The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review Essay | Intersections of Resistance in the Space Between

Catherine W. Hollis
The University of California—Berkeley Extension

Books Reviewed

Feminist Periodicals and Daily Life: Women and Modernity in British Culture. By Barbara Green. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 312 pp. $129 (cloth); $99 (ebook). 

Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles. By Imaobong D. Umoren. University of California Press, 2018. 216 pp. $85.00 (cloth); $34.95 (paper); $34.95 (ebook).

Considering Emma Goldman: Feminist Political Ambivalence and the Imaginative Archive. By Clare Hemmings. Duke University Press, 2018. 304 pp. $99.95 (cloth); $25.95 (paper). 

This review essay reflects the influence and vibrancy of the joint conference held in 2018 by The Space Between Society and the Feminist inter/Modernist Association. It was drafted during the long week between Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the U.S. Senate and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reviewing these three books about internationalist feminist resistance in the space between at this moment in contemporary U.S. and global history was a profound reminder of the ongoing necessity for feminist and intersectional resistance movements. Scholarship into the women artist-activist-intellectuals of the space between plays a vital role not only in reshaping modernist studies, but also in drawing lines of continuity between their moment of resistance and our own.  We are living in a time where survivors of sexual and racialized violence demand recognition. Many of us want the people who have historically held power to take responsibility for the hurt done under the institutions of white patriarchal power. How we will—or whether we even can—repair the hurt is an open question. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that feminism helps direct our private, even buried, feelings of shame and injury towards the “world that reproduces that violence by explaining it away” (31). Feminism moves us from the individual wound to collective activism; it teaches us, according to Ahmed, that “the experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others” (31). Feminists gather together to create affiliations that build community and support marginalized voices, particularly the voices of those “ghosts of feminists past,” in Ahmed’s phrase, that are explored in our research and scholarship (63). The 2018 Space Between conference, jointly held with the Feminist inter/Modernist Association, and bearing the theme “Intersections of Resistance,” allowed for a diverse array of work in the fields of gender, sexuality, race, modernism, and inter/modernisms; significantly, Sara Ahmed’s work was frequently cited by conference speakers. What can we learn from the feminist resistance movements of the space between to help us negotiate the dire political challenges of our contemporary moment?

Three recent books further the task of recognizing, documenting, and theorizing the myriad forms of feminist resistance from the prewar and interwar years of the twentieth century.  Barbara Green’s Feminist Periodicals and Daily Life: Women and Modernity in British Culture explores resistance and daily life through an examination of the feminist public sphere created by suffrage periodicals, socialist newspapers, and women’s pages in popular journalism. Imaobong D. Umoren’s Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles examines three black activist-intellectuals—Paulette Nardal, Una Marson, and Eslanda Robeson—whose artistic and political achievements have been underrecognized by literary critics and historians of modernity. Clare Hemmings’s Considering Emma Goldman: Feminist Political Ambivalence and the Imaginative Archive looks at the problematic status of Emma Goldman as a feminist icon even as it recognizes Goldman’s achievements on the world stage. Each book explores forms of feminist resistance in the early twentieth century that have been in danger of being overlooked by a modernist studies that prioritizes experimental form, the pale, and the male. Print culture and periodical studies are a significant focus for each book, as the suffrage movement, the formation of a transnational black public sphere, and anarchist networks all relied on newspapers, pamphlets, and private correspondence to cross borders and create international forms of resistance. These movements were built as much on textual resistance as they were on direct, political activism, creating a paper trail of interest at the time to fellow-travelers and institutions of government surveillance, and now to present-day archival scholarship. These “ghosts of a feminist past” speak to us of the ongoing struggle for recognition, responsibility-taking, and repair.

