Breaking Women: Gender, Race, And The New Politics Of Imprisonment

By Jill A. McCorkel

New York: New York University Press, 2013, 271 pp., $23.00, paperback

Reviewed by Susan Sered

America’s “race to incarcerate” (the title of a 1999 book by Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project) is a strikingly racialized national project—the “new Jim Crow,” in author Michelle Alexander’s words (The New Jim Crow, 2010). Alexander adds that “[m]ass incarceration is also a highly gendered national project.” Far more men than women are incarcerated; men overall are incarcerated for longer sentences than women; men—in particular black men—are more likely than women to be stopped and frisked by law enforcement officers; and women inmates are substantially more likely than male inmates to have experienced sexual abuse and to live with chronic mental and physical illnesses. In all, writes Alexander, approximately 2.2 million people are currently in the nation’s prisons and jails, and around 7 million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Though women remain more likely than men to engage with the “benevolent” arms of the state—such as welfare and Medicaid—rather than its punitive ones, throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the rate of incarceration of women—and dramatically, of black women—has increased more rapidly than the rate of incarceration of men. During the past few years, male incarceration rates have gone down nationally, while female incarceration rates have mostly held steady—except for the rate of incarceration of white women, which is going up. This (albeit very partial) closure of the prison gender gap does not mean that women’s and men’s carceral experiences are the same. On the contrary, gender serves as the core organizing principle of prisons—as well as of homeless shelters, rehabilitation programs, and many welfare programs. Within correctional institutions, gender segregation is taken for granted; gendered messages are taught, drilled and expected to be internalized; and gendered standards for appropriate behavior are enforced.

While the structural inequalities of racism and sexism remain foundational to American society, the ways in which they are articulated change. In the early 1990s and again in the mid 2000s, Lynne Haney carried out studies of community-based residential facilities for women offenders, documenting how the ideological orientation as well as the day-to-day functioning of the programs became more restrictive. (See her Offending Women: Power, Punishment, and the Regulation of Desire, 2010) By the mid 2000s, the emphasis had switched away from teaching women job skills so that they could become independent, in line with the requirements of “welfare reform” as codified in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Instead, programs emphasized therapeutic counseling and learning to lose the so-called victim mentality. In these programs women were told that their illness (addiction) was due to their gender: to having been sexually abused, to having failed to learn healthy ways to express their anger, and to putting others’ needs before their own. The goal of treatment—recovery—centered on learning to recognize and acknowledge one’s many flaws: codependency, battered women’s syndrome, and other gender-specific emotional propensities.

In Breaking Women, Jill McCorkel presents her observations and analysis of an experimental, privately run drug-treatment program for women, Project Habilitate Women (PHW), which pushes the gendered therapeutic rhetoric in a new direction. Drawing on a decade of ethnographic work inside a women’s prison, she describes an intense, all-encompassing regime based on the notion that women addicts suffer from “diseased selves” that must be “broken down” (hence the title of the book), but that can never be fully mended. Unlike traditional rehabilitation, which assumes that people can fundamentally change, “[i]n habilitation … there is no hope that prisoners will become self-governing, rational, and autonomous subjects,” writes McCorkel. Rather than cure, the aim of the program is to encourage women to acknowledge their fundamental disease, surrender to the program, and accept that treatment can at best keep their disorders at bay.

The move toward this sort of essentialist view of female criminality took place, McCorkel points out, as black women came to greatly outnumber white women in many prisons. Gender and racial essentialisms merged: as the black woman became “typical,” the woman prisoner was no longer viewed as vulnerable and victimized (white) but rather as criminal and bad (black). Tellingly, in my home state of Massachusetts, where the large majority of residents both in and out of prison are white, the dominant prison discourse still casts women as suffering from illness and violence, not as incorrigible law breakers.

McCorkel does a superb job of bringing individual women to life for the reader, while simultaneously developing a strong and always readable theoretical analysis. In the culture of PHW, the diseased self has a broad range of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social deficits, including unconventional lifestyles and “confused” values. The holistic disease of addiction requires holistic cures. Thus, at frequent group therapy sessions, women are pressed to confess their “diseased” thoughts and actions. In public rituals of humiliation they are encouraged to hurl hurtful comments at a chosen target, ostensibly for her own good. The staff call the women names; they are “Crack Whores, Bad Mothers, and Welfare Queens,” writes McCorkel. The purpose of these insults is to bring “diseased” attributes to the surface so the inmates will recognize them. Motherhood is especially targeted, with counselors repeatedly telling women (many of whom struggled for years to care for and protect their children from violent men and the ravages of impoverished neighborhoods) that their greatest crime is the harm they inflict on their children. They can’t be “real” mothers, they are told, because they are addicts—an identity that supersedes all others. The women’s sexuality is similarly criticized. They are told that the only positive sexuality is to be found in long term, monogamous, heterosexual relationships—an ideal that necessarily eludes women who are locked up in single-gender prisons and who (in many cases)were forced into sex work to survive.

Habilitation, as opposed to rehabilitation, uses surveillance, confrontation, and discipline to break down the self. In many ways, PHW and similar programs teach women to distrust not only themselves but also one another. McCorkel writes, “Toward the end of PHW’s first year of operation, handmade posters and signs began to appear on doors and walls around the unit. The posters featured a painting of a large, blue eye with stenciled or handwritten lettering that read, “EVERYWHERE YOU GO, EVERYTHING YOU DO, KNOW THAT SOMEONE IS WATCHING YOU.” In an especially powerful passage, she describes how each week a particular woman is singled out for enhanced surveillance with a note placed on her cell door so that all will know. One of the prisoners with whom McCorkel developed a long-term relationship explains, “Girls in here started dropping out like crazy and they [staff] wanted us to take responsibility for it. Like we’re going to watch each other, everyone is a snitch. … Like they say, there are no friends in treatment.”

Because she established such long-term relationships with some of the women, McCorkel was able to delve into the question of resistance to the Big Brother culture of PHW—although she acknowledges the limited power of the women to change their circumstances. Of the 74 prisoners she interviewed, thirteen reported that they at least temporarily “surrendered” to habilitation and completed the program. They used language such as “renting out your head” to describe the process. Even among the women who did graduate, just over half said that they rejected the program’s core philosophy and that they made it through by faking it. Some women purposely broke the rules so that they could be expelled, since there was no mechanism for voluntarily leaving the program. They chose to go into the general prison population rather than remain in the ostensibly more benevolent PHW. In follow-up conversations held with the women several years post-release, McCorkel found that for the most part they had resisted the construction of the diseased self that they had been taught in PHW. At the same time, she learned how little in their lives had changed for the better: they were still poor, still marginalized, and still struggling and not even really scraping by.

Throughout the book McCorkel draws comparisons between PHW and twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Like AA and NA, PHW identifies the individual self as the source of addiction; attributing one’s problems to outside factors or social forces is dismissed as “denial.” And, as in AA and NA, in PHW the addict is fundamentally flawed and will always need supervision and control (though in twelve-step programs that supervision is voluntary and shared, unlike in PHW). But that is where the similarities end. For McCorkel, the PHW assessment of addiction is a fundamentally a moral claim, which, she argues, distinguishes it from the less problematic AA understanding of addiction as an “allergy.” (In the introduction to the AA “bible,” the Big Book [1939], the organization’s founder, Dr. Bob, considers alcoholism to be an allergy. However, the term “disease” is now commonly used in twelve-step literature and meetings.)

To my mind, it would strengthen McCorkel’s argument to place PHW and twelve-step programs in the wider context of moral crusades cum health movements in the United States. The discourse preceding and supporting Prohibition, for instance, framed alcohol as a public health problem as well as a threat to American moral values. Alcoholics Anonymous grew out of the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship espousing the view that sin is a contagious disease driven by individual self-centeredness. Building on the Oxford Group’s theology and practices, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous rest on the notion that alcoholism is a spiritual disease that requires the spiritual remedy of accepting one’s limitations and turning to a higher power for help. This seamless integration of medicine and morality is deeply embedded in American culture, in which, as Susan Sontag has argued, sick people are blamed for causing their own illnesses through their irresponsible, promiscuous, or undisciplined behavior.

