The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson
Catholic, Socialist, Feminist
- ISBN: 9781479802180
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: December 2020
In Donna T. Haverty-Stacke’s work, The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson: Catholic, Socialist, Feminist, the author explores the life of a Roman Catholic activist and the influence of religion, socialism, and feminism in her struggle for social justice. The biography is an extensive analysis utilizing letters, educational archives, court records, political party documents, and labor records to demonstrate how the ideas from three disparate areas aided Grace Holmes Carlson in creating a coherent and consistent moral center for social action.
Carlson (1906-1992) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to an Irish-German working-class family in an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood of Germans, Swedes, Irish and African Americans. As the daughter of a railroad worker, she was exposed to the intense friction between labor and capital which, in turn, contributed to the development of a deep sense of compassion and empathy for all who struggled on the margins of society.
Educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, a progressive religious order, she graduated from the College of St. Catherine with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1929. The Sisters of St. Joseph encouraged students to stretch their talents and gifts, challenge social norms, and serve others. Holmes earned a PhD in psychology at the University of Minnesota in 1933 and found employment as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the Minnesota Department of Education. Holmes’ intellectual development was further enhanced by the reform ethos promoted by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), the more democratic administrations of Minnesota’s Archbishop John Ireland, and the labor advocate and priest Father John Ryan, all of whom promoted a political consciousness in her thinking and work.
Despite her intellectual rigor, conviction in faith, professional status and marriage to lawyer Gilbert Carlson, her passion for social justice went unfulfilled. In the 1930s, she became absorbed with Leftist literature which developed into a “revolutionary class-consciousness,”(70) and, eventually, she entered radical politics. After brief experiences with the Farmer-Labor Party and the Socialist Party, she joined the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1940, where she was active in organizing and administration. At this point in her life, she concluded that only through socialism would the working classes find relief from life’s miseries.
In 1941, while engaged in her official party duties, Carlson and twenty-eight SWP members were convicted under the Smith Act for insubordination and advocating the violent overthrow of the government. (87) Appeals failed and all defendants were convicted and sentenced in 1944. Carlson was incarcerated for a year and a day at the Federal Correctional Facility for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, where she earned popularity as a writer, speaker, and counselor. While in prison she enrolled in literary classes, wrote articles, and “mothered” other women on health issues. ( 84 )
Following her release, Carlson was confronted with a whirlwind of repressive government activity and public resentment stemming from the Taft-Hartley Bill, the House Un-American Activities Committee, FBI surveillance, union harassment, attempts to muzzle dissent and indifference toward women’s equity. Undaunted, she countered repressive measures by delivering radio broadcasts that addressed current issues. (122) Constant demands took its toll however, and in 1952, Carlson left the party. The absence of God in Socialism and her father’s death a year before, contributed to a disturbing spiritual vacuum. She returned to the church supported by blacklisted priests and understanding nuns who cushioned her return. Her ban of excommunication was lifted, and she reunited with her husband, Gilbert, after a twelve-year separation.
In her work in advancing the cause of the marginalized, Carlson shared a particular empathy for women. Yet, she approached the issue of feminism more cautiously. Drawing inspiration from Catholic and Marxist teachings alike, she explored many of the unfair and unresolved concerns involving women. Whether mentoring, writing, speaking, or promoting the “Women in Prison” program, Carlson’s “religious and political consciousness took the shape of a Catholic activism tinged with Marxist insights.” (184) Seizing the momentum begun by pro-active laity in the post-war period, she urged all under her direction to participate in overcoming gender discrimination and challenging the powerful influence of patriarchy. Carlson prevailed upon women to become engaged in meaningful work, seek professional status, and to remain at their place of employment once married. (206-207)
In The Fierce Life, Haverty-Stacke introduces readers to the life of a neglected but determined reformer in American history. Some readers may question, however, why there is no discussion of Carlson’s interaction with Protestant social gospelers, especially Christian Socialists, who identified with the political Left, in advocating change. (193) Perhaps even more significant is Carlson’s brief relationship with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Rejecting Day’s personalized and decentralized approach to reform, which Carlson described as “a little sappy,” she did deliver a talk at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker settlement, in June of 1957. (172)
Nonetheless, Haverty-Stacke’s work is a biographical masterpiece. The author isolates and analyzes three major components that influenced Carlson’s life and contributions. Carlson’s Catholicism nurtured a strong foundation for social justice. Her time within the political Left augmented her compassion for the working classes and provided a Marxist critique of capitalism. Finally, her efforts for women’s equality helped to continue the second wave of the movement well into the twentieth century.
The Fierce Life of Grace Holmes Carlson: Catholic, Socialist, Feminist is highly recommended for scholars in twentieth-century American religious, labor, political and women’s history.
A. J. Scopino is an adjunct professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.A.J. ScopinoDate Of Review:March 9, 2023