Between contested elections and global crises, seemingly every political issue today is seen as a “threat to our democracy.” But despite the general consensus on the desirability of democracy in the West, this system of the people and by the people has not been without its detractors. A century ago, the Russian-born anarchist, Emma Goldman (1869-1940), was the embodiment of a threat to American democracy. Her motto was “Death to Tyranny! Vive l’Anarchie!” As an anarchist, Goldman was against all forms of political authority, and for this she drew the ire not only of the American government, but of her native Russia as well.
Last Monday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City returned to its “First Monday at May” tradition, or as it is commonly known: the Met Gala. Drawing media attention and fashionistas from around the world, the Gala is the annual fundraising event for the museum’s Costume Institute. What began as a modest dinner held outside of the museum in 1948, has turned in recent years into a mega publicity event that brings to the museum millions of dollars in donations.
As scholars who have long been immersed in this pivotal period, we were excited to learn of the lavishly produced HBO series The Gilded Age. With the exception of the fabulously successful feature film Titanic in 1997, ours is a historical period that is often overlooked in popular culture. So we were delighted when The Gilded Age generated advance reviews in mainstream publications including the New York Times and Washington Post. We hoped it would bring attention to the period we find so important in our history, especially for the light it can shed on present day problems and issues—both how they were created and how they might be remedied.
In the introduction to her biography Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (1992), Elisabeth Perry explains her “initial reason” for searching for extant papers on her subject: “Belle Moskowitz was my paternal grandmother. She died before my parents . . . had even met.” She expounds further upon this fact in The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modern American Women (1992). In this anthology each author explores the craft of “writing the lives of women from a feminist perspective” and shares their “methodological and conceptual tools” and their personal challenges.
Elisabeth Israels Perry never met her paternal grandmother, Belle Linder Israels Moskowitz, who died in 1933 after complications from an accident. Getting to know her as both a family member and a historian proved complicated, since Moskowitz kept incomplete records of her life and her son disposed of most of what was left after she passed away. But Moskowitz was so central to public life in New York (city and state) and so important to the national Democratic Party during the early twentieth century that once Perry decided to write a biography of her grandmother, she found her everywhere.
Virginia Moore, born in 1880 in Gallatin, Sumner County, Tennessee, was a key figure in the progressive movement. She brought the canning club revolution to her home state as one of the world’s first five home-canning demonstration agents. Home demonstration programs intended to improve the lives of rural women, organizing clubs throughout the countryside in order to teach them how to better accomplish daily tasks, such as sewing and gardening. Moore’s career highlights the complexity of the reform impulse that swept the country at the turn of the century, which blended class antagonism, dedication to scientific principles, and a gendered economic idealism.
In her 2016 address at the first Perkins Roosevelt Symposium hosted by Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, historian Elisabeth Israels Perry offered an overview of the vast and vibrant world of “like-minded, politically experienced women” in post-1920 New York politics. She showed that while their victories following the end of the Progressive Era may have gone unnoticed, progressive women’s activism remained consistent. Throughout her career, Perry rejected the idea that the Nineteenth Amendment marked the beginning of “the ‘doldrums’ of American feminism.”
There are dozens of podcasts about the American presidency, as many about wars and military history, and plenty more generic U.S. history shows. Early Republic buffs are spoiled for choice with Ben Franklin’s World and The Junto Cast to name a couple. Antebellum historians have The Age of Jackson and The History of American Slavery. The Civil War, Cold War, and contemporary history have their favorites, too. So, where is the podcast on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
In 1919, two years after women secured suffrage in New York, a pair of the country’s most distinguished and prominent women lawyers sought positions in New York City’s judiciary. Only one succeeded. Jean Norris was appointed to a low-level criminal court position focused on prostitution and family disputes, making her the state’s first woman judge. Heralded as an early step in women’s political empowerment, the selection seemed to be an unambiguous stride forward in women’s rights.
As a graduate student in the early 2000s I was drawn to women’s history and the Progressive Era. I am forever grateful to scholars like Elisabeth Israels Perry whose work showed that women’s activism in the Progressive Era often rested on a separate, gendered cultural foundation. Their activities influenced politics despite women’s exclusion from formal political and governmental institutions. These scholars broadened the definition of politics which set the stage for people like me to study the intersection of two very different political foundations.
In 1912, journalist Ida Tarbell wrote an admiring article about Katharine Bement Davis, the first superintendent of New York’s Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills (commonly known as Bedford Reformatory). In keeping with the aims of women’s reformatories, Tarbell explained, Davis had made Bedford a site of rehabilitation rather than retribution. With “Good Will to Women” and “an apparently exhaustless source of cheerful energy,” Davis had instituted a program of schoolwork, physical exercise, domestic chores, religious instruction, and “a varied program of dances and entertainment.”
On March 18, 1907, an anonymous individual at the Fort Dodge, Iowa, city council meeting proposed an ordinance to tax all bachelors and spinsters residing in the town. The proposal, smuggled into a pile of legitimate business papers, required “all able bodied persons between the ages of 25 and 45 years, whose mental and physical propensities and capabilities are normal” to pay a tax of between 10 and 100 dollars: the longer they remained single, the more they would have to pay.