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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 132-135

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Jessie Lloyd O'Connor and Mary Metlay Kaufman
Professional Women Fighting for Social Justice

Kathleen Banks Nutter

Jessie Lloyd O'Connor and Mary Metlay Kaufman dedicated their lives to progressive causes, each in her own way. The evidence that O'Connor and Kaufman left behind—now part of the Sophia Smith Collection—reveals much about these specific individuals. But the papers also provide rich documentation of the collective struggle for social justice during the twentieth century. These primary documents will be of interest to researchers working on a variety of topics as well as classroom teachers seeking to enrich their curriculum. 1

Jessie Lloyd O'Connor (1904-1988) was born with a dual inheritance: substantial family wealth and a tradition of commitment to social reform. Her paternal grandfather, Henry Demarest Lloyd, was a social critic and author of the 1894 classic, Wealth Against Commonwealth. Her father, William Bross Lloyd, was known in the early twentieth century as a "millionaire socialist." Her mother, Lola Maverick Lloyd, co-founded the Women's Peace Party and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. O'Connor was also a committed pacifist but she embraced many other social causes. Her sixty-two linear feet of papers reflect the vast range of her activism, from her days as a journalist in the late 1920s and early 1930s, covering strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Harlan County, Kentucky for the left-wing Federated Press, to the 1950s when she spoke out against McCarthyism, to the 1980s when she continued to devote her time and money to a vast array of progressive causes.

Some of the richest material in the papers comes from the 1930s when O'Connor was active in numerous Popular Front organizations. One in particular—the League of Women Shoppers (LWS)—demanded much of O'Connor's attention for several years, beginning in 1937. Founded in New York City in 1935, the LWS aimed to harness women's power as consumers on behalf of the interests of labor and, more broadly, for the fight against fascism. At its height in 1939, just as the Dies Committee labeled it a Communist front, the LWS had branches in Chicago, New York, Washington and Hollywood. 2 As O'Connor later remembered, the LWS was "something like the old National Consumers League only more aggressive." 3 O'Connor's papers contain many records of this organization including [End Page 132] minutes of meetings, newsletters, and pamphlets that speak to the concerns shared by many during this politically charged time.

According to one LWS pamphlet, circa 1937, "WOMEN DO 85% of the BUYING," and, "BUYING ability is POWER." When women consumers engaged in collective action, LWS members believed, they could realize the full extent of their "purchasing power." 4 This pamphlet echoes the basic rationale of the New Deal that increased consumption would lead to greater employment, allowing for even further consumption. But the LWS also advocated consumption with a social conscience. The pamphlet asks, "ARE YOU SUPPORTING SWEATSHOPS AND CHILD LABOR?? [U]nless you KNOW where and how to buy, your dollar helps keep children overworked and undernourished." 5 Thus, the LWS promoted the notion that educated women consumers could engage in political action simply by buying goods produced by unionized workers in a socially responsible manner. LWS pamphlets also declared, "IN KEEPING WITH THE DEMOCRATIC TRADITIONS of our country, we believe in the right of men and women to assemble and organize to protect their own interests. We therefore endorse the organization of trade unions and will support them in their efforts to improve the well-being of workers." 6 The League did just that, investigating labor conditions in several cities, publicizing their findings and frequently engaging in "Don't Buy" campaigns when an employer mistreated its workers. It was this sort of direct action for social justice that brought Jessie Lloyd O'Connor into the League of Women Shoppers and would propel her into numerous other causes...


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