The Boundaries of Democratic Reform: Social Justice Feminism and Race in the South, 1931-1939

By McGuire, John Thomas | The Journal of Southern History, November 2012 | Go to article overview

The Boundaries of Democratic Reform: Social Justice Feminism and Race in the South, 1931-1939


McGuire, John Thomas, The Journal of Southern History


REFORMS OFTEN BECOME SHAPED NOT ONLY BY SOCIETAL CONSTRAINTS but also by personal predispositions. Over the past thirty years, scholars have written a great deal on the growth of white women's activism in the South during the early twentieth century. Groundbreaking studies range from Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's 1979 volume on Jessie Daniel Ames, a white reformer in Texas, to analyses of urban women's reform efforts such as Pamela Tyler's Silk Stockings and Ballot Boxes (1996). Susan Ware and Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman have examined, respectively, the expansion of women's activities in the national Democratic Party during the 1930s and the corresponding activities of party women in North Carolina. No one, however, has extensively studied the contributions of southern white women to the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 1930s. (1)

This article is a case study analyzing the work of four such women: Harriet Elliott, Gladys Avery Tillett, May Thompson Evans, and Virginia Foster Durr. During the 1930s three of them, Elliott, Tillett, and Evans, extended to national Democratic politics the racial boundaries white southern activists had long placed around their reform agenda. Jacquelyn Hall and William A. Link have concluded that although early-twentieth-century southern white reformers sought to improve social conditions through state regulation of child labor, education, and prison reform, they resisted considering the contentious area of race. As Link notes, the efforts of the region's Progressive-era reformers became an erratic mixture of "embrac[ing] uplift and progress, yet believ[ing] in a hierarchy of race." This blend of beliefs continued into the 1920s and 1930s among southern white women reformers. (2)

As a result of their political activities for the national Democratic Party, Elliott, Tillett, and Evans were key members of a movement called social justice feminism, whose original goal was passage of women's labor legislation as an "entering wedge" for the state protection of all workers. The movement then tried after 1933 to increase women's political power in the national Democratic Party. Working closely with Mary "Molly" Williams Dewson, who became the first full-time director of the Women's Division in October 1933, Elliott traveled throughout the United States and provided detailed analyses of the newly established Reporter Plan, which aimed to educate thousands of Democratic women about the New Deal. She then brought into the organization two young but experienced protegees from her home state of North Carolina. Tillett became the director of the group's Speakers' Bureau during the 1936 campaign, and Evans acted as the assistant director of the Women's Division from 1937 through 1941, sparking its efforts through her extensive speaking schedule and organizational abilities. In January 1941 Tillett advanced to the Women's Division directorship, the first southerner to hold the position. (3)

But although Elliott, Tillett, and Evans supported the general goals of social justice feminism, such as the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act and especially the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), their continuation of southern white reformers' skirting of racial issues contributed to the movement's biggest failure in the 1930s: the refusal to include women of color. This failure encompassed not only the Women's Division's equivocal reactions to the landmark 1938 founding of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) and to proposed federal legislation to abolish poll taxes, but also the national leadership's overall indifference to African American women. Of the four women considered in this article, only Virginia Foster Durr confronted southern whites' racist practices, and she did so only by working outside the national Democratic Party establishment.

In 1978 the almost eighty-year-old Evans recalled her years in the Women's Division. She stated that Eleanor Roosevelt believed in women's labor legislation "because she knew that some needed legislation for all workers could be achieved faster by securing it first for women, then extending it to men. …

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