Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves By Marie Jenkins Schwartz
Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017, 420 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
In Ties That Bound, Marie Jenkins Schwartz, who has written about children in slavery, turns to the relationships Martha Washington, Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, and Dolley Madison had with the slaves in their families. The sum of these tales conveys, with even greater power than the individual distasteful details, the ugliness and personal corruption that almost inevitably infected people who owned other people. Her stories testify to slave-owners’ daily temptations to be guided by greed, laziness, and injustice. Her portraits reveal their matter-of-fact acceptance of people as capital, as collateral, and as wombs for producing more capital. And the women Schwartz studies, she makes clear, could have made other choices.
The lives of these women span the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Martha Washington, born in 1731, grew up toward the end of the roughest era of master-slave relations, when African captives were being brutalized into servitude. She never questioned the utility or morality of slavery.
Patsy Randolph and Dolley Madison lived into the paternalistic era of the nineteenth century. Enslaved parents had started training their children to adopt protective coatings of outward subservience. Consequently, owners commanded with less overt coercion than before. The theater of paternalism could obscure to owners and even sometimes to the enslaved, how slavery’s logic corroded any bargain and overturned any commitment the ruler made to the ruled. Paternalism made it significantly easier for slave owners, like Randolph and Madison, to think well both of slavery and of themselves as slave owners.
Schwartz’s book largely avoids the pitfall of studying how slaves were treated, a subject kept alive long after its usefulness by the hollow niceties of paternalism. Schwartz knows that even posing the question of whether someone was a “good mistress” does little or nothing to illuminate slavery as an institution. This is not to argue that how owners treated their slaves was not important to individual slaves; of course it was. But in the end, kindness and paternalism had no effect on the system. But even a scholar as familiar with slavery as Schwartz shows how difficult it is to write about the subject. For example, she writes “Martha (Patsy’s mother) Jefferson, like Martha Washington, demonstrated a willingness to tolerate slavery’s most unsavory side so long as work of the family members advanced her position and those of her husband and children.” It is probably impossible to select slavery’s “most unsavory side”—or for that matter, to identify the “more savory” sides that the statement implies. To her credit, Schwartz focuses mainly on the exploitation of the labor of enslaved people over analyses of treatment. She describes the gargantuan quantities of work these First Ladies got out of their captives, usually taking credit for it themselves, as well as the ways they monetized both their slaves’ bodies and those of their future offspring.
By the ends of their lives, these First Ladies all chose to protect their financial interests and those of their children rather than—in Martha Washington’s and (allegedly) Dolley Madison’s cases—adhering to their husbands’ desires and freeing their slaves. Thomas Jefferson hoped that any slaves who might have to be sold could choose their own buyers. But that would not be the case. A lifetime of owning slaves had driven out whatever moral doubts Patsy Randolph and the other First Ladies may ever have entertained about the institution, and widowhood empowered them to make the most of their human property.
Schwartz’s complex and believable portraits integrate the virtues and graces of these powerful women with their sense of entitlement and steely command of large numbers of captives. Schwartz captures Martha Washington’s deliberate, remarkable rise from her childhood in the family of a middling planter to become the wife—and soon the young widow—of a Virginia grandee. Later, in marrying George Washington, himself famously eager to get ahead, she collaborated in climbing to the top of Virginia’s planter aristocracy. That depended on owning hundreds of slaves.
Like Martha, George Washington was a tough master. However, after the Revolution, his views began to change. After decades of criticizing slaves, Washington began criticizing slavery itself. Husband and wife came to differ so much on the subject that on his deathbed he asked her to burn his early will in front of him, so that he could die assured that only his later will, which freed his slaves, would be his true legacy.
George Washington’s will specified, with characteristic precision, that the emancipation of his slaves (not Martha’s, over whom he had no control) should occur only after his wife’s death. This would give time to prepare to the many slaves who were in families in which those owned by George would become free and those owned by Martha would not. However, Martha did not wait. She did not wish to support more than 100 freed people until her death—although George had carefully calculated the estate’s ability to do so—and she was afraid that restive slaves might hasten her end. She rushed his protective emancipation process, and neither she nor any of her descendants, nor any of Washington’s nephews or nieces, followed his example.
Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy Randolph served as his First Lady because his wife had died. Randolph spent time in the White House when her father summoned her. She acted as hostess and tried unsuccessfully to restore his reputation as a wholesome family man after the journalist James Callendar exposed his relationship with Sally Hemings in 1802.
