Dorr, Rheta Childe (1866–1948)
Dorr, Rheta Childe (1866–1948)
American journalist and feminist who investigated conditions of women and children in industry and society, and participated in the women's suffrage movement. Born Rheta Louise Childe on November 2, 1866, in Omaha, Nebraska; died on August 8, 1948, in New Britain, Pennsylvania; daughter of Edward Payson Childe (a druggist and probate judge) and Lucie (Mitchell) Childe (a homemaker); married John Pixley Dorr, in 1892 (divorced 1898); children: one son, Julian Childe Dorr (1896–1936).
Attended University of Nebraska, (1884–85); worked as reporter for the New York Evening Post (1902–06); wrote for Everybody's magazine (1907–09); published What Eight Million Women Want (1910); wrote for Hampton's magazine (1910–12); became editor of National Women's Party newspaper, The Suffragist (1914); published Inside the Russian Revolution (1917), A Soldier's Mother in France (1918), (autobiography) A Woman of Fifty (1924), and Susan B. Anthony (1928).
While playing with her male cousin in a family cemetery, eight-year-old Rheta Childe made a discovery. Tombstones everywhere read "also Sarah, wife of the above," or "also Mary, wife of the above." As Dorr recounts in her autobiography, the sight awakened her to the position of women in society. Would she, too, like the women buried there, lose her identity as an individual? "I bet I never finish on any old gravestone as 'also Rheta, wife of the above'," she told her cousin. Dorr determined then to live so as "to claim a gravestone dedicated exclusively to myself." Her life and most of her writing reflect that commitment to independence and self-sufficiency. She would be a chronicler, a commentator, and a participant in the many changes that influenced women's place in the world from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.
Rheta Dorr grew up in the small midwestern town of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a middle-class family. She attended the Latin School of the University of Nebraska, but she claimed to have learned more from hearing Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak. She sought economic independence at an early age, defying her father's wishes and taking a job washing windows at the Nebraska State Fair Grounds. After that episode, her father insisted she enroll in the University of Nebraska, but Rheta had a limited interest in formal education. She excelled only in English, where she had an inspiring professor who introduced her to Ibsen's A Doll's House. That play further fired her desire for independence, and Dorr dropped out of college, against her family's wishes. She managed to get a job at the local post office where she continued her informal study of society by observing the lives of her neighbors. What Dorr saw at the post office intensified her criticism of the position of the typical married woman. Apparently a number of couples carried on illicit liaisons with the help of General Delivery. Dorr concluded that these affairs could be blamed on the lack of healthy outlets for women's energies. Trained only to be attractive to men, housewives fell back on the old romantic game, clandestinely and out of boredom. Women with jobs, she noted, did not have the time or the inclination for such behavior. After two years at the post office, Dorr became an insurance underwriter.
In 1890, she moved to New York City where she experimented with the study of art and did some free-lance writing. Two years later, she married John Pixley Dorr, a businessman from Seattle, and in 1896 her son Julian Childe was born. In 1898, Dorr left her husband, took Julian, and moved back to New York. She attributed the divorce to her realization that she and her husband held vastly different ideas about marriage and women's place. On one occasion, he read approvingly a passage from Herbert Spencer that attributed family disintegration to the weakening of the husband's authority. As Dorr recalled, she told her husband that the authority should be weakened until men and women were absolutely equal, until there was no "head of the family" at all.
After returning to New York, Dorr encountered the problems of a divorced mother trying to build a career. She had decided to seek a job as a journalist, but before finding a position with the women's section of the New York Evening Post, she realized that women had no place in the existing social scheme. Although pretty girls, young ladies, and protected wives had a place, independent women like herself were anomalies. While working at the Evening Post, Dorr covered women's clubs and charitable activities and relayed fashion and housekeeping tips. She met prominent reformers and suffragists in the U.S. and Europe, wrote about the plight of working girls, and became active in the General Federation of Women's Clubs' investigation of the conditions of women and children in industry. Dorr came to believe that public policies were needed to alleviate the inequalities among the social classes as well as between the sexes.
A variety of issues occupied the reforming women of Dorr's time—efforts to gain access to higher education, recognition in the trades and professions, attempts to secure equal pay for equal work, the rise of trade unions, the development of women's clubs, the agitation for suffrage. Dorr supported all of them and participated actively in several.