Barbara Green’s subject is feminist periodical culture in the prewar and interwar years, and her key terms are the “feminist everyday” and “domestic modernity.” Grounding her argument in the daily life studies of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, and emerging from the field of modern periodical studies as well as recent scholarship of the suffrage movement, Green argues that early twentieth-century feminists enacted a critique of the everyday through suffrage and feminist periodicals, as well as through the so-called “women’s pages” of newspapers. The feminist everyday—cleaning, shopping, cooking—is, according to Green, “the hum just below or alongside the labor of feminist public action” (3). It is a nice touch that Green favors the verb “to stitch” as a way of linking “the big to the little things in life” (108): her book interweaves the formation of a feminist public sphere with the mundane and repetitive labor of women’s domestic lives. Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, thus marketed the suffrage movement through the production and consumption of feminist “things,” suffrage collectibles in the iconic shades of purple, white, and green. The socialist Clarion established the “Woman’s Corner” as a separate page or “space” in the paper that was analogous to the domestic space associated with women’s labor.  Writers like Julia Dawson and Rebecca West weaponized this space to encourage women readers to look beyond its borders to the political columns adjacent to it. Attending to periodical “middles” (lighter journalism or first-person essays) allows Green to argue for the importance of middlebrow feminist writing in the field of modern periodical culture. The ephemera of the everyday demands our attention, whether in reference to the lives of prewar suffrage activists, or to our own lives balancing professional, activist, and domestic responsibilities.

Green builds on Lauren Berlant’s idea of the “female complaint” to analyze the correspondence pages of journals such as The Freewoman and the Woman Worker. Berlant’s notion of the “intimate public sphere” created by cultural works that promote “affective identification” among audience members helps Green create a richly compelling case for the feminist work done by “Agony Aunt” columns and the first-person autobiographical sketches contained in correspondence pages. For example, in the pages of the socialist feminist Woman Worker, working class women “complain” about unjust work and abusive marriages: these first-person accounts testify to the range of injustice ordinary women encountered in their daily lives. By creating an affective space for women to comment on and respond to each other’s disappointments, these letter columns build a supportive feminist network of “shared suffering” (164) that testifies to the repetitive, cyclical nature of both domestic labor and serial publication. Although The Freewoman (the first incarnation of Dora Marsden’s “little magazine”) was priced considerably higher than Woman Worker and aspired to a more elite readership interested in both social questions and modernist art, it too opened its letters pages to a variety of viewpoints and writing styles. Similar to the “Reader-Critic” pages of the American periodical The Little Review, these correspondence pages debated the issues raised in the editorials, articles, and stories, as well as the direction of the periodical itself. By facilitating open and active debate, the feminist periodicals Green examines created a textual counterpublic as essential to the feminist movement as direct public action. 

Suffrage historians like Lucy Delap have argued that early twentieth-century feminism was for many women primarily “a reading experience” (qtd. in Green 166), and Green builds on this work by showing how the suffrage and feminist press functioned to create a textual public sphere through a focus on the rituals and routines of domestic modernity. Sara Ahmed notes the persistence of this material element of feminism when she observes that “feminist community is shaped by passing books around” (17).  For this reason, both Delap and Green make strong arguments for the relevance and importance of early twentieth-century feminist voices that fall outside the parameters of modernist aesthetics. Such attention to what Kristen Bluemel has called the “intermodernist” recognizes the critical importance for feminist scholarship of the varieties of genres, forms, and activities from the prewar and interwar periods that contribute to discussions of women and modernity. Feminist Periodicals and Everyday Life offers a major contribution to our understanding of how the feminist everyday was represented in the middlebrow literature and journalism of the interwar years, as well as demonstrating how feminist periodicals contributed to feminist activism during the space between.

The women activist-intellectuals Imaobong D. Umoren focuses on in Race Women Internationalists wrote poems and plays, edited journals, founded salons, hosted radio programs, and traveled to create a transnational black public sphere focused on issues of global racial justice. Here, too, print culture, and the new possibilities of the radio, provided the means to build an international community. Each of the women Umoren discusses is a multi-hyphenated maker of culture and practitioner of international politics. Paulette Nardal moved from Martinique to Paris in the early 1920s, where she wrote on art for the leading journal La Dépeche africaine, founded another—La Revue du monde noir/The Review of the Black World—and, with her sisters, established the influential Clamart Salon. Una Marson moved from Jamaica to London in 1932 where her play At What a Price? was produced on the West End (the first play by a black writer to appear there); meanwhile, her career as a writer (and later BBC producer) was buttressed by her extensive international activism in the League of Nations and with various feminist organizations. Eslanda Robeson’s leftist, anticolonial radicalism was both enabled and overshadowed by her marriage to actor Paul Robeson. The Robesons began visiting England in 1925 when Paul Robeson appeared in a London-based production of the Eugene O’Neill play Emperor Jones; Eslanda Robeson went on to study anthropology at the London School of Economics and traveled widely in Central Africa, eventually blending anthropology and travel narrative in her 1945 book African Journey. Umoren’s group biography of these three globally networked black women recognizes their prominence and contributes to a lineage of black women activist-intellectuals stretching from Reconstruction-era America to artists and activists such as Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Beyoncé. 

