Dreier Sisters

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Dreier Sisters

Labor reformers, women's suffrage activists and early leaders of the Women's Trade Union League who sought to fulfill their family legacy of philanthropy through activism.

Dreier, Katherine Sophie (1877–1952). Name variations: frequently misspelled as Drier. Born September 10, 1877, in Brooklyn, New York; died on March 29, 1952, in Milford, Connecticut, of nonalcoholic cirrhosis of the liver; daughter of Dorothea Adelheid Dreier and her cousin Theodor Dreier (an iron merchant); educated by private tutors; attended Brooklyn Art Students League, 1895–97, Pratt Institute, 1900–01; married Edward Trumball-Smith, in August 1911 (annulled 1911); no children.

Served as treasurer, German Home for Recreation for Women and Children (1900–09); was cofounder and president, the Little Italy Neighborhood Association, Brooklyn (1905); served as a delegate, Sixth Convention of the International Woman's Suffrage Alliance (1911); had first exhibit, London (1911); was an exhibitor, the New York Armory Show (1913); founded the Cooperative Mural Workshop (1914); chaired the German-American Committee, New York City's Woman's Suffrage Party (1915); was a co-founder of the Society of Independent Artists (1916); was a co-founder of Societe Anonyme (1920); held retrospective show, New York Academy of Allied Arts (1933). Publications: numerous articles and books, including Five Months in the Argentine: From a Woman's Point of View, 1918 to 1919 (1920), Western Art and the New Era (1923), and Shawn the Dancer (1933).

Dreier, Mary Elisabeth (1875–1963). Name variations: frequently misspelled as Drier. Pronunciation: DRY-er. Born September 26, 1875, in Brooklyn, New York; died in Bar Harbor, Maine, of a pulmonary embolism on August 15, 1963; daughter of Dorothea Adelheid Dreier and her cousin Theodor Dreier (an iron merchant); privately educated; lived with Frances Kellor for 45 years; never married; no children.

Did settlement house work at Asacog House, Brooklyn (late 1890s); was a member of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL, 1904–50), president of the New York WTUL (1906–14); was a member of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission (1911–15); served as delegate-at-large, Progressive Party convention (1912); served as chair of the New York City's Woman Suffrage Party (1916); served as chair of the New York State Committee on Women in Industry, Advisory Commission, Council of National Defense (1918–19); was a long-time member of the Industrial Department and National Board, Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA); was an anti-nuclear activist (1950s). Publications: Margaret Dreier Robins: Her Life, Letters and Work (1950) and numerous articles.

Robins, Margaret Dreier (1868–1945). Pronunciation: DRY-er. Name variations: Gretchen; frequently misspelled as Drier. Born September 6, 1868, in Brooklyn, New York; died at Chinsegut Hill, Brooksville, Florida, of pernicious anemia and heart disease, February 21, 1945; daughter of Dorothea Adelheid Dreier and her cousin Theodor Dreier (an iron merchant); privately educated; married Raymond Robins (1873–1954, brother of Elizabeth Robins), on June 21, 1905; no children.

Served as chair, legislative committee, the Women's Municipal League (1903–04); was a member of the WTUL (1904–44), president, Chicago WTUL (1907–13), president, National Women's Trade Union League (1907–22); served as executive board member, Chicago Federation of Labor (1908–17); was a member of the Illinois state committee of the Progressive Party (1912); was a member of the women's division, Republican Party National Committee (1919–20); served as president, International Federation of Working Women (1921–1923); was an active member, YWCA, the Red Cross, and the League of Women Voters (1920s); was a member of the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection planning committee (1929); was reelected to the NWTUL executive board (1934); was chair of the League's committee on Southern work (1937). Publications: numerous articles.

In late September 1923, Mary Dreier and her sister, Margaret Dreier Robins, were about to board ship in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The two had spent several months in Europe, visiting friends, and had served as delegates to the Third Working Women's International Congress. The Dreier sisters had been disappointed by the tone of the conference, sponsored by the International Federation of Working Women (IFWW) which they had helped create. Rather than continue to stand alone, agitating for the rights of women workers, the IFWW now chose to work within existing male-dominated trade unions. Given the results of the conference, the Dreier sisters were eager to board ship and return home. As they were about to leave, they went from disappointment to despair. A cable arrived informing them of the death of their sister, Dorothea Dreier (1870–1923).