In 1907, having resigned from the Evening Post, Dorr researched and wrote a series of articles for Everybody's magazine about the effects of industrialization on women. She looked at women's historic trades—cooking, sewing, washing, canning, spinning, weaving—and tried to show how women followed these jobs from the home. Dorr hoped to describe the transformation of the trades and of the workers. She wanted to demonstrate that women are the permanent producers of wealth, and therefore should be independent human beings and citizens, not adjuncts to men and society. Following a practice of other "muckraking" investigative journalists, Dorr disguised herself as a "working girl" and took jobs in a steam laundry, a bakery, a department store, and several factories. She felt, however, that Everybody's betrayed the purpose of her probing investigation. The editors turned her research over to William Hand, who published the articles over his signature as coauthor. Hand compiled the material into a picture of a "triumphal army" of women invading men's jobs, rather than retaining Dorr's emphasis on the exploitation of women in industry.
After that episode, Dorr left Everybody's and joined the staff of Hampton's, a more aggressive reform magazine. There she was treated as a professional, Dorr recalled, and given "unlimited freedom to express my own ideas in my own fashion" as well as some authority in directing the magazine's policies. Every article relating to women and children, education, and women's suffrage was referred to her.
Although her articles for Hampton's discussed the drudgery of women's work quite forthrightly, Dorr saw a fairly optimistic prospect for improvement, especially through the efforts of women's organizations, protective legislation, and the suffrage. She wrote favorably about the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) for the practical and democratic efforts leisure-class women made in conjunction with their "wage-earning sisters." Dorr praised the work of the Consumer's League, especially as they had helped to develop the arguments Louis Brandeis used successfully to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold protective legislation for women in the 1908 case, Muller v. Oregon. In 1910, Dorr compiled a number of her articles for Hampton's into What Eight Million Women Want where she described favorably the work of the General Federation of Women's Clubs.
Throughout these writings, Dorr emphasized the role of women as agents for social change and bemoaned the social conditioning that had led women to conform to a single type—young, beautiful, and very, very good—in order to arouse amorous emotions in men. Such conditioning prepared women to be economically dependent on men and to minimize their own intelligence and capabilities. Dorr believed that outmoded social attitudes were responsible for the oppression of women and for the other social problems she described in her writings. Like many other Progressive reformers, she believed that if the public were educated about social problems, they would respond by addressing and alleviating those problems, including such issues as child labor, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and the double standard of morality. Although Dorr called herself a socialist during her career as a journalist, her articles did not call for public ownership of production, but rather for government regulation of industry and expanded social services.
She hoped to convince her readers that child labor was economically as well as morally wrong, as it would result in the exhaustion of future generations. Misguided industrialists who thought only of short-term profit-and-loss saw capital and labor as abstractions. Women, who saw "labor" as flesh and blood individuals, could educate capitalists to promote the larger interests of society by abolishing child labor.
The same poverty, injustice, and inequality that were responsible for child labor were also responsible for juvenile delinquency, in Dorr's view. Given such an environmental explanation, wayward youths could be reformed and rehabilitated through schools, juvenile courts, and detention homes. Well-informed citizens, led by women's groups, could implement such reforms at the local level.
Dorr had the Progressive's characteristic devotion to "scientific management," which could be applied in education as well as in business. She wrote several glowing reports of the Gary, Indiana, school system as a model for its efficiency, use of wasted space, relating the school to the life of the community, and making all the opportunities of the community available for the education of children.
As a feminist interested in the welfare of women and children, Dorr addressed problems of prostitution and the double standard. On the one hand, she blamed prostitution on the lack of decent social opportunities for working-class girls, forcing them to seek entertainment at disreputable dance halls where they were likely to be seduced. In addition, they were victimized by unscrupulous employment agencies and even by immoral employers. But Dorr also faulted the social attitudes that arrested young girls for a "fault" not punished in boys. She urged that the public must realize that "wayward" girls should not be condemned, but rehabilitated through training schools or homes that offered stability and taught useful skills.
