From the Desk of Beth Slutsky: Demonizing Dissent

The following contribution comes from Beth Slutsky, author of Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California (Nebraska, 2015). Her book is currently on sale in honor of Women’s History Month.

In 2016 American voters nearly elected their first female president, but instead they were swayed by the populism, the anger, and the “whitelash” harnessed by Donald Trump. So far, 2017 seems to be the year in which these newly-elected and appointed officials feel empowered to act on the anger and fear they inspired by narrowing access to this country through the erection of physical, legal, and political barriers to marginalize demonized groups. Yet, in response to this new kind of activist government, more American women than in the past generation have taken to the streets to protest these and other perceived violations of American values. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more relevant time to bring up the important historical context of self-proclaimed and stigmatized American radical women.

Those in power of course have a long history of demonizing those they have considered un-American; but what seems to on the minds of lots of Americans these days is the ways in which these demonized groups and activists have allied themselves to push back. In the midst of the first Red Scare of 1919, states across the country followed on the heels of WWI-era hyper-nationalist efforts to vilify radicals by arresting and deporting labor activists and by passing laws prohibiting certain acts of free speech that they deemed seditious. The easy part was to identify and deport the foreign element of this threat.  The harder part was to criminalize—and prosecute—the domestic threat.  But the state of California did just that in November, 1919 when officials arrested a 52-year-old wealthy white progressive Oaklander named Charlotte Anita Whitney—who had just finished delivering a lecture at a fancy hotel to a fashionable group of clubwomen about lynching in the south and the challenges of bringing lynchers to justice. Police arrested and charged Whitney with violating the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, which had become operative several months earlier.

This state law—which mirrored other states’ syndicalism laws—made it illegal to belong to an organization that participated in “advocating, teaching, or aiding and abetting the commission of crime, sabotage… or unlawful acts of force and violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change.” Thus, the state of California charged Whitney —who happened to be the niece of a famous Supreme Court Justice, heiress to a sizeable fortune, graduate of Wellesley college, former settlement house worker, and suffragist, who also happened to be a self-proclaimed Communist—with planning to overthrow the government. If convicted, she faced a penalty of up to fourteen years in state prison.  When the state charged her, officials knew they were picking on a very public figure to show in the most dramatic way possible that they were serious when they meant there would be no toleration for leftists—and especially no excuses for betraying one’s gender and privilege.

9780803254756But Whitney pushed back with the help of some of the wealthiest and most politically-connected women in the state. Despite the anti-radical political, legal, and cultural climate of the 1910s and 1920s, Whitney’s friends accompanied her to jail and immediately threw their support behind her by literally tossing bouquets of flowers up at her eleventh-floor jail-cell window of the Oakland county jail. Besieged with anti-radicalism, California newspapers struggled to make sense of this spectacle, regularly publishing articles about “these wealthy, well-read, but really ill-educated women” that supported Whitney.  Unfortunately, for Whitney’s legal challenges, flowers and society-women’s support proved insufficient. Over the next couple of months the state tried, convicted, and sentenced Whitney to a long prison term for violating the state’s law.

It would take her more than seven years—including multiple appeals, re-trials in California, and a plea to the U.S. Supreme Court—for her conviction to be fully-affirmed and her sentence let stand. In 1927, Whitney seemed headed to San Quentin for her radical positions and membership. But those wealthy well-connected friends proved themselves relentless in their commitment to her freedom and condemnation of her conviction. They hired a public relations firm and took to the streets themselves to circulate petitions for California’s governor to consider a pardon.

It took months of carefully orchestrated meetings, articles, rallies, and speaking engagements before the governor bowed to the pressure and pardoned the now-60-year-old Whitney. When he issued her pardon he explained: “whatever may be thought as to the folly of her misdirected sympathies, Miss Whitney, lifelong friend to the unfortunate in any true sense, is not a ‘criminal.’” It took seven years, thousands of supporters, and endless amounts of organizing for a wealthy white woman Communist to receive a pardon.

As a historian, I hate to say that history teaches us lessons, because at best it reveals patterns and the importance of context, but if I can make two points about Whitney’s case that seem particularly relevant to leftists today—one is to remind us that leftists have been demonized for generations. And the second point is the way that leftists have confronted this demonization historically has been to form coalitions with other activists by staking a claim to their deeply American roots. One of the challenges though of having leftists unify around a sense of American identity is the way in which they frame their American gender identity. Whitney served as a perfect example of a conventional, feminine, wealthy woman whose identity was used to make leftists appear more palpable to the general public. Leftist women in general—but especially women involved in radical politics and civil rights groups—were long taught that the way to disarm some of their deepest critics was to play the traditional gender role through their dress, mannerisms, motherhood, and relationships. It worked for Whitney, but the relationship between gender and activism has a fraught history that has been historically exploited in times of suppression of dissent. If America’s political culture is indeed entering a new era suppressing dissent by demonizing perceived un-American threats, there might be a certain amount of comfort and strategy to be gained by exploring more closely how female radicals navigated their own contexts in the past.