under the directorship of the young Max Eastman with the help of his feminist sister Crystal.

Jones’ mission is to introduce us to the lost writings of a generation of dedicated and vivacious women writers, to tell who they were and summarize what they wrote. This she does in a series of thematically related chapters — on feminism, ethnicity, pacifism, and even religion.

Revived fresh from the pages of The Masses are such nearly lost figures as Mary Heaton Vorse, Dorothy Day, Louise Bryant, Mary White Ovington, Inez Haynes Irwin, and others. Jones provides biographical background, snippets of their work, and analyses of their major themes. She includes an appendix with biographical notes and an extensive bibliography. The net result is to correct the impression generally perpetuated that the radical movement was predominantly male-directed and oriented until the recent feminist period.

What Jones makes clear, however, is that the women writing for The Masses were unabashedly middle-class women, with sentiments, if not experiences, sympathetic to labor and to the poor. Vorse, for example, an inveterate labor reporter, was from an upper-middle-class family. In a way, this seems not to matter. Jones gives examples of fiction that attempts to show up middle-class women in relation to their poor servants, and there are examples of ethnically enlightened stories at a time when those were excluded from the mainstream women’s press.

Also included are remarkably subtly accomplished portrayals of shopgirls and the genteel working class. Both the suffrage issue and the anti-war stance (which was to bring about The Masses’ demise) are hotly propounded by notable Masses women writers. In all, Hellrisers & Heretics is an excellent source book that captures the flavor of an important period in women’s history, in the history of the radical movement, and in the history of the nation.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of Jones’s project to raise the retrospective question, considering the extraordinary leeway that Masses editors apparently gave to these women writers, why was so much room made for them in what was, even then, a predominantly male-directed movement? I’m not sure it is a failing of Jones’ book that she addresses very few theoretical questions relating to the fact that these women were operating, after all, in a male-controlled press and movement.

To be sure, Mari-Jo Buhle’s valuable chronicle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (1981) gives an excellent indication of the talents and sheer quantity of vocal women involved in leadership and lectureship positions in the early socialist movement. Jones can undoubtedly not be faulted for addressing a dimension beyond the scope of her study, namely, what happened after 1917 to alter the course of radical women’s politics to the point that the 1960s generation was to find it virtually nonexistent in radical history.

Walter Rideout, in his newly reissued version of The Radical Novel in the United States 1900-1954 does a good job of indicating the shift in the nature of radicalism with the advent of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Communist Party’s need to conform to the Comintern. But, while Rideout includes many of Jones’ women in his list of important pre-revolutionary writers, he does not analyze issues that affect radical women or radical women writers as those veered and tacked with the shift in Communist positions.

Paula Rabinowitz’s new study of radical women of the thirties, Labor and Desire (1991) provides excellently executed theoretical insights into the masculinization of the left with the proletarianization policy initiated by William Z. Foster, mandated by the Third International, and interpreted as a primarily masculinist literary edict by New Masses editor Mike Gold.

The question that was on my mind as I finished Hellraisers & Heretics was: Where do these forthright and visible women fit into the picture of the relationship between feminism and masculinization as that question developed on the radical left? Was the plenitude and variety of women’s writings in The Masses a matter of the benevolence of the dictatorship of Max Eastman and his benefactors? How does women’s working-class writing, say, compare with that of male writers?

Perhaps it is too much to ask of such a generous researcher as Margaret Jones that she go beyond cataloging and summing up and give us as well a theoretical groundwork that could fit the piece of Masses women’s writings into the large jigsaw of the history of the radical feminist heritage. Her researches provide an invaluable groundwork for further literary study of the pre-war feminist period, provide the basis for further study with the useful compendium of names and works for a variety of lost and forgotten authors, and titillate the curiosity with a sampling of resurrected otherwise forgotten work.

ATC 52, September-October 1994