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Radical Magazines conference

Yesterday I gave a paper at an event hosted by the Network of AmericNAPSan Periodical Studies on radical and dissident magazines in the US. The conference, held at The Keep at the University of Sussex, marked the opening of the digital archives of The New Masses, a highly influential magazine of the American Left published between 1926 and 1948. The big attraction for me was the keynote speaker, Abe Peck, whose book Uncovering the Sixties: the Life and Times of the Underground Press was enormously helpful to me in my PhD research many years ago. His keynote lecture reminded me of the ways that the ‘sixties generation’ have been defined by the legacy of their youth: Peck was 22 when he began editing a counterculture paper called the Chicago Seedand 26 when he left to write for other more commercial magazines, including Rolling Stone. Chicago in the late 1960s was a tough city, and was not a hippie centre, but it had become a focal point for New Left political activism. The National office of the Students for a Democratic Society had moved to Chicago in 1965 (to an African American neighbourhood, Peck reminded me), there had been several semi-successful community projects in poor white Chicago neighbourhoods organized by a variety of student groups, and the city became explosive in August 1968 when anti-war activists staged ongoing protests at Grant Park, as near to the site of the Democratic National Convention as they could get within the repressive police presence of Mayor Richard Daley’s administration. Peck’s reminiscences of the delicate balance between reporting on the student movement, while being a part of that movement, illustrated the ways in which the ‘movement’ of the 1960s was multilayered and complex. The underground press (of which the Seed was one paper) served as participant/observers of a movement that was becoming increasingly chaotic by the end of the decade.

My presentation looked at two other underground newspapers, the Berkeley Barb and the San Fransisco Oracle. I am particularly interested in the ways that these counterculture magazines/newspapers (I am going to call them magazines) reinforced mainstream cultural norms around the social position of women. Women’s contributions to these magazines were rare, and although there were female editors and female journalists and contributors, the overarching tone of these magazines remained very male-centric, very macho. The primary representation of women in these magazines was through image. In opposition to obscenity laws, editors filled their pages with images of naked women. These images were often quite stylized, but they invariably cast women in passive poses.

Cover of the Berkelely Barb, 16 June 1967

The consequence – perhaps unintended – was that the female form became a tool in challenging authority, but it was a tool wielded by men and the aesthetics of the female form became controlled by the editors. The sexualization of women in cultural terms was not aimed at empowering women; it was designed to use and maintain the ‘otherness’ of the female body in order to provoke confrontation. In doing so, editors became complicit in the obscenification of the female form. It is not surprising, then, that as counterculture and New Left women became more frustrated with an increasingly male-focused movement, they struck out at the Underground Press, most famously taking over the offices of the New York Rat in 1970.

When I started working on these underground newspapers, I had to travel to the US in order to sit in microfilm rooms in university libraries, and squint at tiny blurred typeface and spend a small fortune on copying costs. Now, digital conservation and extraordinary projects of digitization have made many of these microfilm collections redundant, and have changed the ways that researchers can access material. The Oracle is available to purchase on CD Rom; it published only a short run of 12-13 issues (depending on where your starting point is) and was one of the first to be made available electronically. The Berkeley Barb is now available online (along with a small selection of other underground and countercultural titles), thanks to the efforts of a project called Independent Voices. At yesterday’s conference, we mused a little about whether the internet is the new ‘underground press’ of this generation. Perhaps it is: ease of access, democratization of production. The digitization of these papers, including the New Masses now housed at the University of Sussex, will hopefully bring them a new audience.

Mary McAleese on Irish & British Relations: a Century of Change

On April 11, one day after the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I had the pleasure of sitting with Professor Mary McAleese to talk to her about her term as President of Ireland (1997-2011), her assessment of Anglo-Irish relations over the last 100 years, and her views on the future of those relationships in the context of the Brexit debate. With well over one hundred students, staff and guests in attendance in the beautiful Waldegrave Drawing Room at St Mary’s University, Prof. McAleese shared her experiences and ideas about the Rising centenary, developments of Irish confidence, the position of Irish people in the UK, and ‘that’ rugby match.

Women in Magazines: just published

Women in Magazines

Routledge has published this great collection on the ways that women are represented in magazine culture. Edited by Rae Ritchie, Jay Kleinberg, Sue Hawkins and Nicola Phillips, the chapters address a wide range of issues around the ways that women engage with, are represented in, consume and produce magazines in Britain, Europe and the Americas.

My chapter, ‘Righting Women in the 1960s: Gender, Power and Conservatism in the Pages of The New Guard,’ examines the ways in which the women of the Young Americans for Freedom interacted with the group’s magazine The New Guard during the 1960s. I look at female columnists and editors, as well as the ways in which gender and femininity played out in the pages of the magazine. My argument is that in a male-dominated group such as YAF, the magazine allowed women to challenge for power in an environment that was more fluid, more malleable, than the fairly rigid structures of the national movement.

