Guest Blog: Native American Women’s Transatlantic Activism for Sovereignty, Gyorgy “George” Toth (University of Stirling)

Following our Protest and Activism workshop last week, we’re delighted to share a fascinating guest blog from the University of Stirling’s Dr Gyorgy Toth on the topic of Native American women’s transatlantic activism.

Gyorgy “George” Toth holds degrees from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary (M.A. in English Language & Lit and American Studies) and The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA (Ph.D. in American Studies). Since December 2014 George has been serving as Lecturer in post-1945 U.S. History and Transatlantic Relations at the Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. His book From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlieon the transatlantic alliance for American Indian sovereignty in the Late Cold War was published by SUNY Press in 2016. His research profile is at https://www.stir.ac.uk/people/257093

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In April of 2019, my friend Christine Nobiss, an activist of Canadian Cree-Salteaux and Hungarian heritage, will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, then on to Poznan, Poland, to present a paper at the annual American Indian Workshopconference. Christine is the founder and co-director of the organizations Indigenous Iowaand Seeding Sovereignty. At the conference and in her meetings with European activist groups, Christine will discuss her experience in the resistance to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sacred Stones Campin North Dakota, and her various projects to decolonize the environment and landscape of what she calls the land of the Ioway – much of what is now the U.S. Midwest.

With her travels, Christine is not inventing the wheel – in fact, her trip as a Native North American woman activist will only be the latest in an established history of indigenous American female campaigners for sovereignty who toured Europe. Some of the key members of Christine’s mother’s generation of Native women travelled to Europe as part of a transatlantic alliance for causes related to Native American sovereignty. These included campaigns for indigenous reproductive rights, environmentalism and resource sovereignty, anti-nuclear and peace causes, and even Marxist revolutionary projects.

The Movement

The Native American women activists of the 1970s and ‘80s were ‘woke’, tough, and persistent. Their awareness of colonialism and discrimination most often came from their own experience – whether from living on reservations, the crucible of urban life, university workshops, or the social movement struggles of the 1960s. Native women often formed the hard core of the Red Power struggleand the American Indian Movement– they were the ones who put their backs into movement work, including the everyday tasks less glorious than the dramatic demonstrations on Alcatraz in 1969-71, the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington, D.C. in 1972, or Wounded Knee in 1973. At key junctures, female elders and activists would also provide a crucial pushneeded for these protest events to take place. Native women participated in all such events, sometimes with their whole families, even marrying, giving birth, or burying their community members right there at the protest sites.

After these dramatic and costly confrontations with the United States government, by the mid-1970s Native sovereignty activists had changed strategy. In 1974, the American Indian Movement (AIM) launched a sustained and concentrated organizational effort to pursue the decolonization of Native America by seeking admittance to the United Nations and forging alliances with Central European solidarity groups. AIM representatives travelled to Europe to form and visit solidarity groups, who in turn raised funds, publicized the cause of sovereignty, collected signatures, and sent petitions to U.S. government officials and judges. This strategy put external pressure on the United States government in order to force it to legislate American Indian sovereignty rights. The major organ of this strategy was the International Indian Treaty Council, which attained consultative NGO status at the United Nations in 1977. In September of the same year, the United Nations held their International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americasin Geneva – a breakthrough in the transatlantic alliance for Native American sovereignty.

Transatlantic Warrior Women

One of the key activists in the Indian Treaty Council was Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a lady of Southern Cheyenne and white Oklahoman heritage. Dunbar-Ortiz had fervently campaigned for some of the most important social causes in the United States and internationally, including women’s liberation and Marxist world revolution. After working with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense / Offence Committee, Dunbar-Ortiz became one of the early leaders of the International Indian Treaty Council. Committed to a Marxist revolutionary project of national liberation, she believed that the Indians of the Americas were part and parcel of the downtrodden working class in each country. Dunbar-Ortiz insisted that national liberation movements should include indigenous populations, and that revolutionary regimes should recognize Indian sovereignty rights.[1]Importantly, this Native perception of Marxism called for a deep commitment and mutual collaboration between sovereignty activists and revolutionary movements and regimes.

As a representative of the Treaty Council, Dunbar-Ortiz crossed the Atlantic for the 1977 conference in Geneva with several other Native American women. Especially notable was Winona LaDuke, an 18-year-old girl of Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) and Jewish heritage, who fearlessly addressed the world gatheringabout the effects of uranium mining on the Navajo nation.

