Women vs. Women

Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States

By Kirsten Marie Delegard

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 313 pps., $65.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Kim Phillips-Fein

For those on the left, conservative women have long presented an enigma. Why would women be drawn to a politics so dominated by men? Why would they want to actively participate in a politics that so often treats them as subordinates? Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann—women politicians who draw simultaneously on a fierce libertarianism and a militant social conservatism—owe their popularity partly to the surprise factor of being women leaders on the right. Yet, as the fights over gay marriage and abortion rights (not to mention “legitimate rape”) reveal, US politicians are obsessed with what might be thought of as women’s issues: pregnancy, sexuality, and the nature of the family. For conservatives, women’s roles are the cornerstones of the entire social order.

Kristen Delegard’s new book, Battling Miss Bolsheviki, suggests that conservative women have a long history of playing a central role in anchoring this country’s right wing. For many years, popular narratives about the rise of the conservative movement treated it as a backlash against the social movements of the 1960s, especially second-wave feminism. But historians of conservativism have traced a lineage that predates the face-off between Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, women helped to build the right.

Women played a critical behind-the-scenes role in spreading the word about conservative causes, holding coffee klatches at which new members for the John Birch Society were recruited, for example. Key mid-century women intellectuals such as Ayn Rand, Isabel Patterson, and Rose Wilder Lane (the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House books) hailed from the right. The conservative family values of a workplace such as Wal-Mart resonated with the southern women who worked at the retail giant in its early years. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum mobilized antifeminist women to campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, while opposition to abortion rights galvanized a new group of female activists.

Delegard’s carefully and deeply researched study takes the story of conservative women back even further, to the 1920s, the decade that followed the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. She shows that during this period, conservative women mobilized to limit the influence of the older women’s organizations, which had been committed to using the state to regulate and reform the economy. Far from being focused only on domestic politics, these conservative women were desperately afraid of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. They were middle-class and similar in most demographic and sociological ways to their sisters in liberal reform groups. But they marshaled ideas about the threat to the traditional family posed by radicalism to target, attack, and ultimately isolate the women’s reform organizations.

In the early years of the twentieth century, before women suffrage, the world of female politics was focused on reform. Women activists pressed for public health measures and laws to protect children and working women. They created settlement houses and undertook philanthropic campaigns. Taking an expansive view of their roles as mothers and caretakers, they argued that women had an obligation to act on behalf of children and other vulnerable people. Many believed that once women won the right to vote, they would form a powerful bloc in support of the creation of a welfare state. As the journalist Rheta Child Dorr wrote,

"Every one, as in a family, will have enough to eat, clothes to wear, and a good bed to sleep on. There will be no slums, no sweat shops, no sad women and children toiling in tenement rooms."

After winning the vote, women activists organized to push anew for reform. They also became leaders in the peace movement that followed World War I, promoting such measures as outlawing the use of chemical weapons.

But in the early 1920s, at the very moment when they might have expected to be most triumphant, the women reformers found themselves confronting a new enemy: women who were devoted to protecting the free market, opposing government regulation, and preserving the military power of the United States. For these women, the Nineteenth Amendment was less of a political landmark than was the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the special role of women in caring for home, family, and children had once motivated liberals to campaign for social welfare measures, it motivated conservative women in the 1920s to call for the protection of powerless women and children from the depredations of radicalism and Soviet Communism.

The omnipresence of the Russian Revolution in American politics during the 1920s emerges clearly in this book. Conservative women circulated stories about the terrors their sisters were experiencing in the new Soviet state. They claimed that the government was taking children away from families and placing them in state orphanages, and that women had to register at an (apocryphal) “Bureau of Free Love,” where men could have their way with them sexually. The new job of women activists (as one woman conservative put it) was to protect “the lovely young girlhood of America” by telling everyone “what has happened to women in Russia.” The peace movement came in for particular scorn, attacked for supposedly doing Moscow’s bidding. The wife of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service penned a rejoinder to the popular peace movement tune “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” entitled “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.”