Many of the contributors gave papers at a conference on Women in Magazines back in June 2012 at Kingston University in west London. That conference revealed the extent to which scholars across multiple disciplines are engaged in research around gender and magazine culture. Other conferences followed: in Cornell in October 2013 (which also extended the brief to new media) and at Oxford Brookes in June 2015 (Consuming/Culture: Women and Girls in Print and Pixels) at which I also presented a paper. For anybody interested in research on gender, women and magazines, you can add yourself to a network of scholars via a mailing list here.

Rachel Ritchie, Sue Hawkins, Nicola Phillips and S. Jay Kleinberg (eds), Women in Magazines: research, Representation, Production and Consumption (New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2016). ISBN: 9781138824027. 266pp, 13 b/w illus. £90 (cloth).

This volume is part of Routledge’s Research in Gender History series. You can buy it direct from the publisher’s website or via amazon.


Panthers: a taste of commemoration


On Tuesday last, PBS aired Stanley Nelson’s film about the Black Panthers, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the black power group in 1966. I haven’t seen The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution yet, but I’m hoping to do so over the next couple of weeks. I teach about the Panthers as part of a wider course on US Civil Rights, and my students are always captivated by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers; I ask them to think about the ways that the narratives of Black Power change the ways we historicize the breadth and agenda of any coherent ‘civil rights movement’ of the 1960s.

Embracing ‘Black Power’, a slogan popularized by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, the agenda and activities of the Panthers cannot be cleanly separated from the wider movement. And this forces us to reassess the ways that we think about the aims and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Panthers were founded to protect black neighbourhoods from police violence, but their 10 Point Platform highlights a much broader set of aims, rooted in a Marxist critique of contemporary America, and a desire to examine the social and economic roots of racial inequality. Their popularity grew towards the end of the decade, and they benefitted from what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’ as well as a publicity machine driven by their own newspaper The Black Panther and a curious and often fearful mainstream media coverage.

PBS’ own review of the documentary offers us five ‘takeaways’ from the film. One of these is that “Gender roles and gender equality didn’t always match.’ The New York Times focused on a similar theme in their review last October. The Black Panthers’ iconography was deliberately macho: Emory Douglas captured the image and perpetuated it through his stylized art.

The revolutionary critique that the Panthers advanced was masculinist and sexist, especially in the early days. Jakobi Williams has written about gender relations within the Party, and reminds us that there was no singular Black Panther Party, but a collection of chapters with different local priorities and modes of operation. And although half the membership of the Panthers was female by 1970, the leadership of the Party was dominated by men. That is, with one exception: Elaine Brown.

Born in the projects of North Philadelphia, Elaine Brown first became involved with the Black Panther Party in 1968. In 1974, she became the Chairman of the Party and led the Panthers for three years. Her autobiography, A Taste of Power was published in 1992, making her only the second female Panther to tell her story, after Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). Kathleen Cleaver’s long-awaited memoir has yet to appear, but is expected to be published under its current working title of Memories of Love and War.

Several women associated with the Panthers, but not members of the Party, have published their autobiographies: Angela Davis in 1974, Afeni Shakur’s memoir as told to Jasmine Guy, and defense attorney Evelyn Williams’ Inadmissable Evidence (1993).

Taken all together, these texts provide us with the basis of what we know about women’s experiences within the Party. So, it is good that documentaries like Nelson’s engage with the theme, even if Elaine Brown has criticized the manner in which he does so. Discussion of feminism, female critiques, womanhood within the Panthers is still quite rare.

I am currently writing about Brown’s book, and I am particularly interested in the way the genre of autobiography can be seen as a tool of protest. I am comparing Brown’s autobiography with several others written by female civil rights activists. I want to think about the ways that the genre of autobiography affords African American women the possibility to create and recreate their own images, explore their own voices, establish public presence, and extend their resistance to traditions (literary, social and political) which have traditionally excluded them.

Towards the very end of the book, Brown recounts a meeting with Robert Shetterly, the chairman of the Oakland Council for Economic Development. The meeting was to discuss an ongoing political campaign: the Panthers were backing a candidate for Mayor. Shetterly tried to end the meeting when he started to lose control of it. ‘You’ve had a very difficult life,’ he says, as if to defuse Brown’s anger. Brown’s response is an insight into the dynamics of control:

The point is not about my life, Shetterly. It’s about what I want. And I think you should know exactly what that is and how much I want it. By the time I realized that there was no place in America for a black girl, I discovered another trick. Even if I had been able to be white, there were no paths out of the powerlessness. The keys of the kingdom were gripped in the hands of a few white men – and only men. I could work for those men, if I ‘behaved,’ but I could never be them, have what they had, be master of my own ship. What I saw was that my oppression and my freedom were umbilically tied to the oppression and freedom of ally my people. So I became a Black Panther. (427)

I’m looking forward to seeing Nelson’s documentary. I hope he pays attention to misbehaving women. I can’t help thinking about Beyoncé — when black women ‘misbehave’, it is still seen as a problem. I wonder when that will change.