One of the central figures of The Politics of Women’s Culture is the brilliant historian and feminist activist Linda Gordon. Gordon participated in the short-lived but highly influential Boston women’s liberation group Bread and Roses, and contributed historically informed articles to both Women: A Journal of Liberation as well as Radical America while in graduate school and as an early tenure track professor. In 1976 her now well respected book Woman’s Body, Woman’s Rights (1976) appeared as one of the very first historical studies informed by both the new discipline of women’s history and inspired by women’s liberation.
1976, the year of the evangelical presidential candidate, signaled the beginnings of the new right and within academia, the review of Gordon’s book must have appeared to heralded a parallel trend in academia for left-leaning scholars.
Gordon had made her commitments clear in her acknowledgments; Edward Shorter, reviewing the book for the Journal of Social History, ridiculed them: “The members of the Bread and Roses Women’s Collective, the Marxist-Feminist Conference Group, and the Radical America editorial board, whom Gordon acknowledges fulsomely in the preface, will doubtless beam approvingly” at her work.”
The AHR reviewer, J. Stanley Lemons, declared, “Like baseball and cricket,” the review concluded, “history and political polemics have different rules.” Lemons thus declared in the official journal that writing history out of feminist and radical commitments was against the rules of the profession. David M. Kennedy made the same argument in the JAH. … His conclusion about Gordon’s work adopted precisely the formulation used to bar radical history from the profession a decade earlier: “This is not history.”
The condemnation of Gordon’s book sent shockwaves through the not-inconsiderable community of young scholars who emerged from the new left. In particular, Ellen DuBois, who described Woman’s Bodies, Woman’s Rights as “a feminist political history, [and] a brilliant rewriting of the history of the birth control movement from the perspective of women’s liberation” organized a concerted defense of Gordon via letters to editors by different scholars. Those letters and others dotted journals for a period of two years. Sarah Elbert and Sander Kelman replied to Shorter in the Journal of Social History Autumn 1977 issue while Elizabeth Fox-Genovese offered a review of the reviews of the book in Signs Summer 1979.
The criticism must have seemed confirmation of all that feminist historians had feared. Gordon herself had warned, in a 1975 editorial published in Signs, of “a backlash against the women’s movement and against the whole outburst of radicalism of the 1960s.”