All four Dreier sisters shared the same dedication to using their family wealth to enrich humanity. Dorothea and her younger sister Katherine did so through their art. Margaret and Mary did so through labor reform. Such was the legacy of their parents, Theodor and Dorothea Adelheid Dreier . Yet Dorothea is the least well-known of the Dreier sisters. Her early death was due to the same crusading spirit that sustained the activities of her three better known sisters. Dorothea was an artist originally trained in the Impressionist school who later turned to Realism. Her realistic representation of workers became her expression of social concern. While painting Dutch workers in the damp homes in which they lived and worked, Dorothea came down with tuberculosis, the disease that killed her at age 52.

Theodor Dreier came to America from Bremen, Germany, in 1849. He spent several years working for Naylor, Benson and Company, iron distributors. In 1864, having secured a comfortable living, Theodor returned to his birthplace in search of a bride. He found one in his cousin, Dorothea Adelheid Dreier, the daughter of a minister. Theodore and Dorothea were part of a large, old Bremen family devoted to commercial activities and civic interests. As early as the 17th century, the Diekhoff-Dreier Fund was established by the family as a way of assisting "needy widows" and poor young people in need of vocational training. While the activities of the American Dreier sisters were very much in keeping with the reform spirit of the Progressive era in which they lived, their willingness to be reformers was also nurtured by their parents as part of the family tradition.

Both families initially objected to the marriage of Theodor and Dorothea, feeling it inappropriate for cousins to marry; Dorothea's parents were also upset at the thought of their daughter leaving for so distant a place as America. The young couple persisted, however, and after their marriage settled in the Brooklyn Heights brownstone the Dreier family would call home for the next 25 years. Contact with the German Dreiers was maintained through regular trips to Germany as the Dreier sisters and their brother Edward grew up.

Even with the strain of providing for five children born within nine years, the Dreier household was a comfortable one. While none of the four sisters went to college, they were privately educated at home and at the Brackett School for Girls. All the children were brought up in the faith of their parents, the German Evangelical Church. An appreciation of art, music, and literature was encouraged. At the same time, an awareness of the importance of civic involvement was also stressed. As Mary Dreier would later remember in her biography of her sister, Margaret, "It was a happy family, unspoiled and ruled lovingly and understandingly by the parents."

The children—Margaret, called Gretchen by the family, Dorothea, also known as Dodo, Edward, Mary and Katherine—stayed close as

adults. Together, they mourned the death of their father in 1897 and the death of their mother only two years later. Each of the Dreier children, now adults, inherited what was then the rather substantial sum of $500,000. Edward, like his father, went into business. The Dreier sisters, befitting their gender and class, could have been expected to marry and continue the charity work their family so honored. However, only one of the sisters would eventually marry and all four dedicated their lives to reform, not as an addition to familial duties but rather as a career. Their inheritance, both monetarily and in the values their parents instilled in them, prepared them for nothing less.

Margaret Dreier, attractive and popular, was apparently far more outgoing than any of her younger sisters. As a young woman, she became an active participant in the social scene of the prosperous Brooklyn Heights community in which she lived. In the midst of her busy social life, Margaret chose as her first cause the Brooklyn hospital where her father was a trustee. At age 19, she became secretary-treasurer for the Women's Auxiliary as well as the hospital's nurses training program. Yet, by the mid-1890s, as she approached her 30th birthday, Margaret came to feel that the migraine headaches from which she had suffered for years would be relieved not by rest but by action. The death of her parents, difficult as it was, provided Margaret with an independent income. Rather than concentrate on social obligations, she turned to social reform.

By the turn of the century, Margaret became a member of the State Charities Aid Association City Visiting Committee for the state institutions for the insane. Shortly after, she joined the Women's Municipal League of New York, becoming chair of the League's legislative committee and spearheading an investigation into women's employment agencies. Social reformers, such as Margaret Dreier, charged that employment agencies often exploited unsuspecting women, especially recently arrived immigrants who spoke no English. In seeking to draw attention to these agencies by lobbying for regulatory legislation, Margaret began her public career on behalf of working-class women.

At the same time, her sister Mary developed similar interests. Less outgoing than her older sister, Mary never really entered into the Brooklyn Heights social scene. Instead, at age 20, Mary began searching for socially meaningful work. Her quest brought her to a Brooklyn settlement, Asacog House. Here, in 1899, she met Leonora O'Reilly , a garment worker who as head of Asacog House introduced her new upper-class friend to the concerns of the working poor, especially trade unionism. Mary, like her sister Margaret, entered into the social justice movement of the Progressive era with a sincere desire to make life better for those less fortunate. However, rather than simply providing charity for the poor, Margaret and Mary Dreier sought to provide the working class, especially its women, with the tools to help themselves.

