Portraits from the American Radical Tradition
Judith Nies's new book, Nine Women, an update of her 1977 Seven Women, is an important accomplishment. A collection of biographical essays on nine different politically active American women, along with a chapter on women's role in the environmental movement, the book does a wonderful job of introducing readers, especially those with limited knowledge of American history, to many of the most important individuals in American radicalism. At the same time, the book has a few inaccuracies, and minimizes many of the most important radical movements in American history, including both the Old Left and the New Left.
Nies's most important achievement is to demonstrate that America does have a radical tradition. The women covered in this book—from Harriet Tubman through Dorothy Day to Bella Abzug—are connected in myriad ways, through common interests and acquaintances, reading one another's works, or campaigning for the same issues. Despite the fact that Nies separates each radical woman into a single chapter, the book argues that these figures are not merely separate individuals, but rather members of a larger historical tradition. Nies also provides very good discussions of other radicals, like John Brown and Terence Powderly, allowing at least a sense of the breadth of the American radical tradition. That alone is a remarkable achievement for any single text.
Some of Nies' individual biographies are also extremely welcome. To me, this was especially true when she dealt with relatively familiar characters like abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Nies argues convincingly that Tubman—all too often dismissed as a folk hero—was also a important radical theorist. In Nies' presentation, Tubman had serious political beliefs, particularly her ultimately correct insight that only direct action by the slaves themselves could end slavery. Nies also recounts some of Tubman's activities that generally don't appear in most discussions of Tubman, including subjects like Tubman's role in John Brown's raid, her activities during the Civil War, and her determination to set up a school for freedmen after the Civil War ended. Unfortunately, the book drops its discussion of Tubman in the 1870s, telling us nothing of Tubman's activities-whatever they may have been-for the forty remaining years of her life before her death in 1913.
As she does with Tubman, Nies frequently allows a biographical subject to disappear as she reaches the middle of her life. Nies drops her fascinating treatment of Mother Jones, the militant labor organizer who helped organize the Industrial Workers of the World in the early twentieth century, immediately after the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, omitting discussion of Jones's attitudes towards World War I and her involvement in the Steel Strike of 1919, the largest single strike in US history. Similarly, Nies covers economist Charlotte Perkins Gilman only through about 1915, with the last twenty years of Gilman's life disappearing altogether.
There are other, more serious problems with Nine Women. At times, the book feels somewhat dated. In the introduction, which may need much further updating from the 1977 original, Nies states that "women are rarely, if ever, analyzed as radicals. Women seem to fall into two historical groups—saints or wives of famous men" [xvii]. While this statement no doubt had some validity in 1977 (even then it would have been an overstatement), it needs revisions for 2002; historians have long since accepted that many women played major roles in American radicalism. Additionally, the bibliography, although it has some newer sources, leaves out some critically important texts, among the most important Ellen C. DuBois's brilliant and highly readable analysis of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, Feminism and Suffrage.
Additionally, like most biographers, Nies emphasizes the importance and good character of the individuals she discusses. This means that she occasionally overlooks their flaws. When Nies discusses the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, we are told nothing about Stanton's changing and occasionally quite disturbing stance on race. Nies minimizes Stanton's opposition to African American male suffrage in the aftermath of the Civil War and portrays Stanton as an unerring advocate for racial equality, which Stanton was only at certain points in her life and in certain situations (a point discussed further in DuBois's work). At other points in the study, Nies overstates her case. Nies holds up Sarah Grimké as the author of the "first tract on women's rights in America," failing to mention the work of Judith Sargent Murray, who had a pamphlet on this very subject fifty years before Grimké's work .
Additionally, Nies allows a few obvious historical inaccuracies to creep into her writing. Nies suggests, for instance, that the Knights of Labor did not accept African American workers as members (in actuality, the Knights were one of the few nineteenth-century American labor unions that did accept African American members, although sometimes in segregated locals). Nies also claims that the Seattle General Strike was the only general strike in American history, a statement that ignores the numerous general strikes of the 1930s (San Francisco being the best known) and of the late 1940s. These assertions are a little puzzling, considering that there is ample scholarship on both the Knights of Labor and on general strikes in America for Nies to correct these errors.
One of the most important questions of this or any other book that attempts to cover such a broad subject as radicalism in American history, is the question of the inclusion of a particular individual. Certainly in Nies's case the selections are not random. The women whom she addresses are unquestionably important figures, without whom no understanding of American radical history would be truly complete. But they share more than just their importance. Often the women whom Nies has chosen to present are most famous for their writings, sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and journalist Anna Louise Strong being the most obvious examples. More noticeably, Nies eliminates almost entirely the radical movements of the 1930s, often called the Old Left. This is particularly true of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which appears only occasionally and has no members included in Nine Women (the only person connected with communism in Nine Women is Anna Louise Strong, who of course lived outside the country most of her life and had few if any connections to the CPUSA). The end result is that one of the most important and dynamic decades in the history of American radicalism gets represented solely by Dorothy Day, who-despite her importance-hardly represents the only voice of the 1930s that merits inclusion in a study of radical American women.
This virtual disappearance of the Old Left is only somewhat less striking than Nies's sparse discussion of the New Left, represented here by the Civil Rights movement (and a most welcome description of Fannie Lou Hamer's extremely important and all-too-often overlooked contributions to that movement), a discussion of the environmental movement, and a discussion of Bella Abzug's involvement with Women Strike for Peace. Like Dorothy Day, these inclusions are no doubt important, but do not approach a discussion of women's complicated and important role in the various radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s that made up the New Left. In perhaps the most glaring example of the danger of this omission, none of the women who created the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s appear in this book, despite the fact that it was this very movement that led to the writing of books like Nine Women.
These omissions are very serious ones. The Old Left and the New Left were the two movements, one could argue, that were most important for twentieth-century American radicals. Quite simply, without a detailed discussion of American communism and the many intersecting movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Nies' study of women's role in American radicalism is incomplete.
if these omissions are kept in mind (and if this book is supplemented
by other scholars' writings), Nine Women is well worth
the reading. Nies'Seven Women, the earlier, shorter version
of the book, has been a required text for many undergraduate women's
history courses for years now; I suspect Nine Women will
have a similar reception, and deservedly so. Despite its flaws,
there can be no question that readers beginning their studies in
either American radical history or American women's history will
gain much from Nies' work. She recounts in an interesting and readable
way the glorious struggles (and, all too frequently, heartbreaking
defeats) of radical American women. In the process, she convincingly
demonstrates that there is a rich and complex tradition of American
radicalism, and that women played key roles in this tradition. As
a result, this is a most welcome study, whatever its flaws.