The Radical and the Moderate


Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage

By Trisha Franzen; Alice Paul: Claiming Power

by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry

Reviewed by Louise W. Knight


In May 1913, in an unseasonably hot Washington spring, a determined young woman was building a woman suffrage organization whose sole purpose was to pressure Congress to pass a federal amendment giving women the vote. At 28, Alice Paul had concluded that the 23-year-old National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) wasn’t effective, because it wasn’t political enough at the federal level. The annual ritual of a Senate hearing on the amendment was pointless, she thought. She wanted to try something different, with an organization she could run as she liked— though to make it credible, she wanted it to be an affiliate of the National. With misgivings, the National’s president, 66-year-old Anna Howard Shaw, had recently approved the plan, not wanting to lose control over the ambitious Paul. Taking a protective stance, Shaw wrote Paul a letter that captures a key difference between the two committed suffrage activists. “Don’t stay there too long in the heat,” she wrote. “Don’t rush things too hard.”


Paul’s sense of urgency, as well as her creative insistence on finding new and controversial ways to increase the pressure on Congress to act, defined her contribution to the suffrage cause and supplied the reasons, a year later, for the painful break between her new organization, the Congressional Union, and the National. By then Shaw, a long- time suffrage leader who had worked hard to broaden suffrage’s appeal, had decided that Paul was leading a dangerously militant experiment that would damage the movement’s respectability and therefore its ability to generate support for state or federal legislation. For her part, Paul was sure that the National’s political timidity was holding back history.


An almost complete history of the suffrage movement is embedded in these two women’s stories. Anna Howard Shaw, a preacher from the backwoods of Michigan, joined the cause in the 1880s at the encouragement of the early feminist Lucy Stone and, within a few years, was travelling ceaselessly to lecture for woman suffrage. For more than a decade she was on the road with the long-time president of the national association and her beloved mentor and friend, Susan B. Anthony. Later, she travelled on her own, lecturing both to earn her living and promote the cause. Eventually, as president of the National and its first paid officer, she travelled on the organization’s behalf. She held office for eleven years, until 1915. When she died four years after she stepped down, she knew that the suffrage amendment had finally passed both houses of Congress but not whether enough states would eventually ratify it.


Alice Paul, the Quaker daughter of a suffrage advocate, joined the militant wing of the British suffrage movement in 1908, while studying in London for a graduate degree. After a year and a half of intense and sometimes life-threatening activism, she returned to the United States and, already famous from her suffrage work in England, joined the American suffrage movement. Though as gifted a speaker as Shaw, Paul was more interested in bold, publicity-generating political strategies. By 1917, she had built the Congressional Union into a national organization of 40,000 members and was using all available legal, nonviolent methods to relentlessly prod President Woodrow Wilson to endorse the federal amendment, including months-long picketing of the White House. This strategy made Wilson so nervous he ordered (or allowed) the women to be jailed as criminals rather than as what they were: political prisoners.


The National’s greatest strength was the help it provided suffragists to achieve state laws or state constitutional amendments that made it legal for women to vote. It sent out speakers to lecture in small towns, convened inspiring national conventions, and helped fund suffrage campaign expenses when possible. The Congressional Union— which later became the National Woman’s Party (NWP)—organized the women voters in “free” (mostly western) states to vote against their Democratic congressmen if they did not support the amendment, and pressured and confronted President Woodrow Wilson. Paul and the NWP targeted Democrats because, since their party controlled both Congress and the presidency, the power to pass the amendment was in their hands. In time, with both the NWP and the National working hard, more and more women had the vote, and the Democrats in the Congress, feeling the heat, passed the amendment. The woman suffrage movement was the work of millions of women, but without Shaw and Paul, with their different ideas about how to achieve success, its history would have looked very different.


Now we have two new biographies of these leaders, both highly attentive to the viewpoints of their subjects, to help us see the movement’s history freshly. Trisha Franzen’s Anna Howard Shaw is a full-life treatment, while J. D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry’s Alice Paul takes the younger woman’s story only to 1920 and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Both are the first deeply researched biographies of their subjects. Indeed, Franzen, a professor of women’s studies at Albion College, Shaw’s alma mater, has apparently written the first biography of any kind about her subject— although Shaw’s speeches have been studied by two rhetoric scholars, Wil A. Linkugel and Martha Watson, in Anna Howard Shaw: Suffrage Orator and Social Reformer (1991).


There are four previous books about Paul. Historian Christine Lunardini wrote a short biography for the high school and college classroom, and journalist Mary Walton wrote a partial biography that focuses almost completely on Paul’s fight in the US for the vote. The other books are scholarly studies, one by Lunardini, From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1828 (2000) (in 1923 Paul was the creator of the Equal Rights Amendment); and the other by Katherine Adams and Michael Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (2007), which is about Paul’s rhetorical strategies.


The co-authorship of the new Paul biography has a story behind it. Fry, an expert in oral history, first became interested in Paul in the 1970s, when she conducted several interviews with her for the Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley (the recordings are available online). In 2005, when Fry became terminally ill, she asked Zahniser, a trained historian, independent scholar, and the compiler of four reference books dealing with women, to complete the book. Apparently Zahniser wrote a fresh manuscript, since Fry’s published essays read quite differently than any part of the biography that bears both their names.