Coercive therapies such as PHW, McCorkel argues, are not alternatives to traditional forms of punishment but rather gendered extensions of them. Thus, while PHW claims to emphasize treatment over punishment, it in fact “collapse[s] the distinction between treatment and punishment,” writes McCorkel. In many ways, medicalization and criminalization are two sides of the same phenomenon: both define and manage socially unwanted behaviors as expressions of personal flaws rather than as manifestations of social, economic, racial, and environmental inequalities and degradation.

The United States boasts not only the highest rate of incarceration in the world but also the highest rate of prescription drug use. One in five adults currently takes a psychotropic medication; in 2010 Americans spent $16 billion on legal antipsychotics, $11 billion on antidepressants, and $7 billion on drugs to treat ADHD (according to Brendan L. Smith, “Inappropriate Prescribing,” in the American Psychological Association journal, June 2012). Here in Massachusetts, where more than half of incarcerated women are charged with a drug-related offense, 56 percent are treated with psychiatric medication in prison (The figures for male inmates is seventeen percent, according to “Massachusetts Department of Correction Prison Population Trends,” 2011). PHW discourages the use of psychiatric medication, so it does not figure prominently in Breaking Women, but since it is such a central (and highly profitable) part of the treatment/corrections nexus, it will be interesting to see if similar programs embrace medication as part of the habilitation arsenal.

Breaking Women is a timely book. As much of the country has begun to move away from the “race to incarcerate” for a variety of reasons, including the high financial cost of keeping millions of Americans locked up, public conversations contrast “treatment”—benevolent, scientific, cost-effective and progressive—and “punishment”—mean-spirited, violent, racist, and a failure at reducing recidivism. Well-suited to broad neoliberal political and economic policies, including the move towards privatizing social services, programs such as PHW are becoming national models, despite the fact that they show no evidence of successful outcomes by any accepted measure. As McCorkel points out, the incurable, disordered self that will always need supervision and treatment is very profitable indeed for the private companies that provide an increasing portion of correctional and welfare services nationally.


Susan Sered is professor of Sociology at Suffolk University. Her books include Makes Women Sick: Maternity, Modesty and Militarism in Israeli Society (2000); Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity (2005) and Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility (forthcoming).

Queer Theory and Critical History, Together At Last


Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War

By Laura Doan

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013, 278 pp., $27.50, paperback

Reviewed by Martha Vicinus

This is a major book that undertakes the difficult tasks of summarizing current work in the field of lesbian/queer history and suggesting directions for future work. Laura Doan’s Disturbing Practices joins Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (2007) and Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (2009) in using close readings of literary and legal texts, popular culture, and newsprint to develop a fresh approach toward interpreting same-sex erotics.

The first half of Disturbing Practices is a series of tactful analyses of major contributors to the field of lesbian studies over the past thirty years, while the second half, focusing on World War I, provides examples of how a new approach, combining queer theory and critical history, might work. Although written in beautifully lucid academic prose, it is not an easy read, as Doan negotiates a generation of lively critical debate, some of which is bound to feel dated, overheated, or overtheorized. The book should be required reading, however, for anyone interested in how same-sex love has been understood today and in the past.

Doan repeatedly reminds us of how much we owe the pioneering historians of the 1970s, eighties, and beyond who have searched the past for identifiable lesbians. At the same time, she acknowledges and celebrates the intervention of queer theory, which called into question the notion of a “true self” waiting to be discovered. Previously, identity-based history had assumed that the sexual self was both knowable and visible, if only one looked hard enough. By problematizing identity, queer theorists opened a new, provocative approach to the historical past. As Doan notes, “[W]e can never forget that it is the queer researcher who constructs, rather than discovers the past.” Queer history is a dialogue with the past rather than an excavation of forgotten heroines or events; it foregrounds the differences between how we think about sexual behaviors and how people in the past thought about them. For example, if sexual activity is defined as penetrative, then kissing and fondling between women may be seen as training for “the real thing” or simply as affectionate teasing. Or as something entirely different.

Even as Doan acknowledges the important breakthrough of queer theory, she argues for the similarities between these two approaches to the past. She labels identity-seeking historians creators of “ancestral genealogies” and queer historians creators of “queer genealogies.” For her, one form of history writing does not supersede another; rather, different approaches to the past co-exist. Both perform important tasks. The ancestral historians scour the past for homosexual acts or identities, recuperating a hidden history; by making this past visible to us now, they serve the important political goal of affirming the long-standing existence of same-sex love. Queer theorists, in turn, seek to create a genealogy of feeling, privileging the queer author’s emotional connection with specific people or events in the past. For example, queer medievalists speak of feeling the erotic touch of the past, in spite of, or because of, the fragmentary evidence with which they must work.

For Doan, queer theorists fail to make a distinction between queer lives (queerness-as-being) and queerness in the past (queerness-as-method). I would add that acknowledging one’s own queerness (queerness-as-author) does not necessarily yield a queer past, or even a past that resonates with the present. Doan finds that queer historians have too easily stigmatized traditional history as empirically based, confusing the writing of history by trained historians with such outdated beliefs that facts can speak for themselves or that history controls social and cultural phenomena.. In turn, as she notes, even the most theoretically attuned (nonqueer) historians have mostly cordoned off sexuality studies.

Doan proposes a solution to this impasse: queer theorists and critical historians need to learn from each other. Addressing queer theorists, she suggests much greater use of what she calls “queer critical history,” an approach that acknowledges, even embraces, the contingent nature of history writing. She calls attention to the profound changes in the field of history over the past thirty years, following the so-called “cultural turn” of the 1980s. In a sweeping move, “critical historians” came to question the status of evidence, of so-called facts, and of historical reality itself—a task that queer theorists were undertaking at the same time. These critical historians accepted the constructed nature of their project: all history, they argued, is a partial recreation of the past, written under circumstances that inevitably reflect present-day concerns and questions.

Just as Doan calls on queer theorists to embrace these changes in history writing, she asks that critical historians acknowledge the queer critique of empiricist history. She is puzzled as to why historians are not more receptive to the queer criticism ofidentity history. She laments the fact that sexuality studies remain a subfield in history rather than a crucial category for historical analysis. Sexuality, unlike race or gender, is most often seen in terms of identity, rather than power. For most historians, it is a category tied to a specific political moment, an analytical framework that queer theory should have dislodged, but has not. Doan proposes that critical historians use queer theory to illuminate “aspects of the sexual past that resist explanation,” and that this can “position sexuality as an essential concept in historical work.”

In the book’s second half, Doan sets herself the task of bringing together the insights and methodologies of both critical historians and queer theorists. She suggests that queer history practices can move lesbian/queer studies away from the genealogical and toward a more fluid, more provisional notion of how same-sex behaviors were understood in the past. Some readers will be frustrated by Doan’s principled refusal to reach any conclusions in her case studies, but surely most will find exhilarating her effort to write a queer critical history.

Focusing on women who took nontraditional jobs during World War I, she argues that the war did not dislodge traditional beliefs about female behavior nor was it a watershed moment in the history of sexuality. Her meticulous research reveals instead a series of overlapping definitions, words, and categories for sexual behaviors; indeed, conflicting definitions of what constitutes normal or normative sexuality is a key subject in these chapters. Underlying her documentation is the argument that categories of sexual behavior could be unknown, partially defined, contradictory, or silenced.

Category confusion describes the response of the Hon. Violet Blanche Douglas-Pennant (1869 – 1945) to her abrupt firing, toward the end of World War I, from her position as the leader of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). At a time when she was investigating heterosexual irregularities between WRAF members and male officers, secret charges were made about her own sexual proclivities. Douglas-Pennant spent the remainder of her life fighting her dismissal, arguing that she had lost her job because of “secret and false allegations made against her ‘moral character.’” In 1918 her formal protest was dismissed, but in 1931 her friends successfully appealed to Sir William Jowitt, the attorney general, to reopen the case. Jowitt, speaking in very modern terms, asked for “real evidence” that someone had called Douglas-Pennant a lesbian. But Douglas-Pennant and her friends had framed her firing in terms of the defamation of her moral character, not in terms of specific sexual acts or identities; thus, they could not supply such evidence. As Doan notes, for more than twenty years, Douglas-Pennant never spoke openly or explicitly about the accusations against her beyond vague references to the sexual; she believed she was the victim of pernicious gossip and was “ignorant or utterly unaware of her ‘self’ as a sexual being.” Interestingly, in oral interviews in the 1960s, two members of the WRAF used names and categories from the 1960s to describe the unit’s sexual atmosphere, saying they’d known numerous “lesbians”—a word never used publicly during or immediately after the war.

