W. I. Thomas and
the Suffragists

Robert Throop and Lloyd Gordon Ward

This story is about a brief episode in W. I. Thomas's career, an embarrassing moment that at least one commentator has linked to his dismissal from the University of Chicago about three years later. Following vague hints left by Morris Janowitz nearly two decades earlier (Janowitz 1966: xv), Martin Bulmer suggested that the public response to a lecture Thomas delivered in the Spring of 1915 damaged his reputation within the University of Chicago, making it easier (if not more desirable) to fire him:

"Addressing the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Chicago in 1915, Thomas urged the granting of legitimate status to illegitimate children and better efforts for providing information about birth control. He was misquoted in the press, which brought the wrath of President Judson down upon him, through his head of department, [Albion] Small. Thomas was obliged to apologize in an abject manner. The matter blew over, but it reinforced the view of Thomas as a controversial figure, a view clearly held by some members of the university" (Bulmer 1984: 59).

Bulmer's short description of the events suffered from its vagaries. He didn't identify who considered Thomas to be "controversial" or why their opinion might matter. After all, controversy sells books, and University of Chicago sells book. From its inception, the University of Chicago Press has been an integral part of the school's mission, both as a public relations vehicle and a source of income. When it published Thomas's Sex and Society eight years earlier, the Press had created a national controversy. At the time, more than one reviewer had speculated that the publisher deliberately created the commotion (cf., American Journal of Psychology 1907; Independent 1907).1

But infamy, like fame, is fleeting. When the Press released the third edition five years later, Folklore's anonymous reviewer commented that the "essays supply good summaries of a wide literature, but they add little novel information on these well-worn topics" (Folklore 1912). Despite the faint praise, the book remained a reliable seller. At the beginning of 1917 internal correspondence at the University of Chicago Press documents that supplies of the third edition were running low, and plans were being made for a fourth.2

We imagine that it was the success of Sex and Society that had recommended Thomas to the suffragists as entertainment in 1915. Five years earlier, his appearances under the auspices of New York City's Collegiate Equal Suffrage League had earned Thomas his second "feature" in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (cf., New York Times 1910b,c) and additional coverage for the suffrage movement. His comments to reporters at the time were no less controversial. The Times synopsized one interview for the readers by saying

"He told of the work of the Chicago women in what his wife calls "maternal methods" of working for suffrage, in contradistinction to the militant methods. They have brought about a complete organization of the finest children’s court system in the country and have been active in other lines of social helpfulness. "They have demonstrated their ability to serve the State," said Prof. Thomas, "and the State cannot afford to do without them. Women will never reach their highest development until they can express themselves individually," he declared. Prof. Thomas personally believes in a limited suffrage, and says he would disfranchise as many men as he would franchise women (New York Times 1910a).

In light of Thomas track history with the movement, there is reason to suspect that the Chicago Equal Suffrage Association had invited Thomas to speak because his comments could be expected to stir enough controversy to attract additional press coverage. So before accepting Bulmer's interpretation, there are several questions that need answers. Who was fretted by Thomas's lecture? What was at issue? What was Thomas's response? How did it impact on Thomas's career?

Who was fretted by the lecture?

Full professors like Thomas rarely concern themselves with the opinions of their inferiors (cleaners, secretaries, and junior faculty members). Not surprisingly, there is no suggestion that Thomas's inferiors had expressed any concern among the letters referenced by Bulmer.3 However, full professors do attend to departmental chairmen, deans and members of the senior administration, especially their institution's governors. Three people "outranked" Thomas in the University's "chain of command:" Albion Small, head of the the Department of Sociology (and Dean of the Graduate School) and James Rowland Angel, Dean of Faculties, President Harry Pratt Judson, and above them all sat the Board of Trustees. The surviving correspondence documenting the events of 1915 include letters from Thomas to Small, and notes between Small and Judson. We have found no correspondence from Angell to Small (nor vice versa).

