RSS Feed

Book Review: Battling Miss Bolsheviki

Book Review

Misty Wright*

Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States. By Kirsten Marie Delegard. Philadelphia, PA. University of Pennsylvania Press. 217 pages.

Click here to access a PDF version of the book review.

 

 

 
Miss Bolsheviki has come to town,
With a Russian cap and a German gown,
In women’s clubs she’s sure to be found,
For she’s come to disarm America

…The male of the species has a different plan
He uses the bomb and the fire brand,
And incites class hatred wherever he can
While she’s busy disarming America.

His special stunt is arousing the mob,
To expropriate and hate and kill and rob,
While she’s working on her political job
AWAKE! AROUSE! AMERICA![1]

In 1920, female enfranchisement marked the dawning of a new era of female power in American democracy. But rather than catapulting women’s reform efforts forward, the 1920s ushered in an era of female conservatism, whose presence and players have largely been overlooked or underplayed. In Battling Miss Bolsheviki, Kirsten Marie Delegard explains how women antiradicals recast female reformers as Bolshevik sympathizers, halting female reform “during their critical transition to full political citizenship.”[2] In fact, Delegard argues, the 1920s’ reshaping of women’s politics was just as influenced by the Russian Revolution as the Nineteenth Amendment.[3]

I. DELEGARD’S BOOK FILLS A VOID IN BOTH WOMEN’S HISTORY AND CONSERVATIVE HISTORY.

Prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, “maternalist” members of women’s clubs lobbied Congress to advance a reform agenda, viewing their work as a “selfless mission[] necessary for the protection of their homes, families, and children.”[4] Suffrage did not lead to the kind of social welfare reform they had imagined.[5] At first, historians supposed that women simply lost steam.[6] Others cited male opposition as the culprit.[7] But Delegard suggests that the real reason for stymied reform was that the women’s bloc divided after suffrage.[8] By the end of the 1920s, women antiradicals had linked their reform-minded sisters to dangerous revolution, delegitimizing the reform movement and its leaders.[9]

According to Delegard, assumptions of women’s history have posed a problem to our understanding of what happened to the women’s bloc in the 1920s.[10] There is an “unspoken belief that women possess an inherent affinity for demilitarization, an expanded social safety net, and greater social justice.”[11] Because of this bias, history has been written as though women who opposed radical and reform agendas—female antiradicals—did not exist.[12] But this belief is simply unfounded; female antiradicals were not merely backlash phenomena, outliers, or pawns of the War Department or other male antiradical efforts.[13] Delegard demonstrates that the female antiradical movement was a legitimate, widely supported cause of its own.

She also demonstrates that the female antiradical movement had far-reaching effects. Not only did it stifle the path of American reform[14] and “challenge[] assumptions about female political engagement,”[15] but it also was integral in the rise of the American conservative right.[16] It divided women and women’s organizations that had once been “united under the flag of social improvement.”[17] It set the stage for women’s anticommunist involvement.[18] And decades later, at the time of the Equal Rights Amendment, it was “instrumental in turning the GOP to the right.”[19] Delegard argues that the conservative political identity constructed by 1920s antiradicals later swept Reagan into the Presidency,[20] and women were the “backbone” of conservative mobilization in the 20th century.[21] Most interestingly, “[t]he power struggles . . . illustrate both the political potential and the pitfalls of using female solidarity as a foundation for organizing, a paradox that will continue to bedevil politically active women well into the twenty-first century.”[22]

II. A BRIEF SUMMARY OF DELEGARD’S NARRATIVE.

Delegard begins with the philosophical inception of antiradicalism. In 1919, the Senate Overman Committee held hearings to investigate the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.[23] Testimony from an American prisoner in Russia about women becoming the state’s property, available to any man who wanted them, resulted in myths and rhetoric centered on the danger of perverting the traditional family.[24] Some of these dangers included divorce laws that “encouraged men to discard their wives” and “the ‘nationalization’ of women and children.”[25] “These stories helped recast domestic repression as necessary to shield women and children from the effects of radicalism; they gave moral legitimacy to efforts to crush quests for political, economic, and racial justice.”[26] Delegard contends that narratives about women—particularly about sexual victimization of women—provided the most powerful arguments that Bolshevism endangered America.[27] “Narratives about sexual terror transformed the fight against radicalism into a battle to protect American womanhood.”[28] From the Overman hearings emerged fear, and from that fear emerged female antiradicals.

The similarities this book reveals between female maternalist reformers and female antiradicals are striking. Both, first and foremost, desired to protect women (and children).[29] But they disagreed on how to go about doing so. Antiradicals turned to the family and patriarchy.[30] They could not imagine a society in which woman’s childcare duties and structural inequities would not limit her ability to be economically independent.[31] In comparison, female reformers’ dreams were a bit bigger, as they saw alternate, government-assisted protection as a real possibility that could enable economic independence. Further, both said their motivations were selfless—for the benefit of society and their children—but their true aim was self-preservation.[32] And both reformers and antiradicals were scared of radicalism.[33]

Not only did female reformers and antiradicals have similar aims, but they also had, on the whole, similar backgrounds—a similar activist history, middle class status, and white racial backgrounds “kept these women operating in the same political world, even as ideology was pulling them apart.”[34] They also had similar education levels and assumptions about gender, race, and the threat of immigration.[35] Both used the same institutional structure and sometimes, the very same institutions, for their activism.[36] Many organizations housed both reform and antiradical individuals, and many individuals belonged to both reform and antiradical organizations over the 1920s.[37]

Throughout her book, Delegard dances around the role of sex-stereotyping and sexism in women’s political activism. For example, Americans thought all women were innate maternalists.[38] In the early years following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, women took up the peace movement and self-stereotyped themselves as natural peacemakers.[39] But antiradicals saw women as uniquely vulnerable to radical ideology on account of their sex’s tender nature.[40] Others saw them as un-American, foolishly creating a nation defenseless to radical takeover.[41] The War Department went on the offensive, labeling women’s organizations as radical.[42] Female antiradicals found that sexism shut them out of the male antiradicals’ conversation, but Delegard contends that the resulting separatism preserved the vitality of their campaign.[43]

To be clear, there was no evidence of a Russian effort to recruit American women.[44] Despite this, a diagram of “female treachery that linked all middle-class women activists [and sixteen organizations] to revolutionary radicalism” emerged in 1923.[45] This Spider Web Chart was accompanied by the poem featured at the beginning of this review.[46] It was circulated by the War Department but authored by a woman—a fact overlooked by many, including female reformers.[47]

“It takes women to fight women,” stated Claire Oliphant, the national president of the American Legion Auxiliary, in 1925.[48] Whether or not this was true, women certainly did begin to fight women in the 1920s.  Female antiradicals took up counter-subversion,[49] staged highly public confrontations with peace activists,[50] blocked conventions,[51] redefined the agendas of women’s organizations (particularly by polarizing centrist ones), created new antiradical women’s institutions,[52] and campaigned against legislation. Delegard discusses each of these strategies in extraordinary depth. For example, antiradicals’ campaign against legislation included opposition to the Child Labor Amendment, to the reauthorization of the Maternity Act,[53] and to the Equal Rights Amendment, all on grounds that they would supposedly weaken the patriarchal family or nationalize women and children, either of which would make the country vulnerable to radical takeover.[54] Antiradicals were successful at stopping the “revolution by legislation”[55] because they knew how to be effective information disseminators and fear mongerers at the local level. Both the Child Labor Amendment and the (much later) Equal Rights Amendment passed through Congress, but antiradicals prevented its ratification by the states.[56]

Antiradicals’ most effective tactic, and the tactic that receives the most page space in the book, was the systematic application of guilt-by-association to reform organizations and individuals.[57] They sought to destroy the political reputations of reform organizations and the reform and moderate women who ran them.[58] In 1927, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) released six blacklists,[59] demonstrating the DAR’s broad campaign against peace activists and reformers.[60] “Magnifying once-hidden differences among women from similar backgrounds, the DAR’s blacklists served as the final nail in the coffin for long-standing alliances, an ineluctable sign that women who had considered themselves natural allies were now enemies.”[61]

And voila: a new conservative movement was born. A new female movement was born. And a unified female voting bloc, once feared by men and male elected officials, was no longer a threat.[62]

III. DELEGARD’S RESEARCH PROVIDES A DEEP NARRATIVE OF FEMALE ANTIRADICALISM’S EMERGENCE.

The crowning achievement of this work is its extraordinary depth. Delegard supports 217 pages of text with 79 pages of notes and an index of concepts and acronyms. She draws not only from historical analyses, but also from primary sources whose pages had been left relatively unturned by mainstream historians. She integrates the archives of the national headquarters of the Daughters of 1812[63] with newspaper records, War Department memoranda, Military Intelligence Division correspondence,[64] and many more sources.

Because this book is so well researched, it not only addresses the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of the female antiradical movement. It also answers the why’s and how’s—at the individual, organizational, and philosophical levels. In order to answer these questions, Delegard delves into the evolution of women’s organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). She makes the story even more flavorful by using abbreviated yet detailed mini-biographies of women who led and financed these organizations. For example, spotlight pages are dedicated to Flora Walker, chairman of the DAR’s National Defense Committee, whose name became synonymous with antiradicalism.[65] Delegard uses personal journals, DAR correspondence, DAR proceeding minutes, publications, and other sources to bring Ms. Walker to life.[66] She details Walker’s interest in antiradicalism, which stemmed from the Seattle labor strike, her personal romantic life, and of course her DAR involvement and leadership.[67] Similar mini-biographies of DAR president general Grace Brosseau,[68] DAR financier Helen Gould Shepard,[69] anti-suffragist and president of the Massachusetts Public Interests League Margaret Robinson,[70] Kentucky GFWC leader Georgia Martin,[71] chief of the Women’s Auxiliary Intelligence Bureau for Massachusetts Elizabeth Lowell Putnam,[72] prominent social reformer Florence Kelley,[73] reformer Helen Tufts Bailie,[74] and many more reformers, radicals, and antiradicals bring enormous insight to the narrative and humanize its characters.

IV. BATTLING MISS BOLSHEVIKI IS A CHALLENGING READ BUT LEAVES THE READER WANTING MORE.

One of the major difficulties of this work is that the wealth of information explored presents organizational difficulties. The author has partially solved this problem by providing summaries at the close of each chapter. Still, the author embarks on the same timeline multiple times throughout the book rather than remaining chronological throughout, resulting in a significant amount of repetition and occasional complication. This makes the read require significant focus to get the most out of it.

Overall, this work leaves the reader with an eye-opening understanding of the evolution of female and conservative political involvement and tactics. What is more exciting to me personally is that it provides a launching point for greater interest in and exploration of women’s conservative activism. For example, how does this narrative fit into the overarching narrative of the 1920s?[75] What is the significance of these developments through the lens of the conservative movement as a whole? How did these battles between middle class white women interact with the activism of women of color and of lower socioeconomic status?[76] What connections can we draw between the female antiradicals of the 1920s and the female antiradicals of today? What makes female antiradicals effective or not effective, and what could female reformers of today do to more effectively combat their efforts?

Even more questions arise in the wake of recent political events. In the age of social media, 24-hour news, and the 2008 Democratic presidential primary race, do we still need women to fight women? What does the fact that there are now more women than ever in Congress mean for that fight? And after the 2012 election cycle’s “war on women,” might this critical mass of congresswomen have the potential to realize the united reformist women’s front envisioned by the women reformers of the 1920s?

Cite as: Misty Wright, Book Review, Harv. J.L. & Gender, (Jan. 2013) (reviewing Kirsten Marie Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States, (2012)), www.harvardjlg.com/2013/01/book-review-battling-miss-bolsheviki.


* Harvard Law School, J.D., Class of 2013.

[1] Kirsten Marie Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States 49 (2012) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting a poem accompanying the 1923 Spider Web Chart, discussed infra, Part II).

[2] Id. at 7.

[3] See id. at 16.

[4] Id. at 2.

[5] See id. at 3.

[6] See id.

[7] Id.

[8] See id. at 4.

[9] See id. at 5.

[10] Id. at 14.

[11] Id.

[12] See id. at 13.

[13] See id. at 13–15.

[14] See id. at 11.

[15] Id. at 87.

[16] See id. at 142.

[17] Id. at 209.

[18] See id.

[19] Id. at 215.

[20] See id. at 216.

[21] Id. at 216.

[22] Id. at 217.

[23] See id. at 8.

[24] See id. at 8–9.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 20.

[27] Id. at 28.

[28] Id. at 31. Delegard also notes that using the violation of women to justify military action was common throughout U.S. history. Id. Further, the Bureau of Free Love (where women were used sexually) was the most sensational myth about Bolshevik Russia. Id. at 29.

[29] See id. at 56.

[30] See id. at 15. Female conservative activists’ “opposition to radicalism was deeply gendered, for it was motivated by the belief that these ideologies aimed to dismantle the patriarchal protections that provided shelter and care to women and children.”

[31] See id. at 71.

[32] See id. at 56 (“Women who became conservative activists believed that radical ideologies menaced their homes, churches, and personal safety.”)

[33] See id. at 174.

[34] Id. at 179.

[35] See id. at 13, 174.

[36] See id. at 87.

[37] See id. at 173.

[38] See id. at 55.

[39] See id. at 38–39.

[40] See id. at 35–38. Antiradicals saw these female peace activists as duped, but one inherent tension left unexplored in the book is that female antiradicals were clinging to false information from the Overman Committee hearings (and other false propaganda) from the antiradical movement’s inception.

[41] Id. at 40.

[42] See id. at 39, 42.

[43] Id. at 15.

[44] See id. at 37.

[45] Id. at 48.

[46] Id. at 48–49.

[47] See id. at 54–55.

[48] Id. at 85.

[49] See id. at 68.

[50] See id. at 85.

[51] See id. at 87.

[52] See, e.g. id. at 93 (discussing the Women’s Patriotic Conference on National Defense).

[53] See id. at 149.

[54] See id. at 114, 129.

[55] Id. at 114.

[56] See id. at 120 (for a discussion of the Child Labor Amendment’s defeat at the local level); id. at 214 (for a discussion of the Equal Rights Amendment’s defeat at the local level).

[57] See id. at 147.

[58] See id. at 146.

[59] See id. at 147, 160.

[60] See id. at 161.

[61] Id. at 179–180.

[62] See id. at 144.

[63] Id. at 13.

[64] Id. at 258 n.97.

[65] See id. at 103.

[66] See id. at 97–103.

[67] See id.

[68] See id. at 95.

[69] See id. at 100.

[70] See id. at 122.

[71] See id. at 131.

[72] See id. at 137.

[73] See id. at 151.

[74] See id. at 175.

[75] See id. at 33. Female reformers did not eclipse the image of immigrant radicals as agents of subversion, raising the question: how significant were they in a broader context? Id.; see also id. at 142 (“[T]his countersubversion work likely did little to influence the activities of committed revolutionaries.”)

[76] Delegard talks intermittently about race and class.  See, e.g. id. at 4 (maternalists’ purported female unity left out many races and political persuasions); id. at 29 (fear of mixing classes and races); id. at 59, 174 (reinforcement of class and racial hierarchies); id. at 174 (reformers and antiradicals had the same racial and ethnic prejudices).

Tags:

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply