California State University, Long Beach

Reformers and Radicals


Historically, women's reform and radical activities have taken various forms. Some women worked in organizations that specifically focused on the position of women in society, such as the fight for woman suffrage (see Suffragist Series) while others worked in organizations like the National Council of Negro Women, which organized more generally for the "uplift of the race." Many other women worked for social change through clubs, churches, political groups, and organizations like the YWCA. The women included in this series represent this range of activities; they are neither unique nor, with one exception, particularly well known. This series is not intended to be comprehensive, nor was the collection of these narratives part of a planned study of women's social reform work and radical organizing. Some of the narratives were collected by students in women's oral history classes and their depth and comprehensiveness varies. Nevertheless, even the highly truncated interviews provide insights both into the types of women who engaged in social reform activities and the outlet that religious based organizations often provided. African American women like Nellie Gibson and Mary Holloway immersed themselves in the life of the Black churches. Mildred Hutchinson, on the other hand, turned to the Methodist church, finding that the kinds of activities that Progressive era women's clubs offered her mother had lost their edge. Despite her upbringing in a Methodist household, Della Pack sought her work, instead, in the Salvation Army. For a single woman like Louise Emery, the YWCA offered a career through which she worked for social change. Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, Ethel Erickson, Grace McDonald and Charlotte Stern were all products of social reform movements fueled by concern for workers rights. Both Pidgeon and Erickson were exposed to the work of the women connected with the University of Chicago, and both went to work for the Women's Bureau in the 1920s. McDonald and Stern, on the other hand, after working together in the New York Joint Board of Sanitary Control (the body established after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire) went on to form the independent Workers Health Bureau. The life histories of Barbara Nestor, Ethel Bertolini, Yetta Land, Flo Kushner, Bessie Letwin and Dora Keyser parallel, to some extent, some of the suffragists and labor activists, illustrating how beliefs in anarchism and socialism drove women's reform and radical activism. A lifelong anarchist, Dora Keyser, was involved in early educational and communal living experiments like the Stilton, New Jersey Ferrar Colony and the Sunrise Farm in Michigan. Bertolini and Kushner were both Communist party organizers who went underground during the McCarthy era, while Land was a member of the Foley Square Smith Act trial defense team. The interview with Nestor is particularly important, both because she was one of the founding members of the Communist Party (in 1919), and the mother of California Communist party leader, Dorothy Healey. As a result, in addition to detailing the kinds of grass roots organizing in which Nestor engaged in Los Angeles, her oral history offers insights into the background and experiences of communist activists of the following generation. While Nestor's interview sheds some light on the next generation, Kathleen O'Hare's focuses on the previous generation and details growing up as the daughter of leading socialist, Kate Richards O'Hare. In contrast to the sixteen women who were active in various parts of the country and who pursued their reform or radical activities through widely varying organizations, Zita Remley operated in the electoral arena. She was a Democratic party activist who wheeled and dealed in party politics of California. While this series is focused on the range of reform and radical activities of women, the fuller life histories also document their work and family lives. With the exception of Kathleen O'Hare and Charlotte Todes Stern, all the women were interviewed in California. And although many of their activities were initiated elsewhere, they often continued as activists after they came to California.

Recent Submissions

  • Nestor, Barbara (9/29/1884 - 11/1/1979); Berger Gluck, Sherna, interviewer (2021-03-18)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - In this fifth interview, Barbara Nestor displays the same enthusiasm and candidness as in previous sessions. Her stamina was not at all diminished, and three tapes were recorded in this session. ...
  • Donegan Remley, Zita (11/4/1904 - 8/1/1985); Fischer, Jan, interviewer (2021-03-18)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This is the sixth and final interview with Zita Remley, conducted ten weeks after previous interview and completing the life history project initiated in the summer of 1976 for a series of women's ...
  • Donegan Remley, Zita (11/4/1904 - 8/1/1985); Fischer, Jan, interviewer (2021-03-18)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This fifth of six interview with Zita Remley was conducted after a hiatus of 16 months. It is a continuation of the life history project originally initiated in the summer of 1976 for a women's oral ...
  • Donegan Remley, Zita (11/4/1904 - 8/1/1985); Fischer, Jan, interviewer (2021-03-18)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This fourth of six interviews with Zita Remley was conducted as part of a project for a summer session women's oral history course and is longer than the previous sessions. 7/28/1976
  • Donegan Remley, Zita (11/4/1904 - 8/1/1985); Fischer, Jan, interviewer (2021-03-18)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This is the third of six interviews with Zita Remley conducted over the course of two years and is part of a longer life history project that was initiated for a women's oral history course in the ...