Mayo, Katherine

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MAYO, Katherine

Born 24 January 1867, Ridgeway, Pennsylvania; died 9 October 1940, Bedford Hills, New York

Also wrote under: S. Deane, Katherine Prence

Daughter of James and Harriet Ingraham Mayo

One of three daughters of a mining engineer, Katherine Mayo spent part of her youth in Pennsylvania and part in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1899, Mayo accompanied her father in his search for gold in Dutch Guiana, where she spent much of the next eight years.

Mayo began her writing career by publishing pop articles and, through the guidance and help of Oswald Garrison Villard, began work at the Saturday Evening Post as a research assistant. In 1910, she began a long friendship with M. Moyca Newell, an orphaned heiress in her early twenties. This friendship provided financial security for Mayo, freeing her to write and to pursue her own research interests. The two women traveled together extensively to gather material for books, and built an estate in Bedford Hills, New York, where Mayo lived until her death from cancer.

In her writing Mayo became a crusader and spokeswoman for what she termed "voiceless underdogs." In 1917, she lobbied successfully for a state police force in New York, writing about the problem in her first book, Justice to All (1917). In 1920, Mayo defended the overseas activities of the YMCA during World War I in "That Damn Y." Soldiers What Next! exposed the American Legion lobby in 1934. Mayo did not seem concerned with the usual interests of feminists of her generation such as woman suffrage, slum conditions, or settlement houses, but preferred to write about the sexual exploitation of women. Interestingly, she did not deal with the problem in her own country or from her own experience, but rather in her writings about distant places and cultures—especially the Philippines and India.

In The Isles of Fear (1925), Mayo rejects the idea of independence for the Philippines. Although Mayo's avowed purpose is to "present accurate information, not to influence judgment," her selection of material reflects her bias. Mayo presents information about local corruption and usury laws, which reflect the Filipinos' inability to govern themselves, but she focuses much of the work on the sexual exploitation of girls by landowners in the tenant relationship and by male Filipino schoolteachers.

Mayo's concern with sexual exploitation becomes most vocal in her sensational novel of child marriage, Mother India (1927). The book is journalistic in style; the text is documented by photographs, statistics, and other supplementary material. Mayo's generalizations about India are much the same as those about the Philippines—India is not ready for self-rule—but Mayo ascribes the reason to India's preoccupation with sex. Mayo does deal to some extent with other political and religious concerns, but the sensational elements are clear in her graphic medical descriptions of the forced marriages of very young girls (ages five to ten) to mature males. Mayo concluded that such marriages kept women in the lowest possible status. The book was widely read and highly controversial; many rebuttals were written.

Mayo continued this theme in Slaves of the Gods (1929), Volume Two (1931), and The Face of Mother India (1935). Mother India, Mayo's most widely read book, is stylistically better than some of the others. Descriptive sections achieve an immediacy through specific detail and fragmented structure. On the whole, however, the work is principally muckraking typical of its era. The preoccupation with sexual exploitation limits its effectiveness.

Other Works:

The Standard Bearers (1918). Mounted Justice: True Stories of the Pennsylvania State Police (1922). General Washington's Dilemma (1938).

The papers of Katherine Mayo are at the Yale University Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Oswald Garrison Villard papers at Harvard University contain several of her letters.


Reference works:


Other references:

Atlantic (Summer 1930). Current History (Aug. 1930). Fortune (March 1929). Forum (Fall 1928). Nation (12 June 1929). North American Review (June 1928).