Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Long Way from Junction City

Postcard of Junction City, early twentieth century

Someday I’ll get to Junction City, Kansas, where Alice Edwards came of age during the early twentieth century. She had six brothers and sisters, and her daddy went back and forth to Ohio where he’d spent his youth and had another large family with a woman who was not his wife.

When Alice died at the age of 95 in 1993, her daughter said, “It was a long journey for a little girl from a wheat field in Kansas to an old woman in Maine.” 

Author of 23 children’s books about nature, Alice once described her goal as a writer: “To combine a sense of wonder, beauty and appreciation of the world around us without in any way sacrificing scientific accuracy.”

Junction City is located in the Flint Hills, which run longitudinally through central Kansas. Nearly 10,000 square miles, it is the largest area of tallgrass prairie left in the world. The undulating landscape, cast in green and gold, is breathtakingly beautiful.

I know that because I’ve been there, although not to Alice’s hometown.

The days of Junction City started in 1858. The town flourished on the banks of the Kaw River in the shadow of Ft. Riley, which brimmed with Indian killers led by George Armstrong Custer. During the Civil War, Ft. Riley was a defensive post and prison for Confederate soldiers, but fell into disuse for many years after.  

Wild Bill Hickok came to Junction City in 1871, stayed at the Empire Hotel, shot wild birds and restored order at the request of the city marshal. After the outlaws left, everyone went back to farming, lumbering and working in the grain mills and sawmills. 

Junction City, late nineteenth century
Alice’s father John was a farmer. He must have had a terrible time during the 1870s when drought and grasshoppers wrecked the crops and betrayed the promise of the land. Around that time, many Plains farmers switched from corn to wheat, which proved to be less vulnerable to the plagues.  

Alice finished at the top of her high school class. I wasn’t surprised to find she was a debate star. The Kansas high schools have long produced competitive, talented debaters. In fact, the Kansas High School Debating League was established in 1910, just before Alice entered Junction City High School. 

The League sounds awfully dry and bureaucratic. But that was not the case!

The brainchild of Kansas native Richard Rees Price, who had gone off to Harvard for a master’s degree and returned full of verve, the League was part of the University of Kansas Extension Division over which Price presided. It embodied ambitious, progressive ideas about education, which usually is cause for excitement.

Richard Price and KU chancellor Frank Strong took a page from the University of Wisconsin, whose president enunciated the “Wisconsin Idea” in 1904: the boundaries of the university should be one and the same as the borders of the state. It was more than an idea, of course; really a plan to educate all citizens about government, society, and the big issues that wracked the world.

University of Kansas, 1910

Through KU’s Extension Division, any resident of Kansas – even in the smallest town, which probably lacked a public library – could borrow magazines, books, and digests to better understand the federal income tax, immigration restrictions, government ownership of the railways and so forth.

Alice at the University of Kansas

Needless to say, the flow of information was a boon to debaters like Alice and her champion teams.  

Like most American high schools, those in Kansas offered several curricula: commercial, vocational, college preparatory, and normal (teaching). In 1915, Alice received a combined degree in the latter two.

Alice standing, far left

Although members of the Edwards clan had not previously attended college, Alice unquestionably would. She went off to the University of Kansas, established in 1865 on Mount Oread, a treeless ridge in Lawrence about 100 miles west of Junction City. After college she taught in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie.

Alice married her first husband in Kansas in 1918. He was her ticket out of town. Wayne G. Martin, Jr. worked for the Miller Publishing Company, which owned newspapers nationwide. The couple moved east during the 1920s and lived in a suburb of New York City. They divorced in 1945.

Soon after, Alice married Earl Goudey, a science teacher in the local public school. She started writing books for children, including the “Here Come” nature series about deer, bears, bees, beavers, dolphins and other animals. Two of her books were runners-up for the Caldecott Medal.   

It was a long way from Junction City but a journey that had to be taken. Go west or east but go somewhere. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the farm had grown less and less attractive to young people.

