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.
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.”
Professionally known as Belle Holmes, between 1905 and 1916 Benzecry led the Society’s efforts to rid New York City of unlicensed medical practitioners. In the words of one newspaper feature, Benzecry investigated “fortune tellers with wonderful charms, unguents, herb teas, and lucky pieces; prophets with direct messages to go a-healing from the blue empyrean itself; practitioners of strange cults, with names especially coined for the occasion; practitioners who are shielding their own irregular practices by the dishonored cloak of graduate physicians.”
With centennials in 2019 and 2020 approaching, scholars are working to present the suffrage movement and its legacy in new ways. To date, most studies focus on national or state leaders who directed major organizations or accomplished well-known achievements. They often overlook local activism and less publicized campaigns that broadened the suffrage movement’s support base among ordinary Americans in cities and towns, particularly activism to interest the working class, a growing segment of the population whose endorsement was important to making the campaign less marginal and more mainstream.