Women after Suffrage: An Interview with Elisabeth Israels Perry

Elisabeth Israels Perry's first book, 1987.

Elisabeth Israels Perry's first book, 1987.

Today on the blog, editor Katie Uva sits down with Elisabeth Israels Perry to talk about her research process and her insights as she prepares her new book, After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia's New York (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019).

How did you become interested in writing about the women of the La Guardia Administration? Did this project extend out of your work on Belle Moskowitz or was there a different impetus?

The opening line of my current book is, “This book is about the women who went to my grandmother’s funeral.” So to answer your second question first, yes, this project did extend out of my biography of Belle Moskowitz, who was my paternal grandmother. Her unexpected death at the age of fifty-five in 1933 brought over 3,000 mourners to her funeral, many of whom were women prominent in city politics. There was thus a natural progression to go from writing about one New York City woman in politics to reconstructing the network of progressive feminists.

Over the years since the Moskowitz biography came out, my curiosity about that network had grown. I became especially intrigued by the discovery, unmentioned in any La Guardia biography, that over his three terms as mayor he had appointed around a hundred women into his administration as legal counselors, secretaries of boards and commissions, deputy commissioners, and judges. I wanted to know how that had happened, who they were, and what effect they had had on New York City history.

My curiosity deepened when I began to dig into Judge Samuel Seabury’s 1930 to 1932 investigations of corruption in city government, which had brought down Tammany Mayor Jimmy Walker and led to La Guardia’s election in 1933. Seabury’s original plan was to investigate charges that judges had bought their seats on the bench. But because a man involved in Vice Squad entrapments of women for alleged sex crimes unexpectedly offered to testify first, Seabury began with this topic and scrutiny of how the city’s “Women’s Court” handled the charges. The revelations that ensued galvanized city women activists into action. No writer on the topic of the investigations had ever commented on this fact. They write about fallout from the investigations as if a community of women voters did not even exist. I eventually became convinced that women voters and activists had played a role in the investigations’ aftermath, which included a new city charter.

As my research progressed, I made a third discovery: in 1937, an era when supposedly few women ran for office, an unprecedented fourteen women ran for seats on the new City Council, the body that the 1936 Charter created to replace the old Board of Aldermen. The Council was to be elected by proportional representation (PR), and I argue in my book that this voting method encouraged the city’s politically active women to run. I wanted to find out how PR had affected their political careers.

Thus by the time I had progressed in my research on Moskowitz’s network, I had moved beyond just trying to figure out who mourned her death. I now wanted to close some gaps in the history of New York City by looking at it from the perspective of women in politics in the post-suffrage era.

Why were there such an unprecedented number of women appointees under La Guardia?

The 1930s and 1940s have the reputation of being the “doldrums” of American feminism. Suffrage had been won, and now what? The movement split into factions that feuded over such issues as Prohibition, peace, equal rights, and gender-specific labor laws. Women didn’t vote as a bloc and few women won elective office. But in New York City, a vibrant feminist community continued to advocate for progressive social and economic public policies, including advances in women’s civil rights.

Many members of this community (though not all) were key figures in the city’s anti-Tammany movement. The Seabury investigations brought them increasingly into public view as supporters not only of La Guardia’s run for mayor but also of modernizing city government. La Guardia appointed them in part to reward them for their support, but also because they were accomplished in their fields, which included law, economics, medicine, administration, and labor relations.

Were there major expansions of women’s rights in New York City in the 1930s, or was the presence of women in the administration more significant for other reasons?

Although under La Guardia more women joined the administration than ever before in the city’s history, they were still tokens. What’s more, they never made it into top posts. Still, their presence in City Hall and the courts made it more normal to see women in government and to accept their authority. So that was a significant result of La Guardia’s appointments.

Some rights for women did expand in the 1930s. As a direct result of women’s protests against the treatment of women by the Vice Squad and lower criminal courts, the New York Police Department banned its use of so-called “stool pigeons” to entrap women. In addition, the magistracy was no longer able to convict women on the mere testimony of one arresting officer. Those were big “wins” for city activists, who at the time were still for the most part operating from outside government.

As for civil rights, New York City women were prime movers behind a campaign, begun as soon as suffrage was won in 1917, to permit women to serve on juries. The presence of three women (one state senator and two assemblywomen), with heavy support from downstate activists and government officials, helped win permission to serve in 1937. Women’s increasing presence in courtrooms as jurors, clerks, probation officers, social workers, and judges helped create a less punitive, more humane approach to family crises and issues of prostitution and juvenile delinquency. The effort of some activists and judges to decriminalize prostitution did not succeed however.

What was the relationship between women’s involvement in New York City politics and women’s political activism nationally?