In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Commission on Country Life to study the social problems of rural America and figure out how to make agriculture a more appealing profession. But the tide kept turning.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do, but – well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”

So spoke a young woman to her small-town suitor in “The Ice Palace,” a 1920 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Bottled Up

Arthur Bartlett Maurice

On January 7, 1917, a New York writer and editor, Arthur Bartlett Maurice, sailed to Europe on the Nieuw Amsterdam. He had been appointed a delegate to the American Relief Commission in Belgium and would spend three months behind German lines. 

The Commission was headed by future President Herbert Hoover, a master of disaster relief who would brilliantly manage rescue work following the 1927 Mississippi River flood.  

When Maurice returned to the U.S., he published Bottled Up in Belgium, The Last Delegate’s Informal Story, a grim account divided into three sections: “Getting into the Bottle,” “Inside the Bottle,” and “Getting Out of the Bottle.”

During the past few years, I’ve often thought that the last few pages of the book would express my feelings upon learning that President Trump had been defeated.

It is a description of Maurice’s voyage back home on the USS Chicago, which was a target of the German Navy.

He wrote:

The first two nights on deck, near your boat, fully dressed, and with life belt at hand, were the instructions as the vessel neared the danger zone. The third day a man in naval uniform, with black circles about his eyes, appeared in the dining salon. It was the Commandant, for the first time leaving the bridge. The U-boat infested waters were behind us. We were in the open sea. Across it we came back to an America that I had never seen before, and, once this grim job is done and thoroughly done, may I never see again.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A Son & His Father

Earl Starrett Goudey, 1937

I always hoped to circle back to Earl Starrett Goudey, born in North Adams, Mass. in 1895, a man who took a circuitous path to his vocation.

Earl Goudey spent 35 years teaching biology and sex education to students at the public school in Bronxville, N.Y., a suburban village outside New York City, 29 minutes by train to Grand Central Terminal. Unruffled by controversy, he worked calmly with parents and pastors who wished to keep a lid on things.

The eldest son of Nova Scotian immigrants Henry and Mary Goudey, Earl battered his way out of his boyhood home and navigated through the thicket of church and school before launching himself into the world.

Mary Goudey died of consumption in 1906, leaving her husband with four children, the youngest just two years old. Their father, Henry James Goudey, was a minister affiliated with the Advent Christian Church. He preached in North Adams and Lynn, Mass., Hartford, and Brooklyn.

Reverend Goudey often delivered a speech, “Facts About Hell,” at the local YMCA. With his mother, sister, and brother, Henry had sailed on the schooner Gladiator from Yarmouth to Boston in 1871 and imbibed some sort of gladiatorial ferocity along the way.

Reverend Henry J. Goudey, 1935

He directed his abusive temperament at Earl, forcing the boy to memorize long passages of the Bible as punishment for scrappy behavior. At the age of thirteen, Earl ran away from the family’s wood frame home in Lynn and became a loom setter. (During the late nineteenth century New England’s textile industry had begun to shift to the South, but plenty of cotton and woolen mills remained.)

Earl finished high school at night and, trying to please his father, entered the Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, Mass. In the spring of 1917, on both the verge of graduating and the eve of the U.S. entrance to World War I, Earl headed to the Boston Navy Yard and enlisted. He joined the Navy Medical Corps as an apprentice seaman and served as a Pharmacist’s Mate First Class. 

A PHM1 is a petty officer who – under the supervision of physicians – offers care to naval personnel. In the course of his work on a hospital ship, Earl came to know David Linn Edsall, dean of the Harvard Medical School and an expert in preventive medicine and public health. They worked together on a study of the 1918 flu pandemic, and Edsall encouraged Earl to become a doctor.

First he needed a college degree, so he enrolled at Boston University where he met his first wife, Marjorie Pelton. Her father, who ran a business college, told Earl to skip medicine and go into the brave new world of sales.

Once again Earl danced for others, climbing the ranks to become a top salesman in the soap and ice cream businesses. To assuage his conscience, he also directed “boy’s work” at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. He would always have a soft spot for wayward boys.

Imagine Earl during these years. Is he frantically trying to find a place in the confusing decade that followed World War I? Is he philosophically ticking through the professions in order to figure out which one is right for him?

When I interviewed Earl’s son Pelton in 1997, he did not know how Earl came to the attention of the superintendent who presided over the nationally-known progressive school in Bronxville. But Willard W. Beatty had a nose for great teachers, and in 1928 Earl joined the faculty.

Clipping about "Elementary Biology," the
sex education class Goudey taught in Bronxville

During the 1920s, Reverend Goudey remarried and divorced and remarried. In 1936, he hopped on a train to Miami, where he felt welcome and decided to stay a while. The Adventists gobbled up his screwball theories about astronomy and physics.

“The earth is an outstretched plain,” he explained, “founded upon the waters of the deep; the sun, moon and stars in motion above; over the whole being the firmamental vault or floor of Heaven.”     

In 1941 Henry published Earth Not A Globe, Scientifically, Geometrically, Philosophically Demonstrated, in which he summoned 75 reasons to explain why the earth is flat.

It was as if he couldn’t stop punishing Earl but realized he’d have to swap out Bible passages for scientific bunk in order to torture his son to the greatest extent possible.

Henry Goudey died in Boston in 1947.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Chasing Jack White (part 3)

The shape of things to come:
more scandals for the White family


I couldn’t understand why John Jay White, Jr. and his wife Grace, glittering New Yorkers with indisputable ancestry, decamped to Washington, D.C. in 1908.

Certainly, Washington had great appeal.

President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith had banished the gloom, transforming the capital with modern manners both aristocratic and democratic. Progressive politics livened the discourse and expanded the realm of women activists.    

Yet Grace and Jack would seem to belong in their Fifty-Seventh Street brownstone, or in Bar Harbor in the summer, or visiting their unhappily-married daughter Louise at her millionaire husband’s home at Blue Point, Long Island.

Born in New York City in 1861, “Jack” White and his two sisters and two brothers would inherit a fortune upon their father’s death in 1903, but for years before the windfall it was not necessary for any of them to have paid income. Most of the time Jack occupied himself with a few interrelated hobbies.

Around 1890, Jack and Grace started traveling together through the western U.S. They joined the Women’s National Indian Association, formed in 1879 to oppose the white settlement of the Oklahoma Indian Territory.* Captivated by Native American design, the couple began collecting art and objects. Their collection now resides at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Parfleche saddle bag, Cheyenne, around 1900
(National Museum of the American Indian,
gift of John J. White, Jr.)

Increasingly, while Grace stayed in New York City where she volunteered as a public-school inspector, Jack went off to visit tribal leaders and officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He spent some time in Yellowstone National Park. Several of his photographs and articles appeared in popular magazines.   

White's photographs of the construction of a lodge
by the Cheyenne appeared in Forest and Stream, 1907. 

Collecting wampum belts, Jack grew interested in currency. He became a booster of the American Numismatic Society and a member of the American Anthropological Association soon after its founding in 1902.

Surely the scholars in these fields regarded Jack as a dilettante but he took himself seriously.  

Jack came by his third hobby, shooting big game in the American West and East Africa, when wealthy men began the tradition of trophy hunting during the 1890s.

Jack White is at the far right in this photograph, which appeared in an article he wrote for Forest and Stream, 1910.

Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t well in mind or body, according to the masseur who treated him on Friday, September 20, 1907 at the Whites’ home in New York City. The house had been boarded up for the summer and Grace installed in Maine, but she unexpectedly walked through the front door at the very moment that the corpse was being removed by employees of the burial company.

It was a suicide, the masseur reported. The 40-year old woman, Marguerite Carter, lived in a studio on Twenty-Ninth Street where Jack visited often and paid the rent. With Grace’s approval, Marguerite often nursed Jack when he was drunk and upset. It was an arrangement that seemed to work all around, and Jack’s doctor, George V. Foster of New York Hospital, relied on Marguerite to care for his patient.

