Rosemary Hennessy talks SWGS, ‘In the Company of Radical Women Writers’
In many ways, Rosemary Hennessy’s university education was marked by the immense social and cultural changes of the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
“I started my undergraduate work in 1968, and the world turned on its axis that year,” Hennessy said. “I went off to college wearing patent leather shoes and dresses and came home wearing jeans.”
The revolutionary spirit that marked the summer of 1968 continued to build in the 1970s as the public mobilized to protest the unpopular Vietnam War. Against this backdrop, Hennessy began her graduate studies in English Literature at Temple University, though she left the program after receiving her Master of Arts degree.
“To just describe it simplistically, theory had arrived, and I felt that if I continued with Virginia Woolf I was going to be out of the loop, so I started over,” Hennessy said.
Though she ultimately received her Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 1990, Hennessy said her academic interest has been shaped by this time of immense political and social change and the advocacy that brought it about.
“What I wanted was a way of understanding what was happening more broadly in society, not just nationally and politically, but also at home,” she said.
Hennessy was the first director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality and was hired by Rice in 2006 specifically to lead the program.
“I really resisted using [the SWGS acronym] because it just conjured a kind of an alcoholic culture, so I was very committed to using the long full name,” Hennessy said.
During her time at Rice, Hennessy has taught classes in both the SWGS and English departments. She is currently teaching the SWGS capstone course and often teaches ENGL 300: Practices of Literary Study, the critical theory class required for all majors.
Hennessy said a former professor’s inclusion of Marxist ideology critique had a deep impact on her academic interests.
“[He asked us], ‘So what are you doing in this department? How are you challenging what’s going on here, intellectually?’” Hennessy said. “That was a really transformative provocation because it made us have to stand up as a group.”
Her first three books explored her interest in both feminism and Marxism, as she helped lead the materialist feminist critical movement, while her fourth focused on queerness and political organizing on the southern border.
Hennessy released her newest book, “In the Company of Radical Women Writers,” in August. The book follows seven women writers, six of them members of the American Communist Party and one heavily associated with it during the Great Depression. Unlike her previous works, this book is more accessible to a non-academic audience. Hennessy described it as a “crossover text” that is public facing but still academically rigorous.
Hennessy said that “In the Company of Radical Women Writers” was born during the pandemic and out of a desire to fill a gap in the literature: the work of women writers in the 1930s. She said her research led her to understanding the prevalence of the communist party in the 1930s.
The book is divided into three sections: Labor, Land and Love. The first section, “Labor,” explores ties between anti-racism work and the communist political party at the time, especially focusing on the role of women within labor.
“In the first part, I deal with four women writers, who were all African Americans,” Hennessy said. “One of the themes in that section of the book is the work that each of these writers did around domestic labor, women’s domestic labor and Black women’s domestic labor.”
One of the writers Hennessy highlights in this section is Louise Thompson Patterson, a social activist who was invested in issues of racism and discrimination.
“She figured out that what is most threatening to capital is if Black and white workers come together,” Hennessy said. “That's why there’s all this effort to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The section titled “Love” builds upon her previous work on queerness and Marxism by exploring the writings of Muriel Rukeyser.
“She foregrounds the erotic in her work in really interesting ways that come together around her journalistic and poetic encounter with the Scottsboro boys scandal,” Hennessy said.
While ecocriticism and the anthropocene are new disciplines in the official sense, in the section “Land,” Hennessy highlights two writers that were engaging with these topics in the 1930s — Josephine Herbst and Meridel Le Sueur.
“If the women in the first part are paying attention to domestic labor, in the second part, they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, this paradigm we have for understanding social life, where it’s humans against nature, is wrong,’” Hennessy said. “Humans can’t really live without a connection to nature. There’s an interdependence.”
Hennessy said this latest project aims to offer readers the chance to learn from and about an often forgotten generation of women writers. She hopes that those who pick up her book will become just as fascinated as she is with the topic.
“Join the company of some really compelling writers to learn about their lives. Their lives, and the writing about their lives, is really compelling,” Hennessy said. “I fell in love with them, and I think readers will too.”
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