Short-Haired Women and Long-Haired Men
The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left
By Landon R.Y. Storrs
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013, 404pp. $39.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Alice Kessler-Harris
When the federal government expanded during the 1930s, women flooded into new government agencies. Well-educated and underemployed, many of these women had been active in women’s organizations and volunteer associations for years. Taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the Great Depression, they took jobs in the new consumer protection and labor agencies, and then spread into other nooks and crannies of the federal bureaucracy. There, along with sympathetic left-wing men, they helped to shape and implement the social policies that constituted the New Deal. These were women of the left.
In her persuasive new book, Landon Storrs follows the political turn of fate that led these women, as well as the men who worked with them and to whom they were sometimes married, into the vortex of the anticommunist maelstrom that engulfed the United States from 1947to 1957. Ultimately this second Red Scare (the first followed World War I) would destroy their careers and undermine many of the programs designed to redistribute wealth, overcome economic insecurity, and turn the United States into a fairer and more humane nation. Storrs provides a fascinating account of how we lost our path to a New Deal by succumbing to the politics of fear.
Storrs begins by pointing out that thousands of federal government employees lost their jobs in the cold war years, and that a disproportionate number of these were women. That makes sense, she explains, because women had found in government employment a refuge from discrimination and a place where they could hope to implement dreams of economic security for working people and their families. But federal employees were uniquely vulnerable to political pressure. Faced with fears of communist infiltration in the years following World War II, presidential executive orders promoted a loyalty-security program that required government employees to swear that they had never been members of the Communist Party or of any of a long list of organizations that might once have included party members. Buttressed by a series of congressional acts, including most especially the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act, Congress, the courts, and a web of newly created loyalty clearance boards freely investigated anyone accused of sympathy for communism.
The trouble was that “communism” turned out to be a loosely defined concept deployed to incorporate a variety of political positions and social styles that ranged from socialism to sympathy for a rising labor movement, to racial egalitarianism and feminism. The latter encompassed women’s organizations that, in the thirties, had advocated for social change. Men and women who had worked for leftish agencies like the National Labor Relations Board and the short-lived Consumers’ Division of the Office of Price Administration might be labeled communist, as might anybody thought ever to have expressed subversive ideas of any sort, including even former socialists whose credo relied on explicit anticommunism.
In the confusing effort to ascertain loyalty, investigation almost never removed suspicion, even when it cleared away specific charges. Loyalty boards operated out of the range of courts of law; charges did not need to be specific; accusers remained secret; no evidentiary rules applied. To prove they were untainted by communism, suspects needed to demonstrate a history of active anticommunism and a lack of association with anyone who might once have been a communist. This was almost impossible to do, for even a casual encounter with an alleged communist in the grocery store immediately provoked suspicion. To prove their cases, loyalty boards sought information about possible associates and fingered those casually named; they intimidated both lawyers who defended suspects and witnesses who spoke on their behalf by threatening them with investigation as well. Neighbors, friends, and co-workers who spoke well of defendants could themselves be accused of disloyalty and might find themselves on the suspect list. Trampling civil liberties underfoot, investigators defined suspicion as proof, assertion as evidence, and anything left of liberal as communist. Storrs eloquently notes how effectively this silenced those under investigation from revealing their plights and others from coming to their defense. To continue in government service all but required distorting, hiding, or repudiating one’s part in activities once highly valued and now tainted.
For women the situation was particularly fraught, because investigators drew on prevailing misogyny to tie gender deviation to communism. Activist women (i.e., feminists), in their view, tended to support an expanded welfare state, consumer protections, and racial as well as gender equality. Since communists supported these trends, feminists must be communists. By extension, any female who behaved unconventionally and any male partner who supported her behavior acquired a black mark. Storrs tells us that social scientists who advocated distributive changes were derided as “short-haired women and long-haired men,” who fostered subversion by their lifestyles and behavior. A married woman who earned a wage immediately came under suspicion. A two-income family in which both partners earned a high government wage evidenced lack of patriotism. A single woman must be a lesbian. A married woman who chose to keep her own name, remain childless, or speak out independently laid a trail that pointed to subversion. Because women, like communists, were by nature deceptive; mendacious, and manipulative, they simply could not be trusted in government jobs. Besides, women were easily duped: they were indiscriminate joiners who could innocently be pulled into front organizations where they might unknowingly serve communist masters.