In her chapter on Douglas-Pennant, Doan carefully dissects the available options—in 1918, 1931, the 1960s, and today—tracing the very different ways in which sex, sexual behavior, and sexual identity were or were not known, and were or were not talked about. Names and naming could not resolve Douglas-Pennant’s case, nor could they help Jowitt, much less a historian, to understand it. Doan considers her discussion to be “an exploration of what different questions or problems emerge in the refusal to name or the unavailability of naming.” Quoting the historian Joan Kelly, she suggests “the value of a critical history practice interested in producing ‘an undetermined history.’”

This chapter is the highlight of the book for me. Doan’s careful research shows time and again how uneven sexual knowledge was and can be, and how the process of self-naming is rare and sometimes a matter of hindsight. Moreover, who can say whether current categories of sexual knowledge are better or more accurate than those used in the past?

Doan documents how social class, distinguished war service, or a good barrister often trumped questions of sexual behavior. As the “mother” of queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, pointed out years ago, we all embody many conflicting beliefs and identities. Douglas-Pennant and her allies could speak of her aristocratic noblesse oblige, her distinguished philanthropic record, and her moral and religious conduct, but not of her possible sexual identity.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Doan’s plea that queer theorists and critical historians listen to each other, and whether sexuality itself will become a major marker for the study of the past. I remember the distinct discomfort of some of my male colleagues with my research into nineteenth and early twentieth-century same-sex relationships, and their reluctance to discuss how my discoveries might affect their work. Perhaps personal embarrassment is a prime cause for the continued marginalization of sexuality studies among historians. I am less confident than Doan about the possibilities for change, but the political turmoil over homosexual marriage has led to a renewed interested in the history of marriage here in the US and in other countries. The powerful social, religious, and economic institution of marriage has brought same-sex practices to center stage in ways that surely could not have been predicted twenty years ago. New and old definitions of marriage compete. Seemingly immutable religious practices and scientific classifications have undergone radical changes in a remarkably short time, yet former beliefs survive. Current sexual categories may well come to be seen as obsolete, even as many of us hang on to them. Twenty years from now, historians may see sexuality as a crucial category for study because it has become a major political issue. Disturbing Practices reminds us of just how historically contingent categories and institutions are, and how complex and contradictory our own thinking may be.


Martha Vicinus professor emerita, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of IIntimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (2004), as well as of numerous articles on same-sex love in the past.

Half Full or Half Empty


Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Aging

By Lynne Segal

New York: Verso, 2013, 320 pp., $26.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Alix Kates Shulman

II was walking on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk on my way to see the new Woody Allen movie when a guy on a bike plowed his way among the pedestrians. I shouted out that he shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk but in the street. “Seriously?” he said, peering down at me, then he examined my face and spat out, “Old hag!” This was a first for me, so it took a moment before I realized my opportunity and shouted back “Ageist!” I doubt that the young man cycling away knew the word, if he even heard me, but for a moment I felt that old activist rush of triumph all the same.

Near the end of Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, her thoughtful meditation on aging in the West, she briefly discusses political resistance as but one possible strategy for dealing with the indignities of old age. A longstanding socialist-feminist, activist, and intellectual, she is “mainly concerned with the ways in which conceptions of the elderly impact upon self-perception, sapping confidence and making it harder to feel that we remain in charge of our lives as we age.” Part reporter on generational friction and cultural trends, part psychological interpreter of internal responses to aging (the “pleasures and perils” of her subtitle), Segal focuses on how aging affects the psyche and body politic rather than the physical or chronological body.

