Post-war Left Feminism

Against the Current, No. 163, March/April 2013

Robbie Lieberman

Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture
by Kathlene McDonald
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012,
132 pages, $55 hardcover.

KATHLENE McDONALD’S STUDY, Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture, focuses tightly on the left-wing roots of feminism and opens up avenues of inquiry that merit further attention from activists and scholars exploring the continuities of American radicalism.

There is a substantial body of work on the “long” civil rights movement and political links between Old and New Lefts. But McDonald is uniquely interested in how anti-fascist rhetoric shaped left feminist thought, especially in relation to imaginative literature.

In the early Cold War years, leftist ideas were frequently expressed through cultural means due to political repression. McDonald’s aim is to rescue left-wing feminist literary works from “cold war exile” and thereby illustrate that ideas such as the triple oppression of Black working-class women and “the personal is political” did not suddenly emerge in the 1960s. In concert with a growing series of influential monographs, she argues for a “continuous tradition of [left feminist] resistance, a tradition that has been largely erased by the red-baiting of the McCarthy era.” (109)

McDonald begins by highlighting discussions in the Communist Party (CP) press of women’s oppression under fascism, with several references to the supposed parallels between Hitler’s Germany and the United States. Leftist women writers “used the idea of the ‘fascist triple K,’ based on the Nazi slogan of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche, or ‘children, kitchen, church,’ which mandated that women should be defined by their roles as wives and mothers.” (15)

McDonald is critical of the CP’s lack of attention to questions of sexuality and the fact that many left-wing men did not live up to the ideals of women’s equality; yet she does not comment critically on the Communists’ repeated warnings that the United States was traveling a path that could only lead to fascism.

Her most intriguing chapter is on the fictional writing of the highly controversial Martha Dodd, daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany who fled the U.S. in the 1950s after being charged with espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

McDonald effectively highlights Dodd’s female characters who, if not always heroes in their own right, were the ones who proposed collective resistance, coalition-building, and even consciousness raising.

The chapter on African-American playwright and novelist Alice Childress continues the work of others in documenting the undeniable connections between her left feminist political organizing and her cultural work. Not only was Childress active in a number of left-wing organizations — Civil Rights Congress, Committee for the Negro in the Arts, and so on — but her writing is full of examples of the struggles and resistance of Black working-class women.

Perhaps her most well known character is “Mildred,” a Black domestic worker, “an outspoken and militant working-class heroine” (66), whose advice appeared in the pages of Freedom, a Cold War newspaper founded by blacklisted actor and singer Paul Robeson.

Mildred points to, in McDonald’s words, “models of resistance” and “a continuous tradition of black feminist thought.” But in her related discussion of the debate about “white chauvinism” in the Communist left, McDonald again lacks critical distance and does not consider that the charge was sometimes used destructively, crudely, and unfairly to settle political scores or advance careers.

By contrast to the chapters on Dodd and Childress, the brief section on the famous African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry is less insightful, perhaps because other scholars have already firmly situated Hansberry’s work in a left feminist tradition. McDonald astutely notes a conflict between Hansberry’s nonfiction writings and her plays, the former being more insistent on the centrality of women in both domestic and international struggles for freedom.

McDonald suggests that the difference — including the fact that the one play Hansberry wrote with a strong female lead, The Drinking Gourd, was never produced — might be attributed to “the challenges faced by women on the Left during the McCarthy era.”(92) Or alternatively, “Part of the difficulty in locating a Left feminist voice in many of Hansberry’s plays is that her Left feminist community was not her sole community of support.” (77)

Since both of these conditions also hold true, however, for the other writers whose work McDonald discusses, neither justification is compelling. (The Drinking Gourd, a teleplay commissioned by NBC in 1960, was pulled from the network’s schedule at the last minute mainly because executives feared the racial content was too divisive.)

McDonald’s final chapter, “Ask Him If He’s tried it at Home,” subtitled “Making the Personal Political,” is more fresh and cogent.  Here she offers examples of left feminist literature that raise the contradiction between Communist men’s theorizing about “the woman question” and their practice of equality on the home front.

Exploring such themes as marriage, housework, childcare, and the division of labor, left feminist writers posed models of more cooperative and equal relationships.

McDonald’s work opens a window on a larger topic that will surely be examined from additional angles by others. Two issues that especially need to be pursued in the study of left feminist thought and literature from this era are those of “maternalism” and “peace.” These themes were common to the Congress of American Women and Sojourners for Truth and Justice, organizations in which several of the subjects in McDonald’s book participated.

However, when maternalism and peace appear in her study, they pass without comment. For instance, when Alice Childress’s character Mildred portrays her ideal society, she says, “I’d like you to leave out the bombs and wars.” (74)

Lorraine Hansberry, who counted Childress among her mentors, later echoed these exact sentiments. In Margrit Reiner’s “The Petition,” a short story about a woman circulating a petition opposing the Korean War, the main character “makes a plea for peace to the women as mothers.” (100)

These are among the political and cultural themes to which future scholars surely will devote more attention.

March/April 2013, ATC 163