Charlotte Anita Whitney, known as Anita to her colleagues and friends, was an exceptional activist for social and economic justice during the early decades of the 20th Century. She came from a patrician background – an uncle was a U.S. Supreme Court justice – and she graduated from Wellesley College before returning to her home state of California. Whitney undertook a restless journey seeking an authentic and effective means to counter the injustice she found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She travelled from reformist Progressive Era politics to radical labor pursuits. She later became a principal organizer for the Communist Party USA. Whitney may be best known as the plaintiff in Whitney v. California, a case before the US Supreme Court in which Justice Louis Brandeis held that a “clear and present danger” was required before a legislative act could restrict the right to free speech.
Al Richmond, the author of this work, was a long-time labor activist and a principal writer for The Daily People’s World, the most progressive newspaper on the West Coast. His biography of Whitney was his first published book. He undertook Native Daughter as a tribute to Whitney (1867-1955) in 1942 for her 75th birthday and as a gift to her friends, colleagues, and admirers. It is a narrative biography, not an historical or academic work, but it is nevertheless a well-written account of a woman not as well know as she should be. Richmond’s work is the only full biography of Anita Whitney, and he based much of his narrative on personal interviews with her.
The strength of Native Daughter is the author’s own experience with Socialist and radical politics during the time that Anita Whitney was actively involved. He understood the issues, the internal conflicts between factions, the demands on leaders, and the national environment that made protest so perilous. He writes with a labor radical perspective, therefore, which sometimes leads to less objective writing about legislative politics as well as the internal conflicts among the Socialists and members of the Communist Party. As a tool to researchers, it would have been a great assist if Richmond included more dates, and index, and citations.
Richmond’s account of Whitney’s trial for criminal syndicalism – on charges of belonging to the Communist Party – is especially interesting and historically valuable. When she was convicted, Whitney was fully prepared to do time in San Quentin State Prison. She resisted executive clemency or a pardon because she thought it would be granted in deference to her social status. When queried later about whether he ever asked Whitney if she was lesbian, he replied that he was too intimidated by her political stature to do so. She did have an emotionally intimate relationship for many years with radical doctor Marie Equi.
The Political Journey of Anita Whitney: California Social Worker, Suffragist, Socialist, and Communist Party Leader
(Author’s note: I recently wrote a book review of “Native Daughter -- Anita Whitney: The Story of Anita Whitney,” written by Al Richmond in 1942. I’m posting my review here as well).
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