Grace told the Evening World: “I knew Mrs. Carter. I met her through charitable work. She was undoubtedly insane. There was nothing wrong between her and my husband. She called here to see him and when he would not see her, she killed herself.”

Marguerite had arrived around 8 in the evening with a package she wished to give Jack personally. The masseur blocked Jack’s bedroom door but Marguerite waited around. Finally, at 4 in the morning she shot herself through the head. The package turned out to contain two $100 bills, a pair of gold cufflinks, and a receipt for $700. 

While Marguerite’s friends viewed her body and accompanied it to a crematorium, Jack suffered a breakdown. Dr. Foster came to the rescue. He was a great help to the Whites, fending off a police investigation that was launched when correspondence disappeared from Marguerite’s apartment under mysterious circumstances. 

The doctor asked the coroner to write a letter stating that Marguerite’s death had been a suicide. He explained that the Whites wished to leave town and wanted an assurance they would not be stopped.

Now I understand why Grace and Jack moved to Washington in 1908.

White accompanied Rainsford, rector of St. George's Church
in Manhattan, on several trophy hunts to Africa.  

Four years later, their daughter Louise would follow Marguerite by taking her own life. Not a single reference to the 1907 scandal appeared in the extensive newspaper coverage that followed.

In 1914 Jack moved permanently to London and Grace carried on the pursuit of peace and women’s rights. He died in 1923 and she in 1937.

While Jack could be considered a philanthropist and Grace an off-kilter altruist, they are reminiscent of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people . . . they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . .”

Rainsford with his trophy, 1909

*Unfortunately, the WNIA also advocated for Indian boarding schools and the Dawes Act, both devastating to Native American culture and community.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Louise Suydam Noble & Her Mother (part 2)

There will be a big story for you some day – maybe in a month, maybe in a year. But when it comes it will be a first-page story with big headlines.

Those were the words of Louise Suydam Noble, speaking with an acquaintance in late January of 1912.  

“You’re just blue. Your mood will pass,” he replied.

Of course, the big story had been dancing in the headlines nationwide since Louise had left her millionaire husband to run away with Fred Noble, a younger man of a much lower socio-economic class four months earlier.
Louise’s mood did not pass, for she longed to be back inside the social whirl. Yet her former friends now shunned her, and it all became too much.

One evening she went uptown to spend the night at the apartment of her mother and sent a message to the landlord of the building where she and Fred, now her husband, lived. She asked the landlord to bring to her We-uns and Dixie, two of her beloved Pomeranian dogs. Pluffles, the third Pomeranian, stayed with the landlord. 

In the wee hours of the morning, Louise secretly returned to the apartment on Twelfth Street. She threw a kimono over her lace nightgown and Fred dressed in a silk shirt, trousers, and silk stockings. They turned on the oven and gas burners and bolted the windows in the apartment.

When Louise’s mother woke the next morning and found her daughter missing, she frantically called the landlord and Louise’s ex-husband Walter and headed downtown, arriving at the same time as Walter and Fred Noble’s father and a police captain with several lieutenants. 

The cops broke the lock, barreled through the furniture that blocked the entrance, and made their way to the kitchen where Louise and Fred lay dead in each other’s arms beside the open stove.   

The Nobles' double suicide joined a
lynching, a drowning, a murder, and a fire
in this newspaper report. 

Louise was the only daughter of Virginia Grace Hoffman White and John Jay White, Jr. Jack, as he was known, descended from Knickerbockers and listed his profession as a “broker” but lived largely off inherited wealth. 

Grace, as she called herself, was born in Cape Palmas, Liberia, where her father, the Episcopal Reverend Cadwallader Colden Hoffman and her mother Caroline devoted their lives to missionary work.

Reverend Cadwallader Colden Hoffman 

After marrying in 1885, Grace and Jack moved to a house on fashionable East Fifty-Seventh Street, and their daughter Louise came along in 1887. Years passed; then suddenly in 1908 the couple left New York City for Washington, D.C. When I discovered this detail, it struck me as an odd move.

