Whitney, Charlotte Anita (1867–1955)

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Whitney, Charlotte Anita (1867–1955)

American suffragist and political organizer who helped found what became the American Communist Party . Born on July 7, 1867, in San Francisco, California; died on February 4, 1955; educated at public and private schools in California; graduated from Wellesley College, 1889.

Later the defendant in the first major prosecution of California's "criminal syndicalism" law and a founder of the Communist Labor Party, which became the American Communist Party, Charlotte Anita Whitney was born into a wealthy family in San Francisco in 1867. Her father was a lawyer, and she was the niece of both Stephen J. Field, a justice on the Supreme Court from 1863 to 1897, and financier Cyrus W. Field. Whitney attended both public and private schools, and then went East to enroll at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, from which she graduated in 1889.

In 1893, Whitney visited the College Settlement House in New York City and was deeply impressed by the good works she saw there. Returning to her native California, she became a social worker in the Oakland slums, and served as secretary of the Council of Associated Charities of Alameda County from 1901 to 1906. By 1911, she had become active in the campaign for women's suffrage, and in that year she was elected president of the California College Equal Suffrage League as well as second vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She organized California's drive to adopt a women's suffrage amendment to the state constitution and worked on similar campaigns in Oregon, Nevada and Connecticut.

Whitney's social work and suffrage politics put her in contact with leftist radicals in other movements. By 1914, she was a member of the Socialist Party, and was also active in the International Workers of the World (IWW), the radical labor union known as the Wobblies. Many states and towns in the West passed laws prohibiting street speaking to prevent Wobblies from spreading their message, and Whitney joined in the fight for freedom of speech. By 1919, when the post-World War I "Red Scare" was in full swing, spurred by fears of Communism, labor unions, and the first few of a string of bombings across the country, Whitney was part of the most radical wing of the Socialist Party. That year she helped orchestrate this wing's defection and the founding of a separate Communist Labor Party (CLP) which, after various tweakings, would become the American Communist Party. Late in 1919, Whitney was arrested after giving a speech at a CLP convention in Oakland. California had recently passed a criminal syndicalism law that, in short, 1) made illegal any doctrine advocating or aiding sabotage or violent acts aimed at changing industrial control or effecting political change and 2) made criminally liable anyone who organized or joined any group that advocated or aided criminal syndicalism. Whitney was indicted on five counts of criminal syndicalism. The law was aimed mainly at the Wobblies, some of whose objectives the CLP had endorsed; thus, because of that endorsement, and because Whitney did not deny that she was a member of the CLP, she was convicted on one count of criminal syndicalism (actually, guilt by association) and sentenced to one to fourteen years in jail. She served only 11 days of the sentence due to ill health, but her appeal of the conviction dragged through the courts for years before she was finally pardoned by California's governor in June 1927. It was during the Supreme Court's unanimous upholding of her conviction that justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis articulated the link between the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and the rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly of the 1st Amendment that eventually led to the enshrined concept of free and protected speech in America as we now know it.

Whitney's conviction and brief stint in jail did not end her involvement in political activities. In 1924, she ran on the Communist ticket for state treasurer, garnering more than 100,000 votes. She had another run-in with the law in 1935, when she was arrested for lecturing without a permit, falsely attesting Communist Party election petitions, and the distribution of radical literature. The following year she became national chair of the Communist Party, and in 1950, in her early 80s, she ran for the U.S. Senate. She died five years later in her hometown of San Francisco.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Angela Woodward , M.A., Madison, Wisconsin

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Whitney, Charlotte Anita (1867–1955)

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