The minutes of the Trustees' meetings from the period make no mention of Thomas's involvement with the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Whoever Bulmer had in mind, we can reasonably infer that it wasn't the Board of Trustees as an official body. However, that does not rule out individual trustees, any of whom were quite capable of making an issue of the matter with Judson. Thomas's correspondence with Small made no mention of either the President or the Trustees. On the other hand, Small's correspondence with Judson included this passage:

I am quite in agreement with you not only that it is the right and the duty of the Trustees to know what is going on in the activities of the Faculty, but that the more fully they are informed the better it will be for all concerned. I appreciate your responsibility in the matter, and in the present instance, while I am as much in the dark as you are about the precise facts, I share your anxiety.4

The letters suggest that Judson had cut Angell out of the loop, and taken the matter directly to Small. And that suggests that he was dealing with the matter "semi-formally."  Unfortunately, Small's correspondence with Thomas has not survived; nor has any informative comment from Judson to Small. To understand how Thomas may have distressed Judson, we need to look more closely at the content and context of the lecture itself.  

What was at issue?

Based on the press coverage of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meeting, we believe that Thomas had "fouled up" a carefully staged, and (from the Association's perspective) important public relations event. In response, the Association used its ties to the University of Chicago to "reach out" and chastise Thomas for misstep.

The 1915 Meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was founded in 1890 with the merger of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. Both organizations had formed in 1869, splintering from the Abolition movement in a disagreement about the Fifteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, and its failure to include women in the extension of national suffrage following the Civil War. Their 1890 reunion made it possible for the new organization to coordinate suffrage campaigns both state-by-state and at the national level.

For more than twenty years the Association had pressed a slow and steady campaign, winning suffrage victories at the state level and persistently pressing their case in Congress. For two of the younger members that strategy had not produced results quickly enough. While heading the Association's Congressional Committee in 1912 (its Washington lobbying office), Dr. Alice Paul and her assistant Lucy Burns developed plans for a strategy similar to the confrontational politics used by Britain's "suffragettes." In April of 1913, they formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Because both the "Congressional Committee" and the "Congressional Union" were lead by Paul, and because she operated the Union from inside the Committee's offices, the press and many suffragists couldn't or didn't distinguish Paul's activities for the Committee from those for the Union. Paul had some difficulty herself, finding that projects were so closely entwined that she was unable to disentangle the moneys she raised (and expended) for the Union's work from the dollars brought in for the Committee (1913a, 1914).

 That was a problem. For years, NAWSA's membership had repudiated militant action. In June of 1913, NASWA's president, Carrie Chapman Catt, used her position as president of  International Woman Suffrage Alliance's Budapest Congress to induce the Alliance to take a stand for or against confrontational politics as a strategy. The International Alliance declined to interfere in national disputes, adding "that a sincere revolution, accompanied by disorder, had never been construed as an argument against man suffrage" (New York Times 1913b). The Alliance resolution empowered the Union agenda, leaving NASWA with few options.

The NAWSA response was less than subtle. At the December 1913 convention, they instated a new constitution that financially reorganized its operations. The Executive failed to renew Paul in her position as Chairman of the Congressional Committee. When Burns declined the position, NAWSA named Ruth Hanna McCormick, (the wife of Medill McCormick, publisher and owner of the Chicago Tribune and member of the Illinois legislature at the time). From the time McCormick arrived in Washington to resume the Association's lobbying activities, she found herself at loggerheads with the Union, primarily over the issue of state-level organization (cf., New York Times 1914, Callahan 2000).

In January of 1915, the women had faced another embarrassing defeat when the House of Representatives defeated a bill proposing a constitutional amendment by a relatively narrow margin, i.e., 204 to 174 (New York Times 1915a). On March 31 1915, the Union formally established itself as a national organization with its first constitution and Paul at its helm. They immediately called for their members "to cease their membership in and to give up their support of the National American Association as long as it continued to favor the Shafroth-Palmer amendment" (New York Times 1915c).

 A minor incident during the Naval Review in New York that May added fuel to the fire. Two young women working for the Congressional Union attempted to push their way past the Secret Service to deliver a letter to President Wilson. The episode received only minor press coverage (New York Times 1915d), but had again embarrassed NAWSA's more conservative members.

Three weeks later, NAWSA held its bi-annual national conference in Chicago and the delegates probably expected the meeting to be difficult. The head of Wisconsin's delegation and a member of the Congressional Union, Mrs. Henry M. Youmans, interrupted Mrs. Medill McCormick's report on the Congressional Committee's  activities and plans to demand a place for the Union on the Committee. That set in motion a two-day confrontation between NAWSA members on the militancy issue (see New York Times 1915e,f), with the May confrontation between the Congressional Union and the Secret Service one of the core issues.

NAWSA's president, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, summarized her interpretation for the delegates:

"A great deal more was done than was ever heard of when two English militants sent by Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont and Miss Alice Paul of the Congressional Union for American Suffrage forced their way past secret service men, climbed on a sofa, and shouted 'Votes for Women' at President Wilson," said Dr. Shaw. "Women should take a stand on militancy imported from England by Mrs. Belmont and Miss Paul so we can assist our organizers in the campaign states. The advocates of militancy assert that their methods will be continued wherever President Wilson travels and may be found" (Chicago Tribune 1915a)

To deal with an otherwise unmanageable "public relations" problem — distinguishing the more staid Association from the ‘radicalized’ Union — Mrs. James W. Morrison, of the Chicago Equal Suffrage Association, introduced this resolution

"Whereas, the recent attempt of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage to force an interview with the president of the United States at a most inopportune time has brought condemnation upon all suffragists; and

"Whereas, this organization is in no way connected with the great body of suffragists represented by the National American Woman Suffrage association, but is a new organization with methods and policies diametrically opposite to those of the National Association;

"Be it resolved, that this conference of members of the National American Woman Suffrage association, assembled in Chicago, Ill., on this eighth day of June, 1915, do hereby deprecate this action and disclaim any responsibility for or sympathy with the same;

"And be it further resolved, that a copy of this resolution be sent to the president of the United States."

Morrison argued that:

"The public does not differentiate between our methods and those of the Congressional Union and it is time that a distinction is made. The rural districts and even cities do not understand this thing. We are either suffragists or antis to the public. Even THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE in an editorial advised suffragists to "put the cause on ice" if President Wilson should be heckled at times when he was burdened with international duties [i.e. the expanding war in Europe]. If THE TRIBUNE, which has always been friendly to the cause and is so well informed in suffrage matters, can be misled by the militancy of the Congressional Union then what can be expected of the public?" (Chicago Tribune 1915a)

With added support of Mrs. Medill McCormick the motion was passed by the Assembly.

Something of the conventioneers’ attitude toward their more militant sisters can be read from a subsequent resolution put before the convention: that the Congressional Union be denied membership in the Association. Because it would require revision of the Association’s constitution, it was tabled for later consideration. After a day-long discussion, the Association’s executive committee along the Illinois state board members recommended that its national board take two positions with respect to the Union: a) "make a recommendation that no official of the national association or of any of its auxiliaries be allowed to remain in or to join the Congressional Union" and b) emphasize "the fact that the national organization is not in sympathy with the militant tactics of which it accuses the union" (Chicago 1915b).

 It’s easy to imagine that many delegates breathed a collective sigh of relief at the close of that day's meeting. They had "managed" a two-year-long legitimacy crisis by differentiating themselves from the Congressional Union, and had preserved NAWSA's reputation with the American body politic and with Congress. Their strategy was to let no other issue distract from the only one that mattered: convincing men to give women the right to vote. That strategy was driven home by two subsequent resolutions passed that day. They unanimously approved a resolution commending Jane Addam's work for the Woman's Peace Party but they defeated a motion that would attach NAWSA's name to a circular letter reminding Congressmen "that the temper of the country was pacific." According to the Times, "the resolution was opposed on the ground that the association should not approach Congress on any question except suffrage." (New York Times 1915e). The day's session adjourned to a dinner at the Roof Garden of the LaSalle Hotel, hosted by the Chicago Equal Suffrage Association. For entertainment, Mrs. Morrison had arranged for a nationally-known speaker on women’s issues, Prof. W. I. Thomas. His topic: "Reform and Revolution." That lecture would erase any sense of relief that the women may have felt at the end of the day's session.

The Reception Dinner

We have found no detailed version of the speech. However, the next morning’s Tribune preserved fragments from Thomas’s lecture, with a more extensive but debatably accurate set of "quotations" appearing in the Daily Journal (Chicago Daily Journal 1915). Because the Tribune’s report is consistent with the explanation Thomas gave Small, we can safely conclude that he had included two points in his argument: a) whether or not its parents are wed, every child is born legitimate, and b) that women have a right to choose when they would bear children. Although such a stance seems tepid today, the very discussion of human reproduction in "mixed company" was taboo among the refined individuals who dined in places like the Roof Garden of the LaSalle Hotel.

