Jessica Max Stein

The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming & David McReynolds

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | November 03, 2011 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Barbara Deming, David McReynolds, Martin Duberman

I recently enjoyed Martin Duberman's recent biography, A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds, profiling two longtime queer antiwar activists. 96748707.jpg

The book's dual focus enables Duberman to use his subjects' lives almost as lenses through which to discuss their times, more so than usually seen in single-subject biographies. For example, Deming's and McReynolds' differing but complementary views on issues such as nuclear disarmament, the gay movement(s) and separatism allow Duberman to put a human face on some of the movements' historical disagreements.

This approach also leaves room for editorializing. Sometimes this is helpful, as when Duberman reveals the eerie parallels between America's involvement in Vietnam and our modern-day involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, both funneling money towards the military and away from pressing domestic needs. Yet sometimes the commentary feels excessive, detracting from the story and slowing down its pacing.

While a dual biography, the book's balance is tipped slightly more towards McReynolds, speeding through the first 40 years of Deming's life until her radicalization in the early 1960s. Even then, it glosses over such fascinating events as Deming's participation in multiple freedom walks and the Seneca Women's Peace Encampment, though it does discuss her intriguing allegiances with such controversial feminist figures as Andrea Dworkin and Pat Swinton. The book could use more of such stories, and less of McReynolds' involvement with the internecine inter-group dynamics of the American socialist movement, forgettable acronyms abounding with the SPUSA, the SDUSA, the DSA and the SWP (to name a few).

But ultimately, the book is Duberman's usual thorough, well-told tale of two figures who deserve more attention, along with the movements to which they devoted their lives. As Barbara Deming often said, "We are all part of one another," a good saying to remember in these divisive times.

(This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2011/2012 issue of make/shift magazine.)


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Interesting. I am reading that book right now as well. I am not too far into it. But I agree with your take so far. Duberman does his usual excellent job of making History readable. Just a thought, I don't know, but maybe he hasn't researched as much, or lacks personal identification with Lesbian/Femininist History, except where they intersect New Left and LGBT History at large. That might be why his portrait of Deming isn't as substantive as that of McReynolds? But, as I said I am early in the book yet, just thinking out loud!