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.
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.
In his annual report for 1906, A. C. Nelson, Utah’s state superintendent of public instruction, proclaimed that the Beehive State’s schools must teach patriotism. “It is in our public schools that our national unity is to be conserved,” Nelson explained. Although Utah had achieved statehood a decade earlier, many outsiders viewed it with suspicion due to the outsized social and political influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which, to the horror of many Protestant moralists, had sanctioned plural marriage until 1890. To assuage these concerns, educators in Utah made a point to emphasize what Nelson described as “American ideas” in the classroom.
The 1918 influenza pandemic provides an opportunity for GAPE historians to examine how health and medicine intersected with the Great War, the Progressive Era, and the movements for prohibition and woman suffrage. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was at the confluence of these streams and offers a case study of an organization whose activities were disrupted and reshaped by the pandemic. The holdings of the WCTU Archives reveal how the national organization mobilized the testimony of health experts and “viral” newspaper reports in 1918 to support its Prohibition ratification campaign and resist attempts by the producers and suppliers of alcohol to push their products as an influenza cure.