“These Women Surely Mean Business:” The Endurance of Progressive Reformers in the Interwar Women’s Peace Movement

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.”

Decoding the 1918 Flu

I had never heard of the 1918 influenza pandemic when my laboratory decided to try to decode the genetic sequence of the virus from archived samples at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). The year was 1995, and I was in my mid-thirties. None of my contemporaries had ever heard of the pandemic either. So what made this a compelling scientific question? Despite its obscurity (the only book we could find about it, by Alfred Crosby, was entitled America’s Forgotten Pandemic), the pandemic raised important questions: why was the mortality rate so much higher than other pandemics? Why did it particularly target young adults? Where did the virus come from?

The Ghosts of Great Lakes

In 1918 in the northern suburban fringe of Chicago, an insidious illness killed twice the number of naval personnel in two months than combat did during the entire First World War. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic swept through Great Lakes Naval Training Station “like the Black Plague,” recalled Martin Birkham, a YMCA volunteer at the training station.[1] The hard choices made at Great Lakes should haunt us today.

Britain, the United States, and the Danish West Indies, 1916-17

The islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John are surrounded by Puerto Rico—once a Spanish colony—and the British Virgin Islands. Between the early eighteenth century and the early twentieth, the three main islands, combined with smaller minor islands in the surrounding archipelago, formed a single Danish colony: the Danish West Indies. In March 1917, sovereignty over the Danish West Indies was transferred from Denmark to the United States. This was because the Americans had purchased the islands for $25 million (the most they had ever spent on new territory) and, in doing so, created the territory of the US Virgin Islands.