On December 15, 2017, the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society hosted a Salon Conversation titled “Women of the Village.” A hearty crowd filled the Museum’s fourth-floor Skylight Gallery on a snowy Friday evening for a tour of Hotbed in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, followed by a conversation between Scholarly Advisory Committee members Blanche Wiesen Cook and Lara Vapnek and Hotbed curators Sarah Gordon and Joanna Scutts. The event was part of our ongoing Salon Conservation series at the Center for Women’s History, which also hosted Joy Ann Reid and Irin Carmon in November.
The crowd in the Skylight Gallery on Friday evening.
Women of the Village, Part I: “This was NOT Elizabeth Cady Stanton”
“Creates Sensation with Suffrage Plea Painted On Her Pretty Back” The Topeka State Journal, November 6, 1915 Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress
Our curators opened the conversation by discussing the inspiration for Hotbed: a 1915 image of aspiring actress Dorothy Newell in an evening gown with “Votes for Women” painted on her back. This, Sarah Gordon noted, “was not Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony.” Newell’s youth and audacity pointed to a broader transformation of the suffrage movement in the early 20th century. As Joanna Scutts explained, this transformation could not simply be charted through the evolution of well-known organizations like the National American Woman Suffrage Association or the National Women’s Party. Rather, the curators looked to the myriad ways in which women practiced politics in these years, not just in the suffrage movement, but in struggles for birth control, for peace, for labor rights, and for racial justice. Tracing out the connections between these women and these movements in New York City brought the curators into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, a hotbed of experimentation in politics and art.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Village as a Base for Women’s Organizing Across the Country
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Mrs. J.A. Jones), 1890-1964. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
After a tour of the show itself (on view through March 25), our scholars helped us dive deeper into the lives of the women who made the Village a hotbed. Lara Vapnek, professor of history at St. John’s University and author of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary, traced Flynn’s life from Concord, New Hampshire, to the Bronx—where she gave her first public address from a soapbox at the age of fifteen—and thence to Greenwich Village, a radical base for her years of organizing with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). An ardent socialist, Flynn also joined Margaret Sanger’s campaigns for birth control, which she believed was “a class issue,” and free speech, particularly the right of union organizers to speak without fear of arrest or harm. Woman under socialism, Flynn believed, “belongs to herself alone.” Somewhat ironically, Flynn herself was not particularly interested in suffrage, as she believed the vote had done little for working men, but as Vapnek explained, Flynn lived long enough to change her mind. She first voted in the 1930s, and even ran for Senate in New York State in 1942 as a communist, winning 50,000 votes.
Lara Vapnek discusses Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for our Massive Open Online Course, “Women Have Always Worked,” created by Scholarly Advisory Committee Chair Alice Kessler-Harris.
Crystal Eastman: Writing and Building Institutions in the Village and Beyond
Crystal Eastman Benedict. Photo by Edmonston, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Manuscripts Division.
While we have no record of a meeting between them, Flynn surely encountered Crystal Eastman when she returned to Greenwich Village between organizing campaigns. Blanche Wiesen Cook—distinguished professor of history and women’s studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and editor of Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution—discussed Eastman’s journey to the Village from her upstate home through an undergraduate degree at Vassar, a masters at Columbia, and a law degree at New York University, which brought her to the Village (and where, as one of the first woman graduates, Eastman finished second in her class). Eastman, like Flynn, was a committed socialist who took part in many movements, including campaigns for labor rights, free speech, and most passionately, peace. Just out of law school, Eastman authored the influential book Work Accidents and the Law, which became the basis for modern workers compensation policies. She co-founded the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization dedicated to ending the First World War that persists to this day. And when the United States government began suppressing dissenters and pacifists upon its entry into World War I, she co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the forerunner of the ACLU. Above all, Cook explained, Eastman was a writer, someone who moved people and institutions with her pen and her voice.
Blanche Wiesen Cook discusses Crystal Eastman for “Women Have Always Worked.”
Women of the Village, Part II: “Don’t Go Anywhere Without Your Gang!”
In the conversation that followed, our curators asked our scholars to envision Flynn and Eastman together in the Village. They had their differences—for example, Flynn mistrusted cross-class organizing, which Eastman embraced—but they would have found much to agree on, from socialism and labor rights to free speech and “free love” (the countercultural practice of having intimate unmarried relationships). They might well have debated the efficacy of the vote at Heterodoxy, the secretive feminist reading group that met at Polly’s Restaurant on MacDougal Street and kept no records of any kind. “Living according to their politics,” as Sarah Gordon described it, often proved challenging. Flynn’s IWW was raided, and radical organizers including Emma Goldman, another Heterodoxy member, were deported during the Red Scare that followed World War I. Eastman essentially spent the 1920s in exile in London, far from friends and suffering from kidney disease that ultimately took her life in 1928. The new politics of the 1920s spelled the end of the Village as a high-profile “hotbed,” but only temporarily. As Blanche Wiesen Cook noted, just as the 1920s dawned, a young Eleanor Roosevelt began making regular journeys to the apartment of Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, from whom she gathered many of the same insights as Flynn and Eastman did a decade or two earlier. The “women of the village” continued to fight one another’s battles, and they also fought for one another. As Cook put it, distilling a lesson from her own work on Eastman and Roosevelt, “don’t go anywhere without your gang!”
Left to right: Joanna Scutts, Lara Vapnek, Blanche Wiesen Cook, and Sarah Gordon.
– Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
This post is part of our new series, “Women at the Center,” written and edited by the staff of the Center for Women’s History. Look for new posts every Tuesday! #womenatthecenter
Top Photo Credits (left to right): Crystal Eastman Benedict. Photo by Edmonston, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Manuscript Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000367/; Margaret Sanger, Photo by Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672785/; Emma Goldman, Copyright by T. Kajiwara, 1911 July 15, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005685496/; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Mrs. J.A. Jones), 1890-1964. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005686058/