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.
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.
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.