Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion during World War I

Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion during World War I

by Kathleen Kennedy


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Kennedy's unique study explores the arrests, trials, and defenses of women charged under the Wartime Emergency Laws passed soon after the U.S. entered WWI. These trials became important arenas in which women's relationships and obligations to national security were contested and defined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253335654
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/22/1999
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kathleen Kennedy is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies at Western Washington University. She has published in the Journal of Women's History, Mid America, and Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

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Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens

Women and Subversion During World War I

By Kathleen Kennedy

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1999 Kathleen Kennedy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-33565-4


Loyal Mothers and Virtuous Citizens


Two years before the United States entered World War I, women in the preparedness movement defined the role of women in national defense. Disturbed by the sinking of the Lusitania and the formation of the Woman's Peace Party (WPP), they reassured the public that American women stood willing to protect the nation from its domestic and foreign enemies. To demonstrate this resolve, one preparedness organization asked its members to sign the following pledge in support of "patriotic motherhood":

I pledge to think, talk, and work for patriotism, Americanism and sufficient national defense to keep the horrors of war from America's home and shores forever.

In these days of world strife and peril, I will strive to do my share to awaken our nation and our lawmakers to the dangers of our present undefended condition so that we may continue to dwell in peace and prosperity and may not have to mourn states desolated by war within our own borders.

Insofar as I am able, I will make my home a center of American ideals and patriotism, and endeavor to teach the children in my care to cherish and revere our country and its history and to uphold its honor and fair repute in their generation.

Those who signed the pledge promised to uphold the ideals of patriotic motherhood, ideals that defined women's most significant political role as producing citizens who would stand firm against America's foes. For those who signed the pledge, preparedness offered a unique opportunity for national service, which they increasingly defined as a central component of motherhood and women's citizenship.

Yet the fact that preparedness organizations made a public spectacle of women's signatures suggests that patriotic motherhood was not universally valued. The war sharpened debates over women's citizenship and its implied relationship between women's obligations to the state and to their families. Those women who signed the pledge took a strong stand in these debates by publicly affirming the relationship between women's duties in the home and their role in shaping nationalism, Americanism, and military preparedness. As women joined preparedness organizations, published magazines, and lobbied congress, the tenets of patriotic motherhood pulled women from their homes. The war required women to play a more public role in shaping motherhood and its relationship to citizenship.

Like those women who signed the pledge, government authorities were concerned that some women's rejection of patriotic motherhood threatened the character of the nation. The cases of women who were charged under the wartime emergency laws exposed this anxiety. Most often state authorities and the press operated within nationalist discourses that emphasized a close relationship between women's roles as mothers and their responsibilities in reproducing Americanism and patriotism. It was patriotic motherhood that state authorities claimed that the women who were accused under the Espionage and Sedition Acts had violated. And, not surprisingly, it was patriotic motherhood that the accused women rejected in their constructions of themselves as citizens. This chapter sets the context for women's prosecutions under the wartime emergency laws by examining how the war influenced arguments over women's citizenship and the consequences of women's increasing role in American political culture.

Patriotic motherhood emerged from the maternalist discourses that shaped the political activities and identities of white middle-class women throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Loosely defined, maternalism was a series of "ideologies and discourses that exalted women's capacity to mother and applied to society as a whole the values they attached to that role: care, nurturance, and morality." Maternalism did not have a uniform or even stable meaning. Instead, "[m]aternalism necessarily operated in relation to other discourses — about citizenship, class relations, gender difference, and national identity, to name only a few — and in relation to a wide array of concrete social and political practices."

Discussions about American participation in the war took place while white, middle-class women were carving out a place within the emerging state bureaucracy by claiming primary responsibility for programs that affected mothers and children. The state, these reformers argued, should reward mothers for their service and protect mothers and their children from the worst effects of industrial society. Such efforts reshaped women's relationship to American politics and, in turn, "domesticated" politics as the state took over some of the functions of the home.

Although pro-natalist state-building remained a key facet of women's politics, class, race, and ideological differences led women to assert varied and often oppositional constructions of women's citizenship. Women's rights advocates often disagreed about the meaning of women's citizenship. Social feminists, who argued for women's political rights on the basis of their sexual difference, were challenged by equity feminists, who argued that as citizens women had the same inherent rights and responsibilities as men. Equity feminists stressed that as individuals, rather than as mothers, women were entitled to the same basic civil and human rights promised to their male counterparts by the American Revolution. It was from these ideas of equal citizenship and from socialist and progressive ideas of internationalism that women who were accused under the wartime laws defined their political identities.

Historians argue that World War I accentuated gender differences and facilitated pro-natalist state-building at the cost of feminist discourses that stressed sexual equality. For both men and women, the war provided an opportunity to rethink the relationships between manhood, womanhood, and citizenship. The result was a highly dynamic and complex political culture in which women's actual political participation may have increased, but one in which the meanings attached to that increased participation confined women's access to key components of citizenship, such as patriotism and Americanism, to narrow constructions of maternalism. The pro-war and countersubversive discourses that accompanied American participation in the war facilitated this process because they focused attention on women's mothering and its relationship to a healthy and well-ordered state.

As war approached, nationalists linked maternalism to Americanism and patriotism while opponents of war emphasized its relationship to internationalism and peace politics. American participation in the war limited, at least for the duration, any substantive public debate between maternalist peace advocates and supporters of patriotic motherhood. Most liberal peace advocates bowed to the Wilson administration's pressure for absolute loyalty and shifted their focus toward affecting the peace rather than opposing the war. That participation established patriotic motherhood, at least for the war's duration, as the only acceptable definition of the relationships among motherhood, internationalism, and women's citizenship.

The fact that the war could provide anti-feminists with a language and opportunity to reconstruct a masculine and Anglo political community was not lost on women's rights advocates. As I will discuss below, many women's rights activists ultimately supported the war for both pragmatic and patriotic reasons. But before January of 1917, women's rights advocates linked women's citizenship to pacifism as they asserted women's influence over liberal and socialist internationalism. Their efforts resulted in a new peace movement that was clearly associated with women's politics. The WPP was, not surprisingly, the feminist organization that pro-war nationalists most vilified.

The WPP was the most influential arm of the new peace movement that emerged during the European war. Before 1914 business interests had dominated the peace movement. Business leaders who were concerned about the impact of war on international economic stability had argued for a system of international arbitration. Specifically, they turned toward international law and a world court to regulate international disputes. The European war, however, changed the face and character of the peace movement.

Unlike the pre-war peace movement, the WPP defined peace politics within the context of reform. Before American entrance into World War I, the WPP played a central role in shaping progressive internationalism and Wilson's own peace initiatives. In fact, members of this new peace movement were essential to the left-liberal coalition that narrowly reelected Wilson in 1916.

Members of the women's peace movement were concerned with more than shaping progressive internationalism and Wilson's peace initiatives. They also sought to define a privileged space for women within the new world order they hoped would accompany Wilson's programs. Arguing that women's opposition to war was instinctive, members of the WPP viewed peace politics as a rational extension of maternalism. They believed that their role as nurturers gave women a unique commitment to peace that men did not share, a perspective that led women to view social relations differently than their male counterparts. WPP members asserted that as mothers, women approached relationships less competitively and more cooperatively than men, which led them to seek mutually agreeable solutions to international disputes. Peace politics, they insisted, required a reorientation of political and international citizenship that women were more qualified than men to undertake. Partly because of this ability to connect domestic and international politics, the WPP enjoyed support from a broad spectrum of women who were committed to social reform and civil liberties politics, not all of whom may have shared the maternalism espoused by the WPP's leadership and national statements.

As Wilson came to the pragmatic decision that he could only have a seat at the peace table if the United States entered the war, his administration worried that "women, especially those in the prewar women's peace movement, might constitute a subversive element in the nation, detrimental to wartime unity and the smooth functioning of selective service." To its detractors, the WPP symbolized the dangers of unchecked maternal influence. Although the WPP was not the first or only organization to foster women's interests and influence in international affairs, its ability to fundamentally question and redefine the relationships among citizenship, democracy, and militarism sharpened attacks on the values that white middle-class women brought to politics. To many of its critics, the WPP represented a particularly unwelcome and dangerous intrusion into the last frontier for masculine politics — foreign affairs.

Pre-war critics of the WPP contended that its maternal politics exposed a fundamental flaw in women's participation in international politics. Responding to the formation of the WPP, the editors of the New Republic, a leading vehicle for pro-war Progressives, berated the WPP for venturing into international relations:

The American women who have formed the Woman's Peace Party are sane in their insistence upon human values, but their sanity is the sanity of isolation, and their horror of war is that of the spectator. They will never know the reality of their own sentiment until they have tested it in the face of a personal crisis, until, like the women of Europe, they have lived in the tensions that may ultimately lead to war ... What better work could the Woman's Peace Party undertake than to cut its wisdom teeth on a thoroughly domestic issue? Surely, women cannot hope to intervene in Europe until they have shown what they can do in a country where women are powerful.

In the words of historian David Kennedy, progressives shared "the hopeful premise that men and women in the mass were rational beings, uniformly responsive to reasoned argument and incapable of serious disagreement in the face of scientifically demonstrated facts." Progressives dismissed dissenting positions as irrational. Using this framework, the New Republic transformed a disagreement about policy into a judgment against women's political capacities. Its editors simply asserted that members of the WPP lacked the political experience to make rational decisions, especially in international politics. Once they had the same political experience as men, then perhaps members of the WPP would recognize their own fallacies and join the political community as rational decision makers. Until then, they should leave international politics to men such as themselves who were guided by a higher ideal of citizenship.

Pro-war progressives believed that the experience of war would make American society more efficient and would promote nationalism. A "moral adventure of war," they argued, not only strengthened formal political structures but also promoted the idea of a less selfish citizenry that would be ready to sacrifice for a national culture rather than a local community. These ideas were compatible with those of female reformers who likewise argued for a stronger state and a national political community that would be dedicated to the promotion of universal moral values. At the same time, progressives emphasized that this search for a national identity must be free from sentiment and emotional attachments. The editors of the New Republic implied, through their critique of the WPP, that women's lack of political experience made them more susceptible to such sentimentality than were men.

But members of the WPP were no less experienced in the business of war than the editors of the New Republic; and many, such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, had significant experience in domestic politics. The New Republic's relegation of women to domestic politics was not based on significant differences between the actual experiences of the editors of the New Republic and members of the WPP, but instead on their possible experiences. As men, the editors of the New Republic could make war. Pro-war progressives, such as the editors of the New Republic, claimed that men's potential experience as soldiers gave them insight that American women lacked because women remained behind the lines of battle. By privileging the rational decision making that they argued derived from this uniquely male experience, the editors of the New Republic reserved the highest ideals of citizenship for men.

Like the editors of the New Republic, Theodore Roosevelt criticized the WPP for undermining the rational pursuit of the nation's interest. In a now-famous letter written to the Chicago Herald and reprinted in the pages of Literary Digest, Roosevelt characterized the WPP as "silly and base." He argued that its protests against American intervention in the European war were futile, timid, and immoral; they betrayed the entire peace movement with sentimentality and hypocrisy. "There is nothing easier, there is nothing on the whole less worthwhile," Roosevelt wrote, "than vague and hysterical demands for the right in the abstract, coupled with the unworthy and timid refusal even to allude to frightful wrongs that are at the very moment being committed in the concrete." Roosevelt argued that moral action derived from the careful application of scientific principles that had been discovered and tested through action. In contrast, he defined those values that the WPP claimed distinguished women's politics as "sentimentalism" and consequently antithetical to national interests.

The WPP focused specific anxieties about the status of masculine citizenship on women's politics. Yet, the origins of that fear went deeper than women's claims to political authority. "To a significant degree," writes Kennedy, "the concern for preparedness and the concern for forced assimilation flowed from the same anxiety about the flabbiness of American society in a hostile world." Historians have long noted the "virility impulse" that shaped the languages of nationalism in the three decades that preceded American intervention in the war; a more active nationalism, which included American participation in the war, promised to change the character of citizenship.

Until recently historians have not examined this virility impulse in relation to the changes brought about by women's participation in public life beyond observing that feminism had produced in middleclass men anxiety about the status of their sons. Women's political participation facilitated important structural changes that, at least according to one historian, changed the character of politics such that "politics was no longer a public space where ideas of manhood and womanhood could be acted out." Unlike nineteenth-century politics, which were intimately defined by gender difference, progressive politics posited a new vision of expertise that advanced a strong state run by professional bureaucrats. On its face, this new vision of expertise was gender neutral, because education and training rather than participation in a manly political culture defined one's role in politics. Yet political discourses of war continued as a forum in which "ideas of manhood and womanhood could be acted out." In particular, pro-war nationalists believed that a war would reinscribe citizenship with the manly ideals that feminism and industrialization had threatened.


Excerpted from Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens by Kathleen Kennedy. Copyright © 1999 Kathleen Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: Loyal Mothers and Virtuous Citizens: Woman's Citizenship on the Eve of the Armageddon

Chapter Two: Motherhood and Subversion: The Case of Kate Richards O'Hare

Chapter Three: Liberty with Strings: The Case of Emma Goldman

Chapter Four: The Venom of a Bolshevik Woman: The Case of Rose Pastor Stokes

Chapter Five: Disorderly Conduct: Subversion and the Political Woman

Chapter Six: "Conduct Unbecoming": Subversion and the Professional Woman




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