HOTBED : BOHEMIAN NEW YORK AND THE SECRET CLUB THAT SPARKED MODERN FEMINISM
By Joanna Scutts
Duckworth. 405 pages. £20. ISBN 978-071-565474-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Things were happening in Greenwich Village around 1912. The area had for some time been associated with artists, writers, and bohemians attracted to it because of cheap rents and its location within New York but with its own distinctive character. Publishers, magazines, galleries, and other facilities were close by, and it was a good place to mix with people who shared involvements and interests. By 1912 the village was home to numerous novelists, poets, and painters, but also political radicals, social workers, and others concerned to address the inequalities and injustices which seemed endemic in a capitalist society.
It was those concerns which caused a group of women to meet at Polly’s Restaurant, a well-known bohemian hang-out in Greenwich Village, and decide to form a club. They had varied interests and thrived on them, though they all agreed that women ought to have the right to vote. They might differ on the methods to be used when campaigning for the vote, but not the main aim. Heterodoxy, as it was called, was “the easiest of clubs…..no duties or obligations”, and it aimed to appeal to “women who did things, and did them openly”. It wasn’t just a talking shop, where women could ease away an afternoon. And while it may not have had any “duties or obligations” it tended to appeal to activists of one sort or another who didn’t need to be told to do something practical when a problem arose.
Joanna Scutts says that there were twenty-five charter members of Heterodoxy, “the majority…. college educated”, and some with degrees “in law, medicine, and the social sciences”. The leading light in the club was Marie Jenney Howe who was married to Frederic C. Howe, “a well-connected liberal political activist”. In New York she was a “suffrage leader for the area covering Greenwich Village”. Other early members were Charlotte Perkins Gilman, probably now best known for her novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, Inez Mulholland, Crystal Eastman, Mary Heaton Vorse, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rose Pastor Stokes, and Grace Nail Johnson, “the only Black member of Heterodoxy”.
Along with the desire for women to have the vote the one idea drawing the members of Heterodoxy together was feminism. Scurr says that they “debated what ‘feminism’ meant many times over the years”, and she doesn’t herself attempt to provide a compact definition. But she does perhaps give a hint of what it may have meant to dedicated Heterodites: “feminism was a broad and protean identity that often began as a feeling of kinship with other unorthodox women”. And she emphasises “how far outside the mainstream Heterodoxy members felt……In their personal and professional lives, as well as their political activism, they formed a tiny and tight-knit minority”.
The reference to “political activism” indicates that more than a few of the women engaged in direct political action. This was especially true of Flynn, Vorse, and Stokes, all of them familiar sights on picket lines and more than once in prison for supporting strikers. Flynn was associated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the famed “Wobblies” who led major strikes in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts (1912) and Paterson, New Jersey (1913). Vorse was a veteran reporter on industrial disputes and related matters, and was still active in the 1930s and beyond. As for Stokes, she invited attention due to being a working-class woman who married a millionaire she met while working in a New York settlement house. She was a socialist initially but later became a founder-member in 1919 of the American Communist Party.
For a time, at least, the struggle of unions to establish and assert themselves did seem to engage the attention of many Heterodoxy members besides those already mentioned. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of 146 workers, “most of them young Jewish and Italian women in their late teens and early twenties”, in the Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911 shocked people into action. It wasn’t unusual to find well-to-do women attending strike meetings. Scutts quotes an instance where one of them asked what she could do to help, and was told that her appearance on the picket line would be likely to moderate the normally-aggressive and often-violent behaviour of the police. And the labour leader Rose Schneiderman pointed out that, while middle-class women might agitate for the right to work, “among the women of the real working class there was not and never had been any question as to their right to work”. They had to work long hours to make ends meet, and “the right to ‘stay home a bit’ might be welcomed”.
A great many Greenwich Villagers, both male and female, came forward to help in mounting the Paterson Pageant in 1913. Mabel Dodge, noted for being wealthy and enjoying the favours of various lovers, including John Reed, the radical journalist, claimed to have come up with the original idea for the Pageant. It was designed to highlight the IWW-led strike in Paterson and raise funds for the strikers. Scutts says that “In the Village, the project became a collective creative endeavour, with Inez Haynes Irwin, Henrietta Rodman, Rose Pastor Stokes, and especially Mabel Dodge whipping up support, painting scenery, and publicising the pageant across the city”. Scutts points out that the “idea of shipping in more than a thousand impoverished factory workers to re-enact their suffering at the direction of a crew of Harvard-educated amateur dramatists, for an audience of well-heeled New Yorkers”, would likely raise eyebrows today, but it seemed useful at the time. For the record, the pageant wasn’t a great success. It didn’t raise anything of consequence for the strike fund, nor did it affect the eventual outcome of the strike. It may have caused a stir in Greenwich Village, but probably did little elsewhere.
