The Refuge of Affections

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Eric Rauchway. The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 237. Cloth $49.50, paper $22.50. ISBN 0-231-12146-6.


Eric Rauchway uses the lives of three married couples to highlight his belief that family rather than gender was the main agent of change during the Progressive Era in The Refuge of Affections: Family and Reform Politics, 1900-1920. Many women reformers of the period chose not to marry, but these women made a conscious decision to marry, in spite of misgivings, with the intention of actively participating in their chosen areas of reform in a partnership with their spouses. Charles and Mary Beard, Dorothy Whitney and Willard Straight, and Lucy Sprague and Wesley Clair Mitchell chose to go against societal norms to create a more equal marriage of partners if not yet true equality. However, they certainly were not representative of the average citizen.

Dorothy Whitney inherited a fortune from her parents and became the president of the Junior League at the age of eighteen and shepherded the group toward serious reform projects such as a home for working women. Groups such as the Junior League provided political outlets for women without addressing more controversial issues like suffrage directly. Whitney did not seriously consider marriage until she met Willard Straight. After their marriage, Whitney’s money funded the publication of The New Republic in 1914 and Straight became the publisher. He made most of the day-to-day decisions but they went over each issue together and she intervened when she felt strongly about an issue. The publication provided Whitney and Straight a way to fulfill their “liberal convictions about the proper role of socially powerful people (60).”

Historians Charles Beard and Mary Ritter Beard met at DePauw University in the 1890s. Charles and Mary Beard along with Walter Vrooman and Anne Graflin formed Ruskin Hall in Oxford, England to provide the equivalent of an elite education to working men. Mary Beard’s writing foreshadowed the social history of the 1980s by sixty years with the publication of her essays “The Twentieth Century Woman Looking Around and Backward” and “The Nineteenth Century Woman Looking Forward.” In the essays, Beard looks at the lives of women of all statuses in history.

Educator Lucy Sprague and economist Wesley Mitchell also forged a marriage based on a shared commitment to progressive values. She was college educated and became the Dean of women at the University of California at Berkeley. After their marriage, they formed the Bank Street Schools, formally known as the Bureau of Educational Experiments, which presumably at least a few brave parents sent their children to, was an experimental school in New York City.

Rauchway states that in the United States progressivism was characterized by “an attack on traditional liberalism and a groping toward some conception of society that would permit a definition of social responsibility (3).” Underlying Rauchway’s work is the development of a modern society in a modern world. While he does not directly address the material changes in clothing, architecture, and furnishings, one can imagine this group embracing the philosophic importance of these objects.

The last chapters carry the story to the beginning of World War I that effectively brought the reform movements to a halt – or at least caused them to regroup. World War I interrupted the trajectory of the formation of the modern family by emphasizing gender roles. Men were expected to be warriors and women to tend to home and children. As the focus of the country shifted outward to what was happening in Europe and the part the United States would play in world politics the reform movement lost its influence. In 1919, Charles Beard and Wesley Mitchell formed The New School along with others. Just a few years later, Beard was listed as a “pacifist” during the Red Scare – a label he vehemently denied. The New School was later reformed but the idealistic moment was lost for Beard and the others.

The lives of the couples that Rauchway selected for his case studies are compelling and support his thesis but the reader is left to wonder if these were isolated cases or if the movement towards modern marriage was wide spread. Rauchway anticipates this question by listing a number of other couples with similar philosophies, but they are all of similar educational background and social status. However, Rauchway packs a lot of information into this slim book and it brings to life intellectual thought in the Progressive era. The shortcoming of this group may have been the characteristic that Rauchway identifies as the preference for intellectual Progressives – to teach rather than agitate for political change. These are fascinating people, but they are not ordinary in any way.

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