Days of Discontent: American Women and Right-Wing Politics, 1933-1945

Days of Discontent: American Women and Right-Wing Politics, 1933-1945 – Book Review

Jason Scott Smith

By June Melby Benowitz (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. 230 pp.).

How can a social movement’s political significance be measured? To what extent do the views of a movement’s leaders reflect the beliefs of its followers? These two issues implicitly inform June Benowitz’s study of American women and rightwing politics during the Great Depression and World War II. In investigating these topics, Benowitz contributes to a growing literature on the rise of twentieth-century American conservatism, carefully tracing the pre-1945 roots of political activism among women on the right. Benowitz identifies her approach as that of “a historian of women and women’s movements” (7). She sets out to assess what combination of personal and political factors led ordinary women to join right-wing groups. “When we examine connections between women’s status in American society and their participation in public life; compare women across the political spectrum; and explore the similarities, differences, and interrelationships among right-wing men and women and their organizations,” Benowitz argues, “the story of the place of right-wing women in American history should unfold” (5).

In carrying out these examinations, comparisons, and explorations, Benowitz’s study is most successful in its well-drawn character portraits of right-wing women leaders such as Elizabeth Dilling and Grace Wick. These “right-wing extremists” shared a common set of traits: they were racist, anti-Semitic, and anticommunist, and their rhetoric relied on Manichean divisions, conspiracy theories, and character assassination. Elizabeth Dilling, a religiously inspired superpatriot, is perhaps best remembered as the basis for the character Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here. In her 1934 work, The Red Network, Dilling warned against the threats presented by communists and their sympathizers, who for Dilling ranged from Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt to Mahatma Gandhi and Sigmund Freud. Dilling took to the radio and toured the country to speak about the dangers posed by this growing conspiracy to remake the United States into a communist state, becoming a nationally known figure. In reconstructing Dilling’s private and public life, Benowitz makes good use of government records of Dilling’s activities, letters women wrote to Dilling, and Dilling’s public statements and speeches. Dilling had little use for mainstream conservatives. Republicans such as Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenburg were “too liberal” for her, and she even objected to the isolationist America First Committee because she thought it contained too many communists (34).

Benowitz takes care to highlight the gender-based public activism of her subjects. Grace Wick, whom Benowitz describes as a disillusioned Democrat, came to public notice in Oregon for her quirky campaigns for community attention and electoral office. In 1935, she paraded through downtown Portland dad in a barrel trimmed with black lace and festooned with slogans such as “Horse thieves are hanged why not crooked politicians?” (67). In 1936, Wick mounted an odd campaign for Portland’s mayoralty. She summarized her program as “a kiss for everyone in Portland,” and her campaign slogan was “Don’t mix your taffy with your boloney and applesauce and the kisses will take care of themselves” (69). While Benowitz does note that the point of Wick’s campaign “was unclear,” it seems more accurate to term it incoherent (69).

While Benowitz’s character studies are informative, her treatment of the reception of right-wing ideas among ordinary women serves mostly to underscore, with one exception, the limited appeal these ideas held. During the months between the start of World War II in September 1939 and the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, right-wing women leaders were able to secure much public interest in and support for their opposition to American involvement in the war. Relying on maternal appeals to keep American boys safe at home, rather than on their usual rants against tyrannical government, leaders such as Dilling commanded national attention, campaigning against such measures as Lend-Lease. After Pearl Harbor, however, these leaders quickly lost their following and were pushed to the political margins by a renewed upsurge in support for war. For the most part, Benowitz’s case for the political significance of right-wing women does not rest on their achievement of any measurable electoral influence. While Benowitz introduces her study with a quick review of the history of the women’s suffrage movement, on the whole her account suggests that right-wing women generally preferred to seek power by parading, rallying, or speaking in public, and not through the ballot.

In fact, Benowitz’s explanation of the history of right-wing politics among American women relies heavily on the social impact of modernization and on what earlier scholars such as Daniel Bell called “status anxiety.” “Right-wing women,” Benowitz argues, “fretted over the consequences of rapid urbanization and the economic and cultural changes accompanying it” (174). In the face of this “rapid transformation,” these women, who “felt powerless in the midst of a changing society and feared that if they did nothing about it, they would be overwhelmed,” enlisted in various right-wing women’s organizations (175). This rather schematic explanation seems somewhat at odds with the more complex portrait of the relationship between women leaders and followers that Benowitz paints in the body of her study. Although it breaks little new ground in explaining the dynamics between social movements and their leaders, this book succeeds in assembling a large body of information about heretofore obscure right-wing women activists.

Jason Scott Smith

Harvard University

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

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