In Gendering Radicalism, Beth Slutsky examines how American leftist radicalism was experienced through the lives of these three women who led the California branches of the Communist Party from its founding in 1919 to its near dissolution in 1992. Separately, each woman represents a generation of the membership and activism of the party. Collectively, Slutsky argues, their individual histories tell the story of one of the most infamous organizations this country has ever known and in a broader sense represent the story of all women who have devoted their lives to radicalism in America. Slutsky considers how gender politics, California’s political climate, coalitions with other activist groups and local communities, and generational dynamics created a grassroots Communist movement distinct from the Communist parties in the Soviet Union and Europe. An ambitious comparative study, Gendering Radicalism demonstrates the continuity and changes of the party both within and among three generations of its female leaders’ lives.
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Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California
By Beth Slutsky
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Three Generations of American Communist Women
In October 1919 an educated, wealthy, white woman who loved to wear colorful hats and had grown up with pedigree in a prestigious California family sat quietly in an Oakland meeting hall while votes were being tabulated. Moments earlier she had cast her ballot in favor of her branch of the Socialist Party breaking off and becoming a pioneer branch of the Communist Labor Party. Within days the members of the charter group of the Northern California Communist Labor Party affirmed their commitment to the revolutionary organization's constitution and its article supporting the overthrow of the capitalist American government. On the day her group pledged its devotion to the Communist Party (CP), Charlotte Anita Whitney (1867–1955), the distinguished clubwoman, suffragist, Socialist, and now Communist, proudly and politely received one of the first membership cards given out to Californians.
Less than a decade later, on December 1, 1928, a self-conscious, awkward, but thrilled fourteen-year-old girl with a strong working-class Jewish heritage went to the Berkeley, California, home of one of her brother's friends. She had convinced her older brother to take her along to a Young Communist League meeting, where she thought she might finally find her social and political niche. That evening Dorothy Ray Healey (1914–2006) paid her initial dues and became a card-carrying member of the Young Communist League, pledging her allegiance to an organization committed to a revolution led by the proletariat.
Nearly forty years later, in early 1966, a tall, thin, dark-skinned nineteen-year-old young woman from Los Angeles, who had already established herself as a seasoned civil rights activist, launched her career as a Communist in Southern California. Born to a black man and a white woman who taught their daughters to ignore racial distinctions and actively fight for equality, this mixed-race woman determined that promoting class equality through an older radical organization would be the best way to advance her vision of the world. Kendra Claire Harris Alexander (1946–92), a second-year college student, enlisted wholeheartedly with the Los Angeles branch of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).
These three women joined and eventually led the California branches of the Communist Party of the United States of America through a period that stretched from its founding in 1919 to its near dissolution in 1992. Separately, each woman represents a generation of the membership and the activism of the Communist Party. Each woman chaired the state Party, represented the state at national and international Communist events, and led California radicals through pivotal moments in the twentieth century. But collectively, their identities, Party involvement, and leadership tell the story of one of the most infamous and legendary organizations this country has ever known. Just as important, their experiences tell the story of women who devoted their lives and livelihoods to radicalism in America. Over nearly a century these female activists found the Communist Party's organizational structure to be useful for their purposes as they waged their diverse struggles through the Party apparatus.
While these women lived at different times, in somewhat different regions of California, and nearly in different worlds from each other, they made the decision to enlist with a revolutionary, stigmatized, and at times banned organization. Each joined for different reasons, and each expressed her activism in distinct ways. But together, at their core, all three women agreed with the philosophical premise of communism: equality (whether economic, racial, or gender) could only be fully realized by ending the capitalist system. While the Party occasionally changed its strategies, it never wavered in its efforts to achieve its two overarching goals of abolishing capitalism and ending an inherently unequal competition-based way of life. Whitney, Healey, and Alexander are united in retrospect by their willingness to consider communism as a viable way of life in the United States and by their drive to convince others that only communism could bring about true equality.
This study into the lives of three generations of women who lived in and led the Communist Party in the United States seeks to answer five interrelated questions. First, why did Whitney, Healey, and Alexander join the Party? What did the Party offer these women? How did the Party change over time because of and for its female members? To what extent did its members' race and class shape the Party's changing agenda? Finally, how and why was California central in their experiences with radicalism? The historical contexts of their entry into the Party varied enormously over time: Whitney entered in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, when America had been struggling to define its positions on radicals; Healey became a member at the height of labor organizing; and Alexander joined during the Cold War but also in the context of a radicalizing civil rights movement. But the devotion of these women to the Communist Party and all that it represented did not waver.