But it suited Grace. Ensconced in a limestone mansion near Dupont Circle, she became involved in various charities and causes. After her daughter’s scandal and death in 1911-1912, Grace plunged headlong into the Progressive Era. She became active in the National Woman’s Party founded by suffragist Alice Paul. After the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, the NWP kept pushing for an Equal Rights Amendment.   

Grace further burnished her reputation when the Chicago reformer Jane Addams, who established the social settlement Hull House in 1889, invited the worshipful Grace to join the board of the Woman’s Peace Party, established in 1915.

Evidently Grace gained a few enemies because of her indiscretion. Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian-born activist, wrote a blistering four-page letter to Grace after she became aware of catty gossip concerning her own appointment as the International Secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). 
Grace stands fourth from right at a WILPF meeting in Zurich in 1919.

“Before and after the organizing meeting in Washington,” Schwimmer wrote,

I received press cuttings from all over the country . . . representing me as a ‘person who had to leave England because she behaved so aggressively.’ I don’t know whose interest it was to publish such absolutely unfounded stories. I had to tell you all these things because we cannot work for peace and harmony on the basis of mistrust and discord.

In 1934 while serving as chair of the New York City branch of the WILPF, Grace was described as suffering from a “Mayflower complex” and probably better suited to the D.A.R. than the WILPF.
Grace is seated third from left in this 1934 photograph of NWP leadership.

In keeping with the ethos of the “New Woman,” Grace became a poet and published Up Ship, Wings to Dare, Christus, and other collections of verse.

During these years Jack White lived far away, having moved permanently to London in 1914.

Grace died in 1937 surrounded by servants at The Kedge, the White family home in Bar Harbor, Maine, overlooking Frenchman Bay off Mt. Desert Island.
Photos of WILPF and NWP courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History at Smith College

Thursday, September 10, 2020


Last year in New York City. I still wonder why I was unable to capture both beams. Another mystery of light and the night sky. Looking forward to next year in New York City.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Sound of Four Shoes Dropping (part 1)

Louise White Suydam Noble

Sweet seventeen and manly nineteen – that was the verdict of fashionable society when Louise White wed Walter Suydam, Jr. on June 10, 1903.

“A boy-and-girl wedding,” everyone clucked. “The bride is still a school girl,” the papers reported.  

Louise and Walter were the youngest couple ever married in the Church of the Heavenly Rest at Fifth Avenue at 45th Street, where most of the gowns and decorations were pink because the color had been the bride’s favorite since she was a little girl. That would have been around the time that she met Walter. 

Both descendants of old New York families, Louise and Walter grew up playing on the beach, walking and riding in Central Park, and frolicking at birthday parties in the grand homes of their parents. This era was one of the heydays of social exclusivity in the United States.

Central Park by Childe Hassam (1892)
While she was quite young Louise announced to her mother that she intended to marry Walter, and all seemed to go according to plan.

After their honeymoon, Louise and Walter settled into a house on the grounds of Manowtasquott, a quintessential Gilded Age estate that Walter’s father built in 1886 in Blue Point, N.Y.  The Queen Anne-style mansion overlooks the Great South Bay on land that originally belonged to the Unkechaug Indians.      

In 1905 a daughter was born to Louise and Walter but she died at the age of six months.  By then, Louise had become bored living at Blue Point year-round. She itched to return to the city and put on her dancing shoes.

Long Island Railroad map, circa 1900
Blue Point was one stop west of Patchogue, last destination
on the southern branch.

Alas, it turned out that Walter, once enrolled at New York University School of Law, had been advised to abandon his studies and take up an outdoor life. This fit well with his desires. Although he had been reared to take his place in society, balls and card games held little charm for him. What he loved most was sailing on his 42-foot yacht, Nemesis, and casting for sea-bass, flounder, mackerel, and bluefish. 

“While bluefish was good off Fire Island, fifteen miles away, during the summer,” Walter once explained,

I was in the habit of leaving on my sloop at sundown and staying away all night because that is the only time that one can catch bluefish successfully.  In the mornings I returned with my catch, of course, selling my fish in the market just as any other fisherman would. When I reached home, I never noticed that anything was wrong.

