Wilhelm on Allen, 'Forgotten Men and Fallen Women: The Cultural Politics of New Deal Narratives'

Holly Allen
Chris Wilhelm

Holly Allen. Forgotten Men and Fallen Women: The Cultural Politics of New Deal Narratives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. 272 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5357-1.

Reviewed by Chris Wilhelm (College of Coastal Georgia) Published on H-Florida (December, 2015) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer

Holly Allen’s Forgotten Men and Fallen Women offers valuable insights into the gender narratives used by the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal and World War II. This book argues that administration officials created and responded to a variety of “civic stories” and genres of civic stories to justify and support New Deal government actions (p. 3). Many of these stories revolved around conventional gender norms, but Allen also pays attention to race, and does a good job examining how African Americans’ experiences in the New Deal were characterized by popular ideas about gender and race. Allen also attempts, with less success, to incorporate the experiences of Mexican Americans into her work, but often these mentions of the Mexican-American experience during the New Deal are unexplored and superficial. Lastly, Allen examines the experiences of Japanese Americans during WWII in terms of American ideas about race and gender. 

Allen’s incisive analysis of the New Deal’s gender politics are the strength of this book. She convincingly shows how the New Deal used conservative and traditional ideas about gender to assuage American’s fears concerning the expansion of government power and new ideas about social citizenship and responsibility. Allen’s first four chapters examine traditional ideas about gender as found in narratives related to the forgotten man, social transients, young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and transgressive women. She shows how America’s embrace of these gender norms signaled stability in a period of rapid change. The social conservatism of the New Deal was thus used to win acceptance for the New Deal’s expansion.      

Allen’s arguments are less convincing when she moves from the New Deal to World War II. The book’s last two chapters examine ideas about gender in the Office of Civilian Defense and ideas about race in the context of Japanese internment. Yet Allen’s analysis seriously understates the role of women in the war. She states that “American women of all races were largely excluded from wartime civic ideals,” yet Allen completely ignores women in the workplace and women in the military, and focuses exclusively on only one, somewhat minor wartime agency. Allen’s chapter on Japanese internment is well-worn territory and offers little new or novel.

The problems with both of these chapters relate to a larger problem with Forgotten Men and Fallen Women: the book often fails to connect to the relevant secondary historical literature on these topics. Readers looking for substantive footnotes that discuss the implications of Allen’s arguments on the historical literature will be severely disappointed. Although Allen makes excellent use of a wide variety of primary sources, the book is almost entirely lacking in references to other historical works, and the citations that do exist seem tacked on and are typically inadequate. For example, a footnote on women in the Works Progress Administration consists of only one citation: a 1998 review essay by Jacqueline Jones entitled “Race and Gender in Modern America.” These 209 pages of text only merit an addition 34 pages of endnotes, and the book does not contain a bibliography. 

Despite these flaws, this book, particularly the first four chapters on the New Deal, offers valuable insights into the cultural conservativism and gender politics of the New Deal. Yet, these arguments could have been greatly enhanced by connecting them to existing historical debates over the conservativism of the New Deal, the historical literature pertaining to race and gender in the New Deal, and the examinations of the continuity between the New Deal and World War II. Allen fails to make those connections explicit, but still provides a great deal of insightful analysis pertaining to these topics.    

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Citation: Chris Wilhelm. Review of Allen, Holly, Forgotten Men and Fallen Women: The Cultural Politics of New Deal Narratives. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. December, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44967

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