In 1903, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was created as a cross-class alliance to address the needs and concerns of working-class women. Principal branches were soon established in New York, Chicago, and Boston, seeking to organize working women into trade unions, educate them as to their rights, and lobby for protective labor legislation. The Dreier sisters, at the invitation of O'Reilly, soon became active in the New York League. Within a few short years, both Margaret and Mary would rise to positions of leadership within the WTUL. Their willingness to give financial support was as critical as was their daily participation in League activities. In the WTUL, which they officially joined in 1904, the Dreier sisters found an organization that combined their interests in women and reform.

The youngest daughter, Katherine Dreier, was also influenced by the family emphasis on community work. Beginning in 1900, she served nine years as treasurer for the German Home for Recreation for Women and Children, founded by her mother a few years earlier. In 1905, Katherine became president of the Little Italy Neighborhood Association in Brooklyn, an organization she had helped establish. However, like her older sister Dorothea, Katherine was most drawn to art.

Her art education began at the age of 12 when she enrolled in a weekly class. A few years later, in 1895, Katherine began two years of study at the Brooklyn Arts Student League. In 1900, she spent a year at the Pratt Institute. Thereafter, she took private lessons with the American artist, Walter Shirlaw. The long years of study finally came to fruition in 1905 when she sold her first piece, an altar painting for the chapel of St. Paul's school in Garden City, New York.

Also in 1905, Margaret Dreier was elected president of the New York WTUL. Shortly thereafter, she met Raymond Robins, a Chicago reformer and settlement house worker, and the brother of actress and activist Elizabeth Robins (1862–1952). After only a six-week courtship, the two married and established a home in one of the poorest Chicago neighborhoods. There, Raymond continued his social reform work while Margaret, now known as Margaret Dreier Robins, joined the Chicago WTUL. In 1907, she was elected president of the Chicago league and president of the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), a post she would hold for 15 years.

Almost 37 at the time of her wedding, Margaret had seemingly accepted that she would never marry. In Raymond, however, she found a like-minded social reformer who respected her work and her politics. During their almost 40 years together, the Robinses remained an affectionate, even passionate couple who corresponded daily when separated by the demands of their individual careers. Their only disappointment was Margaret's apparent inability to conceive a child. Nonetheless, their love for each other, their work, family and friends filled their long marriage with much joy.

As president of the NWTUL, Margaret Dreier Robins evolved into an articulate, impassioned speaker for working-class women. She saw the WTUL through internal disputes and conflicts with the male-dominated American Federation of Labor. Robins was also the driving force behind the creation of several local leagues, from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis, Missouri, during the 1910s. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the NWTUL's Training School for Women Organizers. However, Robins provided the WTUL with even more than her time and energy. Throughout her years as NWTUL president, she drew no salary and paid all her own office expenses as well as travel costs. She also financed the publication of the official NWTUL journal, Life and Labor (1911–21). Robins' generosity extended even beyond the immediate needs of the WTUL. She paid the court costs of Louis Brandeis for his work on the 1908 landmark Supreme Court decision in Muller v. Oregon. That case established the constitutionality of laws limiting the hours of employment for women and was seen as an advancement for working-class women.

Throughout her years in Chicago, Margaret stayed in constant touch with her sister, Mary. With Margaret's departure, Mary seemed to come into her own. In 1906, Mary Dreier was elected to the presidency of the New York WTUL, the position vacated by Margaret. As president from 1906 to 1914 of the WTUL's largest local branch, Mary Dreier was at the forefront of some of the most volatile labor actions involving working women in the pre-World War I era.

In 1909, when thousands of primarily young, immigrant female shirtwaist makers went out on strike in what came to be called "The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand," Mary Dreier was arrested on the picket line and was able to make public the police brutality towards the strikers. In the course of the strike, the shyest of the Dreier sisters developed not only her organizing abilities but her public-speaking skills. Her participation on the front lines in this often violent strike earned Mary Dreier the lifelong admiration of such working-class trade unionist women as Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman .

Two years later, as president of the New York WTUL, Mary Dreier had the duty of leading the investigation into the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers—primarily women and children—died in the conflagration. It was later revealed that the factory doors had been locked to prevent employee theft. The WTUL, interested in protective legislation as well as union organization, saw in this tragedy the obvious need for state regulation of the workplace. In 1911, the state of New York appointed a Factory Investigating Commission with Mary Dreier as the only woman member. Examining all aspects of industrial work, from hours and wages to fire prevention, the commission eventually presented the New York State Assembly in 1915 with the most comprehensive series of labor laws ever drafted. Fellow Commission members such as Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith later remembered Mary as bringing to her work a great depth of understanding of the needs of working-class women.

Yet, in her personal relations with some of the working women she knew, class differences seemed insurmountable. Mary had long maintained a close relationship with her settlement house colleague, Leonora O'Reilly. O'Reilly, the daughter of Irish immigrants who had started work in a garment factory at age 11, brought to the WTUL years of experience as a worker and trade unionist. A self-taught woman with feminist sympathies, O'Reilly had little patience for the sometimes condescending attitudes the middle- and upper-class allies held towards the "working girls." Correspondence between Mary Dreier and O'Reilly frequently demonstrated the class tension ever-present in the WTUL despite—or perhaps due to—the lifetime annuity Mary gave to O'Reilly in 1909.

Unlike her sister, Margaret Dreier Robins seemed little bothered by class tensions within the organization she led. In her correspondence, both personal and official, Robins generally referred to the middle- and upper-class allies as women, while working-class women in the WTUL, even those in leadership positions whatever their age, were usually called girls. Mary Dreier, on the other hand, perhaps because of her close friendship with O'Reilly, often wrestled with the problem of class divisions. In 1914, she began but never finished a semi-autobiographical novel entitled Barbara Richards, which addresses relationships between women of different classes.

While her sisters devoted themselves to labor reform, Katherine Dreier increasingly focused on her career as an artist. She studied in Paris and London, living and working in the avant-garde art communities there. While in London, Katherine met another American painter, Edward Trumball-Smith. The two were married in the Dreier home in Brooklyn Heights, August 1911. The marriage was soon annulled, however, when it was discovered that Trumball already had a wife and children.

Katherine Dreier quickly recovered from this personal tragedy as her professional career took off. In September 1911, her first exhibition opened in London and then toured Germany where she spent a year of study. She returned to New York in time to be a part of the 1913 Armory Show. This first mass showing of modern art on American soil was greeted with much public misunderstanding and even ridicule. Katherine, whose own artistic style was based in the modern school, saw the show as an inspirational milestone in art. She would devote the rest of her public life not so much to her own art as to the effort to make modern art known and appreciated in America.

At the same time, Katherine Dreier joined her sisters in the last stages of the fight for women's suffrage. In 1911, she went as a delegate to the Sixth Convention of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, held that year in Stockholm. In 1915, she chaired the German-American Committee of the Woman Suffrage Party in New York City. Her sister Mary chaired the New York City Woman Suffrage Party itself as well as the industrial section of the Woman Suffrage New York State Party. Margaret Dreier Robins, still based in Chicago, was active in the suffrage movement there. All three women shared the conviction that women's participation in politics would bring about much needed social reform.

During World War I, many American reformers came to see international cooperation as a way to prevent future conflict. In that spirit, the NWTUL proposed at its 1917 convention an international congress of working women to be held at war's end. Support from the British WTUL was soon won, and in 1919 the first International Congress of Working Women was held in Washington, D.C. Mary and, especially, Margaret devoted themselves to the new organization that came out of the Congress, the International Federation of Working Women (IFWW).

However, that organization proved to be shortlived when in 1923 the IFWW voted to effectively disband and become a women's department within the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). Because the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—with which the NWTUL had a loose, if combative association—refused to join the IFTU due to political differences, American trade union women would lack a voice in the IFTU should it absorb the IFWW. Even more important, given their 20 years of experience with the AFL, the Dreier sisters felt strongly that the needs of working women would be best addressed through gender-specific organizations. Although both women remained members of the NWTUL, after the mid-1920s defeat of their international efforts, Mary Dreier and Margaret Dreier Robins ended their leader-ship of the organization they had helped create.