Umoren’s book begins with the words of Anna Julia Cooper, whose 1892 A Voice from the South is, Umoren asserts, “the black feminist bible” (1). Cooper’s speeches and essays gave rise to the idea of the “race woman,” which Umoren defines as a “public woman of African descent who aimed to ‘uplift the race’” (1). Race women and race men confronted the intractable problems of race, gender, and class in America; the two terms seem to have originated concurrently in the work of Cooper and W.E.B. DuBois. From this American legacy, Umoren coins the term “race women internationalists,” to recognize the women who went on to apply a Pan-African lens to create a global community attuned to international issues of race, gender, and colonialism. Marson worked extensively with groups such as The League of Coloured Peoples, the British Commonwealth League, and the League of Nations; Nardel co-founded the Ethiopian Action Committee after Italy’s 1935 invasion of the country; Robeson co-founded the International Committee on African Affairs. The sheer extent of each woman’s cultural activities and political activism is breathtaking, and Umoren could have easily written a full monograph on each individual. The group biography format, however, allows Umoren to stress the heterogeneity of commitments that motivated Nardel, Marson, and Robeson’s activism. In addition, Umoren’s work offers an important corrective to disciplinary boundaries that would cordon off the myriad of cultural and political practices these activist-intellectuals engaged in. 

Umoren focuses less on analyzing the writing that these women produced, and more on their activism and travel. This comes at a loss, particularly in the case of Una Marson, whose poetry grapples directly with the everyday experience of racism, but is more than compensated for by Umoren’s reconstruction of Marson’s multifaceted career. Casting a wide archival net (documented in the extensive bibliography), Umoren shows how Marson was active in both black and feminist internationalisms, through her work as the Secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples and her membership in the British Commonwealth League. Marson, for example, developed a close friendship with Winifred Holtby through their mutual involvement in the British Commonwealth League, and later wrote a poem memorializing Holtby’s activism. In 1935, Marson represented Jamaica at the congress for the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, held in Turkey, where—as the only black delegate—she gave a well-received speech that brought the concerns of black feminists to an international feminist gathering. From this experience, she was invited to travel to Geneva to study the work of the League of Nations, again as the only black participant. Marson’s extensive volunteer work at these and other international organizations led to her job as a producer at the BBC, where she created two popular programs, “Calling the West Indies” and “Caribbean Voices,” each of which focused on the West Indian presence in the armed forces and in England. 

It is possible to see Marson in action in a documentary film, Hello! West Indies (1943), which was created by the BBC and focuses on the contributions of black and white West Indian forces during the war.

While the segment is compelling for the intersectional attention it pays to the war work done by both men and women, black and white, its documentation of the harmonious mixing of black and white West Indians on the dance floor was belied by Marson’s experiences as the only black woman at the BBC. Marson experienced profound racism during her professional travels across England, where she was often denied accommodation once outside of London. Further, she encountered pushback from black West Indians who felt that her broadcasts unfairly favored Jamaicans. The challenges of overwork, racism, hostility, and dissent—not to mention living through the Blitz—took a profound toll on Marson, who experienced a depressive breakdown after the war. While there is scant documentation of this private chapter of Marson’s life, readers of her four poetry collections, including Towards the Stars (1945), which includes her poem “Little Brown Girl,” may find imaginative evidence for her subjective experience of the pressures of professional exceptionalism and daily racism. There is clearly more work to be done on Una Marson’s legacy, both as an activist and as a poet, and Umoren’s scholarship provides an essential platform for further research. Umoren delves as deeply into the lives and work of Paulette Nardel and Eslanda Robeson, bringing their lives and work into focus too. In their cases, as well, Umoren’s book sets the foundation for future scholarship on the contributions of black feminist intellectuals to the world stage in the space between. Finally, Umoren’s bibliography of archival collections, primary, and secondary sources, generously provides future scholars with a place to begin their research. 

