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"We All Leaguers by Our House": Women, Suffrage, and Red-Baiting in the National Nonpartisan League Kim E. Nielsen . . . keep everlastingly at it as we can count on a still more fierce struggle as election nears. I am proud to think that we have an organization of our own to belong to and if the League members are entitled to a button then we want two. . . . We'll fix those politicians . ...' In her 1918 letter to the Minnesota Leader, Mrs. Edwin A. Schact referred to the National Nonpartisan League, a populist farmers organization that flourished between 1915 and 1922, primarily in North Dakota and Minnesota. The League sought to influence state legislation through the election of representatives committed to League objectives. To accomplish this, the League supported and used the direct primary system, underscoring its deep faith in the power of the ballot. As its name suggests, the League was a nonpartisan organization, backing individuals of any party who adhered to League principles. In the Nonpartisan League, farm families affirmed their rural Ufe style and created a place to voice and address concerns. The League platform emphasized state-run programs designed to guarantee farm families greater economic clout: a state-owned bank with rural credit opportunities, state ownership of grain elevators and mills, a regulated grain grading system, and state-funded crop and farm insurance. These initiatives frightened people with various business and political interests into virulent anti-League activities. Within two years of its founding the League had more than 150,000 members in thirteen states. In the 1918 state election, League members swept the North Dakota state offices and legislature. By the end of 1919, League membership peaked at over 208,800 people; 90,000 in Minnesota and North Dakota. "Membership" in this case officially included only adult males. Since League activities were generally family affairs, the number of people who identified with the League was much larger.2 By 1921, however, the vitality of the League had ebbed; by 1924 it ceased to exist as a national organization. Charges of national disloyalty, sexual promiscuity, and immorality hurt the League. Legal charges did also—a state court convicted Townley of conspiring to discourage military © 1994 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. ι (Spring) 32 Journal of Women's History Spring enlistment in World War I and he, along with other League leaders, was charged by League opponents with misappropriation of League funds. In addition, internal debate over the formation of a third party divided the League. Women's activities in the National Nonpartisan League flourished and changed in the context of a larger society struggling to redefine gender roles. The introduction of female suffrage and the upheaval of World War I had much to do with these redefinitions. In the context of the League, rural women fought to define gender-based political roles to their own liking. In the context of anti-League red-baiting, League women fought to defend and define their femininity while maintaining their political integrity . Political actions and propaganda became gendered; the gender roles of women and men became entwined with and informed by politics. The story of men, women, and gender in the National Nonpartisan League is paradoxical. Women in the League formed a separate organization and physically removed themselves from the larger male movement just as suffrage was won and women's political possibilities seemed to be broadening. The sex-segregated organizations reinforced traditional gender roles while at the same time stretching role boundaries. Anti-League political forces accused League members of inappropriate and un-American gender roles. Traditional roles, based on notions of gender difference and reflected in the separation of men and women, served to defuse anti-League harassment. Men and women of the National Nonpartisan League struggled to define women's appropriate political role. Sometimes men and women disagreed. League men and women variably tried to integrate women in and separate women from the larger male movement. Individuals wrestled with changing gender roles and the personal and public confrontations wrought by such changes. Though these are broad historical issues, they are also deeply personal issues that individuals attempted to unravel in their own lives and relationships. Unravelling caused...


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pp. 31-50
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