Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On May 5, 1933, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a chauffeured limousine arrived at a textile factory. From inside the car emerged a tall, slender, red-haired woman whose bearing indicated social standing and purposeful self-confidence. De­spite a steady rain, the lady joined a picket line made up of girls from thirteen to eighteen years of age who had struck in protest of working conditions they called “sweatshop”­ – long hours in unhealthy surroundings and low pay.

The support given by the older woman to those “Baby Strikers” made headlines in state and national newspapers. Reasons for this widespread publicity were many. First, the well-dressed marcher was the wife of the then governor of Pennsylvania whose name had long been famous throughout the country. Second, her family was well-known in the wealthy social and political circles of New York, and her relatives included such noted individuals as the founder of a free public educational institute called Cooper Union, a mayor of New York City, a Long Island Congressman, and an Ambassador to the Netherlands. Finally, and most importantly, her actions attracted such attention because here was a politically and socially prominent woman joining organized and militant females in a public demand for their rights and for protection against abuse and exploitation, an unusual occurrence in American life. The unique woman who had forcefully made herself part of this exceptional event was Cornelia Bryce Pinchot.

Mrs. Pinchot had met and married her forester, conserva­tionist, and governor husband, Gifford Pinchot, in 1914 after they had been brought together through the Progres­sive programs and irresistible personality of Theodore Roose­velt. Although both had enjoyed rewarding, separate lives before marriage, Gifford was forty-nine and Cornelia was thirty-three in 1914, the Pinchots would form a most effec­tive political combination for the next three decades in Pennsylvania life.

On the campaign trail (Gifford made seven and Cornelia, four, attempts at high elective office, with Gifford succeed­ing twice) or on the lecture platform or in articles for maga­zines and newspapers, they energetically advocated pro­grams both of them felt would benefit all people. Although the Pinchots came from moneyed families, they attacked concentrated financial power, especially corporate wealth, because it denied the majority of the people a fair share of their labors. This brought these Progressive politicians in­to conflict with such formidable individuals as millionaire Andrew Mellon, the influential Pittsburgh financier and investor. In particular, the Pinchots called for strong and ef­fective public control over the utilities such as the electric companies whose rates and financial dealings affected the pocketbooks of all citizens. These dedicated reformers also attacked Boss-run political machines, especially the most en­during one built by the Vares in Philadelphia. If only the state and nation could be rid of the bosses and the wealthy manipulators, graft and corruption in political life would disappear, the Pinchots argued. Then government could be run with business-like efficiency and the benefits of the political process would go to those needing them: the laborers, the unemployed, the poor, the handicapped, the children.

Beyond their agreement on the necessity for conserva­tion of our natural and human resources, the Pinchot team had one special reform which they advocated most vigorous­ly. That was prohibition. While admitting a delayed conver­sion to the Dry Crusade, Cornelia Pinchot believed that the Eighteenth Amendment had to be enforced as the law of the land and suggested that women be appointed as agents to police the liquor traffic. She proudly announced that she was not only a Dry in public but that her private social life would be dry as well. This was very much to the dismay of some of the Pinchots’ political associates and acquaintances. Despite repeal of the amendment, Mrs. Pinchot remained convinced that Pennsylvania and American life would be considerably improved by banishing “Booze” which put money and political power into the hands of the brewery interests, and which absorbed paychecks and disrupted family life.

Although they worked most successfully together, each respected and defended the individuality of the other. While supporting her husband’s Progressive programs as Pennsylvania’s First Lady (1923-1927, 1931-1935). Cornelia Bryce Pinchot had her own priorities and interests.

She was a feminist, one who insisted that the equalization of the rights and opportunities of men and women might realize the full potential of which they were capable. With this belief she called upon women to minimize the amount of time they spent in the drudgery of housework and in service to the needs of their families and to maximize their involvement in the world outside the home. This, in turn, she concluded, would result in better informed and more valued wives and mothers.

