Academic journal article American Studies International

Against All Odds: Vira B. Whitehouse and Rosika Schwimmer in Switzerland, 1918

Academic journal article American Studies International

Against All Odds: Vira B. Whitehouse and Rosika Schwimmer in Switzerland, 1918

Article excerpt

During the past quarter century much has been written about the role of women, especially American women, in World War I. These studies cover an amazing variety of topics ranging from the role of women in the American Expeditionary Forces and in the international peace movements through discussions of the images of women in World War I movies and posters to work on the home front and behind enemy lines. Interestingly, women doing important diplomatic work have largely escaped attention: the stories of Vira Boarman Whitehouse, triumphant New York suffragist leader and Committee on Public Information director for Switzerland in 1918, and Rosika Schwimmer, a prominent feminist turned diplomatic representative for Hungary between October 1918 and January 1919, have each been treated to one single secondary account. (1) The discussion of their work requires further clarification, and at the same time, naturally lends itself to a comparative study. Following a loose chronological order, the present study surveys Whitehouse's Swiss mission, describes the Whitehouse-Schwimmer relationship between 1914 and 1919, and concludes with an assessment of Schwimmer's mission and an attempt to place the whole story in a broader context.

According to the 1918-1919 edition of the American Who's Who, Vira Whitehouse was born in Virginia in 1875, attended Wellesley College and then married Norman R. de Whitehouse of New York in 1898. She joined the New York suffrage movement in 1913, and emerged as its most prominent figure following the defeat of the suffrage amendment in the state in 1915. She assumed the leadership, then they used the term "chairman," of the New York State Suffrage Party and forced through the amendment by November 1917. She did so with invaluable help from two prominent men who would later play a key part in her 1918 adventures: President Woodrow Wilson and CPI Chairman George Creel.

The Whitehouse-Wilson correspondence spans more than three years (August 1915-October 1918), and contains more than thirty letters, with the bulk of the material focussing on winning the right to vote for women in the State of New York. Their correspondence testifies to the fact that she was able to maintain the president's interest in her cause and won a couple of audiences with the chief executive in the process. (2) Clearly, Whitehouse was no unknown entity in the White House. Furthermore, Creel, one of Wilson's closest, and most underestimated, advisors, had a high opinion of her: in his postwar memoir on the CPI he devoted an entire chapter to her work in Switzerland. After pointing out that it "was a new thing to place a woman in such a position of absolutely international importance," Creel describes her appointment as both "wise and necessary." He goes on to praise her for almost single-handedly reviving the cause of woman suffrage and taking it to its triumphant conclusion in her state. (3) Whitehouse had a gift for working relentlessly and for presenting her case with humor. She testified to the latter in a series of articles for the New York Sun in 1914, called "Why Women Shouldn't Vote." Perhaps more importantly, she openly condemned radical suffragists and, in the fall of 1915, showed little interest in international pacifists, Schwimmer among them, visiting New York, (4) thus making herself acceptable to the Wilson administration, but also subject to accusations that she was short on patriotism. (5) And this explains Creel's curious choice of the word, "necessary," when describing her appointment: Creel felt that women deserved such a push, while Whitehouse needed a way to prove her loyalty to her country. Their accounts of the appointment itself authenticate this conclusion.

In December 1917 Whitehouse attended a woman's suffrage convention in Washington, D.C., and there she met Creel again. She proposed to do "some war-work," and the CPI director was only too glad to enlist her. She points out in her memoir that they had actually worked together in New York in 1915 and that Creel vividly remembered it: "In fact, when he asked me to go he said it was because he remembered how hard I had made him work. …

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