That point was driven home by Dr. Howard, who had the unenviable role of thanking the professor. The Tribune attributed to her this very clever recovery after his social transgression: "[I am] glad to have lived until the present occasion, when women and men could discuss such questions and look into each other’s eyes without blinking" (Chicago Tribune 1915c) The evening’s next speaker was less patient with Thomas. Boston suffragist, Miss Alice Stone Blackwell followed Thomas at the podium, with a speech that brought the members up-to-date on her strategies for the November suffrage referendum in Massachusetts. She interrupted her discourse to comment that "if she were entitled to be a mother, she was also entitled to a husband and a home" (Chicago Tribune 1915b).

Quick to publicize anything scandalous, Chicago's papers covered Thomas's lecture for those not in attendance. Commenting on the tsunami of local chatter that the stories generated over the next few days, the Tribune’s anonymous society gossip columnist, "Cinderella" made two important observations: most of the audience hadn’t been looking at each other without blinking — they had silently stared at their plates. More importantly, one attendee had gone a step further, and left the dining room, claiming a conflicting engagement. The woman was Mrs. Cyrus McCormick.5

The McCormick connection

Nancy ("Nettie") Fowler McCormick was the head of Chicago’s most influential dynasty and the driving force behind the International Harvester Co. Nettie McCormick had always involved herself in her husband’s business. When he was ready to abandon Chicago after the 1871 fire, Nettie rebuilt the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory and saved the company (NCAB 1931a). In 1895, she married her son Harold to Ethel Rockefeller, the youngest daughter of John D. Rockefeller, whose millions had bankrolled the founding of the University of Chicago. In 1899, Harold had joined his brother-in-law John D. Rockefeller II on the fledgling institution’s Board of Trustees (Throop and Ward 2007). In 1902, when competition threatened to drive down profits and overtake her family’s dominance of the tractor industry, Nettie and Harold arranged for the Rockefeller fortune to assure McCormick control after the merger that created the International Harvester Company. Although he had been estranged from his wife since 1913, in 1915 Harold was the Rockefeller family's representative on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees (Throop and Ward 2007).

The notion that Nettie McCormick had "double-booked" so important an evening is not credible. As one might expect of one of America’s most influential women, she actively but quietly supported the suffrage cause. The next year’s reception dinner for the NAWSA national meeting was held at Nettie’s mansion. And by curious coincidence (given national attention by the New York Times), no member of the Congressional Union was invited to attend. We suspect that Nettie was in no mood to leave the program in the hands of "amateurs" two years in a row.

We doubt that Mrs. McCormick was as upset about the discussion of sexuality in mixed company as she was about the two points which figured so prominently in the Tribune’s account: changes in the laws governing a) bastardy and b) information about birth control. Earlier social reformers had designed that legislation to increase the personal risks associated with extramarital heterosexual behavior. By advocating changes to those laws to an audience of NASWA members, Thomas had linked the organization with two highly contentious issues not related to NASWA’s only goal: women’s right to vote.

If the Association could consider ousting members of long standing because their outrageous activities distracted from the issue, you can imagine how they would feel about being linked to legal reforms that would divide the nation for decades. Although most of the issues related to bastardy have been resolved, questions of how and when women elect the role of "brood-sow to Civilization" remain politically divisive to this day.

The immediate response from one of the delegates summed up what we imagine to be McCormick's attitude. Mrs. M. J. Reynolds, the President of the Women’s Political Union of New Jersey put it most succinctly:

"[Thomas’s speech] was uncalled for and out of place. Already in New Jersey, where we are to meet our opponents at the polls in a short time, the anti-suffragists will be making use of these statements, declaring that is the foundation of the ideals of suffragists. It will harm, and blacken us even to those who are friendly to our cause" (Chicago Daily Journal 1915).

And that was exactly what happened.

Writing for Catholic World in the month before the New Jersey referendum, Joseph McKee drew attention to the speech, not to spurn Thomas, but to discredit the Dr. Shaw and her movement: "The attitude of the leading suffragists is reflected in their alliance with radical Socialists, and other advocates of principles destructive of ideals we hold precious" (McKee 1915: 54). McKee misrepresented Shaw’s response to Thomas’s speech: she neither affirmed nor denied the more contentious parts of his argument. Shaw's strongest affirmation was her later comment to the Chicago Journal:  "Political emancipation is not the only emancipation: There is a greater freedom which women must gain, the freedom in social relations" (Chicago Journal 1915).

