F. de Haan (Hrsg.): The Palgrave Handbook of Communist Women Activists around the World

The Palgrave Handbook of Communist Women Activists around the World.

de Haan, Francisca
Anzahl Seiten
701 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Victor Strazzeri, Universität Bern/Federal University of São Paulo

In this collective volume edited by Francisca de Haan, a leading voice in the recent scholarly effort to recover the trajectories of communist women activists from under the post–Cold War rubble, a diverse collection of experts sheds light on that little-studied subject through an effort truly global in scope. In addition to the editor’s substantive introduction, the book consists of 25 biographical essays of activists, divided by nationality across five continents. While the earliest birth year is Clara Zetkin in 1857 and the latest is the Japanese activist Iijima Aiko in 1932, 20 of the profiled women were born between 1890 and 1927. Generationally, then, most are children of the world that the Russian Revolution and the two world wars made: a world that – as this handbook makes clear – they subsequently left their mark on and strove to transform during their packed twentieth-century trajectories. A review of this sprawling, yet highly readable volume can only hope to draw a few common threads and insights emerging from an impressive mosaic of lives.

The handbook’s fundamental merit is resisting the trend of recent histories of communism, “none of which”, as de Haan stresses, “goes beyond a chapter or occasionally two, on women and gender, and sometimes […] even less” (p. 9). For that reason, and given that the handbook’s biographical treatment of individual activists is always accompanied by a social and gendered historical survey of the contexts in question, readers become acquainted with the chapters’ protagonists in a way that goes against the grain of extant narratives.

Along these lines, the handbook is impressive precisely in how it recalls these women’s lives through their intense interweaving with broader historical trends. In his essay on Turkey’s Behice Boran, Sercan Çınar remarks, for instance, how “her eventful life was part of and mirrored the rise and demise of Communism in the country” (p. 418). One could go further: these life stories often reflect the trajectory of subaltern classes and sectors in each national context/region more generally – in their moments of advancement and democratic achievement and, notably, of repression and disenfranchisement.

Despite consistent evidence of these activists’ significant impact, a common refrain across the handbook regards the status of the women profiled as little known at best or mostly entirely forgotten. Indeed, the possible issues stemming from the choice to feature almost exclusively high-level figures are countered by the fact that even the foremost communist women activists of their generations have fallen into obscurity. The suggested texts and sources at the end of every chapter invite further research, which might hopefully also lead to other, more anonymous trajectories coming to light.

The focus on these “extraordinary” lives is, however, purposeful in one regard: the laying to rest of the preconceived notion of communist women’s limited agency and structural subalternity to their male-led parties and states. As Alexandra Talaver concludes in her profile of Nina Popova’s trajectory in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), “rather than assuming the absence of women’s political agency in the Soviet Union, we should problematize its invisibility” (p. 246). Talaver’s remarks encapsulate, in fact, one of the handbook’s key overall takeaways.

The collective picture provided by the volume also underlines how there were quite different ways of being a communist. Some held orthodox Marxist-Leninist views throughout their lives, like Boran; others, such as Mali’s Aoua Keita, expressed their communist commitment through an “anti-colonialist, nationalist, feminist, and pan-African” militancy (p. 475), as Pascale Barthélémy and Ophélie Rillon highlight. In fact, fitting these activists into a neat typology constitutes an impractical endeavour. Even the activists most closely identified with the party or state, as is the case of Popova, turn out to have fought long struggles within their respective governments/parties for greater recognition of women’s issues or for other causes that, they felt, were neglected. In one constant trait, many of the profiled women combined militancy with caring duties for children and ill or disabled partners. Some accepted the label “feminist”, most did not. Nevertheless, all were engaged in myriad forms for women’s rights as well as for the betterment of their lives, especially of working-class women and mothers. An engagement, moreover, that often encompassed other subjects: late in life, the Argentinian Fanny Edelman (1911–2011) became “receptive to issues concerning the rights of homosexual and transgender communities” (p. 657), as Adriana Valobra and Natalia Casola recount.

Such efforts, we learn, often meant fighting a two-front battle against sexism, namely in society and in their parties. The case of the Italian activist Teresa Noce, a communist party founder, key figure of the anti-fascist resistance and subsequently of Italy’s post-war constitutional assembly and parliament, is telling in this regard. As detailed by Eloisa Betti and Debora Migliucci, she saw herself marginalized by her own party for publicly denouncing her husband’s attempt to forge her signature to get their marriage annulled in 1953. While the episode effectively ended Noce’s political career, her former husband Luigi Longo went on to become party secretary in 1964.

Noce’s trajectory is, however, representative of another common thread binding these lives together: the conjuncture-driven interchange between legal and illegal activity and, as a result of the latter, militancy in institutions and in the underground. The experience of repression, exile, and violence emerges, in fact, as the most consistent ramification of these activists’ political and life choices. In almost every case, several periods of imprisonment – in some cases while pregnant – or some form of banishment – within or beyond their countries of origin – characterized these trajectories.

When they were able to do politics in the open and within institutions, many of the profiled women became legislative pioneers and founders of key organizations. The handbook will likely introduce many readers to, for instance, Naziha al-Dulaimi, who in 1959 “became the first woman Minister in Iraq, making her the first woman cabinet member in the Arab world” (p. 435), as Noga Efrati’s article details. That same year, Keita “was elected as a member of the Mali Federation’s parliament […] the first African woman from former French West Africa to hold such a position” (p. 480).

Nonetheless, while divided by nationality, these were essentially border-crossing lives. The Trinidad-born Claudia Jones, whose parents migrated to the United States when she was young, was a longtime member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and an activist in the cause of Black liberation when “red scare” government persecution led to her deportation to England in 1955. As Carole Boyce Davies details, she subsequently became a key political and cultural organizer “among the black London community”. This included “founding and editing the first Black newspaper in England, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News” (p. 99). Precisely due to the wide projection of her militancy and thought, Jones’s biography is part of the handbook’s opening section, titled “Global Foremothers”, alongside the essays on Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai.

Indeed, the transnational dimension of these trajectories provides readers with one of the volume’s most rewarding traits: (1) discovering, for instance, that a Turkish communist first read Marx as an exchange student in Michigan, USA, in the 1930s or (2) seeing these activists meet each other, with their internationalist commitment forging links between the handbook’s essays. Civil War Spain is precisely one such place of convergence, where Edelman met Dolores Ibárruri and where Noce (among others) was active in support of the republic. In the post-war period, these meetings and collaborations often occurred under the guise of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), of which Edelman became general secretary in 1972. As she recounts, “Rarely would I sleep in my bed two days in a row (in Berlin), because one day I had to travel to Egypt and the next, to Angola, or to Nepal, and some other day, to Japan” (p. 654).

In her autobiography, Noce remarks that “those who are and remain communist, those who take an interest in everything and everyone, those who feel involved in events and struggles do not feel alone and they are not” (p. 206). The fact that Noce was shamefully ostracized by her own party would seem to dispel that statement. Nevertheless, the collective picture formed by the 25 activists featured in this publication arguably restores its validity – Noce’s life story and marginalization is recast as part of a global tapestry of militant trajectories, in which she was indeed one alongside many. The reader is left with the hope that this compelling handbook sparks other efforts to unearth their stories.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Diese Rezension entstand im Rahmen des Fachforums 'Connections'. http://www.connections.clio-online.net/