While Barbara Green and Imaobong D. Umoren use archival and material history to document the work of feminist resistance in the prewar and interwar years, Clare Hemmings takes a more theoretical approach to the feminist archive. In Considering Emma Goldman, Hemmings is interested in feminism’s “affective investments” in the iconic figure of Emma Goldman, in how successive generations of feminist critics have used Goldman’s words to argue for their own ends. For feminist writers, Goldman has served, over time, as a bold anarchist voice for women’s sexual freedom and who was, in Hemmings’s estimation, also a “practical and intuitive internationalist” (13). The appeal of Goldman is such that sayings widely attributed to her, such as “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution,” tell us more about the second-wave feminism that coined the slogan than about Goldman herself. Hemmings divides her material into three main categories: the feminist “critical archive” (feminist writers on Goldman), Goldman’s “subjective archive” (her own writings), and the “theoretical archive” (which positions Goldman in terms of current trends in feminist and queer theory). Hemmings’s notion of the archive is thus a somewhat loose term that refers to both primary and secondary materials.

By creating these categories, Hemmings’s goal is to flesh out her notion of “a feminist politics of ambivalence” (8) which would analyze the myriad ways in which Goldman confounds our own desires to situate her as a feminist or queer hero. For example, Goldman neither identified as a feminist, nor supported the suffrage movement, and her treatment of the other women in her milieu could be abrasive and (ironically for an anarchist) entitled. In terms of race, some historians feel that Goldman fell short of directly attacking racial injustice in the United States, while others argue that she did so by linking “anti-Semitic and antiblack violence in America” (13). Nonetheless, Goldman’s sheer charisma and bravery as a public speaker, her lifelong pursuit of the ideals of equality and freedom for all people, her outspoken defense of female sexual freedom and the right to birth control, as well as her support for workers and unionization, position her rightfully as a feminist hero. Hemmings reads these debates about Goldman’s legacy as an expression of what she calls “political ambivalence.” She wants us to see the strong affective attachments that successive generations of feminists, biographers, and historians bring to their writing on Goldman, but Hemmings doesn’t condemn these attachments.  Instead she celebrates them, as in her own fictional recreation of a romantic relationship between Goldman and anarchist Almeda Sperry (discussed below). If I am reading Hemmings right, she is advocating that we can and should feel free to create a Goldman to reflect our contemporary moment in intersectional feminism. Such fictional depictions of Goldman constitute Hemmings’s overarching idea of the “imaginative archive,” which she defines as “the one that has yet to be written or read” (8).

Such heady theorizing may or may not be compelling to the reader. More broadly useful, however, is Hemmings’s reconstruction of successive critical debates about Goldman’s legacy to feminism, anarchism, the labor movement, racial justice, and internationalism. In terms of feminism, Goldman is often claimed as an anarchist-feminist, even though she didn’t identify as a feminist per se, and indeed critiqued the suffrage movement extensively in essays such as “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation” (1906) and “Woman Suffrage” (1910). For Goldman, “true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in the courts”: women’s freedom and independence will never be found, for Goldman, in state-sponsored institutions such as the vote or marriage (qtd. in Hemmings 44). Indeed, Goldman does not expect women to succeed at building a more equitable society where men have failed: her “Ideal” of complete sexual freedom for women and men, of a motherhood by choice and not necessity, requires what she calls an “internal emancipation” from the old values on the part of all humans, regardless of gender expression. In pursuit of this freedom, Goldman rejects the separatist focus of the suffrage movement and first wave feminism by taking an inclusive approach to the issue of sexual freedom as a goal for both women and men (Goldman’s lifelong struggle to uphold this ideal has been a focus for her biographers, beginning with Candace Falk’s Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman).  A similarly universalist vision characterizes Goldman’s views on the race problem in America. While Goldman certainly believed in the equality of all people, her anarchist vision prioritized the “Human Race” over more specific communities or instances of particularized racial violence and injustice (95). In Hemmings’s argument, Goldman’s vision of human solidarity and egalitarianism pre-empted more specific interventions in, for example, the dire problems of lynching and Jim Crow laws in the United States. Because of Goldman’s universalist vision, Hemmings argues that we cannot describe her ideas as intersectional in the way we currently use the term (105). 