On the other hand, Katherine Dreier's forays into international cooperation met with more success. In the interest of promoting modern art in America, Katherine, along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, founded the Societe Anonyme in New York City in 1920. It was, through lectures, exhibits, and publications "to promote the serious expression of the serious study of serious men [sic] in the art world of today." Katherine and her associates brought to America the work of leading European modernists—such as Kandinski, Klee, and Léger. During the 1920s, several major exhibits were staged by Societe Anonyme, only to be eclipsed by the opening of the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1929. While this meant that Katherine's cherished brainchild would not be the preeminent modern art museum, she continued to lecture and sponsor shows based on her extensive collection of some of the best examples of modern art. In 1934, she organized a show of 13 women artists, at the same time supporting the dance career of her friend, Ted Shawn.

Starting in the mid-1920s, the Dreier sisters—once so vital and active—slipped into less and less public involvement. In 1924, the year after her sister Dorothea's death and the disappointing end of international efforts for the WTUL, Margaret Dreier Robins and her husband "retired" to their beloved Florida home, Chinsegut Hill. Although she sat on the boards of many local and national organizations, such as the Red Cross and the National League of Women Voters, Robins leadership of the women's labor-reform movement was effectively over. Though she had become involved in the Republican Party, she became an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. By then, many of the protective labor laws Margaret Dreier Robins had fought for as head of the WTUL 30 years earlier had been enacted on a federal level by New Deal legislation. She died in 1945, at age 76, of pernicious anemia and a heart ailment and is buried on the grounds of her Florida home.

In her last years, spent in illness, Katherine Dreier prepared a catalog with Marcel Duchamp for the Societe Anonyme collection that the two had presented to Yale University in 1941. Through her efforts of time and money, Katherine did indeed bring to America the modern art she felt so vital to the 20th century. In 1952, at age 74, she died of non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver in her Milford, Connecticut, home.

Kellor, Frances Alice (1873–1952)

American sociologist and activist. Born in 1873; died in 1952; daughter of a poor widow; graduated Cornell Law School, 1897; attended University of Chicago; lived with Mary Elisabeth Dreier (1875–1963).

Frances Kellor's entrance examination scores were so high, despite the fact that she had no high school diploma, that she was allowed admission to Cornell Law School. After securing a law degree, she entered the University of Chicago to study sociology. The two fields were neatly combined into her early specialty: the study of women criminals and the causes of crime. In 1901, Kellor wrote a series of articles on her findings.

While associated with Jane Addams ' Hull House, Kellor met Mary Elizabeth Dreier , and the two moved to New York where they worked together on social causes for the rest of their lives. Kellor wrote books, founded the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (1906), and became secretary of the New York State Immigration Commission (1908). Her zeal to help immigrant women, especially those who traveled alone, sometimes backfired, however. In the climate of the time, when women had limited rights or means to choose a path of self-reliance, protectionist theories to safeguard women, instead of liberating them, were popular. Kellor was a proponent, for example, in detaining women who arrived in the country alone. This way, it was thought, their safety could be secured until someone arrived who would take responsibility for them.

suggested reading:

Fitzpatrick, Ellen. Endless Crusade. NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Although Mary Dreier was just as disappointed as her sister Margaret at the inability of the WTUL to be a part of the international labor scene, she maintained an interest in international relations. During the 1930s, Mary Dreier was an outspoken foe of Nazism and an equally strong supporter of improved Soviet-U.S. relations. After World War II, she continued to advocate for international cooperation and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This stance during the Cold War of the 1950s, despite her advanced age, brought Mary Dreier to the attention of the FBI which investigated her as a possible subversive. While she never married, Mary Dreier had several close friendships with women, including the social reformer Frances Kellor with whom she lived for over 45 years. In 1963, she died a month before her 88th birthday at her summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine.


Bohan, Ruth L. The Societe Anonyme's Brooklyn Exhibit: Katherine Dreier and Modernism in America. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Dreier, Mary E. Margaret Dreier Robins: Her Life, Letters, and Work. NY: Island Cooperative Press, 1950.

Dye, Nancy Schrom. As Equals and As Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women's Trade Union League of New York. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

Payne, Elizabeth Anne. Reform, Labor, and Feminism: Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1988.

suggested reading:

Jacoby, Robin Miller. The British and American Women Trade Union Leagues, 1890–1925: A Case Study of Feminism and Class. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1994.

Saarinen, Aline B. The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times and Tastes of Some Adventurous American Art Collectors. NY: Vintage Books, 1968.


Katherine S. Dreier correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Margaret Dreier Robins correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the University of Florida Library, Gainsville.

Mary E. Dreier correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and author of "Women Reformers and the Limitations of Labor Politics in Progressive Era Massachusetts," in Massachusetts Politics (Westfield State College, 1998)