Like Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War diary was published decades later, Randolph found herself in the throes of the woman slaveholders’ classic dilemma. She had seen the men in her family father enslaved offspring; even more traumatic, she had grown up with her father’s concubine, Sally Hemings, who was only slightly older than she and with whom she shared a grandfather. Hemings had served Patsy in Paris. Jefferson bought both girls fashionable clothes, and the resplendent teenaged Hemings accompanied the convent-trained Patsy to Parisian entertainments, where Hemings attracted attention, including that of Jefferson. Although it is not clear when Patsy learned about her father’s relationship with Hemings, the knowledge compromised Patsy’s youth (to say nothing of Hemings’s); probably propelled her into an early, unhappy marriage; and later forced her to defend her father against charges that she not only knew to be true but that had also pained her for decades. After her marriage, she divided her time between her father and her husband, at times running two plantations. After Jefferson’s presidency, she oversaw Monticello and that community’s interracial and interfamilial complexities, extracting labor from all, including her enslaved kin.
Patsy, her husband, and her father all believed that Jefferson’s “mild” treatment of his slaves and their “laziness” had caused his debts. The idea that the family’s financial problems were the slaves’ fault must have helped her after her father’s death, as she disposed of the men, women, and children who had worked for him at Monticello. Some of his slaves found buyers nearby; but Patsy put others, less fortunate, on the auction block, a process that even many owners dreaded for the callousness it betrayed about them. Patsy also had many slaves of her own. She did her father’s bidding and unobtrusively let Sally Hemings’s children go free, and in her will, stipulated that Hemings, who was her property, could live as a free woman—along with two other long-standing, intimate servants of the family. She left one enslaved woman, to whom she had promised freedom, to her son Lewis instead, since he was moving to the Arkansas territory. When Chesnut learned of the behavior of her husband and father-in-law toward their slaves, she became an enemy of slavery; but Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Hemings and her family did not have the same effect on Patsy Randolph.
Dolley Madison’s Quaker parents emancipated their slaves and moved to Pennsylvania, but her family did not prosper in free society. Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two sons. Then, Todd died of yellow fever. As a young woman, Dolley evidently chafed at the Quaker community’s emphasis on plain dressing and living, as well as at its willingness to criticize Friends who failed to do so. Her sister married out of the community, to George Steptoe Washington, President Washington’s nephew and a substantial slaveholder in western Virginia. When James Madison Jr., a slave-owning congressman from Virginia, proposed to Dolley, the pretty, lively widow, after some deliberation, agreed. The couple lived in Washington for sixteen years while Madison was first secretary of state and then president. His wife, fully liberated from Quakerism, entertained relentlessly, dressed extravagantly (many thought provocatively), and flirted. In Washington DC, where slavery was permitted, she deployed the family slaves ostentatiously, unencumbered with the embarrassment George and Martha Washington had felt when the nation’s capital was in Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania. Dolley famously claimed to have fled the capital during the War of 1812 carrying George Washington’s portrait, but it was probably enslaved people who saw to that, after Dolley left with a few pieces of silver.
After her years as First Lady, Dolley and James Madison retired to Montpelier, where Dolley watched over the slaves on whom she both depended and, like her fellow First Ladies, distrusted. The myth of paternalism held that “good owners” did not separate enslaved families or sell slaves against their wishes. The Madisons, however, barely permitted James’s trusted valet, Paul Jennings, to visit his wife and children on a nearby plantation. They separated families as their own desires dictated, giving many slaves to Dolley’s surviving son Payne, to work his new plantation. Payne’s failed enterprises and his alcoholism diminished the couple’s resources, but they were going into debt on their own as well. During the 1830s, James began selling off his slaves to pay his creditors. In a twist on Jefferson’s reasoning, he believed the slaves’ high rate of reproduction created his debts, because he had to support so many who were unprofitable to him.
Many close to James believed he would emancipate his slaves at his death. But in his will he freed no one, instead giving Dolley not the “widow’s third” to which she would traditionally have been entitled but all of his slaves, to do with as she wished. Some of James’s associates believed there was a secret will freeing his slaves, but if it had ever existed, it was never found. Dolley began selling slaves without regard to their wishes, and when she decided to move back to Washington, after more than 25 years at Montpelier, she put Payne in charge of selling the plantation. He sold some slaves along with Montpelier and some individually, and took others with him to his plantation.
Dolley’s spendthrift ways in Washington meant that she continued to sell things and people. In moneyless spells she survived partly because her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, who was well connected, brought food to her and the enslaved people working in her home. She never freed him, instead forcing him to buy his freedom. (It is a relief to learn that Jennings had secret life as an effective abolitionist activist.) In her will, Dolley, like her husband, freed no one. She left most of the people and things she still owned to her son. When he died, he emancipated the few slaves he had inherited with bequests of $200 to each.
Schwartz asks us to integrate slavery fully into our understanding of everyday life in the early national and antebellum United States. The majority of First Ladies before the Civil War owned slaves. This had terrible consequences for the people they owned, ugly effects on the owners, and established sordid models of acceptable behavior for the nation.
