- New Directions in the History of Conservative Women
As these four monographs ably demonstrate, scholars in the field of US women's history are now accustomed to taking conservative activists and their ideas and organizations seriously. All of the authors treat their historical actors with dignity, meaning that as a group, these works serve to normalize conservative female activism within an academic environment that, in the past, neglected such women and their politics. And yet, certain problems of definition, analysis, and methodology remain: How permeable are the borders between progressivism and conservatism, and between moderation and extremism? And how do these relationships change over time? How should scholars who self-identify as feminists and progressives situate themselves vis-à-vis the conservative women they study? And where should scholars direct their attention in the immediate future, in order to further develop this vital subfield on the history of conservative women?
Kirsten Marie Delegard's Battling Miss Bolsheviki is a nuanced, beautifully written work based on the most painstaking archival research. Thus, although her tale of antiradical female activists' efforts to tar progressive women's campaigns for peace and social welfare legislation as "Bolshevism" in the years immediately after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment is a familiar one, in Delegard's hands, the story takes on new depths.1 By studying women on opposite poles of the political spectrum together, as [End Page 165] two sides of the same coin, Delegard shows how it was their shared organizations, combined with similar backgrounds and common tactics, that ironically gave antiradical women the status and respectability to advance their cause.
In brief, Delegard explains how antiradical women successfully captured established women's clubs, like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and shifted them to the political right. This hereditary organization once considered itself part of the progressive movement, but, by the mid-1920s, it found itself increasingly preoccupied with the threat of domestic Communist subversion (55). Delegard also details how antiradical women formed new right-wing organizations, like the Women's Patriotic Conference on National Defense (1925), modeled on groups from the other side of the political spectrum (87). The history that female antiradicals shared with women reformers thus gave them a legitimacy that meant other clubwomen frequently accepted their arguments. They gained further credibility by adapting the rhetoric and techniques of progressive women (although directing them to entirely different ends) (10–11). As a result of these two different tactics, antiradical women were able to wage a campaign that undermined an established tradition of female reform in the United States: they marked out a new political space for conservative women (7, 11–13, 17).
Historians, however, had hitherto focused principally on reformers and overlooked this shared heritage precisely because female antiradicals looked so similar to their progressive sisters (13, 15). Throughout her work, Delegard provides compelling evidence to support this argument, but one example will suffice here: the case of the notorious Spider Web Chart, published in Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent in 1924 that listed the names of supposed women subversives. While scholars have already subjected this chart to considerable analysis, Delegard carefully demonstrates that both progressives at the time, and later historians, wrongly assumed its authorship. Most believed an elite man within the military establishment wrote it, rather than the conservative female activist whose name appeared at the top—Lucia...