Drawn to Anna Howard Shaw’s neglected story because of her important role in the suffrage movement, Franzen soon became fascinated with the “great strengths and serious flaws” of the woman herself, and with way that Shaw, a never married, immigrant, self-made, working woman, became a national leader in an elite-led movement. Franzen tells the second story particularly well, with an astute sensitivity to Shaw’s ever-present need to earn a living.


Franzen’s fascination with Shaw becomes our own as we read. As is often the case, the leader’s greatest strength was also her greatest flaw. She was a fighter whose method of leadership was to state firmly what was to be done and then not budge an inch, regardless of the consequences. This approach saved her life when she was 27 and traveling through northern Michigan wilderness all night with a surly wagon driver. When he threatened to rape her, she pulled out her gun and told him if he stopped the wagon or spoke again, she would shoot him. He believed her. But the same approach created problems when she was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She brooked no criticisms, squelched debate, and over time, lost many friends. This aspect of her character, however, does not quite come into focus in Franzen’s telling. The details are there, but they are insufficiently interpreted. Franzen does not always step back at key points to help us see Shaw objectively, from the outside, though she frequently quotes those who disapproved of her.


Indeed, Franzen’s strength as a biographer is in her mastery of the details—the who, what, when, where, and how of Shaw’s life. She attends to the tangible things— money, travel, houses, people, degrees earned, annual meetings, parades, automobiles, and trains. But as Franzen motors us crisply through Shaw’s comings and goings, motivation and interpretation sometimes fall by the wayside. The larger context of suffrage history receives only passing nods. Franzen is thorough in the attention she pays to the concepts of race, class, and gender—the terms themselves appear often, giving the text a slightly sociological aspect—and some of her best insights relate to the benefits and limitations of Shaw’s class status.


One of the great missed opportunities in Franzen’s book is to capture more vividly and examine more thoughtfully Shaw’s much-admired gifts as a lecturer, since these formed the basis of her influence as a leader. Franzen apparently decided that the subject had no place in her biography. Instead, Franzen summarizes a few speeches, notes the devotion of Shaw’s audiences, and leaves it at that.


There are many fascinating aspects of Shaw’s life that Franzen introduces, but skirts rather than delves into, most obviously, Shaw’s sexuality and gender identity. No one reading the book can miss the clues scattered throughout that, taken together, raise the question of where Shaw fell on the feminine-masculine spectrum. We learn that the youthful Shaw wore a cropped haircut (captured in a photograph on the book’s cover); that she loved doing things that, traditionally, only men did—she preferred digging ditches or shoveling coal to sewing, for example; and that her college nickname was Annie-boy. In terms of her sexuality, we learn that she considered her love for Susan B. Anthony her great “passion,” and that she had a thirty-year partnership with Lucy Anthony, Susan B. Anthony’s niece, who described Shaw as her “precious love.” There was also an apparent dalliance with a female “professor Potter.”


Franzen, a scholar in the field of lesbian history, does an excellent job of providing this information, and in the Introduction she calls Shaw “gender variant” and declares she had a “butch” persona. But in the main text she does not develop these points. While she notes that there was “no hint of romance” in any of Shaw’s friendships with men, she avoids noting the large amounts of romance in Shaw’s relations with women and avoids interpreting the fascinating facts she has provided.


In the Epilogue and a related footnote, she again takes up the topic of Shaw’s sexual orientation—in the process providing more intriguing details—only to carefully set it aside because she “found nothing that could clearly be categorized as a sexual reference among all Shaw’s writings.” Claiming that female-female intimacy in Shaw’s day was of a sort unfamiliar in ours, Franzen proposes (without undertaking it) a “larger reconceptualization of women’s, lesbians’ and/or women-identified women’s relationships.”


Only another biographer—certainly not a reviewer—can sort all of this out. But as a reader, I wanted to know more about Shaw’s remarkable friendship with Susan B. Anthony (I learned more by reading the two chapters about that friendship in Shaw’s thoroughly anecdotal and fascinating memoir, The Story of a Pioneer [1915]); and about Shaw’s life-long partnership with Lucy Anthony, which mostly receives only glancing references, although in one place Franzen refers to them as “a couple.” Perhaps the sources were inadequate to the latter task, but that is not made clear. Regardless of whether sexual contact was involved, Shaw’s intimate emotional life was part of who she was and deserves an honest, if brief, assessment in a life biography. How else can women know the richness of their own pasts?


Alice Paul: Claiming Power delivers on its subtitle. In the groundbreaking chapters about her suffrage work in England (the first in-depth examination of those years), we are often—indeed perhaps too often—alerted that Paul would soon apply to her American work the methods of political activism she was learning from the British suffragette leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christobel. These were all about using the political power women did have: the ability to call public attention to their unjust lack of the vote and to hold politicians publicly accountable for their failure to grant it. Paul did not use all of the Pankhursts’ methods. As a Quaker, she believed in the principle of nonviolence, at least when it came to her own country, and she did not propose that her Congressional Union followers break windows or physically assault anyone. But she mastered the essential Pankhurst lessons and applied them brilliantly, as Zahniser and Fry skillfully show. One finishes their book with a newfound respect for the too-often dismissed Paul. While many of the older suffragists, including Shaw, felt her to be the enemy, readers today can more objectively admire her remarkable skills as an organizer of effective political action and recognize the central role she and the CU/National Woman’s Party played in securing the suffrage amendment.