Investigating these women as separate individuals, members, and leaders who lived in different temporal moments and sociopolitical environments not only illuminates their particular historical contexts. Such an analysis also helps to expose both the significant chronological continuities and the key changes over time in Party members' attitudes, actions, rhetoric, and identities. Using Whitney, Healey, and Alexander as windows through which to analyze the Party, women, and California over three generations summons a broader view of the past. Not only do the evolving and shifting contours of the Party, the history of women, and California become more apparent through this generational study, but situating these three women in such a framework provides a much more complex and nuanced understanding of the past. Analyzing the three generations of women as part of a broader movement and an ongoing conversation among women in the twentieth century deepens historians' understanding of the Communist Party in general and of these women in particular. Through the coalitions they built and relationships they sustained, these American Communist women pushed components of their radical agenda into the mainstream.
This book spans the lives of each woman. The first section chronicles the life of Charlotte Anita Whitney. Living all but five years of her life in the Bay Area, Whitney was a socially elite leftist. The Communist Party proudly championed Whitney as its matriarch. And as the public leader of the first generation of the Party, she forged a Communist identity in the radical environment of the 1920s and 1930s. Mainstream progressive organizations and radical movements alike welcomed Whitney's membership and leadership. Most notably, Whitney drew widespread attention during her arrest, trial, and pardon campaign for violating the California Criminal Syndicalism Law. After she was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government, mainstream organizations actively supported Whitney and even found common ground with the Communist Party over the defense of free speech rights. Capitalizing on her fame and coalition-building ability, Whitney ran for the office of state controller on the Communist Party ticket in 1934 and received well over one hundred thousand votes, more than any other California Communist ever received in an election. In commemoration of her seventy-fifth birthday, the Communist Party published Native Daughter, a biography that painstakingly recited the details of Whitney's increasingly radical life. The book also showcased her feminine qualities, which helped the Party disseminate an image of its idealized woman leader. Her life reveals how radical and non-radical female activists in the early twentieth century cooperated across political boundaries on multiple occasions.
By the 1940s and 1950s the Communist Party had a new woman to hold in esteem, Dorothy Ray Healey. Representing a new generation of Communist leaders, Healey was a tireless labor organizer and independent wife and mother. Born into a radical family, Healey spent most of her life organizing labor unions and leading Communists in Southern California. More than either Whitney or Alexander, the Party kept Healey within its insular world; her family life, marriages, and professional life centered on the Party. For a time the raging anticommunism of the Cold War forced her to live in a more isolated political world than her counterparts. During the late 1940s and early 1950s she hid underground, served jail time for violating the Smith Act (the Alien Registration Act of 1940), and argued her case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned her convictions in 1956. Healey remained a leading activist in the Party from the turbulent years of the popular front (when the American Communist Party aligned itself with mainstream political parties in a united opposition to fascism and supported some New Deal policies) to the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. But as the domestic Cold War terror eased within the United States, Healey began to criticize the Party's hierarchical political structures and bureaucracies. Although she resigned in 1973 over international and internal struggles, Healey was a key figure in the Party's battles stretching from the depths of the Great Depression to the height of the Cold War and through the civil rights movement.
Characterizing the third generation of American Communist women from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, Kendra Alexander found and sustained the Party at a moment when most had dismissed it and believed it to be outdated. Alexander, a teenage civil rights activist in the 1960s, eventually became one of the most prominent and high-ranking Communist Party officials in the United States throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Spending her life in both Southern and Northern California, Alexander held an unusual role as an intellectual woman who embraced Black Power movements and simultaneously had an allegiance to the Communist Party and its commitment to class and racial struggles. She served as the head of Angela Davis's defense committee in 1972, when Davis faced charges of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping. But Alexander was also intimately tied to non-Communist California radicals and labor organizers. Like Whitney and Healey, she succeeded in building coalitions with other radical and non-radical groups on specific issues such as police brutality, poverty, housing segregation, and unemployment. Thus, despite ideological differences, notions of justice and equality often united Party faithfuls such as Alexander and non-radicals.
Although Whitney, Healey, and Alexander led different generations of activists, these women were all part of an ongoing attempt to sustain a radical political movement in the United States. Each headed the second largest Party chapter in the country and served as the California representative (or chair) to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In other words, each held the same title and had similar responsibilities. While the American Communist Party underwent a number of name changes (switching, for example, from the Communist Labor Party to the Workers (Communist) Party of America to the Communist Party of the United States of America) and organizational shifts in terms of mission, these women all belonged to the Communist Party that grew out of the Comintern that V. I. Lenin created in Russia in 1919 and which was aligned with the Soviet-directed parties around the world. At its core the Party advocated abolishing capitalism and social democracy and replacing it with a proletariat-led state. Whitney, Healey, and Alexander all agreed to support these tenets, which also included overthrowing the existing government to attain this workers' utopia.