Mrs. Reynolds worst fears were realized; the referendum women’s suffrage was defeated in New Jersey (New York Times 1915i). A few days later, the suffragists faced the same fate in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania (cf., NYT 1915j, 1915k).  Although it would be as ridiculous to blame Thomas (as it would be to credit McKee), it is worth noting Thomas’s speech and Dr. Shaw’s comments haunted the women’s movement for years. Nearly two decades after Thomas’s speech and more than a decade after women acquired the franchise, Thomas’ 1915 comments were used against them again. Just as before, the criticisms came from Catholic World ; and this time they came directly from its editor, Rev. James M. Gillis (New York Times 1933).

What was Thomas's response?

Bulmer built his interpretation on three letters from the University of Chicago's Presidential Papers 1890-1925 collection, preserved in what might be thought of as Thomas’s "personnel file." He took more than a bit of literary license by suggesting that  Thomas was "obliged to apologize in an abject manner."

Thomas's first letter used neither "sorry" nor "regret" to characterize his feelings about the issue. All three occurrences of variation on "apology" occur within a few lines of his letter of June 15, and bear repeating here:

I expose to my classes constantly views which I think you and other of my colleagues would not approve, and occasionally, as by your note, I am made to feel that I am thought to be betraying something or someone. And I am especially sensitive on the point of the responsibility which you have to carry in this connection in acting as my apologist. Really the things which I occasionally print and say admit of no apology. They represent a different life-policy.

I remember that when I published a little volume more than ten years ago you had a big apologetic job on your hands — I need not remind you of details — and I wish to free you from that responsibility.[note Thomas to Small 15 June 1915: 3-4, emphasis added).

There is nothing apologetic about this passage; like Thomas, it admits no apology. By bringing up the 1907 release of Sex and Society, Thomas was reminding Small that he hadn’t said anything outrageous. Rather, some people wanted to make it appear as if he had.

He acknowledged that he had addressed the subjects of "bastardy" and "birth control," but immediately reminded Small of their local relevance. In April of 1915, Norway had become the first western nation to recognize the rights of children, independent of the legal status of their parents relationship. A short article in Law Notes at the time predicted that punishing children for the excess of their parents would soon be a thing of the past (Davids 1915). Illinois had become the first American jurisdiction to discuss following suit. A anonymous writer for the Columbia Law Review warmly greeted those proposed reforms:

 "A movement in this direction is already perceptible. In 1915 three bills were introduced in the Illinois Assembly, providing respectively for giving to every child the father's surname; making children born in and out of wedlock equally heirs of father and mother and their kindred ; and providing for inheritance by illegitimate child from putative father whenever such paternity shall have been established. See Legislative Digest of 49th General Assembly" (Columbia Law Review 1916: 701, note 4)

Hull House resident and women's health advocate, physician Rachel Yarros, had already started to build the alliances needed to overturn Illinois's own "Comstock" restrictions by establishing a Committee on Birth Control within the Chicago Woman's Club

"I spoke on this point especially with reference to three bills now before the legislature of Illinois designed to give a regular legal status to the illegitimate child (in which many of the women in the audience are actively interested), and also with reference to the movement among physicians and women in Chicago and New York on the point of giving to the masses information as to the means of preventing conception (Thomas to Small 17 June 1915: 2).

Thomas then went on the attack, making it clear that he perceived Small's questions as academic interference:

"It seems to me however, that the main interest of your communication is the fact that you have casually raised a question which is much in my mind. What is the nature of a University? Is it entirely esoteric, or can its members communicate frankly with the public? Shall the University man associate himself with public movements or shall he not ? Shall he before the public and before his classes be guarded and confine himself to the expression of accepted traditions? Is the University as a whole or are its members bound to stand for all the sentiments and opinions of one of its members, or is the University a place where various opinions are held and expressed? These are questions on which I shall be glad to express myself and to listen, if it is thought to be desirable.

In his second letter, Thomas was more chastened. It opened

"With reference to my remarks before the woman’s equal suffrage association, and the publicity given them, I think I ought to say to you that I realize I showed poor judgment in addressing this audience in this way, for I had decided long ago that it is not a wise policy for one in an academic relation to agitate certain questions, but to limit himself to his impersonal work and let the applications of this work and the agitation of social changes in general to be worked out within the public at large.

