In the last six months, it has become a trend among intellectuals and academics to mine the past for thinkers to whom we can look to for guidance in how to address the “Age of Trump.” Hannah Arendt and Richard Hofstadter have, not surprisingly, become the leaders in this renaissance of thinking about oppressive regimes abroad and at home. Thankfully, other scholars have critiqued this, reminding us that African American intellectuals, among many others, embody a tradition of fighting government tyranny at home. For many Americans, fear of the government, concerns about the trampling of their constitutional rights, and desperation to find hope during hopeless times, is nothing new during the Trump Administration. It is merely day to day life in America.
The Seventies (long, short, and in between) has emerged in recent years as an object of intensive scholarly investigation. Many historians of the twentieth century now see that decade as a watershed. It is the focus of books such as Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade. It is the start of Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture. It’s the fulcrum of Robert Self’s All in the Family. It is the star of Rick Perlstein’s tomes Nixonland and Invisible Bridge. I’m one of two members of my department currently writing a book on the decade. But what’s the place of the Seventies in U.S. intellectual history? What works from the Seventies have made it into the USIH canon? What works should?
Two things have me thinking about these questions this week. First, I finished the second volume of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition — which is, among other things, an exercise in canonization — in my lower-division Honors intellectual history course. For the first time, I used the 7th edition of this volume, which was published last year. And the Seventies as a distinctive moment in American thought are largely absent from the volume. The book contains fifteen texts written in the 1960s, but only two written in the 1970s. And these two – a selection from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Nancy Chodorow’s “Gender, relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective” (1979) are from the end of the decade. And both point toward the five following works from the 1980s, which are focused, broadly speaking, on questions of identity and postmodernism. The last of the Sixties readings, Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was published in 1967. So the book skips eleven years, the longest gap in time between any two readings in the volume.
Last week I saw the new film I Am Not Your Negro, an exploration of American racism through the words of James Baldwin. Consisting mostly of notes from a never-published book, but including passages in some of his other works and his television appearances, I Am Not Your Negro couples Baldwin’s arresting capacity for capturing the depravity of white supremacy with images, video footage, and contemporary popular culture that place it in a visual and auditory context. The result is a journey as every bit as hair raising and unnerving as you would expect.
Some of the most disturbing moments in the film come when Baldwin – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson – speaks of the slaughter behind American innocence while footage (usually from films) depicting the most profoundly white fantasies of suburban bliss and consumption are splashed across the screen. At one point, the film shifts from this representation of white America as it wishes to see itself to white America as it actually is – and here, while Baldwin warns of the murderous rage that the emptiness of white culture creates in the heart of white Americans, clips from the film Elephant, a wrenching exploration of the phenomenon of school shootings in America, flickers slowly across the screen.
It is a devastating moment, filling Baldwin’s awful prophecy to the brim and dropping it, like a sack of bricks, on the heads of the audience. This does justice to one of Baldwin’s best gifts; his ability to bring to life the darkness and desperation of the psychology of white people under white supremacy. (In that sense, actually, the film couples very well with Get Out, which focuses mostly on the consequences to black people.) This does not, however, usually come coupled with much political analysis, at least in the traditional sense – Baldwin is not concerned with advising any political party or suggesting any specific strategy to civil rights organizations. Reflecting after the film, it occurred to me that in his focus on the psychology, rather than strategy, of political culture, Baldwin actually shares a lot with the postwar pluralists, known for their discussions of alienation, status anxiety, and the desire to belong.
This is the fourth in a series of posts examining the publishing history of feminist texts from the 1970s. Last week’s post revealed just how much I don’t know and can’t know from examining archival evidence related to the presentation of “Up from the Genitals” at the 1970 meeting of the American Historical Association. However, during the course of my research for that post, I did correspond with a couple of the authors of that 1970 paper to ask if they could provide any details on its presentation or reception at the AHA.
Both historians were generous and gracious correspondents. Linda Gordon kindly put me in touch with Rochelle Ruthchild, who offered some recollections about the formation and fate of the paper ahead of the convention – including, crucially, Gerda Lerner’s disapproval of the co-authors’ plan to give the paper at the meeting. And, after my post of last week went up, she provided some further detail about whether any of the historians mentioned in the paper had been in attendance. Here’s what Ruthchild wrote about the early career of “Up from the Genitals”: Continue reading
Note to readers: we are pleased to publish this guest post by Susan M. Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.
America’s Working Women: A New York Story circa 1973
by Susan M. Reverby
Publishing a history book these days by a commercial, not university, press usually involves a fulsome proposal and an agent. Not so in 1973 as publishing houses began to realize that women’s history was the new and upcoming field.
I was working in New York City then as a radical health activist/writer, having barely finished my MA in American Civilization (as it was then called at NYU) over a protracted four-year slog. I had been trained as an undergraduate in labor history when almost nothing on women was available. But I had started to work in this area and realized my friends teaching workers had only xeroxes to use. So I thought a collection of documents would be great to have. I mentioned this my friend, the late Ros Baxandall who was then doing primarily daycare work and starting to teach at SUNY: Old Westbury. We put a group of documents together and thought about what to do next. In my fantasy was John R. Commons’s multi-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society that had been started in 1910, but did almost nothing on women.