What Goldman offers us instead, Hemmings argues, is a larger vision of “global kinship based on postfamilial, postnational solidarity” (95). Much like her friends Eslanda and Paul Robeson, Goldman embraced an internationalist identity that (in her case) placed her among transnational networks of activists and intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. In Goldman’s case, this identity was simultaneously chosen and imposed on her after her deportation from the United States in 1919. A “Woman Without a Country” (the title of a 1909 essay by Goldman), Goldman instead embraced new forms of kinship with the younger generation of modernists she met in London and Paris, and later on with anti-fascist activists in the Spanish Civil War. Goldman’s relationships with the younger generation of expatriate modernist women she lived among in France in the late 1920s are particularly interesting for how they document intergenerational evolution in questions of kinship and sexual freedom. In their individualism and pursuit of sexual freedom, modernist women developed new modes of kinship centered around freely chosen “families” and communities, almost as if they had been called into existence by Goldman’s own writing. Her intergenerational friendships with Margaret Anderson and Emily Holmes Coleman, in particular, challenged Goldman to reckon with the ways in which her symbolic “daughters” could be both influenced by and diverge from her own set of anarchist ideals (Hollis 19). 

As previously noted, Hemmings celebrates her own and others’ affective attachment to Goldman, and thus she concludes her book with a fictional recreation of Goldman’s correspondence with Almeda Sperry, an anarchist and former prostitute, whose letters to Goldman express intense same-sex desire. Goldman’s letters to Sperry have been lost, so it is not clear whether the two women were briefly lovers.  Because Hemmings wants to “make visible my own desire for this couple” (166), she fills in these archival gaps with an imagined same-sex relationship. This experiment is an example of Hemmings’s “imaginative archive,” the yet-to-be-written fictional archive that testifies to the affective relationship between historical subject and contemporary scholar. I’m not entirely sure this exercise works, although it suggests Goldman’s appeal for bio-fiction. Indeed, one of the earliest examples of the use of Goldman as a literary character is in the novel Red Rose (1941) by labor activist Ethel Mannin, which lightly fictionalizes Goldman’s life, with a focus on her sexual affairs. While Goldman’s biography offers robust source material for works of fiction, Hemmings’s experiment feels self-indulgent here. Considering Emma Goldman is far more valuable as a substantial and necessary recognition of Goldman’s vibrant afterlives in anarchist, feminist, and queer archives.

Green, Umoren, and Hemmings’s books share significant crosscurrents. Each book’s focus on print culture—newspapers, correspondence, and little magazines—shows how textual interchange (Sara Ahmed’s “passing books around”) provided the foundation for vibrant networks of feminist, Pan-African, anarchist, and internationalist communities. The importance of suffrage in Green’s and Umoren’s books (Paulette Nardel saw the women’s vote in Martinique as a crucial aspect of social justice) is challenged by Goldman’s rejection of it in favor of a universalist vision of human emancipation. Each book documents transnational and international movements, and the movement of modern women across the globe as the makers and promoters of art, politics, activism, and culture. In reading and thinking about the women documented in these books, I have kept Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life in mind for many reasons, but particularly for her notion that “feminism is homework” (7). As in Barbara Green’s concept of the feminist everyday, Ahmed’s vision of feminist housework “does not simply clean and maintain a house. Feminist housework aims to transform the house, to rebuild the master’s residence” (7). We have much homework to do in order to feel “at home in a world” (7), a world which has in the course of recent events come to feel more and more inhospitable, unsafe, and violent. Now more than ever, we need to recognize and learn from the examples of our predecessors in feminist resistance: the suffragettes and suffragists, black feminist-activists, and women anarchists. What feminist tools can we make from their examples, from what worked and what didn’t, from their disagreements and similarities? We don’t have to be ambivalent to acknowledge difference, but we do need to recognize that contemporary feminism stands on the shoulders of the women who came before us, in the space between. 


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017. 

Bluemel, Kristin and Phyllis Lassner. “Feminist Inter/Modernist Studies.” Feminist Modernist Studies, 2018, vol. 1, nos. 1–2, pp. 22–35. 

Falk, Candace. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

 “Hello! West Indies (1943).” Produced by Paul Rotha Productions and the Ministry of Information, 1943. British Film Institute.

Hollis, Catherine W. “ ‘The World is My Country’: Emma Goldman among the Avant-Garde.” Virginia Woolf and Her Female Contemporaries: Selected Papers from the Twenty-Fifth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf. Edited by Julie Vandivere and Megan Hicks, Clemson UP, 2016, pp. 15–21.

Mannin, Ethel. Red Rose: A Novel Based on the Life of Emma Goldman. Jarrolds, 1941.


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