The Native women who went to Geneva did not stay in Geneva. After their conference, the American Indian delegation fanned out across Europe to build alliances. One team featuring Allene Goddard-Cottier of the Oglala Lakota took a trip to the USSR. In Moscow they met the Soviet Peace Council, government officials, educators, and the press. The group toured the Kremlin, and two of them visited the Moscow Ballet. A University of Moscow ethnographer presented them with eagle feathers from Siberia, and they appeared on Soviet TV, broadcast to some 180 million viewers. Next the delegation visited the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, where they were explained the Kremlin’s progressive policies for Kazakhs as a minority “of color.” Goddard concluded her trip with a visit to the Soviet Republic of Mongolia.[2]

The daughter of AIM leader Russell Means of the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation, 15-year-old Sherry Means accompanied her father on a trip across Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany. In Bulgaria, where they were treated as guests of the government, the sovereignty delegation met with members of the country’s Central Committee and the World Peace Council. In East Germany, the Indian visitors learned about the history of the Sorbs, an ethnic minority, whose human rights were now protected under socialism. For Sherry, “that goes to show what a lie the Americans are living” with their anti-Communist propaganda. She concluded that “what I have learned in these countries is that they believe strongly in human rights and for our struggle. They aren’t the people to feel sorry for. They have no poverty or competition with each other, and nobody wants to get rich because they all have equal opportunities.”[3](It can be reasonably assumed that not all Native American activists actually believed Eastern Bloc propaganda, but rather they reported it strategically, in order to bolster their cause back in the U.S.)

The 1977 UN gathering and post-conference tours in Europe were so successful that German solidarity workers planned a new campaign the following year, with another group of Native North American activists. One important new feature of the May 1978 tour was its stronger focus on Native women’s causes than in the previous visit. In addition to Dunbar-Ortiz, the delegation featured three women activists. Phyllis Youngof the Standing Rock Sioux nation had co-founded Women of All Red Nations, an organization that campaigned for Native treaty rights and the elimination of demeaning Indian stereotypes in U.S. culture.[4]Yvonne Wanrow, from the Colville Reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Washington, championed women’s right to self-defence and legal protection in the U.S. courts. Barbara Moorewas the Sicangu Lakota sister of the famous late Mary Moore, whose book Lakota Womanlater documented women’s experience in the American Indian Movement. A victim of the practice herself, Barbara Moore campaigned against involuntary sterilization, which she recognized as a measure of colonialist control of non-white populations in the United States.[5]Several of them strong personalities and veteran activists, these women forcefully foregrounded Native women’s demands and contributions to the sovereignty struggle, and shared their experiences and wisdom about activism with their German audiences and counterparts. Accordingly, the tour’s program also included events such as a mass rally on women’s rights at the Audimax hall of the Technical University of Berlin on May 5, 1978.[6]

‘Sisters’ in Transatlantic Activism

European women were often partners and allies in Native American transatlantic activism for sovereignty. After the 1975 opening of an American Indian Movement office in West Berlin, Regina Mayerserved as a solidarity volunteer, doing public outreach for Native sovereignty across West Germany.[7]In April and May of 1978, Ulla Bäcksin of the Swedish Indian League (Svensk Indianska Förbundet) helped take Eddie Benton Banai and Shirley Blakely of the Federation of Survival Schoolson a “European Speech Tour” to West Germany and Austria.[8]In the 1970s, university professor and popular author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrichwote a fiction pentalogy titled The Blood of Eagles, focusing on current Native American issues.[9]In the mid-1980s, Renate Domnick of the West German NGO Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker(Society for Endangered Peoples) helped conduct a media campaign to publicize the right of the Sioux nation to the Black Hills of South Dakota.[10]In 1984, the West German Green Party’s founder, nuclear disarmament activist and eco-feminist politicianPetra Kellydemanded that her country’s government lend support to the same land rights case in the United Nations. Kelly raised the issue of German complicity in uranium mining in the Black Hills, and eloquently explained that the Sioux nation were no less sovereign than West Germany, which had become independent from the “trusteeship” of the United States after World War Two.[11]In the same year, Kelly published her book Fighting for Hope, a call for a world free from violence generated by colonialism, gender politics, and humans’ exploitation of the environment.