Martha Saxton is professor emerita of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College and most recently, a fellow at the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College. She is completing a biography of Mary Ball Washington, the founder’s mother.
Octavia E. Butler By Gerry Canavan
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 224 pp., $22.00, paperback
Reviewed by Nisi Shawl
Octavia Estelle Butler walked the Earth. Gerry Canavan’s meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, and wrenchingly felt biography tells us how.
A legend in her own time, Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) remains notable more than a decade after her death. She was both the first African American woman to become a major force in the field of science fiction and, in 1995, the first science fiction author to receive one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships (colloquially known as Genius Grants). Though not prolific in terms of her published oeuvre, Butler won literary awards left and right, including, all in one year, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for her short story “Bloodchild” (1985). The MacArthur, as well as her 2000 PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award, bear witness to her importance outside the sometimes parochial speculative fiction community.
Canavan takes up the Octavia Butler legend and simultaneously interrogates and validates it. An assistant professor at Marquette University who teaches contemporary fiction and popular culture, he has long been a student of science fiction’s impact on society. He has read, and read deeply, the relevant texts: not only Butler’s fiction and essays but also works in conversation with her own, such as those by her Clarion Writers Workshop instructor, the Afrofuturist Samuel R. Delany; and classics such as Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), with its set-up of non-negotiable limits to human survival. Canavan is thus fully prepared to disassemble, examine, polish, and reassemble the elements of Butler’s career and life as if they were the parts of a familiar firearm.
Approaching his subject chronologically, Canavan begins with a chapter covering the period from Butler’s birth in 1947 to the appearance of her story “Crossover,” in 1971. Here, he recounts Butler’s working-class origins, describes her juvenilia, and highlights her attendance at the 1970 Clarion workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy, taught by Joanna Russ, Damon Knight, Samuel R. Delany, and Fritz Leiber.
This chapter, “Childfinder,” is named after a story Butler wrote in the early 1970s that was published only posthumously. Discovered in Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library, it was issued in the e-book Unexpected Stories (2014), together with another newly discovered work, “A Necessary Being.” Throughout the book, Canavan references pieces of information like this, the fruits of his research in the Butler archives, which deepen the book’s impact immeasurably in comparison with other Butler-focused work. It’s one thing to read essays and interviews mentioning that Butler entertained herself by imagining and writing stories of unaided human flight, animal communication, and mind control. It’s another to read about these fantasies together with notes on the personal events connected to them and analyses of how they relate to her more mature work.
Famously shy, the Butler revealed in this and subsequent chapters withdrew into her imagination to escape a world at odds with her on many fronts. Physically, she was larger than the accepted norm for females at almost every age; socially, she was the daughter of menial workers; intellectually, she struggled to keep up with classmates due to what she later self-diagnosed as dyslexia. Though her first stories were written for her own pleasure, she soon determined that they’d be her life’s work. In her teenage years she began submitting what she called “terrible pieces of fiction” to magazines she categorized as “innocent.” Canavan skillfully connects the lacks Butler saw in herself with compensatory attributes in her characters, via journal entries in which she exhorts herself to remember the lessons those characters have learned. He ties her fondness for self-affirmations such as “You will write a great book” with classes she took on self-hypnosis and her fascination with telepathy, telekinesis, and other pseudo-scientific powers of the mind.
Closing this first chapter with a detailed account of the Clarion workshop and two of the stories Butler wrote there, Canavan moves on to the years 1971 through 1976, the period in which Butler established her career as a professional writer. From letters to fellow Clarion graduates he gleans her concern with her lack of sales. From her correspondence with her publisher, Doubleday, he unearths a bargain she struck: accepting a smaller advance in exchange for the inclusion of some obscenity-laden dialogue. (Doubleday was concerned about being banned from libraries; Butler wanted authenticity and was willing to sacrifice immediate monetary gain for it.) Examining Butler’s original manuscripts, he charts the events that form the background for her five Patternist novels. Delving into her journals, he links her depression to her pessimistic take on humanity’s long-term viability, as revealed in specific stories and their characters’ attitudes and actions. He links her portrait of Utopia and the violent, anti-Utopian tendencies of the supermen of the Patternist books to her love for comics. (In one exchange, she waxes philosophical about the ultimate disposition of her beloved comics collection.)