Her main method of inquiry is to examine the literature of aging, quoting freely from dozens of authors, female and male, on a wide range of concerns, with interpretive commentary of her own. She draws insight chiefly from literature (fiction and memoir), philosophy, and psychoanalysis, preferring them to social science, history, or surveys. To me, this approach makes Out of Time deeper and more thought provoking than many of the other books—some facile, some polemical—in the burgeoning library of aging. She derives the richest insights from those authors she considers at the greatest length—among them Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, May Sarton, and Jacques Derrida. From other witnesses her quotations are sometimes too brief to give a sense of the complexity of their thought or even the main import of the work she cites. Still, her method of summoning many voices and texts creates a welcome air of open mindedness and generosity. Rather than a sustained argument, her book is an engaged conversation with mostly contemporary writers about their personal, literary, and theoretical takes on many aspects of aging and old age.

In successive chapters she explores: the inner sense of age, intergenerational conflict, aging and sexual desire, aging and interdependency (including brief discussions of several works of mine), ways of resisting ageism and, finally, coming to terms with old age and the loneliness it often entails by “affirming life.” But many more aspects of aging than I can list here are examined within each chapter, and the chapters overlap, expanding the conversation.

Now in her sixties, Segal does not define “old,” citing writers as young as their late thirties (Rosalind Belbin) and as old as their nineties as witnesses to the feelings about aging she discusses. To me this makes sense, if by “old” one means feeling marginalized by age. When I was in my thirties, before I became a feminist, I felt older (in the sense of over the hill), less confident, and less in charge of my life than I do now in my eighties. Segal’s book is an exploration of “the possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life, whatever our age.”

In her first chapter, called “How Old Am I?” Segal considers the strange fluidity of time, whereby each of us encounters at once all the ages and experiences we have lived through: “in our minds, we race around, moving seamlessly between childhood, old age, and back again,” which makes it difficult to feel our age. She observes that we vary greatly in the way we view the relation between our past and present selves, some of us lamenting the passage of time, some of us denying it, some celebrating it, and some, like the writers she most admires, able to “simply affirm [old age] as a significant part of life.” Later, Segal quotes Doris Lessing, echoing Simone de Beauvoir, describing “our sense that we have some unchanging inner core, making us never able to feel simply the age we are,” and a number of respected writers attesting to similar feelings of timelessness. Yet, surprisingly, throughout the book she also considers the difficulty we have feeling our age to be a denial or disavowal: “It is this noxious slide between old age, dependency, inadequacy, and invisibility that is surely one of the reasons why old people so forcefully insist they ‘do not feel old,’ making old age something to be disavowed.”

Segal tries admirably to be evenhanded and fair minded, listening sympathetically to an array of writers on most of the issues she raises, ever alert to the paradoxes inherent in the interplay of so many disparate voices. A professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College of the University of London, she offers subtle psychological insight in her discussions of many of the points of view expressed. But while she is ready to accept as simply true the testimony of those with whom she is temperamentally in tune, she tends to psychologize the feelings and attitudes of those with whom she is not, refusing to take their testimony at face value. Usually, this means siding with the pessimists in what she allows are “the battles between the optimists and pessimists addressing ageing and old age.” Thus, she doesn’t question the pessimism of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Martin Amis, who write of aging men’s loss of sexual power as a universal male disaster, and similarly accepts at face value (and universalizes) the bitterness and sorrow of Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing over their (presumed) loss of sexual attractiveness to men. But when it comes to Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Alice Walker, and many other women who report feelings of freedom and relief that they are done with sex and sexual desire, she invokes such psychological mechanisms as denial and “self-protective renunciation” to explain away such emotions. She voices similar skepticism and suspicions of denial about those who claim to love their solitude—cautioning, “solitude can be wonderful, so long as we have some sort of community that will welcome our return”—or who embrace their aging with gusto, chiding, “it is a form of imaginative impoverishment to refuse to accept the tragic”—as if any mortal could!

Using adjectives like “upbeat” and “cheerful” as slurs, she seems to find the perils of aging more believable than the pleasures. This universalizing of some feelings and distrust of others, even those widely voiced, strikes me as an unacknowledged temperamental bias, of which each of us probably has at least one. Such biases, because so deeply ingrained, are hard to recognize, much less acknowledge or overcome; I recognize Segal’s because hers is the opposite of mine. Fortunately, neither optimism nor pessimism, in their eternally noncolliding orbits, has a corner on virtue; equally adaptive, equally “true,” they simply follow different paths, though this too is difficult to recognize from inside one’s orbit.