Stronger with Age, Still Fighting

Kelly’s murder by her partner in 1992 serves as a horrible reminder of the deadliness of domestic violence against women. Yet several of the above members of this great generation of transatlantic activist women remain leaders in their causes to this day. Barbara Moore served as dean of the Crow Dog’s Indian Way School on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota, where she was also an educator for Native reproductive rights.[12]Yvonne Wanrow was a champion of traditional Indian lifeways, and a defender of female Native American prisoners. Phyllis Young was a pillar in the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipelinein 2016-2017, and has subsequently helped defend water protectors in the courts. After decades of activism in the United Nations, in Nicaragua and with transnational organizations, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortizkeeps speaking and writing about the relationship between indigenous rights, the left, and women’s liberation. Winona LaDuke’s activism for environmental sovereignty has earned her high prestige in activist communities. Also known as “Thunderbird Woman”, LaDuke has not only promoted local and Native lifeways, faming and dietas a viable alternative to factory farming and consumption. As vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket, she was theNative American woman who arguably helped upset the U.S. presidential election of 2000-01.[13]

With such elders, my friend Christine can proudly make the trek to Europe in her campaign for environmental sovereignty, which now is a pillar of the movement to turn the tide of climate change. May she find sisters and brothers who will join her in our shared struggle!

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[1]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005) 17, 20, 51, 261.

[2].“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[3]“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Sherry Means, “‘These Countries Believe Strongly in Human Rights.’” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 4. Original title in quotation marks. Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[4]Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “’We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women, Sovereingty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s.” 17, 20, 32, 91. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of History, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007. Online: https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent?id=uuid:7a462a63-5185-4140-8f3f-ad094b75f04d&ds=DATA_FILE. Accessed November 7, 2018.

[5]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 112. On Barbara Moore, also see Crow Dog and Erdoes, 4, and Brave Bird with Erdoes, 193.

[6]“0132/62-65. Performance Göttingen Delegation ’78. Photo Baugert,” and various other photographs. Photo archive of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker. Undated “Endgültiger Terminplan fur die Indianerdelegation ’78 [Final Schedule of the Indian Delegation in 1978].” April 8, 1978 letter from Society to its members regarding the schedule of Indian delegation. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, Göttingen, Germany.

[7]Letter to Richard Erdoes from Regina Mayer White Plume, February 13, 1975. Richard Erdoes Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Yale University.

[8]December 17, 1977 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society for Endangered Peoples. March 29, 1978 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker.

[9]For more on Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, see Glenn Penny, “Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Indian Activist Networks in East and West Germany,” Central European History 41 (2008): 447-476.

[10]Clippings from assorted newspapers published between February and September 1984. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[11]August 31, 1984 letter from Petra K. Kelly to West German Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Translation by the author. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[12]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 119.

[13]In the November 2000 presidential elections of the United States, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% or 543,895 votes; yet George W. Bush won the Electoral College by 1 single electoral vote. The Green Party ticket, with presidential contender Ralph Nader and vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, won a total of popular vote of 2.74% or 2,882,955, but did not win an Electoral College vote. In the Electoral College, one elector abstained from voting. In the key state of Florida, which ultimately decided the election, Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes, or by 0.01%; the Green ticket received 97,488 votes, or 1.63% of the vote. “2000 Presidential Electoral and Popular Vote.” Federal Election Commission. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm

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Guest Blog: Stitching Everyday Resistance: Feminist Politics and Practices of Needlework (Katja May)

Ahead of our Protest and Activism workshop we’re delighted to share a guest blog from one of our speakers- Katja May. Katja  is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. To hear more about her research, please join us on Wednesday 7 November from 2-4.30pm in the Gannochy Seminar Room at the University of Glasgow!

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Textiles have always been deeply connected to the Transatlantic. For black slaves shipped to the new world to toil on the cotton plantations of the American South, the passage resembled one of the first (and for many also the last) horrors of slavery. The cotton these slaves and their descendants then planted, harvested and ginned would often also embark on the transatlantic crossing as either raw or processed goods, but also in the form of passengers’ clothes. Likewise, different textile practices, from dressmaking to embroidery and quilting, went back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic as practitioners moved between the two spheres. This is still very much the case today and the process has become heightened through technological developments that allow online exchange between practitioners and those interested in textile arts and practices of needlework. Think, for example, of the pussy hats that were conceptualized in the autumn of 2016 by Kristah Suh and Jayna Zweiman in the United States as a “symbol of support and solidarity for women’s rights and political resistance” (Pussyhat Project). The knitting and crochet pattern travelled across the Atlantic and beyond and became the iconic object of the Women’s Marches that took place in January of 2017 across the world in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