A little later, he stated that

I have also not forgotten that the university has been particularly generous to me in providing the opportunity to do the work to which I refer, and I am ashamed that my lack of tact has created a situation by which the University feels itself compromised or embarrassed.

These passages are the closest Thomas comes to apologizing for his speech — an admission of shame over his lack of tact and any embarrassment that it may have caused the university. Does it reach the level of an apology completely without pride or dignity? We can infer an absence of pride from "ashamed," but does it lack dignity? Not really. Nor can it be inferred from the last of the three letters where Thomas reiterated his original defense and elaborated on its implications.

Perhaps Thomas felt that an admission of shame over his "poor judgment" would satisfy his superiors. Aside from the initial press response inside Chicago, and the gossip reported by Cinderella, we have seen no evidence that the University was embarrassed or its reputation in any way sullied. Unlike the release of Sex and Society, or the 1918 scandal, there was no flurry of news stories. For example, the New York Times (which had been covering the NAWSA meeting in greater detail than the Chicago papers) made note of the dinner but no mention of Thomas or his speech. The University's reputation hadn't been compromised, but NAWSA members in contentious states believed Thomas had compromised theirs.

 What we suspect happened

Without Judson's correspondence to Small, or Small's correspondence with Thomas there is nothing to suggest that the professor was reprimanded or otherwise censured for his lecture to the suffragists. We have only the comment from Thomas's first letter that "occasionally, as by your note, I am made to feel that I am thought to be betraying something or someone." That might imply that Small had only asked for a more detailed account of the dinner address, so that he could quiet Judson's concerns. 

  We have found no evidence that Thomas had embarrassed or compromised the University in any way that brought him to the attention of its governors qua governors. The absence of any discussion of the matter by the Board of Trustees would seem to confirm that conclusion. Small's mention of the trustees in his June 20 letter to Judson does suggest that some trustee may have discussed the incident with the President. Our "prime suspect" is Harold McCormick, the one member of the Board whose family had a intense interest in how NAWSA was publicly perceived, and, as the last Rockefeller family member on the Board, the one member to whom Judson would be obliged to provide a reasonable explanation for Thomas's actions. Thomas's letters to Small provided exactly that.

 Thomas's speech addressed two topics of special interest to the women of Illinois.  Both "bastardy" and "birth control" were issues at the time. As Dr. Shaw pointed out, political emancipation is not the only emancipation.

Thomas's message was ill-timed. Preparing itself for enormously important campaigns in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, NAWSA had separated itself from the confrontational politics of the Congressional Union, and side-stepped any involvement with pacifist activism. At the close of the June 8 session, the leadership had succeeded in keeping the organization focused entirely on the suffrage issue. Thomas's speech had tarnished a hard-fought and hard-won success.

Did Thomas's faux pas compromise or embarrass NAWSA? Certainly, at least in the minds of some of NAWSA leadership. But Thomas can't be held responsible for creating a link between NAWSA's agenda and the other women's issues in the minds of the American body politic. At most, he made it more difficult for the suffragists to avoid talking about those other issues. The image of suffragists as feminists was almost impossible to avoid, especially when it was carefully cultivated by anti-feminist campaigners who argued that the feminist movement was "one of the most revolutionary and dangerous, one of the most radical movements of the time " and that "the woman suffrage movement is but a phase of it" (Goodwin 1913).

Consider this example from a case much in the news during the months leading up to the East coast ballot. In sentencing William Sanger (the husband of Margaret Sanger) for distributing a single copy of his wife's pamphlet on birth control, New York City's Chief Justice McInerney stated: "Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society . . . . There are too many now who believe it is a crime to have children. If some of the women who are going around and advocating equal suffrage would go around and advocate women having children they would do a greater service" (New York Times 1915f).6

We suspect that any residual animosity toward Thomas was washed away in the wake of the eastern referenda when the suffragists confronted the intensity of the men's opposition to their cause. So long as the women believed that those states could be won (however small the majority), they might have been able to hold Thomas response for any narrow loss. But in Massachusetts, the suffrage initiative failed in every county. In New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, it failed in the densely urbanized counties by substantial margins (cf., New York Times 1915j, l). The New York Times attributed the outcome to the "essential American conservatism" of the established states (New York Times 1915k). Although we doubt that interpretation, the Times made an important observation: the cities of the East demanded a different strategy.

