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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Efforts to undermine the suffrage movement with personal character assaults

Clark discusses how one tactic to undermine the women's suffrage movement involved attacks on the personal character of its leaders. Earlier in the interview she describes how people tried to associate Carrie Chapman Catt with the free love movement in order to smear her character. Here, she focuses on efforts to similarly attack leaders of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, notably Leila Mead Valentine and Mary Johnston. Her comments are revealing of gender expectations and roles during the era.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

The undertones were particularly unpleasant, but they were very much modified in Virginia by the fact that Leila Mead Valentine was not only a woman of great social leadership in her own personally, but her husband was a member of a very distinguished family in Virginia and of a very prominent business firm, the Valentine Meat Juice Company, and the Valentine Museum here was founded by that group. Mrs. Valentine was above even any effort to say anything against her because of her social position and that of her husband. But there was a terrific lot of talking about the childless woman, which was exceptionally cruel. They couldn't say anything about Mrs. Valentine's marriage, which was one of the few totally ideal marriages that I've ever seen. She and her husband were not only devoted but very congenial, and he promoted her activities in every way. But she had had one child that had died at birth, and therefore those of us who knew her and knew the tremendous amount of work she had done for the visiting nurses and child welfare, and one of the first mothers' clubs was named for her here because she had promoted kindergarten education, we felt it was particularly cruel that they would start off talking about the childless woman as though she was a frustrated creature who was just doing the… But that was about the only thing they could ever find to say about Mrs. Valentine. A campaign of slander against Mary Johnston was started that was so abominable that she went to Mrs. Valentine and offered to stop speaking for suffrage if she was doing harm. At that time it was such an unmentionable subject that we just went around and said, "Isn't it awful that they're talking so about Mary Johnston?" But I think in these days of open speaking, I might as well tell the story. I don't know whether it's ever been put down; it was just hush-hush at the time, it was so evil. Mary Johnston was a scientist. I don't know how much you know of her background and her writings.
Her writings I know.
When I mean a scientist, I mean she was a very great student of science, and she had a marvelous and interesting mind. When she wrote about something, she tried to get every facet before she came to the point. I remember hearing her make a speech one time on psychological matters as it referred to suffrage, and running back to the fact that she'd just been reading some of the works of St. Augustine and found out that in the fifth century he was a psychologist, and so on. She wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly or Century—I think it was the Atlantic Monthly—and she took up the question of the beginnings of life, all biology and everything, and she spoke of the single cell and the division of cells and all sorts of intricate scientific things. And then to the point where there'd been in society matriarchies and so on. She went through from the early beginnings, scientificially mostly, about the status of woman at the present day. Some way or other in this article—I was too ignorant of scientific things at the time to ever find out how they worked it out—but there were some people who read it who read into that a discussion of biology that led them to come up with a whispering campaign that Mary Johnston was advocating artificial insemination, which of course isn't a very agreeable or pleasant subject today. But at that time, in the 1909's and '10's and '12's and along then, was a totally unmentionable subject. And it is perfectly extraordinary to think how that thing spread. I went with Miss Johnston to a meeting that she was allowed to conduct at one of our department stores here, at which, in lunchtime, the head of the department store had let her speak to the workers there about woman's suffrage. And I did the little caddying of handing out leaflets while Miss Johnston spoke. She was a very lovely, delicate-looking woman and very soft-voiced, and she made the talk to them about labor conditions and things of that sort. And she apparently made such a pleasant impression on the head of the department store that she was invited to come back and speak as often as possible to the girls. Particularly she was talking about various economic things and so on. And several weeks or a month later, I came home one day and found an old friend of my mother's, who was a very narrow-minded anti-suffragist. My mother was a member of the Suffrage League, and this lady was saying to my mother that she ought not to let me out with Miss Johnston, that she understood that Miss Johnston had made so vulgar and unpleasant and unspeakable address to the group at this department store that she had been asked to remove her account and never come back to the department store again. And I turned to this friend of my mother's, and I said, "At which store?" So she told me—I believe it was Miller and Rhoads—and she told me the date. And I said, "Well, I was with Miss Johnston and handed out the leaflets. And Miss Johnston made … [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
…absolutely no reference to moral or immoral questions. She spoke almost entirely about women's educational opportunities and economic opportunities, and the head of the department store came and asked her to come again." So I said, "What you heard was totally untrue." "Oh, no," she said. "You must have either misunderstood, or she must have said these things when you weren't listening, because I understood that she was advising all these girls to have children by artificial insemination." I got very angry, and I said, "I think they probably would have preferred knowing how to prevent children if they were irregular in their attitudes," whereupon my mother told me I was very vulgar, and so we stopped the conversation. [Laughter] But that was, to my memory, the most horrible thing, and we've always hesitated even to put it on any record, I suppose for fear that somebody might think that it was some semblance of truth in it. But somebody asked Mrs. Valentine about it at some meeting, and Mrs. Valentine said, "Mary Johnston," who was supposed to be, and perhaps was, a free thinker, "is behaving in a far more Christian attitude than I would have done." I don't remember our even having very many divorcees or others in the League, but if there were of course that was plenty brought out. But the major thing that I recall would be the question of being Negro-lovers.