One of the keys to an expanded role for women outside the home was the school. So devoted was Mrs. Pinchot to full educational opportunities for females that despite a busy schedule she held a position on the local school board in the home area of Milford in Northeastern Pennsylvania, one of the first women to so serve in the state’s history. Another key to female emancipation was to remove or to change laws which in any way relegated women to second class citizenship or denied women control over their own destinies. In her husband’s first term as governor of Pennsyl­vania (1923-1927) she urged the Pennsylvania State Legisla­ture to provide women with immediate first class and equal legal citizenship with men.

While concerned that all female Americans achieve equality of status with men, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot was most dedicated to aiding, from her position of wealth, social standing and political prominence, those least able to fight for their rights. These were the working women, driven to seek physically exhausting unskilled jobs out of economic necessity. or for their family’s survival. It was to encourage these often exploited female laborers that Mrs. Pinchot came that economically depressed spring to Allentown. Not only did she march in picket lines there and in Brooklyn, New York, but she served in 1933 on a legislative committee by appointment of her husband to investigate and to expose sweatshops in Pennsylvania. This brought her into conflict with Bristol textile factory owner, Felix Grundy, who was president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and was a leader and substantial contributor to the state Repub­lican party. She also lobbied forcefully in personal appear­ances and on that newly powerful media in the 1930’s, the radio, for protective legislation such as minimum wage laws for women and children workers. In addition, from the earliest years of the twentieth century, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot encouraged union organization by women and gave financial aid to summer schools where women would be trained as union organizers and as knowledgeable labor leaders.

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot came to believe that the only truly effective and permanent means by which women could achieve their goals was through direct involvement in the political process. After participating in the successful campaign to gain suffrage for women in the immediate post World War I period, Mrs. Pinchot called on women to recog­nize that it was by the political process that decisions were made concerning all aspects of their lives and of their en­vironment. Thus she counseled women to become active in that process by voting by party membership, and by stand­ing for election.

As always, Cornelia Pinchot took her own advice and served as a personal example. She demanded full participa­tion by women in the councils of her chosen party, the Republican. She encouraged the growth of the League of Women Voters through which individuals could acquaint themselves with issues of the day. She ran three times for election to the United States Congress and announced her candidacy for governor to succeed her husband in 1934. Al­though she campaigned strenuously, imaginatively, and colorfully, once driving a red car and wearing knickers, she never succeeded. Without bitterness or remorse she conclu­ded, “I was more anxious to go to Congress than the people were to send me.”

Despite her husband’s complete support, many in Penn­sylvania did not welcome her outspoken views. At times she was denied a platform upon which to speak. Some called her a Communist, a publicity seeker, or a traitor to her social and economic position, among other things; and she re­ceived many letters calling upon her to” … go back home where you belong.”

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot never accepted defeat. Despite some bitterness toward her, opposition to her views, and the election losses, she was convinced of the justice of her beliefs. This dedicated feminist and social reformer had faith that eventually the majority of people in the state of Penn­sylvania and in the country would come to realize that it was because of her devotion to the American democratic ex­perience and to the principles upon which it was based, such as freedom of speech and equality of opportunity, that she spoke and acted the way she did.

Thus it was that this Pennsylvania woman achieved the kind of recognition that was accorded her in the nation dur­ing the post-World War I decades of prosperity, depression, and war again. And it was Pennsylvania that Cornelia Bryce and Gifford Pinchot chose in 1914 as the home base for their most significant political efforts.

 

Further Sources

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot Papers (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Frazer, Elizabeth, “Mrs. Gifford Pinchot, Housewife and Politician,” The Saturday Evening Post, August 26, 1922, pp. 8-9, 55-56, 89.

McGeary, Nelson, Gifford Pinchot, Forester-Politician. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Pinchot, Cornelia Bryce, “Women Who Work,” The Survey, April 15, 1929, pp. 138-139.

 

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series devoted to women who distinguished themselves in Pennsylvania history.

 

Dr. John W. Furlow, Jr. is associate professor of history at Wilkes College.