By Jennifer Keohane
I want to use this post to share a bit of exciting news. I have a new monograph, released with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield. The book is available now on the Rowman website or Amazon. This project is the culmination of 6 years of archival research at the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Tamiment Library at New York University. In it, I explore the rhetoric of women affiliated with the American Communist Party or CPUSA during the early Cold War. I argue that their speeches, pamphlets, newspaper articles and activism sustained feminist advocacy during a conservative time period.
One of the book’s central claims is that the words of these intrepid women have largely been overlooked by scholars. There are several reasons for this, but one that is relevant for people who study character assassination is the long shadow of McCarthyism in the United States. I won’t rehearse the history of McCarthy’s red-baiting campaign here—you’ll get to read more about that in an essay I wrote for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Character Assassination and Reputation Management. But smearing activists as communists has been a common form of character assassination throughout U.S. history. Those accusations reached a fever pitch during the Cold War, unsurprisingly. Of course, the women whose words I study in my new book were actually affiliated with the Communist Party, so these smears would have been, strictly speaking, true.
So what can we learn from the cases in this book? I’ll point out a few things for now, and hope that those who get the chance to read this book can contribute to the conversation in the future.
- Communist women gained a great deal of publication support and ideological underpinnings from their affiliation with the CPUSA. That said, given the active character assassination campaigns occurring during the time they were most actively writing about gender equality, equal pay, and racism, this affiliation undoubtedly limited the staying power and reach of their arguments.
- Character assassination, even in an allegedly democratic society, is especially powerful when backed by institutional apparatuses that ignore the rights of those who are attacked. Many of the most prominent Communist feminist writers whose words I explore here, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Claudia Jones, spent time in jail. A combination of Supreme Court prejudice and other institutional and legislative mechanisms made their arrests a foregone conclusion.
- Character attacks that may be unjust, but are true, limit the ability of activists to argue against the state. Communist women’s defenses of their activism, even when they tied their own activism to important American ideals like free expression, failed to save them from serving jail time. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s eloquent statement before her sentencing hearing in 1953 is a perfect example. Activists in these situations need to carefully consider who their target audiences are as they craft messages.
Certainly, there is much that scholars can learn from one of the most infamous eras in the twentieth century. Character assassination, especially backed by the state, thrives in moments when free speech is curtailed and such an atmosphere stagnates social progress and democratic collective action.