Indeed, Walter must have been fixated on the fish and not his wife, for Louise had become infatuated with Fred Noble, the 20-year old son of a Brooklyn plumber whom he had hired five years earlier to help around on the yacht. During the summer, Fred and his father lived in a cottage near the railroad tracks in Blue Point.

Now it was 1911, and Walter surprised Louise with her very own automobile. She taught herself to drive and before long she and Fred were taking trips together and, the servants gossiped, sharing milk and cookies in her bedroom.

To top it off, during the Blue Point Improvement Society’s annual fair, everyone observed Fred hanging around Louise’s booth paying her extravagant attention.

On Friday, September 8, Walter confronted Louise at their home. After they spoke, he moved to his father’s house because, he would state in court, he could no longer live under the same roof with her.

On Tuesday, September 12, Louise asked her maids to help pack her belongings and boarded a train to the city. The next day Walter announced that his wife was missing. 

“This trouble has come upon me like a thunderclap,” he said. 

I was convinced that my wife was supremely happy.  She had no wish that I did not immediately satisfy.  Only a few weeks ago I bought her a handsome new automobile for her own use.  She had her yacht, her horses, everything a woman could wish for.

Walter and newspaper readers nationwide soon learned that Fred and Louise were ensconced at the Regina Apartments on West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village.  Dressed in a white silk blouse, black skirt, black silk stockings, and black suede slippers, Louise invited reporters into the three-room apartment for a conversation.

Mr. & Mrs. Frederick W. Noble

Reclining in a Morris chair with her head thrown back, wearing a smirk on her full red lips (according to an observer), Louise declared that she and Fred would not hide their love because they were unashamed. We are very happy, she said, and quite certain that the passion would last.  Society would have to accept their unconventional arrangement.

In the meantime, Walter moved like lightning to obtain a divorce. Just two weeks after Louise’s departure, his case was tried in New York State Supreme Court with testimony taken in 30 minutes. A late August rendezvous between Fred and Louise lay at the center of the servants’ accounts, with Mary O’Rourke describing the sound of four shoes dropping onto the floor of Louise’s bedroom above where she stood on the first floor of the Suydam house.

“All smiled at this and even the Court’s mouth was seen to twitch,” according to a newspaper account.

In January 1912, Louise and Fred married.  But all was not well.  They quarreled in public and Louise confided to Fred that Walter had been, in fact, her one true love.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Web

The "Spider Web" chart, created by the U.S. Dept. of Defense,
defamed Progressive-era women activists (1923-4).      

During this centennial year of women’s suffrage, charges of anarchy, socialism, and radicalism are being tossed around by the president, politicians, and pundits.

The name-calling echoes a propaganda war waged against women pacifists and proponents of welfare legislation, which began after World War I in the bowels of the U.S. Defense Department – nearly 100 years ago. 

It came about in this way.

Americans feared the creep of communism after the two Russian Revolutions of 1917: in February, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czarist government; in October, following months of provisional and coalition governments, the Bolsheviks seized power in a relatively bloodless coup.

Panic about wartime espionage infused the U.S. Congress and courts. In 1919, President Wilson appointed a new Attorney General, former congressman A. Mitchell Palmer, who drove the nascent Red Scare with raids, interrogations, and deportations. Palmer, whose own house was bombed by anarchists, whipped up anti-immigrant fervor. He also hired young J. Edgar Hoover.       
1920: Remarkably, U.S. Attorney General Palmer urged
President Wilson to pardon the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs,
jailed under the 1917 Espionage Act. Wilson refused

Meanwhile, American women finally won the vote. Some suffragists persisted in the quest for an equal rights amendment to the Constitution while a younger generation of activists turned its attention to an international anti-war movement as well as legislation that would provide social welfare and protections for families.   

While the Declaration of Sentiments had been signed in Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1848, women’s wide-ranging involvement in the national arena did not begin until well after the Civil War. 

But it came on with brilliance and energy.