Like Shaw’s, Alice Paul’s emotional life and its role in her activism is a puzzle. Reading the biography, we gradually realize that Paul, who never married, had strong friendships with two women who were crucial to the work of the radical wing of the suffrage movement and completely shared Paul’s vision and courage: Dora Lewis and Lucy Burns. There are hints in the book that Paul’s relationship with the much older Lewis was deeply and physically affectionate. Burns was Paul’s stalwart and devoted partner in assertive political theater and sophisticated organizing from the days when the two Americans were supporters of Emmeline Pankhurst’s controversial and sometimes violent suffrage campaign in England.


Back in the United States, the two friends shared the leadership of the Congressional Union (Burns was second in command) and the most physically demanding side of suffrage work: picketing the White House for long hours and in all kinds of weather, often going to jail, where, during their hunger strikes, they endured forced feeding. The chapters on the picketing and subsequent jailings are tours de force; Zahniser and Fry are the first to delve so deeply into that history. Among other tidbits we learn that the phrase “iron-jawed angels” to describe the suffrage campaigners was the creation of an antifeminist—which perhaps explains why I have never liked it. (It became the title of a 2003 TV movie starring Hilary Swank as Paul and Frances O’Connor as Burns.) From their correspondence, quoted by Zahniser and Fry, we catch glimpses of the trust between the two women and their likemindness, but mostly we learn about Burns’s work in the Congressional Union office, and her comings and goings. While the importance of their partnership is acknowledged, its nature is underinterpreted, despite the fact that it was essential to Paul’s political success.


In contrast, Zahniser and Fry highlight as possible romantic interests several men in Paul’s life and even go so far as to surmise, while admitting there is a complete lack of evidence, that a certain Mr. Parker may have proposed to her. Evidently they—or most likely, Zahniser—find it acceptable to guess about heterosexual relationships but not about other kinds. Fry could have chosen to surmise about neither but instead interpret fully the meaning of the evidence at hand—but that, it seems, she was reluctant to do.


Race is another complicated issue that the authors of these books take up. Mindful that historians have criticized both Shaw and Paul for racist actions, the authors face the music forthrightly; however, their conclusions are murky and seem a bit protective. For Shaw, the issue was how to respond to the refusal of white southern women suffragists to endorse the federal amendment. Across the entire South, white suffragists and white (male) politicians feared that if the amendment became law, it would establish the precedent of federal control over voting, and thus end state power to keep black men disenfranchised. Franzen argues in the Epilogue (which, along with the Introduction, contains some of the best writing and most interesting interpretative insights of the whole book) that Shaw was “always deeply committed to universal and full suffrage,” and in the main text, she discusses how Shaw strategized over time to move obstreperous white southerners off the NAWSA board. But in the Introduction she admits that Shaw “struggled to actualize her beliefs” and “failed to confront reactionary politics and strategies while she was a vice president of NAWSA.” Shaw supported the Shafroth Amendment, which restricted voter-qualification decisions to the states, and thus was favored by southern white suffragists. Franzen mentions Shaw’s support but never makes the connection to racist suffrage politics. This is a significant failure in interpretation.


For Paul, who also wooed white southern women’s support in ways that harmed southern black women’s chances for the vote, the most famous race-related question is whether, as some have claimed, she compelled African American women to march at the back of the suffrage parade that took place in Washington the day before President Wilson’s first inauguration. Zahniser and Fry’s chapter on the event is full of fascinating details. Regarding the race question, they tell us that before the parade, Paul waffled, feeling concerned that “the majority of the white marchers would refuse to participate” if “many Negroes” were marching too. She decided not to encourage black suffragists to march, but to quietly allow them do so, while avoiding publicity about whether or not they were welcome. Zahniser and Fry also report that it was the Illinois delegation’s chair, and not Alice Paul, who asked the sole black woman in the Illinois delegation, the brave antilynching journalist Ida B. Wells Barnett, to leave. But what about the other state delegations? Did they have black women members? Zahniser and Fray don’t say. Historians, though not Fry and Zahniser, have sometimes assumed what happened to Barnett was typical, not unique—but we need the evidence to support that claim. The authors indicate that at least part of the parade was integrated: in a section separate from the state delegations, white and black college women graduates marched together.


Work on the complicated and vast history of the suffrage movement first flourished in the 1990s. Synthesis was bravely and skillfully attempted. In more recent years, historians have settled down to the hard work of narrower studies, writing the stories of suffrage in various states or regions, of African American women and the vote, and biographies of individual suffragists. Happily, we can now add the biographies of Shaw and Paul to that list. Both books have much offer to historians of the movement as well as to anyone interested in one of the largest and most remarkable political action campaigns in the nation’s history.


Louise (Lucy) W. Knight is the author of two biographies of Jane Addams: Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (2005) and Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (2010). Her current project is a book about the Grimke sisters, to be published by Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan. She is a visiting scholar with the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northwestern University.

Science, Religion, and Women’s Rights


From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America

By Kimberly A. Hamlin

Reviewed by Emily R. Grosholz


It took almost 150 years after our revolution for American women to gain the right to vote; the basis for other legal rights and social opportunities required separate and equally difficult political work throughout the nineteenth century. In From Eve to Evolution, Kimberly Hamlin re-examines the slow progressive struggle for women’s rights in the last decades of the nineteenth century in terms of its interaction with both religion and science. The reader might suppose that this is a tale of how the myths of Christianity at first impeded improvements in the status of women, but were then driven back by the rational truths of science, which propelled women forward toward full citizenship. But the story is much more complicated than that, and those complications are what make this book so fascinating. Hamlin describes the role of important individuals (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helen Hamilton Gardner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Eliza Burt Gamble, Margaret Sanger) and institutions (political organizations, newspapers and publishing houses, clubs) in the generally successful trend toward equal rights for women. But within this development, religious institutions played both positive and negative roles, and science was as often used to defend male privilege as to question it. There are also important insights to be gleaned about the roles of myths and personages in human culture, and the difficulty of injecting scientific discourse into political deliberation. Of course, science, religion, and politics must work together to address the oppression of women, but what their interactions can or should look like is far from obvious.