My PhD research is inspired by this ubiquitous nature of textiles that threads it to global politics and economics while also being closely connected to the individual.  My own passion for textiles was inspired during my high school exchange year in the US, which was to mark my first encounter with traditional patchwork quilts. Back in Germany, it took another three years before I learned how to sew and quilt myself, and it didn’t take long for me to become (slightly) obsessed about anything related to quilting and textiles more generally. This was eight years ago, at a time that the so-called modern quilting movement and its attendant aesthetic was gaining in popularity in the US and had also found its way across the Atlantic to Europe. Age-old discourses about the connection between needlework and femininity were revived, reproduced and sometimes reworked as a result of the revival of the craft. Besides the question of active participation in the craft as an act of conformity or subversion to traditional norms of femininity, practices of needlework are repeatedly discussed as alternative forms of production that supposedly counteract mass produced textiles. However, none of these things are as clear-cut as they are often made out to be. For example, one can make a pussyhat out of cheap acrylic wool bought in a Pound store that is likely to employ its employees (many of which are probably women) on no more than minimum wage and in a precarious contract. Likewise, I could wear a pussyhat made from high-end organic wool in combination with an outfit bought from high street retailers well known for unethical and dangerous manufacturing processes in their South Asian clothing factories. How then, can we attempt to disentangle the ways that practices of needlework are closely knit to other areas of everyday life through their historic legacy, modes of production, and connotations with femininity? I think that the key is in moving away from those popular areas of focus because they will always lead to a dead-end or rather some type of standoff between two opposing sides of a binary rather than investigating what it means for practitioners to be involved in a practice with such contested meanings.

My interdisciplinary research project Everyday Textures: Practices of Needlework, Meaning-Making and Social Transformation examines practices of needlework, for example quilting, dressmaking, embroidery and knitting, as a form of politics within feminist anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism. Drawing on the work of Margaret Wetherell and Ann Cvetkovich, I conceptualize these crafts as affective social practices of meaning-makingin order to attend to their texture in the context of their everyday performance. As a result, I hope to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. My sample of case studies is necessarily eclectic because neither the everyday nor practices of needlework can be neatly fitted into disciplinary or methodological boundaries as they bridge that which is ordinary but also exceptional, forms of repetition, moments of disorientation and breakdown as well as potentiality. As such, I critically engage with a number of text(ures) from women’s writing to textile artefacts to the works of the US based youth organization the Social Justice Sewing Academy and the Afghan-European embroidery initiative Guldusi to the contemporary craftivism movement. Through this attention to texture on the level of everyday affective social practices of creative making I follow different trajectories of meaning-making across the textured web of everyday life lines situated not in an abstract realm but in concrete material and affective experiences.

Katja May, University of Kent

K.L.May@kent.ac.uk

Protest and Activism Workshop, Wednesday 7th November (co-organised with Hook Centre for American Studies).

Wednesday 7 November, 2-4.30pm, Gannochy Seminar Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University Avenue, Glasgow University.

We’re thrilled to announce that, following the success of our Modernisms Workshop and our Wharton Workshop, we’re teaming up with the Hook Centre for American Studies to run a workshop on the theme Protest and Activism. Given that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 50th anniversary of the social unrest and protests in 1968, this theme felt timelier than ever. This is a relaxed, informal event. You can join us for part of the workshop or for the whole afternoon.

We’re now delighted to tell you a bit more about our three speakers:

Katja May (University of Kent): “Legacies of Resistance: From Womanist Writers to Radical Quilters”

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Katja May is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. This research aims to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. Katja is a passionate quilter and has organized multiple feminist craftivism workshops and the interdisciplinary conference ‘Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing’.

Kate Ballantyne (University of Birmingham): “Beyond a Rise and Fall: Tennessee Student Activism, 1954-1975”

Dr Kate Ballantyne is a Teaching Fellow in United States History at the University of Birmingham.  She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in October 2017, and is revising her dissertation into a book manuscript on the subject she will discuss today.

 

Nick Batho (University of Edinburgh): “Ocean Hill Be-In: Children’s Books and
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Nick Batho is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His interdisciplinary work examines children’s books amidst the educational upheavals and Black Power movement in New York City. His work looks at the impact of children’s books in schools and the ways in which they were used. He is also a research assistant for the ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’ project at the National Library.

Janine Bradbury, “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”, 5.15pm, Tuesday 20th November, Room 101, 5 University Gardens

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Racial Passing and its Transatlantic Contexts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Lifebrought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

Bio: Janine Bradbury is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at York St John University where she is also the Acting Subject Director of American Studies. Her work on passing has appeared in the Guardian and her forthcoming book Contemporary African American Women Writers and Passing will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Jennifer Haytock, “Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War”, Wednesday 17 October, 5.15pm,

 

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The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming US academic Professor Jennifer Haytock to Glasgow on Wednesday 17 October.

Jennifer will be talking about American women writers in France during the First World War. Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Mildred Aldrich, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher will all be present! The talk takes place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15 on Wednesday 17 October, with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War

Looking back in her unpublished autobiography, the American journalist Mildred Aldrich wrote how “strange” it was that during the war “I . . . should suddenly find myself more alive than I had ever been, and possessed with but one idea—a wish to try and make everyone see the situation from my point of view.” Aldrich and other American women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, were either already living in France when the Great War began or came to France in order to contribute to the war effort. With the exception of the more domestic Toklas, all were professional women and many were well-known public figures before the start of the war, and they turned their skills and reputations to the work of educating Americans about why the invasion of France and Belgium mattered. While American men too worked behind the lines and wrote about the plight of France and Belgium, these women were able to write about the war without the baggage of masculinity, so often tied to martial prowess, thus opening up the ways in which war could be written about. In reportage, memoir, short stories, and poems, these writers showed Americans the suffering of refugees and the wounded, the physical devastation of the war, and the efforts of the French to take care of their own problems, all with an eye for engaging American sympathy and calling them to action. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we’ll examine the ways that American women writers sought to invest their fellow citizens in the plight of France.

Jennifer Haytock is professor of English at The College at Brockport, SUNY. She has published The Routledge Introduction to American War Literature, The Middle Class in the Great Depression: Popular Women Writers in the 1930s, Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism, and At Home, At War: World War I and Domesticity in American Literature.

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TLW/CAS Event: Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies (Sept 26th,University of Glasgow)

Please join us for a joint Centre for American Studies/TLW talk on Wednesday 26 September 2018 at 5.15 at the University of Glasgow.

Our speaker is Professor Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University) who will be discussing “conniving and surviving” women in 1930s movies. Full details below. The talk will take place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15, with wine, soft drinks and snacks available from 5. This is a free event, generously supported by a BAAS/US Embassy Small Programme Grant. Everyone welcome!

Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies

Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University)

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Since their beginnings in the early 1900s, mainstream Hollywood movies have been a perennially faithful barometer of gender norms and expectations for women, both reflecting and shaping the attitudes of U. S. culture as a whole. By the early 1930s, the vamps, flappers, and vixens of the 1920s began to fade from the screen along with the cult of youth and exuberant sexuality that pervaded movies such as It, Flaming Youth, and Our Dancing Daughters. In their place were women, no longer “girls,” whose response to the catastrophic economic times of the Great Depression was to seize control of their lives and bodies by any means necessary, from the canny conniving, played for humor, of the golddigger to the intense, driven women fighting for survival played by two leading actresses at Warner Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.

Stanwyck’s and Davis’s careers spanned the early years of sound film through the television miniseries, yet in their career peak of the 1930s and 1940s, they epitomized women who would do whatever it took to survive in films such asBaby Face, Jezebel, and Double Indemnity as well as adaptations of fiction by writers such as Edna Ferber (So Big), Edith Wharton (The Old Maid), and Willa Cather (A Lost Lady). Their characters operating in survival mode mirrored the desperation of the real women who flocked to see the movies of Stanwyck and Davis, offering extreme solutions but also a sense of self-worth that countered cultural anxieties during the worst economic era of the twentieth century.

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Donna M. Campbell is a professor of English at Washington State University. Her most recent book is Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and her work on women writers and on film has appeared in Legacy, Journal of Popular Culture, Studies in American Fiction, American Literary Realism, Edith Wharton in Context, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, and The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Her current projects include a critical edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the 30-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton, a series for which she is associate editor.

 

Guest Blog: Deborah Snow Molloy and her New York Gals

Hello everyone,

It’s lovely to be here, thanks very much to the team for welcoming me in a guest spot. I’m a part time, distance scholar writing from a very warm corner of Kent, and proud to be doing my PhD at the University of Glasgow under Laura’s steerage.  My project focusses on female mental illness in New York fiction of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with a particular interest in the relationship between the city and female distress.

On first glance there wouldn’t appear to be much transatlanticism contained within my project, but as I sat and wondered how I could write this blog I realised just how many of my texts include a journey across the Atlantic. New York City is a liminal space, situated as it is on an archipelago at the edge of a continent, a place where fact and fiction blur.  It was a site of both entrance and exit as people came and went through the harbour, before air travel was possible, following a dream or escaping a nightmare.

Djuna Barnes describes Manhattan in a wonderfully evocative piece written in 1917 about a boat trip round the island;

“New York rose out of the water like a great wave that found it impossible to return again and so remained there in horror, peering out of the million windows men had caged it with.[1]

She goes on to recount her dismay at the amount of refuse the city dumped on the wharf and the proximity between the rotting waste, an insane asylum and a home for old men. As she tells it, the waifs and strays of the city are lumped together in one unsightly mass on Randall Island, on the opposite side to the luxurious cruise liners docked in Chelsea. It is perhaps not surprising that Barnes left New York in 1921 to become one of the Lost Generation writers in Paris, though she continued to write about the city of her youth, and ultimately did return.

Edith Wharton, a TWL favourite, similarly left the Big Apple behind her in favour of a continental existence but could not escape the lure of New York in her writing. The extended Wyant/Manford clan run away from New York in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep (1927)and Kate Cleophane makes a brave return to the city in A Mother’s Recompense (1925), only to flee again from “the Babylonian New York which seemed to sway and totter toward her menacingly[2]. Wharton wrote the blurb for Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)in which we follow Lorelei Lee from New York over to Europe and back again on her increasingly sociopathic adventures. Helga Crane’s internal divisions are externalised as she shuttles between Harlem and Copenhagen in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) whilst Angela Mory seeks to leave the strain of prejudice and pretence behind her as she leaves the city for Paris in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun(1928). These ladies flee the verticality of the city for the horizontal space of the liner deck and the wide, blue ocean, looking to escape from their troubles but often coming right back to them.

Sonya Vrunsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements(1923) makes the crossing from Europe as a child, full of potential and hope for a new life, only to find clinging poverty and disillusionment in the East Village,

“on the ship to America, the sea, the sky called to me ‘Fly, fly, free, like the sea-gulls!’ But I was roped off, herded, like cattle, in the steerage, choked with bundles and rags and sea-sick humanity.”[3]

Her struggles to reconcile her Russian, Jewish heritage with her love for her American, Protestant husband forms the transatlantic heart of the novel. Betty Smith offers a similar vignette within A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944), as Aunt Sissy satisfies her baby-craving by adopting the illegitimate child of a young immigrant girl, who returns to Sicily with her parents after the failure of their American Dream.

Fannie Hurst is one of my more forgotten authors, though she was a best-seller for years.  She captures both the beauty and the terror of New York in her short story “The Vertical City” (1922).

“All who would see the sky must gaze upward between these rockets of frenzied architecture, which are as beautiful as the terrific can ever be beautiful.”[4]

Literary New York is an uneasy place, full of noises and motion that unsettle its inhabitants. The population ebbs and flows with the tide, and whilst characters do seek to escape it is hard to break free from the shadow of Lady Liberty.   Its many contradictions result in a disorienting map of broken lives, where only the toughest can survive, but there is also an undenial allure to the City by the sea.

As a final thought, I would like to recommend Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London(2016) to anyone looking for a slightly different literary read. In it she documents her own transatlantic travails through several major global cities, set against a back drop of insightful literary criticism.  A native New Yorker, she considers the ways that women interact with unfamiliar urban spaces in a self-deprecating and witty manner, retracing her own footsteps via the works of Jean Rhys, George Sands, Martha Gellhorn and more.  To give her the last word:

People move to New York from all over the world, drawn to what it stands for: work, success, freedom, acceptance, glamour…To approach the city from somewhere else amplifies it’s power. There are so many viewpoints on the city that ‘New York’ – the idea – is filtered in the imagination through millions of tiny windowpanes.”[5]

[1]Djuna Barnes, “’The Hem of Manhattan’ [New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, July 29, 1917]”, pp285 – 295 in New York: Djuna Barnes, edited with commentary by Alyce Barry, 1989, (Sun & Moon Press: Los Angeles),

[2]Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense, 1986, (Virago Press Ltd: London), p36

[3]Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements, 1995, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), 34

[4]Fannie Hurst, “The Vertical City”, 48-62 in The Vertical City,2015, (Jefferson Publication: USA)

[5]Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London,2016, (Vintage: London)