The hallmark and strength of a book on aging written with Segal’s temperament (and her left political sympathies and experience, which I share) is its compassion for the lonely, the forgotten, and the vulnerable. But how, given her temperament, will she pull off the promise of her concluding chapter title, “Affirming Survival”? How will she walk the “very fine line” she finds “hard to tread even at the close of this book, in trying to acknowledge the actual vicissitudes of old age while also affirming its dignity and, at times, grace or even joyfulness”? (Note that unconvinced “even.”) She does it by reaffirming the values, the “essential elements of a good life,” she has expressed throughout the book: friendship, mutual love, community, strong feeling—including the negative feelings of pain, anger, sorrow, and grief. Or, in words Segal quotes from Beauvoir, “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.” Admitting with some embarrassment that the life goals she lists as essential are “the usual comforting clichés,” and also conceding that old people frequently lack opportunities to pursue them, Segal is brave enough to embrace them anyway.


Alix Kates Shulmanis the author of fourteen books. Her fifth novel, Ménage, and the collection A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing were published in 2012. Contact her through her website,

Growing Up Right


Wrapped in the Flag:

A Personal History of America’s Radical Right

By Claire Conner

Boston: Beacon Press, 2013, 264 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Kathleen Blee

In Wrapped in the Flag, Claire Connor recounts the pain of growing up in a household in which “all reason went out the window,” as her parents slid further into the John Birch Society (JBS). Night after night, the family’s living room was filled with conspiracy-minded adults determined to expose the network of Communists and internationalists that controlled the world. Their work was too important to be disturbed, even by the children, who were left to fend for themselves.

By the age of thirteen, Conner herself felt the tug of the radical right. Prodded by a mother who insisted that “we’re doing this for you, young lady” and a father who brandished a JBS membership application, Conner officially became a Bircher. But her place in this political world was fragile. It was Conner, not the adults, who would be called away from meetings to tend to the younger children. The image is a haunting one. While her parents swap conspiracy tales with their fellow Birchers downstairs, Conner remains upstairs drying her toddler sister’s body cast.

Wrapped in the Flag contains several stories. On one level, it is a painful memoir of neglect, laying out the resentment and confusion of a child whose mother seems more devoted to strangers than to her own children. Remembering her mother’s battles with Chicago’s schools over alleged Communist messages in textbooks, Conner recalls that “as my mother devoted more and more time to save ‘the children,’ she had less and less time for her children.” This fits a common criticism of women activists on the right. Her mother, like Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin in a later generation, is taken to task for the hypocrisy of claiming to save American families while being oblivious to the needs of their own.

Yet Conner’s grievance is deeper, rooted in the uncomfortable memories of a childhood on the political margins. “For me, life would be perfect if my mother and dad gave up their politics and embraced the suburban life.” Children of leftist activist parents often temper the hurt of being different with pride that their families stood up for moral principles. Many also find their parents’ political efforts vindicated by the passage of time. Such compensations don’t exist for the child of Bircher parents. The JBS’s paranoia and nonsensical claims, including the purported Communist leanings of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, cemented its reputation as fringe group of political crackpots and made it the subject of continual exposés in the media. Even ardent conservatives found that distancing themselves from the JBS could bolster their own political legitimacy. All this left Conner no way to find merit in her parents’ politics. Worse, she worried that her worst fears about them might be true, even that her father and his JBS comrades may have played a part in the assassination of President John Kennedy.

Conner moved from her parents’ house in Chicago to the college they demanded she attend (but wouldn’t pay for) in Dallas and into marriage and motherhood in Wisconsin. Along the way, she struggled to free herself from the weight of her JBS-obsessed parents and the avalanche of negative publicity their political efforts attracted. She struggled alone. “What happened to us kids ... [was] not on anybody’s radar,” she writes.

On another level, Wrapped in the Flag is an insider story of one of America’s largest and most secretive radical right movements. At its peak, the JBS enlisted an estimated 80,000 official members with a much larger network of sympathizers, likely in the millions. Despite the vast number of people who were in and around the JBS in its heyday, very little is known about how it worked. The JBS always operated largely out of the public eye. It issued denunciations of school officials, Supreme Court judges, and government officials whom it considered agents of the Communist conspiracy. And it mustered its troops to support selected candidates, most notably Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1960. Such efforts were hatched in secret meetings of JBS leadership and enacted in gatherings carefully shielded from outside view.

By taking us into the Bircher meetings in her parents’ house, Conner shines a fresh light on this chapter of radical rightist politics. For one thing, she shows that women like her mother were central to the spread of JBS ideas. Most accounts of the JBS focus on male leaders such as its highly visible founder Robert Welch. (Although there is speculation that women made up a good portion of its membership, this is difficult to verify because the JBS—still active, headquartered in Wisconsin—has been unwilling to release membership rolls or other records.) Conner depicts her mother as an energetic activist on her own account, not merely a pawn of her father or other JBS men. Fueled by her beliefs in strict Catholicism and strict conservatism, Conner’s mother helped build a significant JBS chapter in Chicago. And she took firm action on her beliefs, unafraid to be seen as an annoyance even to officials in Conner’s Catholic schools. To Conner, her mother’s persistent effort to rid schools of all Communist influence was embarrassing. For the JBS, her tactics could be quite effective.

Conner’s insider perspective also illuminates links among movements of the radical right over time. Histories of the American right after World War II commonly break at 1970. Before that date, a hierarchical Old Right preached the politics of nationalism, free enterprise, and support for the financial and political elites. After 1970, a more grassroots New (Christian) Right emerged that was energized by social issues. Conner’s account suggests that it is misleading to overstate the divide between the old and new right. Her mother’s efforts to cleanse school textbooks of Communist influence acquainted her with Norma and Mel Gabler, who became infamous with their campaign to impose conservative values on the textbooks approved for schools in Texas and elsewhere. Textbook politics also brought her mother into contact with Phyllis Schlafly, who subsequently headed the successful effort to block passage of the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Conner’s parents were part of a shift to more orthodox Catholicism that opposed Communism, large government, and social-gospel Christianity, and favored business and just war; this helped usher in later Catholic-led efforts to criminalize abortion and block rights for sexual minorities. They also became involved with an American Party candidate who was exposed as a recruiter for the antigovernment Posse Comitatus, which subsequently was at the forefront of today’s patriot/militia movement.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Wrapped in the Flag is its glimpse into the world of right-wing conspiracy thinking. Conner shows that conspiracies were everywhere in the world of the JBS, whose members needed no evidence to believe in them. In fact, the circularity of conspiratorial ideas meant that lack of evidence only confirmed the power of the conspirators to hide their actions. When the anti-Communist crusading Senator Joe McCarthy died, he must have been murdered by unnamed enemies. Racial segregation was a conspiracy of the Antichrist. Wars were sparked by the Illuminati, a secret society held responsible for a diverse set of historical events including world depressions and the French and Russian revolutions. Sometimes conspiracy thinking could lead to surprising conclusions. Since Birchers believed that Communists dominated US foreign policy, they concluded that the Vietnam War must be wrong, a logic that positioned them with quite unlikely allies.

Conspiratorial ideas, and the fear with which they are associated, connect the JBS to more extreme and violent fringes of the radical right. Conner’s book has many revealing examples of this bridge. A founding member of Chicago’s chapter of the JBS was a Holocaust denier; under his influence, Conner’s parents flirted with the idea that the Holocaust wasn’t so bad, that its negative image was contrived by powerful Jews themselves. The Southern-born Robert Welch fomented fear that race riots were the inevitable result of the changing terrain of race. “Thanks to Welsh, my parents were terrified,” writes Conner; they began to pin their hopes on George Wallace and other white supremacists.

As might be expected, Conner eventually broke from the conspiratorial, insular world of her parents. Her journey away from Bircher politics had many causes. It was prompted by moments of disillusionment, as she realized the rigidity and often nonsensical nature of her parent’s beliefs. It had personal triggers, as happened when one of her children revealed himself to be gay. And no doubt, Conner’s distance from the world of the JBS reflected the virtual collapse of the group as its anti-Communist agenda lost steam and was replaced by different, no less dangerous forms of radical right-wing politics, such as white supremacism and the Tea Party.


Kathleen Bleeis distinguished professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her books include Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement (2002)and Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (2010).

Women's Review of Books

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