from the archives: the 1920s culture war

Over at the Massachusetts Historical Society website, the object of the month for February 2011 is an item I selected and wrote up. The object is a letter from a conservative Nebraska clergyman to an anticommunist, antifeminist political activist who lived in Massachusetts. Reverand Birmingham wrote Margaret Robinson in hopes that the two might work together to combat the evils of women's higher education:
In May of 1923, conservative evangelical minister, author, and lecturer Thomas M. C. Birmingham saw a brief announcement in an Omaha newspaper, describing a lecture given by Margaret C. Robinson, president of the Massachusetts Public Interests League, on the "radical propaganda" Robinson and her fellow activists believed was being disseminated in women's colleges.

Professors at women's colleges such as Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Wellesley, Robinson argued, were turning "wholesome American girl[s]" away from patriotism and the Constitution, preaching "Communist sex standards," calling the literal truth of the Bible into question, and exposing young women to the theories of Freud and Marx.  As a result, unsuspecting parents sent their daughters off to college and watched in horror as their child was transformed into "an undesirable type of citizen."

This message resonated with Birmingham, who wrote to Robinson, suggesting that the two activists might find "mutual helpfulness" in an alliance to "stamp out radicalism."
You can read the rest of my write-up and a full transcript of the two-page letter over at the MHS object of the month page.

The MHS is known for its 18th and 19th Century American holdings, and it has long had a reputation for holding documents related to the New England elite. Part of what I'm trying to bring to my work as a reference librarian is greater knowledge of the ways in which the MHS collections can inform research in less-obvious areas (i.e. my own areas of interest!) such as the history of sexuality, the history of gender, history of activism (left, right, and center) and 20th-century subjects. 

I picked this letter a few months ago to research and write up because I think it's valuable to remember that folks like those in the Tea Party movement are not the first populist conservative activists to wrestle with their more progressive adversaries over what it means to be an American and what exactly constitutes American values. I'm also fascinated by antifeminist women and how they understand themselves in relation to gender and women's rights movements. Female activists who campaigned against feminism while deploying tactics and rhetoric similar to their feminist contemporaries can further our understanding of how individuals understand their own gender identity and how gender roles relate to the state and social order.

Anyway. Hop on over to the MHS website and check out the whole thing.

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