Although Whitney and Alexander never met — Whitney died when Alexander was still in grade school — Healey knew both women and served as a bridge between the beginning and ending generations of Communist women. These women's lives and experiences with the Party challenge previous assumptions about the ways in which women integrated their American identities with their radical involvement. Whitney's gender and elite class background, for instance, often enabled liberals to support this revolutionary, while the Communist Party enhanced its legitimacy by proclaiming her to be its domestic matriarch. Indeed, throughout her 1920 criminal syndicalism trial and ensuing pardon campaign, Whitney's liberal and radical supporters alike characterized her as a wealthy social do-gooder incapable of inflicting harm. Thus, they united around a highly constructed image of an American-born revolutionary. Through such episodes the biographies of these three women leaders deepen and broaden historians' understandings of female radicals across the twentieth century.
Whitney, Healey, and Alexander not only became powerful figures within the CPUSA, but they also remained deeply rooted in mainstream society. Their families, friends, and cultural understandings centered on American notions of identity and femininity. They lived their lives deeply connected to their local communities — from community centers to women's clubs to student organizations to local politics. In other words, they blended, and at times purposefully adapted, Communist political culture with American society. What emerged in the lives of these three women was a profoundly American — if not Californian — version of communism, which allowed them to subscribe simultaneously to both mainstream and unconventional ideologies. By analyzing Whitney, Healey, and Alexander's experiences, this study argues that a deeply American version of communism developed and persisted throughout the twentieth century. This approach was characterized by conventional American gender roles, often assuming a separate spheres ideology; American notions of citizenship (relying on guaranteed civil liberties such as free speech and the right to organize); an embrace of consumer culture and American standards of beauty; and most important, a commitment to racial equality.
Central to Whitney, Healey, and Alexander's collective experiences with American communism was gender, specifically the Party's reluctance to challenge gender inequalities. This reluctance stemmed more from conventional American gender roles than from any critical application of theory about gender hierarchies. Indeed, a gap emerged between philosophical arguments about gender inequalities and their lived experience. In its purest theoretical explanation, communism located women's oppression in the structures of capitalism. Resulting from the industrial-era division of labor between work within and outside of the home, communist theory reasoned that women's production became less important than men's production. Writers of a propaganda pamphlet observed in 1972: "Production in the family is unpaid; it is not recognized as valuable. Production outside the family is paid, therefore it is considered valuable." Because of women's integral roles as stabilizers of capitalism, freeing the proletariat required women's participation. Without the private unpaid sphere of women's traditional work, capitalism would not function. Moreover, Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin contended that the abolition of private property, fostered by a proletariat-led revolution, would help emancipate women. Under communism the sexual division of labor would disappear, no assigned roles within a family would act as restraints, and the lines between public and private, male and female, would blur. Thus, historically, communism recognized the numerous economic and social problems caused by separate gender roles.
Despite its theoretical commitment to women's equality, however, the Communist Party in the United States did not practice these principles in its daily activities. While consistently pronouncing that gender equality would only come out of proletariat-led revolution, the Party nevertheless expected its female members to serve as professional revolutionaries but remain subordinate to the Party's primarily male leadership. In much the same way that men in civil rights organizations did not practice gender equality in their daily operations, men in the Communist Party discouraged women from taking leadership positions but also relied on them to organize and facilitate events. But the paradox was made all the more puzzling because readings from Marx and Lenin that Communists regularly discussed addressed female inequality. Thus, the CPUSA eagerly discussed gender inequality, but daily Party activities often perpetuated inequality.
The existing paradox about gender norms became apparent through the Party's operational structure, democratic centralism. Following from the logic that direction should come from one national center that coordinated the activity of the whole Party, democratic centralism meant that the Party functioned hierarchically. At local, regional, and national conventions Party leaders encouraged members to discuss openly, debate freely, and reflect critically on policies and goals (termed "self-criticism" by the Party). But after discussion was exhausted and a policy was determined, no dissent could occur. In order to have the most uniform positions, democratic centralism demanded that all Party members fall in line with whatever policies the Central Committee adopted.
Excerpted from Gendering Radicalism by Beth Slutsky. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. Three Generations of American Communist Women,
2. Parlor Pink Turned Soapbox Red: Charlotte Anita Whitney, the American Communist Matriarch, 1867–1955,
3. Red Queen of the West: Dorothy Ray Healey and the Grounding of California's Old Left, 1914–2006,
4. The New Old Left: Kendra Harris Alexander, 1946–1993,
5. American Communism after Three Generations,