Divorce, too, was related to the double standard and to inequality between the sexes. She saw the solution to the rising divorce rate in marriages between two equal partners, both strong, educated, and self-supporting. Such equal marriages would demand full citizenship and opportunity for women. Dorr's arguments that the most basic reform was equality of economic opportunity for women followed closely the feminist arguments of Charlotte Perkins Gilman . Both women knew from personal experience the disabilities suffered by single mothers who had limited preparation for earning a living.
Along with her interest in women's economic status, Dorr consistently supported a woman's right to vote. In 1912, she traveled to Europe and interviewed prominent suffragists, including Emmeline Pankhurst , leader of the movement in Great Britain. Impressed by Pankhurst's aggressive tactics, Dorr became convinced that American suffragists needed a more militant approach than that of the National American Suffrage Association. She joined the Congressional Union, led by Alice Paul , and gave that group credit for the passage of the 19th Amendment. Dorr became editor of the Congressional Union's newspaper, The Suffragist, when it was founded in 1913. She argued repeatedly for a federal suffrage amendment, calling it the greatest reform since the Emancipation Proclamation. She claimed that women would create a new political situation, remake the laws, and inject a fresh point of view into American politics. She also argued that women's suffrage would enlarge the "American" pool of enlightened voters to offset the immigrants who were likely to become dupes of political bosses.
Dorr did not confine her interest in women's issues to the suffrage. From 1912 to 1917, she was part of the feminist circle, Heterodoxy, a group who took pride in their unorthodox opinions. In a sort of early consciousness-raising movement, they discussed cultural, political, and scientific innovations as well as their own personal experiences as women.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Dorr, like many of her contemporaries who believed in unique womanly virtues, subscribed to the theory that women had a special affinity for peace. She argued that because women were mothers, they appreciated the cost of war in human life. War, she said, was "evidence of man's inability to govern without the help of women," the sacrifice of human interests to property interests.
World War I was the turning point in Dorr's life and thinking. By 1917, she had repudiated her former views on the subject of peace and become a rabid supporter of the war and of American involvement. She promoted these ideas as a syndicated columnist for the New York Evening Post, as well as in A Soldier's Mother in France, published in 1918. She called World War I the most righteous war in the history of the world and charged the Germans with trying to murder Christian civilization and enslave mankind. They were "beasts in human form" who would violate the young daughters of America before their parents' eyes. Dorr condemned internationalists and pacifists (her own former associates) as German propagandists and traitors.
During the time Dorr propagandized for war, she visited Russia to comment on the revolution. In Inside the Russian Revolution, she labelled the Bolshevik leaders German agents and "criminal lunatics." She concluded the world was not ready to create a cooperative millennium or to "hand over the work of government to the man in the street."
In 1919, Dorr was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, which led to a long period of physical and emotional disability. She produced two significant books in the 1920s, her autobiography A Woman of Fifty (1924) and her biography of Susan B. Anthony (1928). The latter argued for a revised version of history that would recognize women's contributions, typically omitted by male historians. Organized women, she argued, had been reforming things for years and continued to work to create a new social order. In her autobiography, she continued to promote equal economic opportunity, equality in marriage, and "full citizenship" rather than special protection for women.
Dorr was a publicist of current ideas rather than an original thinker. The path of her thought parallels the mainstream—from prewar moderate liberalism, to wartime superpatriotism, to a postwar retreat from reform. During the last 20 years of her life, her activities as a journalist and feminist waned. Her health was often poor, and she was crushed by the death of her son in 1936. Rheta Childe Dorr died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948. She had described her own life as "a strange one for a woman," as she had chosen to live without marriage or a permanent home but had sought happiness in her work. She believed that through her work, she had tried to make people think. In her autobiography, she claimed to have lived "vividly," a child of her times. "I had never built any towers, never any palaces," she asserted, "but surely I had laid a few stones on a corridor."
Dorr, Rheta Childe. Inside the Russian Revolution. NY: Macmillan, 1918.
——. A Soldier's Mother in France. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1918.
——. Susan B. Anthony: The Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation. NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1928.
——. What Eight Million Women Want. Boston, MA: Maynard, 1910.
——. A Woman of Fifty. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1924.
Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale, 1987.
Sochen, June. Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900–1970. NY: Quadrangle, 1973.
Some of Rheta Childe Dorr's correspondence related to suffrage may be found in the National Women's Party Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Her articles for The Suffragist are located in the National Women's Party Papers, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia