Prominent Gender Historians Circle the Wagons

lillian-hellman.jpgA few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times published a review of Alice Kessler-Harris’ new biography of the writer and political activist Lillian Hellman. (Outside of the academy, Kessler-Harris is perhaps best-known for testifying against Sears and on behalf of the EEOC in a famous gender-discrimination case.) Written by Donna Rifkind, a regular Times reviewer, the piece was rather restrained, but not openly hostile. For instance, Rifkind praised Kessler-Harris’ “affecting case” discussing Hellman’s standing out as “an unmarried woman who made serious money from her outstanding work on Broadway and in Hollywood and managed to parlay that fortune into a mini-empire of smart real estate investments.” The review pointed out that while Hellman avoided the term feminist, her financial acumen distinguished her as a woman who succeeded in an area at the time that was hostile to women.

Yet Rifkind also took Kessler-Harris to task for her treatment of Hellman’s political activism in the 1930s and 1940s. Hellman opposed creation of Israel, and signed a 1938 “Open Letter to American Liberals” (referenced here) that excused the show trials on grounds that the Soviet Union “should be left to protect itself against treasonable plots as it saw fit.” Hellman never apologized for signing the letter.

According to Rifkind, by pointing out that there were other anti-Zionist Jews (as, of course, there were), Kessler-Harris was far too easy in excusing Hellman’s anti-Zionism. And by deeming Hellman’s signing the open letter not “defensible” but “understandable,” Kessler-Harris provided” soothing excuses for Hellman’s less laudatory behavior [that] defuse its influence and desensitize its sting, in each case obfuscating instead of clarifying the controversies.”
Rifkind’s review, obviously, was not glowing. But it had some good things to say about Kessler-Harris’ book, and it fairly summarized the basic argument. It nonetheless enraged two other prominent gender historians. In a letter to the Times, NYU’s Linda Gordon and Iowa’s Linda Kerber stated that Rifkind “complains that [the book] doesn’t probe ‘inside Hellman’s character’ but instead looks at how her life, as Kessler-Harris puts it, ‘illuminates the world she confronted.’ But this is a history book, and that is what we historians do.”

This assertion was absurd, in two respects. First, biographies that don’t probe inside their subject’s character generally aren’t very good biographies–as Gordon and Kerber doubtless know. (And, for the record, “we historians” do also write biographies.) Second, in the very paragraph in the review after the one quoted by Gordon and Kerber, Rifkind celebrated how Kessler-Harris’ status as a historian added nuance to the tale she wanted to tell: “The tension between author and subject makes for some interesting reading,” Rifkind noted, “as Kessler-Harris struggles, as historians do, to subsume her leading lady into a series of social, political and economic contexts, while Hellman — never one to be muscled off a podium — noisily resists. Kessler-Harris is most convincing, unsurprisingly, when she shows Hellman in opposition to her milieu.”

If first Gordon/Kerber line of attack can’t be taken seriously, the insinuation of Rifkind’s anti-intellectualism provided grounds to segue into the duo’s main allegation: “The reviewer” (who Gordon and Kerber never deigned to name) “complains that Kessler-Harris points out that others besides Hellman were skeptical of Zionism or defensive about the Soviet Union, but these facts are part of the context that helps us see Hellman historically. The reviewer is also still fighting the cold war, using the review to snipe at 1930s radical politics; she accuses the author of romanticizing Communism into harmlessness while she does the same with the McCarthyite purges that Hellman abhorred. The Times should have assigned this book to someone prepared to evaluate a historian’s attempt to interpret Hellman both as a creature and a defier of her world.”

Rifkind’s review hardly romanticized McCarthyite purges; she deemed Hellman’s “pithy rebuke to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 (‘I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions’)” as one of the “two crystalline expressions of her own life’s high drama [that] are more memorable than any story [Hellman] ever spun.”

So what we’re left with is an openly ideological attack. For two distinguished gender historians, critically probing Hellman’s belief that the USSR “should be left to protect itself against treasonable plots as it saw fit”–which these same distinguished historians whitewashed as Hellman’s being “defensive about the Soviet Union”–constitutes “fighting the cold war” or “snip[ing] at 1930s radical politics.”

If the Kerber/Gordon letter represents the type of analysis the Times would have received by turning to a prominent gender historian for the review, I’d say the editors’ selection of Rifkind was wise indeed.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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