Enter my friend, tax preparer/novelist Susan Lee who lived on the sixth floor (and I on the fifth) of a walk up in what was then known as the South Village (now Soho). She knew this editor at Random House named Toni Morrison because Toni collected the paintings of one of Susan’s friends and we had all met at his showing at the Whitney. “Send the idea for the book to Toni,” Susan Lee advised. “Remember we met her at the Whitney.”
In previous posts I have looked at the publishing history of a couple of feminist texts: the 1970 anthology of women’s liberation writings, Sisterhood is Powerful, and Naomi Weisstein’s oft-revised-and-expanded “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche: Psychology Constructs the Female,” which debuted as a paper delivered at the American Studies Association conference in 1968. Today I’m going to look at the history of another feminist text that began as a conference presentation and was subsequently published, revised and reprinted under various titles: “A Review of Sexism in American Historical Writing,” by Linda Gordon, Persis Hunt, Elizabeth Pleck, Marcia Scott, and Rochelle Zeigler.
This co-authored paper debuted at the 1970 meeting of the American Historical Association; it was listed in the 1970 program under the title, “Sexism in American Historiography” (more on that title below), one of three papers presented on a panel entitled “Politics and the American Historian: How Liberal Scholarship Serves Capitalism.”
The panel, chaired by Linda Gordon, was slotted in the last session of the last day of the conference – 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 30. Here’s the panel description:
For this brief post, I wish to talk about a few documentaries I have found via YouTube on the African American experience. As a surprisingly memorable Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to think about what we as historians and instructors in the classroom can use for both research and teaching tools. There is plenty in these documentaries that should interest us as both historians of the United States and of intellectual discourse in the nation’s history. Remember: they are only a sampling of what is available via YouTube, not to mention other streaming services that your college or university (if you happen to be a student or professor at one) has access to through its library.
As I mentioned in my last post, the first, brief New York Times review of Sisterhood Is Powerful singled out for special praise “Naomi Weisstein’s classic ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,’ a devastating critique of sex-bias in experimental psychology.”
I was intrigued by the reviewer’s use of the term “classic.” How had Weisstein’s essay, originally read (per the copyright notice) at the American Studies Association at UC Davis on October 26, 1968 (Sisterhood 228), become a “classic” by 1970? A classic of what? A classic for whom? And Weisstein was a neuropsychologist — what was she doing at the American Studies conference anyhow? (I’m not complaining — just wondering!)
So I decided to try to find out what I could about the career of Weisstein’s essay apart from its anthologization in Sisterhood. As it turns out, that 1970 publication represented not only the first of multiple anthologizations of the essay but also one of the earliest of subsequent versions of the text itself. Many of those early iterations of Weisstein’s frequently revised and expanded paper – including what I understand to be the first version, the paper as presented at the American Studies conference and as anthologized in Sisterhood – were published and distributed by the New England Free Press.
In WorldCat and in online booksellers’ inventories, I found a variety of publication dates for Weisstein’s essay as a NEFP pamphlet, ranging from 1968 to 1971. However, some of the publication dates were bracketed and/or flagged with a question mark, indicating that no date itself was visible on the document.
What to make of this variety of dates associated with “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law”? I wasn’t sure. So I dropped a line to my pal Jesse Lemisch, Naomi Weisstein’s life partner (now, sadly, her widower) asking if he could offer any more clarity on the publishing history of Naomi’s essay as a pamphlet, and how that publication related to the timing of the essay’s appearance in the 1970 anthology. He offered what information he could recall, and put me in touch with Jim O’Brien, a New Left historian and activist and longtime editor/publisher at the New England Free Press.
Spurred on by L.D. Burnett’s fantastic post yesterday on primary sources and 1970s feminist books (seriously, check it out now if you haven’t already done so), I looked back towards some of the books from that era I’ve used in my own research. Among those is a beat up copy of Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness, a collection of essays published in 1970. Many of the essays in that collection were originally published in Ebony magazine while Bennett was editor. Still others were from speeches and talks he gave to various black-oriented organizations in the late 1960s. Reading through the marked-up essays, I began to think about one that would actually come out in 1970 and has stuck with me since I first read it years ago: Bennett’s idea of “liberation” and what it would look like for African Americans.
In this post, and in a few follow-up posts, I’m going to look at the publishing history of some primary sources from the feminist movement(s) of the 1970s. It may well be that “book history” is not quite the same thing as “intellectual history” or the “history of ideas.” But when I am trying to hammer out my own ideas about the ideas I encounter on the page, it sometimes helps me and always cheers me to pay some attention to the page itself, which is as much a manifestation of human thought as the words upon it.
Do the words upon the page mean something different when I have a better sense of the history of the page itself? Sometimes they do. But even when my expeditions into the material world of texts don’t yield findings that are significant to my project (significance is never absolute; significance is only assessed in relation to something else), the excursions themselves are always pleasant. So come along with me and let’s see where the path takes us.
The first source I want to look at is the groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970), edited by Robin Morgan.