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.”
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.”