Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens

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Kathleen Kennedy. Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion During World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp.190. ISBN 0-253-33565-5.


For many, the enduring images of World War I are of smiling doughboys waving as they boarded ships before they fought in Europe. Also standing at the docks were American women waving American flags showing their support. In Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens author Kathleen Kennedy looks at an element of the war rarely discussed. She examines the trials of women who were arrested under the Wartime Emergency Laws enacted soon after America entered the Great War. Using the cases of thirteen radical women activists who were charged with treasonous acts, Kennedy makes the argument that the wartime laws gave the federal government the ability to shape the type of political activity in which women could engage (p.xvii). She also describes how wartime patriotism and nationalism were used to reinforce women’s traditional roles of motherhood and define women’s-rights arguments as selfish. Kennedy achieves her goals by examining the trials and unraveling the complex relationships between “patriotism, Americanism and the ideas about true motherhood.” Through careful analysis of the prosecutors’ case against the women, she reveals that gender roles or expectations rather than political ideology were at the center of the charges.

The cases Kennedy examines involve well-known figures such as Emma Goldman and Rose Pastor Stokes as well as lesser-known women such as labor activist Louise Olivereau and German immigrant school teacher Gertrude Pignol. Along with the other women Kennedy features in the book, these women were charged with violating the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918. The act forbade “any language intended to incite resistance to the United States.” The act virtually outlawed free speech (pxiii). These women were considered dangerous because, as Kennedy points out, they “threatened to turn both gender and the political order on their heads,” (p.108). With the exception of Kate Richards O’Hare, most of the women charged were already outside the political norm in some way. Many were single, professionals, such as medical doctors or lawyers and activists in some form before the war started. In their trials the women used the arguments of equality, justice and citizenship as reasons to speak about American wartime policy.

In looking at both the well-known and lesser-known cases, Kennedy shows the reach of the law at both state and federal levels. Although the women and their lawyers fought the charges, many knew their actions would be targets, and they would pay the price for their beliefs. By looking at the women’s reaction to the war, Kennedy sheds light on how their views defined their citizenship and how those views in many ways helped to define women’s role in society. Kennedy points out the trials encompassed not only what America’s role in the world should be, but what a citizen owes to his or her country and what their participation can or should be.


Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

Kennedy has tackled a very complex issue of women who were anti-war activists during a time when speaking out as an individual was going against the grain of political and patriotic views. One strong point of the book is that it is written in a very understandable fashion, and Kennedy provides enough background on the trials for readers to follow. She also includes enough background information on the people involved that readers don’t feel lost. She brings out the complex ways in which women’s issues were tied to all aspects of political and cultural issues of the time. Kennedy discusses how the progressive women’s movement, in order to advance the suffragette movement years earlier, worked to convince the public that being a good mother and a voting citizen were not mutually exclusive concepts. Women wanted to participate in war preparations and prove their citizenship, yet women were told their basic civic obligation was to produce loyal sons capable of defending the nation against its internal and external enemies (p109). It would be this gender or cultural obligation that would be used against many of the women in their trials. In other words, it all boiled down to a basic biological function.

In the cases she reviews, Kennedy does not portray her subjects as victims. She presents them as highly intelligent women and in some cases political strategists who were very capable of going head-to-head with government prosecutors. These women knew the risks their trials might bring, which included loss of jobs and families, public humiliation, jail time and, in the cases of immigrant women, deportation. With the exception of Kate Richards O’Hare, none of the women had children. It would have helped the book if there had been an example, if possible, of a World War I version of Gulf War anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, a mother who started out supporting the war and then, after losing a son in the war, became an anti-war activist.

The book also has trouble in that Kennedy doesn’t make it clear how the government’s actions against the women related to the suffrage movement. Kennedy discusses the women’s involvement in other political activities but at times the reader isn’t sure whether those activities included the suffrage movement. It is also interesting to examine the cases where teachers were involved. Kennedy discusses how teaching became an important battlefield in defining American citizenship and culture. Both before the war and during the war teachers faced more state and federal government control over what was being taught and what role the school should play in creating American citizens, which in many ways continues today. The book is more for the serious student of history and not for the average reader.

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