The publication of one of Butler’s most popular novels, Kindred, in 1979, was a turning point. In a chapter spanning 1976 through 1980, Canavan examines the version of Kindred we know, plus manuscript fragments of explicitly science fictional versions of the book and alternative endings. Canavan shares the familiar anecdote about how the novel’s time-travel narrative derived from Butler’s dissatisfaction with contemporary African Americans who disparaged the courage their ancestors needed to survive chattel slavery. But he follows that up by describing an alternative, Patternist-oriented manuscript, which uses the impending return of Doro, the villain of Wildseed (1980), to the plantation where the heroine is trapped to ratchet up the story’s tension. In doing so he once again furnishes the bare attic of literary biography with possibilities that will excite both serious students of Butler and newer readers, passionate about what they’ve just discovered.
In an afterword-like conclusion, Canavan discusses Butler’s posthumous legacy. The Carl Brandon Society, an organization founded in 1997 to promote “the representation of people of color in fantastical genres,” established a scholarship fund in Butler’s name that sends writers of color to the annual Clarion workshops. Butler’s works have inspired many conferences and anthologies (one of which, Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler , I co-edited)—as well as individual authors (myself included). Despite the size of this inventory, though, the primary message of this section of the book is a wish for more. As many others have done, Canavan feelingly laments the sequels and stories Butler anticipated creating, which will now go unwritten. Referring to the home of Butler’s extensive archive, Canavan writes, “The Huntington Library makes possible an entirely new era in Butler scholarship,” and he calls for scholars and authors to make use of its materials. He also cherishes the hope that some of Butler’s unpublished stories and variant manuscripts, withheld from the public during her life due to “the spirit of brutal perfectionism that drove her,” will now be offered to the world at large. The majority of the manuscripts in the archive, he says, are “not discarded scraps or abandoned, embarrassing mistakes…just more.”
As a sample of the sorts of pieces he’d like to see become more widely available Canavan includes as an appendix Butler’s long out-of-circulation 1980 essay, “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” A manifesto about the erroneousness of excluding black characters from SF because of the “messiness” involved in depicting nonwhites, “Lost Races” ends with a half-jubilant, half-deploring assessment of science fiction’s attitudes toward inclusivity and prejudice. “Times have changed,” Butler decrees. In the next sentence, though, she admonishes the field that “it still has a long way to go.” That her pronouncements on this matter hold true nearly forty years after they were first published speaks volumes about the slow rate of social change and Butler’s continuing centrality to our understanding of the fantastic genres.
Canavan substantiates his insightful discussion of Butler with references to other scholarship and multiple primary sources. The book’s Introduction grounds his numerous citations of Butler’s papers in a brief but helpful note on the Huntington Library’s archive-retrieval system and 500-page finding aid.
In a way, that Introduction sums up Canavan’s hologrammatic approach to his subject. In addition to giving an overview of his book and methodology, it delves into the ethics of what he has done. His sense of a deeply personal relationship with Butler—which, he points out, is far from unusual for Butler fans—exacerbates his unease over the essentially voyeuristic nature of the biographer’s work. This uneasiness is in truth quite appropriate to Canavan’s subject: by all accounts, including his, Butler disturbed her audiences with the ambiguous dilemmas her stories posed and her courageous attacks on taboos as often as she entranced them with her plausible characters and her spare, evocative prose.
In his Introduction, Canavan also explores Butler’s consciousness of her effect on readers and her attempts to manipulate it. Her early drafts are consistently more pessimistic than their final, published versions. She frequently cut and revised scenes to transform her books, which fit the category she privately termed “NO-BOOKS,” into “YES-BOOKS”; she believed that only “YES-BOOKS” became bestsellers. However, her efforts to transform her writings were only partially successful: though the results of her revisions read more optimistically, Canavan notes that according to Butler’s reflections on the matter, “NO-BOOKS sold, alas, the way her actual books did.”
Canavan introduces his long list of acknowledgments by saying, “Like some supercharged Oankali mating ritual this book has many parents.” Oankali are the three-sexed alien saviors of the humans in Butler’s three Lilith’s Brood novels, and Canavan’s evocation of them alerts his readers to the primacy of Butler’s works in Canavan’s world. Butler told her story in two ways that sometimes became one: by writing and by living her life. Canavan leads readers gently through this story’s pertinent plot points, stopping occasionally to measure the depth of a footprint or the width of a stride. Octavia E. Butler is a walk well worth taking, with Canavan as an excellent and trustworthy guide.
Nisi Shawl is the James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning author of the collection Filter House (2008). Her steampunk alternative history of Leopold II’s Congo, Everfair, was published in September 2016. Shawl is a founder of the prodiversity nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society, and a graduate and board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has spoken as a uest lecturer at Smith and Spelman Colleges, and at Princeton, Stanford, and Duke Universities.
Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left by Emily K. Hobson
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 309 pages. $29.95 paper 2,092 words
Reviewed by Margaret Cerullo
Emily Hobson’s compelling book recovers the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s and 1980s in a particularly iconic and dense site of activism: the San Francisco Bay Area. (Hobson uses the designation “lesbian and gay” as it was understood by radicals at the time, with a greater attunement to the intersections of race, class, gender, and nation than later critics of “essentialism” often assume. Radicals, she says, generally did not, however, incorporate bixexual and transgender identities; these were not claimed politically until later.)
More than a simply local story, Hobson’s reconstruction of this history sets out to challenge larger narratives that acknowledge only two really dramatic moments in the history of US gay politics: the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and the emergence of the direct action/civil disobedience/street activism associated with ACT UP in the late 1980s and 1990s. In this scheme, the 1970s and 1980s were the doldrums: gay and lesbian politics supposedly divided into “separatism,” associated with lesbians, and “liberalism,” the assumed politics of gay men, which focused on rights and assimilation. However, among other things, this narrative erases the gay and lesbian left. Hobson asks why. Why are certain stories written out of history, and what are the cultural frameworks that make it almost impossible to write them in? Are we in a historical moment when the forgotten freedom dreams of the gay and lesbian left—dreams of a radical end to oppression of all kinds—might again become legible?
Hobson characterizes the gay and lesbian left provocatively, by the way it viewed sexual liberation and radical solidarity as interdependent. Leftists, she writes, “defined gay and lesbian identities not only as forms of desire, but as political affiliations that could create the conditions of possibility to set desire free.” If liberation was the theory, she proposes, solidarity was the practice. New York’s Gay Liberation Front, the first post-Stonewall gay organization, took its name from the National Liberation Fronts of Algeria and Vietnam, underlining the fact that early activists defined gay and lesbian politics through identification with other liberation struggles. These activists, from the Vietnam War generation, influenced by feminism, theorized that normative constructions of masculinity underlay violence and imperialism. Excluded from the draft, radical gay men proclaimed that homosexuality could be a means to resist the Vietnam War. One slogan advised “Suck cock to beat the draft”; another, in a riff on Muhammad Ali’s explanation for his draft resistance (“No Vietcong ever called me nigger”), proclaimed “No Vietnamese ever called me queer” (which became the title of a Gay Liberation Theater production).
Hobson’s book ends in the 1990s, at a moment when segments of the LGBT movement sought freedom by identifying with, not against, the state—embracing inclusion into the military and celebrating the inclusion of police contingents into annual LGBT pride celebrations (leaving older gay and lesbian liberationists to insist that “the military is not a jobs program for young people but the muscle behind US imperialism,” and to recall that Stonewall was a riot against police violence). Through such disruptive reminders, Hobson unsettles the progress narrative of gay and lesbian history—from Stonewall to marriage and the military.
She tells several important stories that capture the vibrance and diversity of actions, arts projects, alliances, and commitments—in short, the politics and counterculture—that characterized the apparent doldrums of the 1970s and the 1980s. The life and death of Harvey Milk; the fight against the 1977 Briggs Initiative that would have banned lesbians and gays, and possibly supporters of gay rights, from working in the California public schools; the Coors beer boycott in gay bars—these activist histories are barely known to younger LGBT people, except perhaps the story of Harvey Milk, because of the film Milk (2008).
In a major contribution, Hobson argues that framing 1970s lesbian activism as “separatist” has completely erased radical lesbian politics, which she characterizes as a politics of collective defense. Rooted in a critique of state violence and a belief in the right to self-defense learned from the Black Panthers, lesbian communities harbored political fugitives from the radical underground and refused to cooperate with grand juries in revealing their whereabouts, at considerable risk of police harassment and imprisonment. (The most famous case was that of Susan Saxe, accused of participating in a bank robbery in Boston to raise funds for the Black Panthers, in which a policeman was killed. On the run for five years, Saxe turned herself in in 1975 to stop attacks on the lesbian communities that sheltered her.)
Lesbian collectives also extended shelter to women accused of killing their rapists or abusers, which activists viewed as acts of self-defense. Feminists in the Bay area, many of them lesbians, organized support for Inez Garcia, who killed one of the two men who raped her. The Free Inez Garcia Committee and the Inez Garcia Defense Committee ultimately achieved Garcia’s release from prison. However, in a harbinger of things to come, conflict emerged between these committees and the newly formed San Francisco Women Against Rape, which did not join the campaign to free Garcia for fear of alienating the San Francisco Police Department, with which they were developing a working relationship.
In Hobson’s discussion of these developments her historical imagination is evident. She takes as her subject not an organization or a campaign but a particular kind of space—the lesbian collective household of the 1970s—whose importance she recovers from archives and interviews. These spaces functioned as shelters against state and male violence, political meeting places to plan actions and organize projects, and community centers, that might include an abortion clinic, a café, or a library.
