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"Propaganda destructive to the home and church": The Massachusetts Public Interests League and the Battle against "Radicalism"
Assistant Reference Librarian
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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."
Reverend Thomas M.C. Birmingham
The Rev. Thomas Birmingham was the author of a number of books and pamphlets on the relationship between Protestant Christianity and national government, including Scriptural Politics: The Way to National Salvation (1890), which argued that the United States government should be organized according to principles which Birmingham found in the Bible.In his introduction to Scriptural Politics he writes, "The Holy Scriptures will be accepted in these pages as the supreme authority, but with the understanding that we are to use our reason in ascertaining their meaning." Birmingham argued that "the teachings of the Bible in reference to the State is an important part of the plan of salvation," and contrasted Christianity-based government with the secular political philosophies of thinkers such as Plato and Rousseau and the "nihilism" of Soviet Russia
Margaret Robinson was not the only politically-active person Birmingham contacted. Two years earlier, in 1921, Birmingham had written to Senator Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, a Populist Party vice presidential candidate in 1898, who had become increasingly conservative over the course of his long public career. Birmingham sought in Watson a person who could help him influence President Woodrow Wilson toward a more religious approach to international relations. "Better play Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark than peace without the gospel like Wilson and his associates did in the conference at Versailles," Birmingham wrote in reference to the peace talks which brought about the formal end of World War I. No aspect of American private or public life was imbued with enough Christian spirit to satisfy Birmingham.
Margaret C. Robinson and the Massachusetts Public Interests League
The recipient of the Rev. Birmingham's 1923 letter, Margaret C. Robinson, was sympathetic to his anticommunism and suspicion of postwar peace activism and diplomacy.The wife of Harvard Professor of Botany, Benjamin Robinson, Margaret Robinson was a veteran activist for conservative political and social causes, including the antisuffrage movement and opposition to social welfare legislation. The Massachusetts Public Interests League, through which Robinson channeled much of her political work, was a conservative women's organization founded in 1915 and active until shortly before her death in 1932. No membership rolls survive, but we do know that the League was under Robinson's leadership through most of its existence.
Margaret Robinson believed that the division of labor between women and men was essential for preserving an orderly, functioning society. As historian Kim Nielson writes, "the common threads of [Robinson's] political vision are clear. A secure nation depended upon loyalty to family and country. Radicalism, feminism, growing state bureaucracies, and pacifism threatened those loyalties." Women's colleges, as sites of female intellectual independence and professional education, were perceived as a threat by conservatives because they allowed women to step outside of the patriarchal family structure.
The Massachusetts Public Interests League records do not contain a reply from Robinson to the Rev. Birmingham's letter, but his letter to her is an example of the conservative grassroots social activism that en masse had a powerful effect on the political climate of the interwar years and, in some ways, continues to resonate today.
Massachusetts Public Interests League Records, 1919-1929
The records of the Massachusetts Public Interests League were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1930 by Blanche T. Bigelow. The records include a small number of letters, mostly addressed to Margaret C. Robinson, as well as publications by the League and publications and clippings collected by members on the topics around which their activism centered, including women's rights, child labor law legislation, and other "radical" activities. The collection has been microfilmed and is available for research in the library.
Sources for Further Reading
Birmingham, Thomas M.C. Scriptural Politics: The Way to National Salvation, 2d ed. , rev. and enl. Nashville: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1890.
Birmingham, Thomas M. C. to Thomas E. Watson, 9 August 1921 , in the Thomas E. Watson Papers [Digital Collection] #755, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Massachusetts Public Interests League. "Propaganda in Women's Colleges." Massachusetts Public Interests League papers, 1919-1929. Massachusetts Historical Society (P-489 / Ms. N-514).
Nielsen, Kim E. Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism and the First Red Scare. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.