Howe, Marie Jenney

views updated

HOWE, Marie Jenney

HOWE, Marie Jenney (b. 26 December 1871; d. 28 February 1934), activist, writer.

Marie Jenney Howe was born in Syracuse, New York, to Marie Saul and Edwin Sherman Jenney, both members of upper-middle-class New York families. At age twenty-two she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where she was introduced to Frederic C. Howe, a young law student at Johns Hopkins University. Although the two had a mutual interest in progressive politics, their views of women's roles clashed—Jenney was a feminist, while Howe had traditional ideas about women as homemakers and thought it bizarre that she was training for the ministry rather than marrying. In 1897 Jenney graduated and took a position in Sioux City, Iowa, as an assistant to Unitarian minister Mary A. Safford, president of the Iowa Suffrage Association and a leading advocate of women ministers in the Unitarian Church. Safford was one of three women ministers who officiated at Jenney's ordination in Syracuse in 1898. Jenney maintained the congregation at Des Moines' First Unitarian Church from 1899 to 1904 while Safford preached throughout Iowa.

After a seven-year correspondence, Jenney and Howe married in 1904. Marie Jenney's enthusiasm for the ministry had cooled during her work in Iowa, and for the rest of her life she officiated only at friends' weddings and funerals. Frederic Howe had become a lawyer and municipal reformer in Cleveland, and after moving there, Marie Jenney continued her work for women's suffrage and joined the new National Consumer's League, which lobbied and organized boycotts in order to change working conditions for women and children. In 1910 the couple moved to New York City, where she helped to form the New York State Suffrage League and became chair of the Twenty-fifth Assembly District division of the local Woman Suffrage Party. She and Fred moved to Greenwich Village, where they became acquainted with some of the leading bohemians and political activists of the day.

In 1912, Marie Jenney Howe founded what became one of the most important and long-lived women's institutions in the United States, Heterodoxy. In its early years membership in the luncheon and debate club grew from twenty-five to sixty, and included most of the major female social, political, intellectual, and artistic leaders of the day, among them writers Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Susan Glaspell, art patron and salon host Mabel Dodge, labor organizers Helen Gurley Flynn and Rose Pastor Stokes, lawyers Crystal Eastman and Inez Milholland, psychologists Beatrice Hinkle and Grace Potter, and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons. The only African American member, Grace Nail Johnson, was a civil rights activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Speakers at the monthly meetings included anarchist Emma Goldman, socialist writer Helen Keller, lesbian poet Amy Lowell, and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Howe introduced a series of "background talks" in which members spoke about their lives as women; this became one of the meetings' most popular features and a predecessor of the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s women's movement. Heterodoxy members' political attitudes ranged from radical to conservative on various issues, but all members had feminism in common, and most were heavily involved in other social and political reform movements.

Sexual identities, attitudes, and behaviors varied also, from those who advocated free love and open marriage to those who maintained fairly conventional marriages with men or monogamous partnerships with women. At least 10 of the total of 110 club members were lesbians and a number of others had women lovers. Long-term lesbian couples' relationships were acknowledged in much the same way as other members' marriages to men, and Heterodoxy members of all sexual orientations considered their friendships with other women paramount. It is unclear whether Howe had a sexual relationship with her close friend, the lesbian writer and editor Rose Young, but she dedicated her first book to Young, and her letters to friends indicate that her marriage with Frederic Howe was emotionally unsatisfying.

In 1926, Marie Howe journeyed to Paris to stay in the home of lesbian writer Natalie Barney and work on a biography of French writer George Sand, published the following year. Her second book, a translation of Sand's journal, appeared in 1929. By this point Howe was suffering from heart trouble, and she spent her final year corresponding with the well-traveled Heterodoxy members. When she died in her sleep in 1934, club members consoled Rose Young, rather than Frederic Howe, and asked her advice for memorial service arrangements. Heterodoxy continued monthly meetings until the early 1940s, but by then many of the original members had died.

Whatever Marie Jenney Howe's sexual orientation, she created a long-lived feminist organization that never split along political or sexual lines, something that other organizers were not always able to accomplish.


Adickes, Sandra. To Be Young Was Very Heaven: Women in New York Before the First World War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Schwarz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village, 1912–1940. Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria, 1986.

Wittenstein, Kate. "The Feminist Uses of Psychoanalysis: Beatrice M. Hinkle and the Foreshadowing of Modern Feminism in the United States." Journal of Women's History 10, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 38–62.

Michele Spring-Moore

see alsofeminism.