Did Thomas's faux pas contribute to his 1918 dismissal? We doubt it. We have been able to find no direct evidence linking the two events in anything but the minds of Thomas's apologists. Their attribution rests on an inference. The correspondence confirming Judson's participation in the events of 1915 are part of Thomas's "presidential file," which undeniably contains records related to Thomas's relationship with the University's chief administrators, William Rainey Harper and Harry Pratt Judson. The same file contains correspondence about the location of Thomas's office, about his promotions, and about library expenditures. And because Judson did not fire Thomas (he only recommended that action to the Trustees), it doesn't contain the 1918 letter of dismissal. All that can be reasonably inferred from the letters' presence in that particular file was that Thomas's speech became an issue for Judson, just as the location of Thomas's office became an issue for Harper.

We have documented that Thomas's speech was an issue for specific members of NASWA, and that at least one of those women, Nettie McCormick, had the ability to make Thomas as uncomfortable as he had made the Association by using her son's position as the last Rockefeller on the Board of Trustees. Although McCormick remained on the Board for several years after 1915, he absented himself from the April 1918 special meeting when the Trustees dismissed Thomas, and the May 1918 regular meeting when they confirmed their earlier decision.7

What conclusion can be drawn from the newspaper stories and letters? We suggest that they provide further evidence of ties between the feminist movement and  Thomas's work, a point that Mary Jo Deegan has tried to highlight over the last twenty years with only limited success outside of the feminist community of scholars (cf., Deegan 1988, 2002; Deegan and Burger 1981). The NAWSA incident provided clear evidence that Thomas's interest and involvement in the issues of gender and social organization (especially in the opportunities that the early twentieth century offered for improvement in the lives of women) continued well beyond 1907.


1. For a more detailed account of the public response to Sex and Society see "The Rise of W. I. Thomas".

2. Memorandum: 25 January 1917, University of Chicago Press Files, Box  451, folder 5. Special Collection, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

3. Bulmer referenced five letters from the Thomas file retained in the University of Chicago Presidential Papers, 1890-1925, box 64, folder 4. Three were from Thomas to Small: 17 June 1915, 23 June 1915 and 5 July 1915. Two were from Small to Judson: 20 June 1915 and 6 July 1915. Letters from Judson to Small, from Small to Judson have not been retained, with the exception of one, less than informative note dated 19 June 1915.

4. Small to Judson, 20 June 1915. University of Chicago Presidential Papers, 1890-1925 Box 64, folder 4, Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

5. In 1915, there were two Mrs. Cyrus McCormicks in Chicago, Nancy ("Nettie") Fowler McCormick (the wife of Cyrus McCormick Senior) and Harriet Hammond McCormick (the wife of Cyrus McCormick, Junior). In June of 1916, when Chicago once again played host to the NASWA Spring meeting, the celebratory dinner was hosted at Nettie's residence, with Nettie and Katherine controlling the guest-list (New York Times 1916). Mrs. Belmont and Dr. Paul were not included. Because of Nettie's role in the 1916 meeting, we believe that Nettie McCormick was the woman referred to in the 1915 society page story. Of note, Ruth McCormick was related, by marriage, to both; Nettie McCormick was her aunt, Harriet McCormick her cousin. Moreover, Katherine Dexter McCormick, a.k.a. Mrs. Stanley McCormick, the NAWSA Treasurer was Nettie's daughter-in-law, and, by marriage, Ruth's cousin.

6. The Sanger case provides a fine illustration of the "Comstock" laws in operation. The facts of the case are not disputed, with the New York Times providing a good account spread over several months. It ended tragically; William Sanger was jailed; less than two weeks later Anthony Comstock died of an escalating illness that began at the end of Sanger's trial (cf., New York Times 1915b, f-h).

7. Compare Minutes of the Meetings of the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago, Vol 10: 424, 427. Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.


American Journal of Psychology.

Bulmer, Martin

Callahan, Emily

Chicago Daily Journal.

Chicago Tribune.

Columbia Law Review.

Davids, Berkeley.

Deegan, Mary Jo.

Deegan, Mary Jo & Burger, J. S.


Goodwin, Grace Duffield.


Janowitz, Morris

McKee, Joseph V.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography

New York Times

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