Women of the Far Right
Part 3: The Mothers’ Movement & Lessons for Today
Part 3 of 3
Women of the Far Right: The Mothers’ Movement and World War II
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997
NLMA, We the Mothers, and a Strategy of Entryism
The National Legion of Mothers of America (NLMA) was inspired by William Randolph Hearst, and he used his newspapers to promote the group, and thus, his preference for isolationism. The mothers who joined were “grimly determined to fight any attempt to send their sons to fight on foreign soil.” The group was wildly successful, with 10,000 women signing up in Los Angeles during the first week of registration. The women sold pins featuring an American flag and white dove of peace to raise funds. They also went door-to-door to recruit, held study groups, and started a speakers’ bureau in order to send speakers to other women’s groups. In January 1940, novelist Kathleen Norris became the president and increased the group’s status and popularity. Blacks were allowed in the NLMA, but segregated to their own groups. Some of the women said they would rather have blacks than Jews as members, and they had discussions about why blacks were superior to Jews. Estimates of membership were as high as 10 million women.
Eventually, extremists began to enter the group. Father Charles Edward Coughlin and other anti-Semites endorsed it (Norris asked him to repudiate it), and extremists began taking over local units. Norris eventually expelled a number of chapters from the NLMA, but thought the attempts to fight fascism in the group hopeless and resigned in 1941. According to Jeansonne, Norris “stood in contrast to most of her counterparts in the mothers’ movement, who emphasized not that war was wrong but that war against Hitler was wrong.”
One of the most audacious groups was the New York chapter of the NLMA, which formed the Molly Pitcher Rifle Legion as a women’s rifle corps to shoot invading paratroopers. They eventually left the NLMA, while stockpiling rifles and ammunition. They claimed that if men were at the front, women would need to be prepared to defend themselves against aerial invasions. The Molly Pitchers, named after the first woman who armed herself in the American Revolution, urged women to “Boycott all Sponsors on the English Jew Controlled Radio” and said that “no Jew is a true American.” They distributed a flyer containing a song to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that went:
Americans have nothing in common with the greedy Jew Bolshevik parasite
Who would lash us into serfdom and crush us with his might
Is there anything left for us but to organize and fight?
We the Mothers Mobilize for America was another influential organization, which stepped up its activity after Pearl Harbor. Dilling was a member briefly, but resigned due to factional dissension. It claimed 150,000 members, and had a men’s auxiliary called We the Fathers.
Although We the Mothers was organized by congressional districts in order to influence political campaigns, its leaders were most eager to practice entryism. According to Jeansonne, “members were encouraged to join five or six isolationist groups and take them over from within.”
The group primarily was led by Lyrl Clark Van Hyning, a fashion-conscious chain-smoker who was a powerful speaker. She was a Christian who denied that Jesus and the apostles (except Judas) were Jews. She said Christians were engaged in a fight against the Jews, who caused the Civil War, both world wars, promoted free love to weaken Christian families, used Freemasonry as one of their complex conspiracies, and undermined the government:
The whole gang are the offspring of the old gang that threw stones at Jesus Christ, wrapped thorns around his head, that flogged him and finally nailed him to the Cross because he spoke the truth, which upset their plans for world domination.
Van Hyning lamented that America fought Hitler, and thought that the holocaust was a fabrication the Jews sold to gullible Americans, since there were more Jews alive after the war than before. She was opposed to plans to resettle blacks in northern cities, yet also recruited blacks to anti-Semitism by peddling We the Mothers’ monthly newsletter, Women’s Voices, in black neighborhoods. Like many women in the mothers’ movement, Van Hyning believed that America’s men had failed their country:
The men of the nation cannot be trusted. They have not the moral courage to make a peace settlement with the warring nations and the women must furnish the courage to save their sons from this murderous slaughter.
In 1945, Van Hyning and a group of mothers tried to force their way in to a UN organizing conference, with little success.
Learning from the Mothers’ Movement
The leaders of the mothers’ movement had either their own or their husband’s money. Usually with sons old enough to fight in the war, they were freed from household and child-rearing concerns, and thus had time to devote to nationalism. Even today, many women have more time and energy to devote to such diverse tasks as research, writing, secretarial work, talking and networking with other women, writing letters, and lobbying. It would serve the cause well for men to guide their wives to such activism, since as natural communicators, these are areas in which women excel.
Unfortunately, the “progress” women have made in the past 50 years has all but disqualified them from the type of activism the mothers’ movement engaged in. The mothers were able to storm into legislative sessions, refuse orders to leave government buildings, and engage in all kinds of dramatics with small fines and admonishments. Today’s women would instead be treated with all of the penalties granted to men.
The mothers were often sent to talk to everyday citizens, who seemed to accept the message better if it came from a woman. In fact, the large memberships of these groups came in part by reaching out beyond the people already in the movement. The women were willing to risk “exposure” and ridicule by talking about their views to ordinary women, and peddling their newsletters door-to-door to the average middle classes. They didn’t merely wait for people to find their propaganda; they planted seeds in the masses.
The women did bring problems, however. They were at times extremely emotional, but because of their sex seemed to be able to get away with hysterics that men could not. Many women in the mothers’ movement were highly intellectual, yet many got their facts wrong, or succumbed to conspiracy theories that may have undermined their credibility. When Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, for example, Dilling, Waters, and Van Hyning said he had died and been replaced by a double. Later, Van Hyning said there was a government plot to hide the fact that flying saucers from Venus visited Earth 700 times a week.
Another difficulty was keeping all the various organizations going. Personality clashes and small ideological differences often split groups apart. There was fighting between different groups, and groups that dissolved when a leader resigned or died. Organizations often worked separately when they could have been sharing information and resources.
The mothers put much effort into political and legislative campaigns, with few successes. They had more people with the time and resources to camp out in Washington than the far right has today, but such efforts usually resulted in nothing more than publicity campaigns.
One of the most successful groups was Peace Now, since it appealed to those on the right and left. Framing the issues in words of “peace” and “opposition to death” made the message more politically correct and easily digestible by the masses. It also was hard for enemies to criticize a group like Peace Now.
The most successful small-scale strategy was entryism, active infiltration of existing groups. This was brought about not by individual women’s own initiatives, but by organizations that guided women to the strategy and allowed them to share tactics and support. There were few leaders in the mothers’ movement, but they managed to garner the support of millions of women by giving them concrete actions to focus on at a local level. Women of the Far Right is a fascinating read, not only for the stories of the women and organizations, but also as a historical record of the best strategies for the far right.
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