Susan Glaspell, known for her links to the Provincetown Players, was in attendance when the pageant was staged, and it’s of relevance to note that Heterodoxy members like Neith Boyce and Edna Kenton were involved in both the writing and production of Provincetown plays. And the plays that the group staged often featured themes that related to a Heterodoxy context. Boyce’s “Constancy” looked at “how to achieve intimacy within a relationship without sacrificing independence”, and Glaspell’s “Suppressed Desires”, written with ‘Jig’ Cook, though designed as a spoof on the new-found enthusiasm in Greenwich Village for Freud and psychoanalysis, did also point to the “conflict…..between bourgeois convention and individual freedom”. This conflict affected both men and women – Floyd Dell touched on it in his work – but was particularly experienced by women because the conventions that applied to their beliefs and behaviour brought about a greater degree of condemnation when they were challenged.
While concerns about workers’ rights occupied some women’s attention the struggle to achieve the right to vote continued to be of key importance. Not all suffragists, or suffragettes as more militant suffrage seekers were called, necessarily agreed with the politically radical activists. After all, it was perfectly logical to be in favour of a woman’s right to vote but also be conservative in other matters. Not everyone saw that improving working conditions for women might be tied in with suffrage. There was also the question of birth control information and matters such as abortion which aroused strong reactions in some quarters and were affected by religious beliefs.
America did not enter the First World War until 1917, but the build up to entry, and the feelings of patriotism that were heightened when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, brought about divisions in the broad movement campaigning for the vote. Moderates who, once war preparations began played down their demands, were opposed by radicals who campaigned against American involvement in a European War – “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” was their theme song – and continued to push for electoral reform with direct action methods that could and did lead some of them to imprisonment.
Once America was in the war the Government began to crack down on all forms of disagreement with its policies. It was a campaign against radicals that continued even when the war ended. Hundreds of Wobblies were arrested and the leading lights in the union put on trial and sentenced to long terms in prison. The grand old man of American socialism, Eugene Victor Debs, was imprisoned for making a speech opposing conscription. An old law, “The Espionage Act, a Revolutionary-era piece of legislation that suppressed dissent”, was revived and used to harass Four Lights magazine, “largely a Heterodoxy production intended to ‘voice the young, uncompromising women’s peace movement’ as embodied in the New York branch of the Women’s Peace Party”.
The left-wing publication, The Masses, was closed down by the authorities and its editors brought to court. Scutts points to the fact that it “owed a great deal to the labour and vision of Heterodoxy women, who were editors and contributors”, and she names Elsie Clews Parsons, Helen Hull, Alice Duer Miller, Margaret Widdener, and Mabel Dodge as among them. Interestingly, only one woman, Josephine Bell, was identified in the indictment against The Masses, and she was simply a recent contributor to the magazine. The case against her was dismissed by the Judge before the trial began. It might give an idea of the hysteria at the time when Scutts recounts how the one juror who voted against the conviction of Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and John Reed was dragged into the street by some of the other eleven jurors and assaulted. This was the period of the Red Scare when people were persuaded that radicals were out to destroy American ideals.
Several American states had already given women voting rights and New York fell into line in 1917, with national legislation following in 1920. Scutts makes the observation that “In the wake of the suffrage victory in 1920, the fragile unity among the different forces fighting for women’s rights splintered…..Ideological differences that had been laid aside for the sake of the vote now opened up like cracks in the pavement”. Scutts also refers to “the brewing conservative, women-led backlash against progressive feminism – a backlash as influential, in its insidious way, as the brute-force external crackdown of the Red Scare”.
According to Scutts, “Heterodoxy in the1920s continued to offer a haven for radicals, artists, oddballs, dreamers, and ‘resistants’ in a far-reaching sense”, but she notes that though “the women of Heterodoxy continued to play a part in New York City’s cultural and intellectual life…..the dissolution of the Village as a radical epicentre affected their ability to influence larger conversations”. Other institutions began to become prominent, and Scutts cites the Algonquin Round Table as an example, and says that some women, such as Ruth Hale and Alice Duer Miller, both associated with Heterodoxy, also frequented the Algonquin.
Hotbed is a thoroughly fascinating book and packed with so much information that I’ve only managed to give a broad outline of its range. Joanna Scutts could perhaps have written a book that focused primarily on the suffrage aspect of Heterodoxy aims. But by showing how its members, especially those like Mary Heaton Vorse, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Crystal Eastman, and Rose Pastor Stokes, were often deeply involved with questions of workers’ rights, campaigning for peace, and wider political matters, she has set them in context. The United States was still a developing country in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, and trying to resolve, often with difficulty, its internal problems. Heterodoxy frequently played a key role in highlighting what needed to be done. The notes in the book are evidence of thorough research, and there is a lengthy bibliography.