While popular images of frightening radicals still focused on the stereotype of the bomb-tossing immigrant, conservative organizations warned of the naïve, easily duped woman reformer who was unknowingly in league with the violent male revolutionary. The “Spider Web Chart,” which was drawn up by Lucia Maxwell Ramsey, a librarian in the Chemical Warfare Service, and published in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent in 1924, listed the names of women’s organizations and leaders. Lines connecting the different groups and individuals revealed a shadowy network that ultimately traced back to Bolshevism. A poem alongside the chart denounced the sinister “Miss Bolsheviki,” who dutifully did her “political job” while “the male of the species” riled up the masses to “expropriate and hate and kill and rob.” The women who were named in the chart were furious about the insinuations. They pressed the War Department to rescind the charts, and suggested that Ramsey had created them at the behest of her superiors. In fact, Delegard shows, Ramsey was a committed antiradical, in close touch with other conservatives, who was probably acting on her own initiative.

Antiradical women’s organizations such as the American Legion Auxiliary modeled themselves on the established women’s groups. Some organizations—most notably the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)—had participated in coalitions that had called for social reform during the Progressive Era. Now, they turned against their own traditions. However, they used this legacy to their advantage, presenting antiradicalism as the logical extension of their long-standing concern for women and children. They offered a conservative alternative to reformist politics. Should women who wanted to protect the family press for child labor laws? Or was the real priority defeating the radicals who wanted to reconfigure the family altogether, and who championed laws protecting women and children only as window dressing for their ulterior, revolutionary motives?

Ultimately, the DAR began to distribute “blacklists” naming more than 200 men and women and hundreds of organizations who were supposedly in league with communism. These blacklists included prominent Progressive Era activists such as Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Clarence Darrow. Even the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) was on the list. (One South Dakota woman plaintively wrote, "I want to continue in PTA work, but I cannot see my way clear to work for things un-American.") After the lists came to light, liberal magazines such as Harper’s and The Nation lampooned the paranoia of the DAR. But Delegard argues that the conservative mobilization caused many women’s groups to become increasingly unwilling to champion social reform and eventually to abandon the coalition organizations that had been formed early in the 1920s to press the state. As a result, the broad network of women’s organizations that had existed during the Progressive Era was dramatically weakened by the 1930s, and female activists, Frances Perkins notwithstanding, played a limited role in the New Deal. 

At the time, the reformers under attack often sought to dismiss conservative women as mere pawns of men. They felt betrayed by their own sex, and they lashed out in return, describing their opponents as irrational conspiracy theorists who had been manipulated into pursuing a politics antithetical to their real interests. Delegard’s prodigious research, however, demonstrates the independence of women conservatives and the extent of their activity. Women on the right, she argues, were no more or less “psychologically imbalanced” than those on the left—they simply had different worldviews. They were not controlled by men; in fact, they were ignored by the military and other groups whose support they would have welcomed. What is more, the centrality of maternalist arguments to Progressive reform politics opened these activists up to attack by conservatives, who could come along and claim to be the true defenders of women, and the best champions of home and domestic virtue.

One of the most interesting aspects of Delegard’s book is that she presents the women conservatives of the 1920s as essentially antiradical rather than antifeminist, unlike later conservative women. Opposition to communism, the peace movement, and the creation of a welfare state, more than resistance to feminism per se, drove them forward. Many historians (not to mention pundits) have taken pains to draw thick lines separating social from economic conservatism. In contrast, Delegard suggests that these boundaries are porous. For women conservatives, radicalism, social reform, and the welfare state were all attacks on the traditional family. Child labor laws endangered the autonomy of the family, just as the Bolsheviks threatened the sanctity of property. Any strengthening of the state implied the weakening of the family.

Today, conservatives from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to Rick Santorum endorse an untrammeled free market, while celebrating the nuclear family as the one space free from the market’s harsh individualism. The ideal of marriage as “critical for the wellbeing of a civilization,” not simply a “personally rewarding social custom” (to quote the Romney campaign website) suggests the way conservatives place the family and women’s place within it outside of the system of trades and bargains that otherwise defines their vision of society. These claims may seem contradictory, out of touch with the real problems that women and families face—but the active support of women within the movement lends them legitimacy.. Given the importance of the ideal of the family for the right, women conservatives have a special role within the movement, no less today than they did during the early years of the twentieth century. As the president of the American Legion Auxiliary told her audience in 1925, “It takes women to fight women.”


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