After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia's New York
Reviewed by Karen Pastorello
Elisabeth Israels Perry has enriched the historical record by documenting New York City women’s activism in the first half of the twentieth century. Inspired by the life of her grandmother, “political influencer” and civic reformer Belle Linder Israels Moskowitz, Perry goes well beyond recounting “firsts” for women and instead offers specific examples of accomplished women — all of whom surmounted a myriad of personal and professional challenges to enter a male-controlled political world. After suffrage was won, women attempted to ascend from their newly acquired position as voters to officeholders intent, for the most part, on advancing a social justice platform for all.
Two of the driving questions behind this study ask why men tried so hard to keep women out of politics and, perhaps more importantly, why large numbers of women did not more readily engage in politics? These questions have been addressed by others, with regards to men’s experiences and women in other locales. Perry is the first to comprehensively link New York City women’s political, legal, and judicial activism to the Progressive era and the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, adding an entirely new perspective to the history of the nation’s largest metropolis. She is careful not to overwhelm readers with unwieldy details. She balances the contextual of both women’s and men’s lives. And she colors the narrative with enlivening backstories of scandals and corruption, fully exposing the underbelly of Gotham’s political beast — the beast over which men refused to relinquish control.
Examining New York City politics between the 1910s and the 1940s, Perry finds two levels. Renowned philosopher and municipal reformer John Dewey aptly described these competing versions of power as that of elected officials and that held by the machine. Tammany men, in both elected and appointed positions, welded immense influence over New York City government. Excluded from the city’s politics, women constructed a vibrant political culture to forward their agendas through volunteer service and various clubs and organizations. Once the vote was won, New York women used preexisting suffrage networks to forge inroads into the political arena. Settlement workers, including Mary Simkhovitch and Lillian Wald, worked in conjunction with other women reformers to help to identify issues and resolve problems related to women and children. Reformers also joined with women labor organizers from organizations, including the New York Women’s Trade Union League, to the combat unsafe and unfair working conditions which gained public attention in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Following the trajectory of reformers in urban communities across the country, the activists expanded the scope and reach of their goals. New York women fought to reform the local women’s court and at the state level, they battled to obtain the right of women to serve on juries. Women activists eventually approached the federal government in their attempt to secure federal funding to provide health care for poor mothers and infants. Roosevelt’s future Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, lauded women activists’ innovative efforts in the passing the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921 which provided pre- and post-natal care for needy pregnant women and their children. Defunded by Congress less than a decade later, however, the act set the stage for federal assistance for the less fortunate included in the Social Security Act of 1935 authored by Perkins. Despite its repeal, the Sheppard-Towner Act also threatened whatever post-suffrage unity remained when it forced debate over whether or not women constituted a special class that warranted protection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch argued that “sex-specific” legislation, especially in the realm of labor reform, could potentially harm women by restricting their opportunities in the workplace. Blatch and other (usually younger) reformers viewed the solution as legislative protection for all workers.
Consulting an impressive variety of sources and incorporating a vast array of images and cartoons, Perry provides the details necessary to follow the events and numerous personalities mentioned in each chapter. She introduces the reader to little known but significant players by presenting brief biographical sketches that contain the subject’s background, motives for activism, and biases. Fiorello LaGuardia is the one exception. Although his efforts to dismantle Tammany Hall and reform the city government are referenced throughout the book’s early chapters, his past is not revealed until more than halfway through the book. Perry chooses that point to inform the reader because it best emphasizes how vital women’s support was to Mayor LaGuardia’s campaigns and how he courted their votes. For her, LaGuardia’s political success depended largely upon women.
Perhaps the most unlikely member of LaGuardia’s feminine cadre was Rebecca Browning Rankin, who served his administration as director of the city’s Municipal Reference Library and data collector extraordinaire. Rankin’s popular 1936 publication New York Advancing: A Scientific Approach to Municipal Government chronicled the mayor’s stewardship. The book proved indispensable then and is still considered the preeminent reference source on LaGuardia’s administration. Even after the mayor retired, Rankin continued to work for the city establishing an archival information system. Although LaGuardia always supported women’s careers and substantially increased the number of women in city government, he did not rush to appoint women to top administration positions. Refusing to be discouraged, however, women appreciated whatever opportunities they earned. To show their gratitude, they wrote a skit to perform at a dinner they held honoring the newly re-elected mayor.
Despite their escalating frustration with New York City’s political scene, women had come to stay. Perry is at her best when she demonstrates the agency these women enjoyed. Women sometimes came to politics by virtue of their careers in suffrage, social work, or government research. They simultaneously navigated gendered expectations and maintained their involvement in voluntary nonpartisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the Women’s City Club, even after joining the ranks of government, labor, or the judiciary. In general, no matter how hard they tried, the majority of politically active women ended up in appointed rather than elected positions. African American women’s careers advanced outside formal party lines under LaGuardia’s tenure as well. After unsuccessfully running for state assembly seats, lawyers Eunice Carter and Jane Bolin both received political appointments in the administration. The national news covered LaGuardia’s nomination of Bolin as the nation’s first African American female judge when he appointed her to the new Court of Domestic Relations. Carter served on the Harlem Commission to study race relations and eventually helped to expose employment discrimination, police aggression, segregation, and institutional neglect. Regardless of their race, women who did not have support from the male political establishment, including Tammany Hall, lost their elections.
Women’s initial forays into electoral politics proved disappointing, but no matter how frustrated their inability to get elected to high office or even city council made New York City women, they persevered. These women did not give up after their initial runs. Instead they channeled their energies into reform outside formal politics. From their appointed positions, they affected significant changes at the local, state, and eventually at the federal levels. Rather than knocking on the doors of the major parties that remained closed to women, they worked through their own organizations and/or government agencies to lobby for major legislative initiatives and significantly influence policies. They fought long and hard for what they believed in. Perry cites the example of New York women winning the right to serve on juries that was finally won in 1937.
LaGuardia’s New York was the epicenter of twentieth century American politics. Perry successfully traces the legacies of the women around and within LaGuardia’s administration and important lessons from their life experiences. It is no secret that despite the inspiring women Perry has studied since the 1970s, politics did not, and still do not, figure into some women’s daily lives. But then there is the growing segment of women for whom politics do matter. Now that many have pushed past the artificial boundaries built by men, women remain divided among themselves. Once split over issues such as protective legislation and prohibition, women now part ways over issues such as reproductive rights, the need for an equal rights amendment, and/or same sex marriages. With rifts endemic in the current political climate, coalitions that draw on interracial support, diverse ethnicities, multiple religions, and varied occupations are more crucial than ever to advance women’s political agendas.
The crowning achievement of Perry’s life’s work is to create a compelling narrative from the perspective of the New York City women who participated in the struggle to address the needs of women in whatever ways they could. With keen insight, Perry illuminates the origins of the broader fight for women’s unity and equality. It is the struggle that still persists.
Karen Pastorello is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Tompkins Cortland Community College (SUNY) where she directs the Honors Program. She is the author of A Power Among Them: Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and the Making of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (2008) and Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (2017), co-authored by Susan Goodier.