In a central contribution, Hobson brings to the fore the significant lesbian and gay presence in the Central American solidarity movement. This was perhaps especially visible in San Francisco, for several reasons. Most important was the existence of “barrio transnationalism”—relationships and mutual influences among Latin American refugees, immigrants, and exiles, and the Latino/a and other marginalized and poor populations living in the Mission district. Gay and lesbian Latino/as and Latin Americans were a key part of this mix; they readily made the connections between their own local organizing around poverty and housing and revolutions happening in Latin America that were promising profound transformations in people’s material lives.
Moreover, while the straight left counselled lesbian and gay solidarity activists to tone it down in order to not offend Nicaraguan sensibilities, gays and lesbians in Nicaragua had been coming out in the militias and the literacy and health brigades, and were eager to make contact with gay and lesbian solidarity activists. In a chapter called “Talk about loving in the war years,” Hobson draws on activists’ memories to communicate the ways in which all kinds of desire circulated in these encounters. Together, these activists built transborder lesbian and gay community, queering barrio transnationalism and furthering radical sexual politics in both places. Overall, it would seem from Hobson’s account, that solidarity activists had greater success in appealing to lesbian and gay communities to stand in solidarity with Nicaragua and against US intervention than they did in convincing the straight left of the relevance of sexual politics to revolution.
Hobson demonstrates that by 1987, Central America solidarity work had begun to influence US AIDS activism. In 1986—eight months before the formation of ACT UP in New York—San Francisco activists organized the AIDS Action Pledge (AAP), modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, an emergency response network to resist US intervention in Central America. Opposing arms shipments to Central America from California military bases, AAP called for “Money for AIDS, not for war,” and “Condoms not contras.” Hobson argues that in making these connections, activists reframed AIDS. Rather than perversion, deviance, or even disease, the AIDS epidemic was about human needs. This framing may also have contributed to a more broadly based understanding of health care as a human right—something the activists had learned from their solidarity work with third-world revolutions, particularly Nicaragua’s.
Hobson’s book makes several important contributions. In interrogating the reasons why the story of the gay and lesbian left has not been told, she identifies several culprits. One is the loss of so many of a generation of radical activists to AIDS, and with them, the loss of their memories and histories. Another is the dominance of the liberal inclusion narrative described earlier. While she doesn’t say this explicitly, there is not only a white but a male centric bias in this narrative. Finally—and this is a critical contribution to US gay and lesbian history—Hobson indicts the narrow domestic, nation-state focus that has characterized US gay and lesbian histories, and that makes invisible the importance of Central American solidarity work to lesbian and gay activism in the 1980s—and, she reminds us, of Palestinian solidarity work to the queer movement today. However, what Hobson doesn’t emphasize is the responsibility of the wider left, whose histories (and memories) generally erase gay and lesbian contributions to left movements, often as part of a reductive critique and dismissal of “identity politics.” In any case, Hobson reveals how much had to be defeated, forgotten, and lost for there to emerge as dominant the idea of gay and lesbian identity as cut off from any wider commitments and imagination.
It is striking that Hobson does not pay much attention to questions of class, either in the movements she studies or in her analysis. I wondered about the class position of the activists she discusses, how they survived, what they did for work. What kind of economy supported a radical counterculture of collective households, whose members had the free time to devote to political and related creative pursuits? Are these spaces of collective possibility increasingly a casualty of gentrification, as Sarah Schulman has provocatively suggested in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012)—and in a larger sense, of the neoliberal reordering and fragmentation of our lives?
Lavender and Red surfaces the gay and lesbian left’s creative, intersectional analyses of US militarism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and state violence, and its efforts to think about these systems through the lenses of gender and sexuality. Another of the book’s principal contributions is to provoke reflection on the politics of alliance and solidarity—and for this we need all the help we can get, in this historical moment when solidarity is ever more difficult and necessary. Her intricate and nuanced discussion of lesbian and gay solidarity with Nicaragua helps us to understand its specifics and its difficulties, missteps, miscommunications, risks, and occasional profound connections. Emphasizing the way Nicaraguans actively directed solidarity, Hobson points not only to the exchange of ideas, but to the silences and gaps in communication that structured their relationships with US activists. For example, gay and lesbian targets of a Sandinista crackdown in Nicaragua did not share that information with their US counterparts, since they didn’t want to jeopardize the Americans’ political and material support for the Nicaraguan revolution—or their joint projects of AIDS education.
I end this review with two reflections because these concerns point to future work that will reframe the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s by putting race and class at the center. The first is the whiteness of so much of the gay and lesbian left. Despite the movement’s deep critiques of racism and imperialism and its development of intersectional analyses of racist sexism—for example in its discussions of the case of Inez Garcia—the gay and lesbian left almost always remained overwhelmingly white. Hobson is tentative here; she doesn’t directly ask why this was so, though she does point out that the movement’s whiteness was challenged by lesbians and gays of color. The lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker, for example, criticized the Inez Garcia campaign, angrily protesting that white lesbians seemed to think this work “took care of racism,” while failing to bring women of color into the leadership of the campaign or to reach out to women of color networks or groups.