Husbands of such women did not get off scot free for, as Storrs notes, “if one spouse was a communist, then the other must be too.” It was no defense for husbands to claim that their wives made their own decisions. Convinced that in a normal marriage the husband would control the wife, conservatives believed that if their relationship was abnormal, theirs was more likely to be a communist marriage. These factors, Storrs avers “taught men to avoid activist wives and women to avoid the feminist label.”
At the heart of The Second Red Scare and perfectly illuminating the larger story that Storrs wants to tell are the figures of Mary Dublin Keyserling and her husband, Leon Keyserling. Dublin Keyserling, as Storrs refers to her, an economist by training, was employed in several different New Deal agencies in the thirties, as was Leon. Both were energetic socialists, critical of communism and the Communist Party, and deeply committed to social change. Mary had a special interest in consumer and labor affairs, and worked for the National Consumers’ League to promote the interests of domestic workers and to advocate for national health insurance. She was also deeply involved in the League of Women Shoppers, a nongovernment group that promoted employment opportunity and included feminists, communists, and many other left-wingers in leadership positions. Beginning in 1940, when Mary married Leon and entered government service, she came under government scrutiny. In 1948, the FBI added Leon to its list of the potentially disloyal. For six horrendous years, these distinguished public servants fought through successive hearings to retain their places and their reputations. The two were not fully cleared until 1954.
The resonant point of the story, which Storrs eloquently illustrates, is the price of silence. Faced with investigation, the Keyserlings rewrote their past, eliminating huge chunks of it. They were, Storrs tells us “compelled to conceal” Mary’s socialist, left activities, as well as to obscure close relationships with friends and family members who were once part of the Communist Party or close to it. When friendly witnesses who testified that Mary’s socialism demonstrated her anticommunist bias ended up adding fuel to the fires, they learned that any evidence they mustered could backfire. To keep their jobs, the Keyserlings depicted themselves as moderate Democrats, wiping their left-wing pasts out of history and memory. To the ends of their lives, they concealed even the fact that they had been under investigation from family members and friends.
Storrs notes the personal pressure that the successive years of investigation imposed. The couple avoided old friends and abandoned networks that had previously supported them. They avoided family gatherings that Mary’s sister and her husband, once party members, were likely to attend. Mary communicated with her beloved sister through her mother. Both Keyserlings developed health problems: Leon gained weight; Mary took medication for stomach problems. The marriage in trouble, Mary considered leaving Leon. We never find out how the marriage survived, and yet, as the couple left progressive politics behind, it did.
Politically, the Keyserlings turned toward the right. For Leon, this meant abandoning a long-standing goal of redistributing income and adopting policies designed to diminish poverty by expanding the economic pie. For Mary, it meant walking away from a remarkable network of left-wing women who, in the 1930s included Mary Van Kleeck, Mary McLeod Bethune, Caroline Ware, Frances Williams, Dorothy Kenyon, and Pauli Murray—great women whose influence has for too long been neglected. No longer an advocate for expanding the welfare state, and especially for removing racial and gender discrimination in New Deal legislation, Mary, in Storrs’ words, “adopted anticommunist rhetoric and edged away from causes associated with the left.” Like Leon, she increasingly advocated greater military spending to oppose Soviet aggression. Ultimately she found political redemption by becoming Women’s Bureau director under President Lyndon Johnson. There she replaced Esther Peterson—another woman who, along with her husband, had come under investigation. Storrs treats this behavior empathetically, insisting that it provided a path to survival in the context of the McCarthyist moment.
In the end we are left with a poignant question: what is the price of silence? Storrs responds that even in the face of small victories (like the Keyserlings eventual return to grace) the imposition of silence “narrowed the spectrum of the possible.” I believe she is right. After the fifties, some of the New Deal’s most exciting welfare state initiatives (including more generous welfare payments; pension, education, and housing programs; and community development, infrastructure and arts support) faded away, no longer within the range of imagination. A sturdy interracial network of feminist women with long and deep experience working for change, disintegrated. The feminists of the late sixties and seventies were unconscious of the legacy of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations. Continuing silence made room for unquestioning commitment to militarization, torture, and endless war. I am drawn to agree with Landon Storrs that the powerful anticommunist movement, which silenced feminism (among other social movements), helped to move social policy away from the left-liberal consensus of the thirties and toward the less vital center, where it has remained ever since.
Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History and professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University. She is the author, most recently, of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (2012).