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"The Pulse and Conscience of America": The General Federation and Women's Citizenship, 1945–1960
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"The Pulse and Conscience of America"
The General Federation and Women's Citizenship, 1945–1960

A "worthy" woman today faces many new and perplexing problems in her roles as wife, mother, homemaker, spiritual guide and community leader . . . She is not "just a housewife" . . . She is a good citizen.

Eula C. Montgomery, GFWC, 19521

The General Federation of Women's Clubs, an umbrella organization of sixteen thousand women's clubs in the United States and overseas, believed that women's public activism would strengthen American greatness at home and abroad, secure peace, and protect democracy in the years following World War II. General Federation clubwomen approached their work as women and grounded their activism in their identities as homemakers. They believed that women's supposedly natural predisposition to nurture individuals and communities uniquely situated them to be leaders in all community projects, from isolated local initiatives to the grandest international peace-building strategies. Gravely concerned with the challenges facing the world during the tense early years of the Cold War, clubwomen accepted responsibility for preventing another world war and making the country safe for democracy. The broad scope of their project work informed everything clubwomen did from local school boards to partisan politics. Their focus on personal civic activism reaffirmed women's authority over their homes and local communities in ways that questioned the responsibilities and limitations of government and challenged the growth of the modern state. In the years between 1945 and 1960, the General Federation of Women's Clubs' gendered notion of citizenship deftly forged a consensus of maternalist politics that defied easy left-right political distinctions and brought women together as mothers defending America's liberty and future.

Postwar clubwomen's maternalist politics built on Progressive-era strategies [End Page 52] of municipal housekeeping. During the Progressive era, female activists used traditional constructions of womanhood, which imagined all women as mothers and homemakers, to justify their entrance into community affairs: as "municipal housekeepers," they would clean up politics, cities, and see after the health and wellbeing of their neighbors. Donning the mantle of motherhood, female activists methodically investigated their community's needs and used their "maternal" expertise to lobby, create, and secure a place for themselves in an emerging state welfare bureaucracy, best illustrated perhaps by clubwoman Julia Lathrop's leadership in the US Children's Bureau. As part of this tradition of maternal activism, the Progressive-era General Federation supported a range of causes from the pure food and drug administration to public health care for mothers and children to a ban on child labor, each of which looked to the state to help implement their vision of social justice.2

The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) moved away from such progressivism by the late 1920s as many clubwomen became increasingly uncomfortable with the surrogate parenting of the new welfare state. As historians Sonya Michel and Robyn Rosen have demonstrated, maternalism drew many types of female activists, and it was not until progressive maternalists began to reconfigure the relationship between the state and its citizens on the national level that conservative maternalists rallied in opposition. Having cut their political teeth in women's clubs alongside their progressive counterparts, conservative clubwomen challenged progressive maternalists' claims to speak for all women, undermining the moral authority upon which progressive maternalism rested. Fueled by the antiradical and antifeminist backlash following World War I and the passage of woman's suffrage, conservative clubwomen became vocal opponents to anything that resembled communism, including the GFWC's support of progressive legislation. According to historian Kirsten Delegard, internal divisions erupted over the child labor amendment in 1925, and debates over the renewal of the Sheppard-towner Maternity and Infancy Health Act in 1926 nearly destroyed the organization from within. Conservatives painted the Act as an attempt to nationalize children, Soviet-style; it was an assault on the private family and the free market. In a move emblematic of the 1920s, when private property mobilized against the gains women, immigrants, and labor had made over the previous two decades, conservative club-women reasserted private authority over the liberalizing state. Sapped by such controversy, the General Federation stifled its progressive agenda...