All this suggests how much we need a history of the third-world gay and lesbian left (to use the language of the time), including, in the Bay Area, such groupings as the Third World Gay Caucus, which split off from Bay Area Gay Liberation; the Latino Gay Alliance; and the women of color lesbian groups who show up in Hobson’s chapter on the Nicaragua solidarity brigades and elsewhere. How would the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s through the 1990s look if it began with the politics and activism of these people of color groups and others, such as the Combahee River Collective? That is the principal challenge with which this thought-provoking book leaves us.
Margaret Cerullo teaches feminist studies, Latin American studies, and political theory at Hampshire College. She was active in Boston’s gay and lesbian left from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Daring to Drive : A Saudi Woman’s Awakening By Manal al-Sharif
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, 289 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Persis Karim
While the Arab Spring of 2011 is long behind us, and it delivered far less than many across the region hoped for, it is hard to forget the energy and courage of the individuals who sparked a movement that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In a manner of months, millions mobilized on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, and Sana’a to challenge some of the most repressive and long-standing dictatorships in the region. The images of people, especially young people, flooding the streets played nightly on television and social media. But the instrumental role that women played in many of those movements was often pushed aside by the revolutionary fervor that called for regime change.
However, one quiet revolt, initiated and led by women, fought for something more basic than a change of leadership: the right to drive a car. For Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman at the heart of the campaign to challenge the kingdom’s prohibition on women’s driving, the Arab Spring was fundamentally a struggle for women’s freedom.
Daring to Drive documents al-Sharif’s role in the 2011 women2drive campaign. Even more, it portrays the complexity of Saudi legal and cultural restrictions, which undermine women in everyday life through the institution of mahram: male guardianship. Part memoir and part manifesto, Daring to Drive provides a rare glimpse into a society about which most Americans know very little; our images are limited to two tropes: individual Saudis as the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks; and periodic news photos of male Saudi leaders in traditional dress standing next to US presidents and their (unveiled) wives. Rarely do these images include Saudi women. We do not hear them speak or understand their stories.
I had the opportunity to work with al-Sharif during the proposal phase of her book. Initially, she conceived of it as a way to bring international attention to Saudi women’s struggle to do something women elsewhere take for granted: drive a car. The book she has written, however, is far more developed and wide-ranging; it not only documents her daring act of driving, but also the abuses heaped on females, including being unable to do nearly anything without the consent of a male guardian. For Saudi women, driving represents far more than simply taking the wheel of a car. Women must obtain the permission of a male relative to go anywhere—school, work, shopping, whom to marry and any kind of travel. Because women are forbidden to drive, they must rely on either a male relative or a hired male driver to transport them. “It is an amazing contradiction,” writes al-Sharif:
A society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that males and females cannot sit together; that society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone.
Al-Sharif dispels the myth of Saudi Arabia as a land of wealthy sheiks and hidden women through her detailed narrative about her life and that of her atypical family. Her parents, both illiterate and poor, met during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Her mother was from Libya, and her father was a taxi driver who shuttled pilgrims from around the world to and from the holy sites of Mecca. They were far from stereotypical rich Saudis who have so much money they can travel and shop abroad in the most exclusive shopping malls of Europe and the US. On the contrary, her family struggled economically, and al-Sharif often went without the things her peers had—adequate food, books, and many everyday comforts such as adequate housing. The family was ostracized because her father had married outside his tribe and culture: in Saudi Arabia, even those from other Muslim and Arab countries are seen as outsiders, regardless of how long they have lived there. Al-Sharif describes a childhood that was full of depravity and hardship, including regular beatings at the hands of her parents and teachers, and a traumatic circumcision that left her with psychological and physical scars. (In an email to me after the book came out, she wrote that she hadn’t thought about the circumcision for many years, until she started writing.)
Perhaps because of her poverty and marginalization, al-Sharif as a young girl was determined not to be left out or left behind. She became a passionate lover of reading, full of curiosity about the world. Trips to visit her mother’s family in Egypt showed her an alternative to the strict Saudi-style Salafi Islam. But at the age of thirteen, as a result of her education and constant radical preaching on TV, she started to change, she writes, from a “moderately observant Muslim into a radical Islamist.” After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the attack, that same year, on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by insurgents who wanted to overthrow the House of Saud, Saudi religious restrictions and the trend toward fundamentalism throughout the region intensified. “Religious sermons and leaflets were distributed for free in common gathering places,” writes al-Sharif. She began to feel judgmental of women who did not follow the rules of veiling and fasting, and she participated in “disavowals,” in which she and her peers “express[ed] our hate and enmity” toward “infidels.”
As she grew more devout, she chose to wear the niqab (a full-body covering, including the face, with slits for the eyes). At the same time, however, she was performing well in school and wanted to attend university, but because she had witnessed her father’s protest at her sister Muna’s decision to attend the College of Medicine, a mixed university, she chose instead to attend King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (a women’s university). There, she was exposed to a variety of behaviors, customs and cultures, but “nothing did more to change my ideas and convictions than the advent of the Internet, and later, social media,” al-Sharif writes. Ultimately, it was on the internet that she read articles that challenged her beliefs and her country’s “extremist” form of Islam.
After al-Sharif graduated with a degree in computer science, she found a job at ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company (formerly the Arabian American oil company, which had been a majority American-owned company until the 1980s). While working and living on the ARAMCO compound, which was a sort of American colony, she enjoyed the same freedoms as the American and international workers. Men and women worked together. And it was on the compound that she bought a car and learned to drive. Women could drive inside the compound, but not on Saudi roads: for errands or family visits offsite, she had to hire a male driver.
These contradictions—her freedoms as an ARAMCO employee, her ability to drive on company property but not in her own country—finally became too much. Al-Sharif became an “accidental activist” after an incident in which she found herself in Khobar City at dusk after a doctor’s appointment, without a driver to take her home. As she waited for a driver, men yelled at her, calling her “whore” and “prostitute.” The next day she told a male colleague about the harassment, and he informed her that, technically, there was no law prohibiting women from driving—it was simply culture and custom.
After the conversation with her co-worker, al-Sharif made an impulsive but important, life-changing decision: she would get behind the wheel of her car and “dare to drive.” Within days of her decision she saw a Facebook event called “We are driving May 17th,” organized by a young woman named Bahiya. She contacted the woman and asked if she could be added as an administrator. Because she had witnessed the use of social media, and Facebook in particular, in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Sharif decided that she too would use these platforms to organize a much larger driving protest. On the advice of a friend, she created a Twitter account (her handle was @Women2Drive) and almost immediately began to connect with some of the more than 2.4 million Twitter users.
“When social media began to flourish during the Arab Spring of 2011,” she writes, “I found myself in possession of a voice—a miraculous thing in a country where women are almost never heard.” In her Twitter profile, she wrote “We call on all Saudi women to drive on June 17.” After organizing day and night to get women to commit to driving on that day, she decided to make an informational video for Women2Drive in preparation for the June 17 action. Although she was careful not to call it a protest, on May 17, she got behind the wheel. She did not hide her face, and she spoke her entire name in the video. She filmed herself driving, calmly stating, “We are your sisters, your mothers, your daughters. We expect your support, and now we’re giving you the chance to show it.” Her final words were, “The whole story: that we will just drive.”
Al-Sharif’s daring first step of filming herself driving and posting it on YouTube got her more than 120,000 views on the first day. Many of the reactions to the video were positive, but many more were critical, harsh, angry, threatening, even, and many suggested that al-Sharif was under the influence of foreigners. Two days later, she was arrested and jailed. She quickly became known around the world through news coverage of the Arab Spring and the social media campaign to free her, which reached international news outlets. Finally, with immense international pressure, including from human rights organizations, after eleven days, al-Sharif was freed. The June 17 event, however, did not take place.
Like the other activists who risked so much during the Arab Spring, al-Sharif paid a high price. She was shunned at her job, and eventually told to keep quiet. But the final threat to her job at ARAMCO came when she was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, after she had been informed that she would receive the 2012 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She was told that if she went to Oslo, she would lose her job. Yet, she felt she had to speak out. Her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum went viral on YouTube, but within her own country, her success had turned her into an “enemy of Saudi Arabia and a traitor to Islam,” she explains. Due to the threats and fears for her safety, she soon realized she had no choice but to leave Saudi Arabia. She went to Dubai with the man she would eventually marry, a Brazilian consultant to ARAMCO, whom she had met just before she left her job. Today, al-Sharif lives in Australia, and because she married a non-Saudi, she cannot reside in her country and sees her Saudi-born son from her first marriage, Aboudi, only during short visits.
Al-Sharif showed bravery and resilience in speaking out about her country and its religious practices, which harm half the population. In Daring to Drive, she shares a powerful story of her awakening as a Saudi and an activist, advocating for women’s rights to tell their own stories and determine their own fates.
Persis Karim is a professor of Comparative & World Literature and the director of the newly established Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of three anthologies of Iranian diaspora literature and a poet. More information at: www.persiskarim.com.