Rheta Childe Dorr
Rheta Childe Dorr
Rheta Childe Dorr (1868-1948) was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Her work as a journalist was not widely accepted as proper woman's work. She fought hard for women's suffrage.
As a child in Nebraska, Rheta Childe routinely disobeyed her parents. At age twelve she sneaked out of the house to attend a women's rights rally led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Her parents found out when the newspaper printed the names of those who had joined the National Woman Suffrage Association. She began working at the age of fifteen, over the objections of her parents, so that she could become independent and prove her industry. She was conservative by nature but became a rebel upon viewing a tombstone inscribed "Also Harriet, wife of the above."
In 1890 Childe went to New York City to study at the Art Students' League and decided that she would become a writer. When John Pixley Dorr, a man twenty years older than she, visited from Lincoln, they fell in love and were soon married. She was swept away by his good looks and love of books. They lived in Seattle for two years, where their son Julian was born. Rheta wrote articles for the New York newspapers, which her husband found to be an unacceptable activity. They soon parted by mutual consent, and Rhea returned to New York with their young son, determined to make a living as a journalist.
Cads and Editors
Dorr was shocked at how she was treated in New York City. Editors would not put her on the staff simply because she was a woman, and when she complained that the rates they paid for freelance articles could not support a family, they said they could find other women to work for those rates. She finally got a break by persuading Theodore Roosevelt to be photographed (something he hated) and was rewarded with an ill-paying job on the New York Evening Post, which she left within a year. Her first overseas assignment was to cover the coronation of a new king in Norway, and on the way back she attended the International Woman Suffrage Alliance meeting in Copenhagen, where she met prominent British suffragists.
"The Woman's Invasion"
Returning to New York almost penniless, Dorr resolved to be done with the society pages that passed for women's journalism. She proposed to the editor of Everybody's that she go underground as a worker and write about her experiences. She spent a year working in a laundry, a department store, on an assembly line, and as a seamstress but was often too exhausted to do more than make notes about her experiences. A cowriter named William Hard was assigned to help her, but Dorr resisted giving her notes over to him. She was shocked to see the magazine begin a series with her title, ideas, and experiences but with the byline of William Hard. She hired a lawyer and at least prevented the publication of a book by Hard exploiting her work.
In 1910, with the assistance of Hampton's Magazine, Dorr published What Eight Million Women Want, an account of suffrage clubs, trade unions, and consumer leagues that had sprung up all over Europe and the United States. In 1912 she went to Sweden, Germany, and England to interview leaders in the women's movement, and she spent the winter of 1912-1913 in Paris assisting British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst in writing Pankhurst's autobiography, My Own Story. When she returned to the United States, she went to work for the New York Evening Mail and wrote a daily column, "As a Woman Sees It." Not everyone was moved by her arguments: interviewing Woodrow Wilson in 1914, she asked him about woman's suffrage. He replied, "I think that it is not proper for me to stand here and be cross-examined by you."
Having twice been to Russia, Dorr was anxious to observe the 1917 revolution. One night she lay in her hotel bed listening to the murder of a general in the next room. When she tried to leave the country after five months, all of her notes were confiscated by the authorities so she wrote Inside the Russian Revolution (1917) entirely from memory. In her opinion, Russia had become "a barbarous and half-insane land… Oratory held the stupid populace spellbound while the Germans invaded the country, boosted Lenin into power and paved the way for the treaty of Brest-Litovsk… Russia was done."
Since her son Julian was serving in the army in France, she asked editors to send her back to Europe. When the French government refused to grant her press credentials because she was a woman, she signed on as a lecturer with the YMCA. She walked into a mess tent where her son was eating. Astonished, he cried, "Mother!" and no soldier would sit down until she found a chair. Mothers were unquestioningly better received than female war correspondents. Later Dorr covered the Women's Death Battalion in Russia and described an incident in which fellow soldiers broke into their barracks in order to rape them but were held off by the women at gunpoint. In addition to her many wartime articles, she also wrote A Soldier's Mother in France (1918) for women on the home front. Dorr, along with Louise Bryant, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Bessie Beattie, pioneered the way for women to become war correspondents. After spending many more years in Europe, and writing more books, including her autobiography, A Woman of Fifty, Dorr died in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1948 at age eighty. □