Dynamite debate

For middle-class bohemians in New York before the First World War, Greenwich Village was the place to be. The attraction of this part of Manhattan was the “contagious buzz” of new ideas about how to live and love: the Washington Square Bookshop, which opened in 1913, had a “complete shelf of Psychoanalysis and the Psychology of Sex”, and Freudian vocabulary lent spice to Village conversations in Russian-themed tearooms and basement restaurants. Vassar-educated poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her younger sister Norma worked hard to learn the local language. “We sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched”, Norma recalled. Needle in, shit. Needle out, piss. Needle in, fuck”. Another shocking new word was “feminism”. Newspapers poured scorn on it for implying everything they feared: non-motherhood, free love, easy divorce and economic independence for women. “The implication”, as the journalist Rheta Childe Dorr put it, was that feminism was “something with dynamite in it”.

Childe Dorr was one of the early members of Heterodoxy, a debating society for women founded in Greenwich Village in 1912, and the subject of Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the secret club that sparked modern feminism by Joanna Scutts. This enlightening book covers the first ten or so years of the club’s existence. It is also the story of the early feminist movement in the US, and highlights the underacknowledged part that these activist women played in psychology, education, theater, journalism, anti-lynching legislation and the early-twentieth-century American labor movement.

Heterodoxy was the brainchild of Marie Jenney Howe, a former Unitarian preacher from Des Moines who declared herself a “disciple” of Charlotte Perkins Gilman after reading her Women and Economics (1898). After moving to New York in 1910 Howe became an organizer in the newly revived suffrage movement, and the club she founded two years later included “Democrats, Republicans, Prohibitionists, socialists, anarchists, liberals and radicals of all opinions” as well as Gilman herself . In 1914 the group was the subject of an exposé by the New York Tribunewhich described it as “a de facto star chamber council of the prominent women of New York” – but, according to the arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, they were simply “women who did things, and did them openly”.

The club itself did not aim to do anything apart from meet in a no-frills Village restaurant on alternate Saturday afternoons, with a topic of discussion agreed in advance. To give each other space “to doubt and to disagree”, members kept no records; guest speakers included the poet Amy Lowell and the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, while Emma Goldman gave a talk on anarchy. “We thought we covered the whole field,” one member recalled, “but really we discussed ourselves.”

The Heterodoxy women did more than that, of course, and much of the action of the book takes place away from the club itself. When, in 1913, a weavers’ strike began in Paterson, New Jersey, the International Workers of the World union stepped in police and club member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn organized street meetings, co-ordinated stop-work protests, called out brutality and helped to expose the silk industry’s exploitation of teenage girls.

The causes of suffrage and labor rights were allied in 1910s New York, where protesters, fundraisers and rallies kept both issues in the news. When the glamorous lawyer and suffragist Inez Milholland stood in an evening gown alongside textile workers on a picket line, the headline in the New York Times was “Inez Milholland Helping”. She knew the vote-winning value of a photo opportunity, however, and in 1913 led the National American Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington DC on a white horse, while wearing a crown and flowing cape. There were other, less visible campaigns. In 1914 a high-school teacher, Henrietta Rodman, challenged the New York school board on its “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy requiring women teachers to hide the fact that they were married. And in the late 1910s campaigning for access to birth control, especially for working-class mothers, became an important focus of Heterodoxy’s activism.

The concerns of the mostly middle-class and well-educated Heterodites resonated differently among the less privileged. Rose Pastor Stokes was born into a poor Jewish family in the Russian empire and brought up in the East End of London. When her family moved to Ohio she worked in a cigar factory for eleven years before becoming a journalist. Her move to New York and marriage to a Madison Avenue millionaire did not stop her activism, and in 1912 she led a strike by the city’s hotel and restaurant workers. But when she asked one strike-breaker why she hadn’t joined the union, the woman pointedly replied: “I’m in hopes that some rich man will come along and marry me”.

Socialists and feminists were equally guilty of overlooking racial injustice, Scutts notes, and she is illuminating on the distance between Heterodoxy’s white bohemians and their Black counterparts. Club member Ida Rauh, who helped found the Provincetown Players in 1915, took a stand when she refused to cast white actors in “blackface” for Eugene O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid (1919), but Grace Nail Johnson, who promoted anti-lynching legislation and later became prominent in the Harlem Renaissance movement, was the club’s only African-American member. The group’s acceptance of her had undertones of unconscious prejudice. “You were elected today to the Heterodoxy with real enthusiasm”, Howe told her, “so do be a good girl and come regularly and be responsive.”

The First World War demanded that Heterodites take sides. Those who were for “a woman’s war against war”, as Dodge Luhan put it, found themselves pitted against pro-war patriots like Gilman, who resigned from the club in protest at her pacifist sisters’ views. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and America’s entry into the war severely tested Heterodoxy’s founding principle – the right to speak one’s mind. “One could talk about anything, anything!”, Scutts says. “One could be convicted of anything (anything!) too.” There was an attack on another front after the war: Greenwich Village became a tourist attraction. A series of postcard photographs taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals promoted the quaintness of village life, the drinking dens, antique shops and colorful characters. Nonconformist and transgressive elements associated with the area were scrubbed from the record.

This is a vibrant and engaging account of female autonomy in the early twentieth century. As Joanna Scutts admits, the history of a long-running club can be an unwieldy subject, and people are sometimes picked up and dropped with dizzying speed. (A list of names and a chronology would have helped.) But the stories come vividly to life nonetheless, and their continuing relevance is not in doubt: the anti-lynching legislation that Grace Nail Johnson called for a hundred years ago was signed into law in March 2022 as the long-delayed Emmett Till Antilynching Act, and the courage of Heterodoxy’s Mary Ware Dennett is even more impressive in the light of the overturning of Roe vs Wade. Under continual threat of imprisonment, she refused to stop distributing her sex-positive educational pamphlet “The Sex Side of Life” through the US Postal Service. The struggle to enlighten is far from over.

Ann Kennedy Smith is a freelance writer and researcher based in Cambridge

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