Thus in Chapter One, “Eve’s Curse,” we read of the endless reiteration by clergy of the divinely instituted inequality between men and women, because Eve was created second (and from a rib!) and was personally responsible for the Fall due to that unfortunate apple incident, which moreover doomed her and her daughters to suffer and die in childbirth. But we also see both former President John Quincy Adams in 1842 and the abolitionist Richard Henry Dana in 1849 arguing the same point on the same grounds. Meanwhile, pioneering feminists such as Stanton, Judith Sargent Murray and Sarah Grimké did what they could either to dismiss the historical significance of Eve or to reinterpret her meaning as a personage. Darwin’s theory of evolution clearly offered an alternative to the Garden of Eden story, and feminists were quick to appeal to it, in order to discredit the myth of Eve. American clergy at first dismissed Darwin’s ideas, hoping they would simply go away as earlier evolutionary theories had; but once his books started to sell like hotcakes in the United States, their tactics shifted. Viewing Darwinism and feminism as allied, toward the end of the century, writes Hamlin, “[B]usiness and political leaders [including Grover Cleveland] joined evangelicals in invoking Eve to remind women of their sacred, timeless duties.”


The attendant ironies were many, as Hamlin makes clear. First, Darwin himself used “scientific evidence” to justify the inequality of men and women, and even suggested that sexual differentiation contributed to the advancement of the species. In 1873, Harvard Professor Edward Clarke published Sex in Education, or a Fair Chance for Girls, in which he argued against the education and employment of women on Darwinian grounds, claiming that women’s health would never be able to stand up against the strains of education.


Second, the 1890 merger of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which made them in combination much more politically effective than either had been on its own, was based on a kind of soft evolutionary theory (which owed as much to the philosopher-scientists Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck as to Darwin)


Third, white upper-class feminists of any stripe around 1900 were not always scrupulous about the racist assumptions made by many who espoused evolutionary theories nor about the welfare of working-class women.


In the next three chapters, Hamlin traces various strategies that women employed to integrate progressive feminism with Darwinian science, in the process promoting, criticizing, and modifying scientific practice. In 1886, Smith College erected the Lilly Hall of Science, the nation’s first building dedicated to scientific study and experimentation by women. The students there were especially interested in evolutionary science, and the study of botany and zoology. At the same time, the women’s club movement sought to engage with science, which precipitated the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Women, a national organization for professional women, in 1875. The astronomer Maria Mitchell was its first president: she viewed science not only as a forum in which the inherent natures of women and men could be impartially investigated (on the basis of bodies as well as souls) but also as a profession in which women could excel.


Parrying Edward Clarke’s dismal tome, other feminists argued on Darwinian grounds that women’s well-being (and that of their children) would improve if they could pursue intellectual and professional tasks outside the home. In The Sexes Throughout Nature (1876), Antoinette Brown Blackwell argued that pregnancy should be treated as a natural, healthy process and not as a sickness. She called for greater athletic fitness in women, and more equitable distribution between men and women of domestic labor inside the home and gainful employment outside it. Gilman’s Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898) was a landmark study, which made her internationally famous.


The deployment of science in the service of feminism also ultimately led to serious study of women’s reproductive anatomy, in order to guard against maternal and infant death in childbirth as well as to create better means of contraception, so that women might control the number of children they bore. The midwestern suffragist and socialist Gamble published The Sexes in Science and History: An Inquiry into the Dogma of Women’s Inferiority to Man in 1916, finding in the notion of “female choice” a way to link her objections to capitalism with her concerns about patriarchy. The works of Gilman and Blackwell inspired Margaret Sanger, who was also driven by personal experience: her mother died at the age of 43 after enduring eighteen pregnancies (and losing seven children) during her thirty-year marriage. Sanger was further inspired by Havelock Ellis’s studies of human sexuality, as well as, apparently, by Ellis himself. In 1920, she published Woman and the New Race, which, writes Hamlin, envisions an era when women “select their mates, free from economic necessity, and control their own reproductive lives.” Ultimately, Sanger’s birth-control advocacy was linked to the medical profession, which accounted for its growing political success at the time and also explains why today women must go to a doctor to get a prescription for birth control pills and devices.


Hamlin’s book raises a number of important issues about the interactions among science, politics, and religion. First of all, what is the role of idealism in politics? Though we can see various upward trends (upward at least from a feminist point of view), the flights of optimism recorded in the speeches and writings of Hamlin’s central characters seem, in retrospect, naïve and superficial. Socialism, science, feminism, and the end of legal slavery didn’t actually lead to a social utopia; it is even hard to say today that they have led to a better world, in the sense of a general reduction in human suffering and environmental degradation. We are still searching for new ways to counter excesses of wealth and power, and the tendency of human beings to kill each other for reasons that look, a few years later, stupid and despicable. The optimism of reform politics in America around 1900 was followed by World War I and World War II (which decimated the human population of our planet) as well as the genocidal social reconstructions of Stalin and Mao (at the cost of 60 million people each, according to some estimates). 


Second, the insertion of science into politics was at once (increasingly) necessary, and at the same time very difficult. Darwin’s books, as scientific works go, were accessible, compared to the important texts of physics and chemistry. But even nineteenth century botanic and zoological taxonomy, and problems concerning the relation of the fossil record to the science of geology, were quite technical. Moreover, biology was soon to be annexed to Gregor Mendel’s genetics and then to molecular biology. Hamlin notes how easy it was for both staunch feminists and determined antifeminists to enlist Darwin’s writings on behalf of their political agendas.


The communication of mathematical and scientific ideas to the general public is so difficult that it is often not clear what exactly is being communicated. As Margery Arent Safir remarks, in the Introduction to her edited volume Storytelling in Science and Literature (forthcoming), “Specialized material is made accessible to nonspecialists only on condition of altering the language used.” She calls the scientists who turn to popularization “storytellers,” writing,

When we read them, we are reading science that is partial in more than one way: we are reading what can be popularized, that portion of the whole that can be successfully transported and “translated.” Perhaps more importantly, we are reading those people who can communicate in the lingua franca, and who wish to do so.

A survey in the Economist (May 9, 1998), Safir recalls, reported that very little is retained by those who read scientific popularizations. Even from James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos (1987),

a majority of readers retained from the book only that a butterfly flapping its wings in Miami can cause a storm months later in New York... and this “retention,” or lack thereof, held true for scientist-readers [from other fields] and non-scientist-readers alike.

These days, science sometimes seems to supplant religion and metaphysics; we look to science for answers to the Big Questions, and like Hamlin’s protagonists, for solutions to social problems. From Eve to Evolution teaches us that sometimes the empirical facts of science can be used to falsify certain rash claims, for example, the belief that skull size measures intelligence. But it also shows that science cannot replace practical deliberation and human wisdom, necessary for solving the problems that emblazon the headlines of our newspapers every day.


Emily Grosholz teaches philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University and is an advisory editor for the Hudson Review. Her most recent book is Proportions of the Heart: Poems that Play with Mathematics (2014, with illustrations by Robert Fathauer).

Keeping the Mission Alive


Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision

By Samantha Majic

Reviewed by Marianne Wesson


What happens when a group of spirited individuals, inspired by a strong sense of mission, start up an organization to provide needed services to a neglected group and find that there may be government funding available to fuel their project? These origins characterize the histories of AIDS activism, domestic violence shelters, and rape crisis centers, among others. Social scientists call these enterprises “social movement-borne nonprofits,” and the conventional wisdom is pessimistic about the longevity of their radicalism: many studies suggest that over time, their grassroots energies and oppositional politics do not survive the challenge of negotiating with their funding sources.


Even when an upstart organization is providing services for which the government acknowledges a need, the relationship between the organization and the government may be fraught, for several reasons. Sometimes the problem is one of emphasis and style, as when therapy-oriented social service agencies insist on a model that assumes those in need of assistance are somehow broken and must be mended, preferring this strategy to one that takes aim at the injustices and misfortunes that often bring clients in. In other instances, the difficulty is more explicitly political, as when governmental agencies register their disapproval of some aspect of the service population’s choices (such as to use drugs, to have unprotected sex, to make a living as a sex worker) by insisting that the projects they fund must enforce a prohibition against the forbidden activity as a condition of the provision of services. This latter model is unsurprising, as governments seldom like to be discovered providing, even through intermediaries, what some of their constituents will see as rewards to individuals whose conduct is illegal at worst, reckless at best.


In the usual account, however much a grassroots service provider’s leaders and staff might wish to defy the law-enforcement model of service provision, without independent sources of funding they must bend to the governmental regulations. Even rape crisis centers, whose clients usually have done nothing illegal, may find it difficult to advocate for them by (for example) criticizing the practices of local police departments or prosecutors, as these agencies have representatives on funding boards and have been known to retaliate against their critics. All of these pressures, according to the prevailing narrative, operate to silence dissent, stifle political activism, exhaust oppositional energies, and coerce the conformity of the once-feisty founders and staff of the service organization. (A particular version of this story is told, quite convincingly, in Rose Corrigan’s  Up Against a Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success, [2013], which I reviewed in these pages in January/February 2014.)


Samantha Majic seeks to dissuade us from accepting this account uncritically, by recounting her lengthy and thoughtful investigations into the careers of two California organizations, CAL-PEP (California Prostitutes Education Project) and the St. James Infirmary. The story she tells is instructive, and fascinating on many levels. CAL-PEP as a service organization emerged from the response of the City of San Francisco to the AIDS epidemic; it was one of a number of groups that accepted funds set aside by the city, and later the California Division of Health Services, to engage in HIV/AIDS prevention activities. But its earlier roots lay in COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the defense of prostitutes and the enhancement of their legal status. Margo St. James, the formidable organizer who founded COYOTE in 1973, campaigned not only for the repeal of legal prohibitions on prostitution but also for a transformation in public attitudes toward prostitutes. COYOTE argued that prostitutes were not immoral temptresses or fallen women, but workers, who labored at a sometimes hazardous but honorable occupation. Laws criminalizing their work, claimed St. James, far from protecting them, rendered them vulnerable to exploitation by johns and pimps, and disabled them from seeking the help of the law when they were harmed or mistreated. In the first decade of its existence, COYOTE had a number of successes, but the city’s laws against prostitution remained on the books.


