Audacity within Confinement examines the cultural work of American women writers of the Left during the years immediately following World War II, and the feminist consciousness that developed in those years. McDonald argues that, despite efforts to contain political resistance during the McCarthy era, women writers became more actively involved in Left politics during the period, drawing on the rhetoric of anti-fascism to critique the cultural and ideological aspects of women's oppression. In journal articles, essays, novels, short stories, plays, and collections of poetry, women of the 1940s and 1950s worked to establish a feminist consciousness in American culture.
In particular, this consciousness gestated in the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). From the 1930s to the early 1960s, numerous Left-leaning organizations worked in tandem with the CPUSA because they saw American Communists as their best allies against fascism, sexism, racism, workplace exploitation, and colonialism. In the 1930s, women constituted only 10 percent of CPUSA membership, but by 1943, women made up half of the Party. This greater collective voice introduced women's issues into CPUSA mandates and forced the Party to recognize women's cultural and ideological oppression.
The book provides a historical overview of women writers who resisted sexist domestic ideology and who discussed the intersections of gender, race, and class. It closely considers works by writers both well-known and obscure, including Lorraine Hansberry, Ann Petry, Alice Childress, Ruth Steinberg, Beulah Richardson, and Beth McHenry. Their efforts to raise awareness of women's oppression, McDonald argues, did not necessarily translate to dramatic changes within the Left once the war ended. The book analyzes literary texts to uncover the ambivalence, conflicts, and contradictions that women faced when trying to posit a more egalitarian society in their writings.