One of the major leaps forward was the establishment of Hull House, a Chicago settlement house for working-class men, many of them immigrants, by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. Four years later, nurse Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Addams, Starr, and Wald were among the leaders of organizations focused on the improvement of living and working conditions for immigrants and the destitute. Schooled in economics, social science research, public health, and the law, they would launch “a female dominion in American reform,” in the words of historian Robyn Muncy.

And they expected to wield political power. 

The most influential reformers included Grace Abbott, Edith Abbott and Sophinisba Breckinridge, University of Chicago professors who focused initially on the absence of data on maternal and infant mortality. Julia Lathrop, a Vassar graduate and colleague of Addams, the Abbotts, and Breckinridge, attacked patronage systems that allowed appointees to embezzle funds intended for needy families. Florence Kelley – divorced mother of three, Cornell University graduate; as ferocious as Lathrop was diplomatic – believed that unregulated capitalism destroyed families. She sought to abolish child labor and improve working conditions for women.  

Edith Abbott (left) and Grace Abbott, 1920s
(University of Chicago, Special Collections)
There were many more leaders, too many to name. Together they pushed for the creation of a Children’s Bureau in 1912, located within the Department of Commerce and Labor and directed by Julia Lathrop. It would address the exploitation of children by American industries.

Subsequently the women developed a vast lobbying network, grounded in Chicago and New York City, which encompassed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the League of Women’s Voters, the National Association of University Women and other groups.

These coalesced in the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, established in 1920. The WJCC aimed at Congress, pushing legislation to provide financial and social support for women and children. Prior to the Social Security Act of 1935, men could abandon their families and evaporate into thin air. This problem loomed large in American society.

The WJCC scored its greatest victory in 1921 with passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Bill. The brainchild of Lathrop, who corralled Republicans and Democrats into a landslide vote, it funded welfare programs to be directed by the Children’s Bureau and enacted by the states.

Florence Kelley, Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop, 1920s  (Getty/Bettman Archive)
But during the fight to gain passage by the states, and in pursuit of a child labor amendment to the bill, the WJCC ran into resistance. As the nation grew increasingly conservative through the 1920s, The Woman Patriot, a widely read newspaper that had opposed women’s suffrage, recharged itself.

Newly “Dedicated to the Defense of Womanhood, Motherhood, the Family and the State AGAINST Suffragism, Feminism and Socialism,” The Woman Patriot declared that the child labor amendment would eliminate the constitutional rights of parents and children. It rallied the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Defense Society, and numerous citizens’ leagues to oppose the amendment.
The Woman Patriot, August 1924
It was the infamous “Spider Web Chart,” which came to light in 1923, that ultimately sabotaged the coalition of women’s organizations that had emerged from the suffrage triumph. The chart appeared first in Henry Ford’s reactionary Dearborn Independent. The work of Lucia Maxwell, a private intelligence officer under Brigadier General Amos A. Fries, head of the Chemical Warfare Department, it effectively linked more than a dozen organizations and at least 50 women to “International Socialism.”

The chart made the rounds of Capitol Hill, scaring off previously supportive politicians who now decried radicalism and a hidden agenda to take power away from the states.

Not even the tamest of women’s organizations escaped unscathed. And while sane, influential citizens denounced the chart, the child labor amendment did not pass, Sheppard-Towner was not renewed in 1929, and the WJCC’s influence waned.

Of the spider web chart, one newspaper editorialized in 1924:

Apparently, there are people in the country who really credit such stuff. Not to mention the incredible gullibility this presupposes on the part of hundreds of intelligent and patriotic women leaders in the United States, it is an amusing illustration of the Great Red Myth which regards the radical Muscovites as supermen in the realm of propaganda and underground influence.

Today, that’s a heap of irony.

*The chart singled out the WJCC and the National Council for Prevention of War and included the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, National Federation of Business and Professional Women, National Consumers’ League, National Council of Jewish Women, Girls’ Friendly Society, American Home Economics Association, National Women’s Trade Union League, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National PTA, and the National League of Women Voters.

July Night