The connection was strong: many leaders of women’s national political activities were also active in New York City politics. I can mention a few: Florence Kelley, head of the National Consumers’ League in the 1920s, was based in New York and led the legislative campaign for the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, the first federal legislation to help lower the death rates of mothers and infants. Elinore Morehouse Herrick was deeply involved in the national effort to legitimize a minimum wage and later headed the National Labor Relations Board for the New York region. Molly Dewson worked closely with Herrick on minimum wages and was involved first in local and state Democratic politics before taking over the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Party. New York Republican activist Pauline Morton Sabin founded and led the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, the advocacy group predominantly responsible for winning the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. And let’s not forget Frances Perkins, active in New York city and state industrial-labor reform before becoming U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt. And then of course there’s Eleanor Roosevelt, who was deeply involved in local and state politics in the 1920s and early 1930s before becoming first lady. Finally I would mention Anna Rosenberg, who got her start in New York City political campaigns; in the 1930s she headed New Deal regional boards and in the 1950s became the first female assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense. I write about all of these women in my current book.

How was the process of researching this book different than when you wrote your book about Belle Moskowitz in the eighties?

When I was doing the Moskowitz research, I was grateful for the tiniest tidbit of information I could find. Her early death meant she never had a chance to organize her papers or write a memoir. My father once told me no one could write her biography because “she wasn’t a saver. She didn’t save her papers.” It turned out there were “papers,” but my uncle had thrown many of them out. Finding sources in the pre-Internet age was extremely time-consuming. I didn’t start looking for them until 1974, years after my father and many of Belle’s friends and colleagues had died. My first step was to construct a career résumé for her and a list of her personal contacts, a task facilitated by a thousand alphabetized condolence letters sent to her husband, Henry Moskowitz, that Belle’s daughter (my aunt Miriam Israels Gabo) had deposited in the late ’40s at Connecticut College. I then began going through her network’s manuscript collections, Smith’s public and private papers, and the records and publications of organizations on whose boards she had sat, a process that entailed travel to many archives. But when I wanted to expand on this material from the daily newspaper record, the only major New York City newspaper then indexed and microfilmed was the New York Times.

Using the Times’s indexes in the pre-Internet age was nothing like it is today, when keywords and names yield hundreds if not thousands of hits. In the 1970s, the process was exhausting. For hours on end I pored over double-columns of tiny print in multiple volumes, looking for every permutation of Moskowitz’s name I could think of: her maiden name, two married names, the names of her husbands, her names with only her initials, her husbands’ names with only initials — indexers did not always realize that these formats might refer to the same person. I then went through the volumes again, looking for references to issues or topics that had interested her. I made great finds this way that, even though her name was included, indexers had missed. I spent months doing this kind of research, filling pages of yellow notepaper with hand-written dates, article titles, and cross-references that I then had to locate on the microfilms.

I spent similar numbers of hours on old magazines and ephemeral serial publications too obscure to be indexed in Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. For days I stood over library tables turning page after page of bound but unindexed publications such as The American Hebrew, the Bulletin of the Women’s City Club of New York, and the proceedings and annual reports of social welfare or labor organizations Moskowitz had been active in, hoping to catch references to her words and activities. In the end, I was able to amass enough primary source material to complete my biography. From conception to publication, however, it had taken over a dozen years.

Today, thanks to Google Books, Hathi Trust Digital Library, Proquest, newspapers.com, etc., I’ve been able to complete the research much more easily for my current project. These resources have led to some wonderful finds. Who knew, for example, that for eleven years after the 1917 passage of suffrage in New York State the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an almost daily column called “The Woman Voter”? I came across these columns by typing “woman voter” on newspapers.com to see what might come up. And there they were. Using similar tags for other digitized newspapers and magazines I was able to supplement my findings in archival collections and fill out my documentation of women’s political lives in the city in the immediate post-suffrage era.

What was your most useful archive?

Probably that of Genevieve Beavers Earle, whose entire life was spent in New York City progressive feminist politics. The first woman to win election to the City Council (1937), she served twelve years, eight of which as Minority Leader. She left two huge collections of material, one that’s in Butler Library at Columbia University, the other in the Municipal Archives. The contents are extremely rich, including her own remembrances, reports she wrote and received, press articles, campaign materials, city reform projects, and more. Another is less accessible to New Yorkers because they’re in Cincinnati — the papers of Anna Moscowitz Kross, for twenty years a magistrate in the city’s criminal courts and for another twelve Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.’s appointee as the city’s Commissioner of Correction. Her papers are full of fascinating material on the city’s Women’s Court and the intractable issue of prostitution and its treatment as a police issue.

What books do you most recommend for people looking to understand this topic (aside from your own, of course!)

I would start with J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s (1973). It’s an old book now, but extremely useful for understanding what women hoped to do with the vote. Then perhaps Kristi Andersen, After Suffrage: Women in Partisan and Electoral Politics before the New Deal (1996) and Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987). Susan Ware’s biography of Molly Dewson, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics (1987) and Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (1981) are essential.

Elisabeth Israels Perry is Emeritus Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies, Saint Louis University. She is the author of Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (Oxford University Press, 1987) and the forthcoming After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia’s New York (Oxford, 2019).