When the AIDS epidemic exploded into a matter of public concern, St. James and COYOTE foresaw that San Francisco prostitutes were likely to be blamed (along with gay men) for the spread of the disease, and they also knew that this new hazard would add to the risks of sex work. Its members pursued a number of low-cost street level initiatives designed to protect prostitutes from the virus, such as handing out fliers and holding informational meetings in districts where prostitutes lived and worked. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, had started up a multistate project to research the sociology of the disease and engage in educational prevention efforts; the staff of the San Francisco unit heard of COYOTE’s work, and hired and trained some of COYOTE’s people to carry out the CDC project. This small kernel of cooperation became CAL-PEP. Eventually, many other city, state, and federal organizations found it useful to recruit CAL-PEP to help with their own anti-AIDS work. In the late 1980s, CAL-PEP applied for and received charitable nonprofit status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, and the organization’s service and research activities flourished in the penumbra of these various marks of governmental favor.


Some thought that CAL-PEP and its healthcare orientation had swallowed COYOTE’s brand, but St. James and her associates persisted in their advocacy for prostitutes, at times on the health and safety front but also, on occasion, in more confrontational and political fashion. In 1999, it opened the St. James Infirmary (named not only as an homage to the blues song, a lament for a dead prostitute, but in honor of the indelible Margo); the clinic would become the first in the world to offer health services “to sex workers, by sex workers.” The infirmary was to some extent funded by the San Francisco Public Health Department and operated under its aegis and in shared space. Later, as the funding became more secure, the infirmary acquired its own space, and it came to provide a large number of services to sex workers, not all of them strictly medical.


The story is inspiring—but would CAL-PEP and the St. James Infirmary inevitably fall to the same fate that so much social science research predicts: bureaucratization, depoliticization, the steady erosion of the original actors’ values and goals, in favor of the agendas of their governmental sponsors? Majic makes a persuasive case that they have not. Although the two enterprises have had their struggles with the governments that support them and been forced to trim their sails occasionally, they have won some battles as well. Majic recounts a small but satisfying moment of victory for CAL-PEP. During the years of the George W. Bush presidency the organization had changed its official name to California Prevention and Education Project, because of fears that its granting agencies would think the organization was “teaching women to be prostitutes.” In 2010, however, it concluded that it would have more success with its grant- seeking if it returned to its original name, and did.


There have been other, more substantive successes. Perhaps the greatest prize has been the organizations’ freedom to provide medical services to clients without requiring them to forswear sex work. Many if not most organizations that offer services to sex workers are required by their sponsors to insist that their clients commit to leaving sex work and to cut them off from services if there is evidence they have not kept this commitment; but CAL-PEP and the infirmary have succeeded in resisting all efforts to force them to conform to this model. Both have also been able to favor sex workers and former sex workers as employees—thus providing a benefit in the form of alternative work for those they hire, as well as taking advantage of the street-level expertise of individuals who understand the health and other challenges of sex work, and creating an atmosphere of acceptance for clients who are still in the life. Moreover, as Majic shows us, many of these employees have acquired important skills and a taste for civic engagement in the course of their work for the organizations.


Still, there are countervailing pressures, as she acknowledges and documents. Grants from agencies such as the CDC, which were always predicated in part on the nonprofits’ ability to gather and provide information about their client populations, have become more and more demanding of vast amounts of data, precisely formatted and promptly reported; some staff have come to feel that they are required to spend time servicing numbers when they could be helping clients. Required technical reporting and accounting processes have at times pressed the groups to neglect their preferences for hiring former sex workers in favor of recruiting more educated and professionalized staff. But although nonprofits have been changed by their uneasy partnerships with various governments, they have proved that change can flow in the other direction as well: for example, the infirmary successfully campaigned for the city’s Department of Public Health to create and staff a hotline on which sex workers could report complaints about their treatment by police or health workers.


How is it, then, that CAL-PEP and the infirmary have avoided the trap of cooptation that so many observers have documented for other social movement-borne nonprofits? Majic suggests that the trap is not nearly as unavoidable as social science would have us believe, and that the key is the recognition of an organization’s strengths—the features that give it bargaining power in any negotiation with its sponsors. Often these are the same assets that CAL-PEP and the St. James Infirmary exploited successfully: expertise that is not easily duplicated elsewhere; a connection to the population of interest, especially if it is one that would mistrust an offer of services from a governmental agency or resist being a source of data if directly approached; and an emotional sense of mission toward the work and the clients. The confidence that comes from these assets and achievements, coupled with a strong dose of courage, may be enough to enable the most controversial grassroots upstart to flourish in an era of devolution.


Glowing steadily in the background of Majic’s story is a tension that she acknowledges, and occasionally incorporates into her strong analysis, but that she plainly does not wish to foreground: the persistent division among feminists on the subject of prostitution. Toward the end of the book she mentions the work of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a Bay Area nonprofit that believes exploitation and human trafficking are the inevitable consequences of prostitution and strongly opposes decriminalization. She appears to take no side in the disagreement between SAGE and her main subjects. But it is the barely obscured premise of Majic’s admiration for CAL-PEP and the infirmary that their political objectives—normalizing prostitution and making it a safer and more attractive occupation—are worthy ones, and thus their sustained negotiations with governments that criminalize their clients’ work are praiseworthy feats of strategy. I do not criticize Majic for failing to address this subject in greater depth—that is not the book she wanted to write—but the tension is there, still with us after all these years.


Mimi Wesson is professor of Law emerita at the University of Colorado. Her most recent work of creative nonfiction, A Death at Crooked Creek: The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, nd The Love Letter, was published in 2013. She is working on her next novel, The Last Execution. 

Art and Politics


The Other Black List: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

By Mary Helen Washington

Reviewed by Dayo Gore


In 2006, the 79-year-old singer and activist Harry Belafonte, while participating in a delegation to Venezuela, called out President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” and announced his support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The controversial trip and pronouncement gained national attention—in part, because such sharp political positioning seemed out of place coming from a voice most people associated with the popularizing of calypso music in the United States. Belafonte’s polemic is less surprising, however, if viewed through his lifelong connection to the black left and the Communist Party (CP)-affiliated milieu that shaped the politics and cultural productions of a number of black artists and writers active from the 1930s well into the 1960s.


In The Other Black List, an insightful, densely researched, and engaging study, Mary Helen Washington illuminates the context, cultural work, and complications that influenced the array of left alliances, CP affiliations, and progressive politics embraced by this diverse group of black writers and artists during the early cold war. As such, she says, her work seeks to “continue the effort to delegitimize the demonization of communism and the Left” and  “encourage further investigation of other writers and artists on the Left.”


Washington begins her study with a personal account of her own “imbibing” of cold war anti-Communism as a black Catholic school student in Cleveland during the 1950s. This introduction highlights the pervasiveness of cold war anti-Communist rhetoric, which linked Communism and black civil rights activism. The cold war fear of being labeled a Communist, she explains, “shifted the focus of civil rights struggles away from the more militant economic- and labor-based civil rights struggles of the 1940s.” All too often, studies of the cold war ignore the black left, instead placing at the center the blacklist of progressive white activists and artists.


Focusing her attention on what she terms the Black Popular Front or the “Other Blacklist,” Washington presents a counternarrative that examines the continuing influence of leftist and CP politics on black art and culture. As a literary scholar and professor of English at the University of Maryland, Washington also seeks to challenge “the stunning absence of cold war history in many African American literary and cultural histories,” which, she warns, “normalizes 1950s New Critical assumptions that literature was suppose to be preserved from ideology and dismisses the socially conscious literature of the 1930s and 1940s.”


Presenting her study as part recovery and part re-evaluation, Washington builds on and extends the work of a number of literary scholars, including Alan Wald, James Smethurst, William Maxell, Aaron Lecklider, Cheryl Higashida, and Michael Denning, and a wave of recent histories of the post-World War II black left, including Nikhil Pal Singh’s Black is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2005); Martha Biondi’s To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (2003); Kate Weigand’s Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation (2001); Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (2011); and my own Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011).


In conversation with these studies, Washington brings together a range of primary archival research, secondary sources, and close textual readings to construct a critical analysis of the “richness (and messiness) of the literary and political debates of this period,” and reveal the “literary and cultural history” “represented by debates, conferences, symposia, institutional affiliations, political commitments, FBI investigations, and government spying networks.” She aims to make visible the leftist spaces where “African American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced, and preserved,” situating black artists in “a moment when the Black Left continued to work despite the pressures of the Cold War.”


Throughout the book’s six chapters, introduction, and epilogue, Washington critically engages a number of understudied or depoliticized works by crafting portraits of five artists, who had various relationships with the left and degrees of mainstream success: the novelist and essayist Lloyd Brown; the visual artist Charles White; the author and playwright Alice Childress; the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Gwendolyn Brooks; and the novelist Frank London Brown. Embracing “portrait as methodology,” Washington analyzes her subjects’ “intimate lives,” “intellectual and institutional networks,” and cultural productions, deploying oral histories, archival records, biographies, rich textual analysis, and even creative readings of at times extensive Federal Bureau of Investigation files, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Her textual analyses push against viewing these artists solely within a social- realist framework, highlighting the ways their left political affiliations and investments “did not preclude modernist experimentation.”


In addition, Washington uses her portraits to explore how the artists employed “literary and visual texts” to challenge the “conservative race narratives” of the period, by covering “the radioactive subject of racial violence as a product of white supremacy.” She intends, she writes, to make the connection between “US race issues [and] international systems like colonialism” and to represent “[t]he Left, including the Communist Party, in complex ways—often, but not always positively.” She is particularly attentive to the moments in which the five artists articulate “resistant notions of black subjectivity” that pushe against conservative and narrow constructions of blackness to “address issues of class, gender, and race that had been declared politically subversive during the Cold War.”


The monograph’s first two chapters “Lloyd L. Brown: Black Fire in the Cold War” and “Charles White: ‘Robeson with a Brush and Pencil,’” set the tone for the study. Brown and White, with their well-established ties to the Communist Party and left-affiliated organizations, demonstrate that the “embattled Left” as Washington writes, was nevertheless “actively involved in the production and defense of African American culture.” Brown, who counted black left stalwarts such as Langston Hughes and Esther Cooper Jackson as his comrades, was ubiquitous among black literary left and CP-affiliated organizations. During the 1950s, he wrote for and served as an editor of the leading left journal New Masses (later Masses & Mainstream) and published his novel Iron City (1951) with the Masses & Mainstream Press. He worked closely on Freedom newspaper with the activist, actor, and singer Paul Robeson, who faced government surveillance and persecution for his open support of the Communist Party. According to Washington, “CP aesthetics were, for [Brown] as for many radical leftists, ultimately more liberating than limiting.” She builds this argument through an incisive reading of Iron City, which traces its indebtedness to social realism and leftist propaganda techniques of the 1930s such as the Living Newspaper, as well as to Brown’s embrace of “modernist techniques” and “formal experimentation”—as demonstrated in the novel’s final scene, which deploys a surreal dream sequence to highlight a moment of collective working-class triumph.


Charles White’s path reveals a more unusual left trajectory. His development as a visual artist was shaped in spaces influenced by Black Popular Front politics in Chicago, including the renowned South Side Community Arts Center (SSCAC) and the local office of the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA). By the early 1940s, White and his wife, the artist Elizabeth Catlett, were both working closely with CP-supported organizations such as the National Negro Congress and embracing the radical influence of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Washington charts White’s very public commitment to Marxism and his affiliation with the CP, which, she points out, emerged at the same time that he began to use stylized techniques that pushed the boundaries of social realism in his visual representations of black struggle. Then in the 1950s, White’s work took a surprising turn away from formal experimentation and toward a stricter social realism. Apparently the emerging cold war, his renewed commitment to leftist communities, and his “desire for an art that would reach ordinary people” led him closer to the CP’s increasingly rigid political aesthetic. In tracing White’s shifting affiliations into the 1970s, Washington notes that despite real tensions and constraints, he found among his left comrades a life-long community that sustained him both as an artist and as an activist.


Washington’s third and fourth chapters center on the left investments and work of the writers Alice Childress and Gwendolyn Brooks, and also highlight the influence of a left black feminist politics on both authors. The chapter on Childress provides a rich analysis of her work as a journalist and playwright. Like Brown’s and White’s, Childress’s left affiliations were well- known. She was active in Popular Front organizations such as the American Negro Theatre and other black left and CP-affiliated organizations throughout the 1950s. She was on the staff of Freedom and held leadership roles in the black feminist group Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an all-black women’s civil rights group, and in the Committee for the Negro in the Arts. Washington presents Childress as eventually moving toward an “idiosyncratic radicalism” that “allowed her to incorporate black cultural traditions and a critique of race, gender, and sexuality” with “radical international-socialist views.” The core of her politics emerged from her work among a community of black women radicals that included, among others, the leading CP member Claudia Jones and the writers Lorraine Hansberry and Beah Richards, who theorized and organized at the intersections of race and gender as they also pushed CP-affiliated organizations to take seriously black women’s politics. Washington traces these political leanings in a close reading of three of Childress’s cold-war works: the 1952 musical Gold Through the Tree; a collection of short stories that were originally published in a column in Freedom newspaper and later as Like One of the Family; and her 1966 play Wedding Band. Such insights challenge Childress’s efforts, in the 1980s, to distance herself from her earlier work with CP-affiliated groups.


In the cleverly titled chapter “When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red,” Washington seeks out the poet’s submerged left affiliations. Brooks’s ties to Chicago’s black left formations are more tenuous than those of the other writers, but they include participation in the SSCAC and close connections with individual leftists, such as her longstanding friendship with the writer Margaret Taylor Burroughs. These affiliations fuel what Washington defines as Brooks’s “black left sensibility” which, Washington finds, predates Brooks’s noted turn to black nationalism following the second Black Writers Conference in 1967. Critically reading Brooks’s novel Maude Martha (1953) and her poetry collection The Bean Eaters (1960), Washington highlights Brooks’s embrace of a “left race radicalism,” committed to voicing black women and black working class subjectivities, balanced by an “investment in modernist poetics.”


In her penultimate chapter, Washington analyses Frank London Brown’s novel Trumbull Park (1959), about black families struggling to integrate a Chicago housing project. She sees the book as an endpoint of cold-war black cultural production and believes it is a significant example of the continuing influence of the black political and literary left during the emergence of civil-rights activism. Brown’s eclectic politics would lead him into civil rights, internationalist, and black nationalist politics. He explicitly aligned himself with “progressives” who were “not Communist,” writes Washington, even as he participated in the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Washington reads his renunciation of Communism as “tactical.”


In the book’s final chapter, “1959: Spycraft and the Black Literary Left,” Washington details the contributions to the 1959 American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) conference in New York City of “outspoken Left speakers,” including Alice Childress; the editor of Freedom, Louis Burnham; the writer and actor Julian Mayfield; Lloyd Brown; and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who presented the keynote. Washington says that their presence marks the conference not as a moment of decimation but as one of “struggle” and contestation “between conservatives, liberals, radicals, and government spies” (In 1967, it was revealed that, unbeknownst to most of its members, AMSAC had been funded by the CIA.) Washington marks these as important moments of sustained black left continuity, even as by 1960 many black activists turned away from formal affiliation with the US Communist Party, as it turned away from its investments in black struggle.


In charting a history of 1950s black left cultural and literary productions through this dynamic group of artists, Washington resoundingly demonstrates the importance of the Black Popular Front to the postwar black literary tradition. Moreover, her nuanced and contextualized readings of these artists’ work, lives, and politics reveal that “they critiqued the Left even as they believed in [it]” and were “experimenters and protestors in both their activism and their art.”


Dayo F. Gore is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2012) and editor of Want to Start of Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (2009). Her current research projects include a book-length study of African American women’s transnational travels and activism in the long twentieth century.

Women's Review of Books

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy