Difficult Females: The Women Who Brought Down Powerful Men before #MeToo

Endorsed by Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000 and the Western History Association

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Politics; Women's History


In the last several years, celebrities, organizers, and everyday women have embraced the term and the spirit behind “Me Too,” the phrase activist Tarana Burke first introduced in 2006 to bring attention to harassment, sexual assault, and broader gender inequalities. The movement, which has emboldened women to speak up against harassment and discrimination, has resulted in the public downfall of dozens of powerful men. It has also inspired sister movements like #ChurchToo and #TimesUp, which seek to confront abuse and harassment within churches and gender discrimination in the workplace, respectively. Women have, of course, long labored toward asserting their rights, agency, and equality in public spaces. In many cases, their actions resulted in the downfall of powerful men. This panel brings together three such stories from American history to consider how women have organized and advocated for themselves generations before #MeToo. The first episode comes from 1830s New York City, where the Female Benevolent Society took issue with the tactics of Rev. John Robert McDowall, a fellow moral reformer, whose unusual zeal and exceedingly graphic anti-prostitution publishing enterprises worried the women who shared McDowall’s overall goals but questioned his methods. Having begun working hand-in-hand with McDowall to rid the city of “vice,” the Female Benevolent Society grew impatient with the minister and charged him with promoting “lewdness” while claiming to work toward eliminating it. In 1834, the New York Presbytery found McDowall guilty of the charges and dismissed him from his post, thereby vindicating the more traditional approaches of the Society. The second episode takes place in Hunnewell, Kansas where--in 1911--a full-slate of female municipal officials unseated the small city’s most powerful men. The women campaigned on maternalist rhetoric that emphasized women’s innate morality and they broke new ground in seating the first female sheriff in American history. Hunnewell’s all-male city council sought to unseat them, however, and succeeded to a certain extent in burying their history, raising questions about politics, power, and historical memory. The third paper also takes up the question of historical memory regarding the case of Madge Oberholtzer. In 1925, Oberholtzer was raped and subsequently died from injuries inflicted by D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, but not before she could issue damning testimony that ensured his conviction and the downfall of the KKK. Indianapolis locals questioned Oberholtzer’s reputation at the time of her death, but her story has been oft-repeated as evidence of the Klan’s brutality and Stephenson’s snake-like charm. Together, these stories reveal a long history of women’s campaigns for their rights and for religious, social, and political influence in contexts which at first appeared impossible in their strictures. Panel chair Dr. Patricia Cline Cohen will offer a brief response to each paper and comment on these episodes in women’s history.

Papers Presented

“The Sin of Lewdness”: How the New York Female Benevolent Society Brought Down a Fellow Moral Crusader

The panic surrounding the alleged prevalence of sex work in 1830s New York united moral reformers in a common goal—eliminating “vice” from city streets. Canadian-born Presbyterian minister John Robert McDowall was at the helm of this campaign. "O, the harlots! How numerous!" he once complained in his diary after encountering yet another house of “ill-fame” in the Five Points neighborhood. In New York, he found an eager community of like-minded crusaders to join him. Among McDowall’s early allies was the Female Benevolent Society. Soon, however, the women of the society began to question McDowall’s methods and tactics. Shady stories of mistreatment began coming out from the Magdalen House for reformed sex workers, which McDowall ran. In addition, the sensational publications McDowall regularly produced seemed too immodest in their attention-grabbing descriptions of the city’s sexual depravity. Finally, there was the money the minister owed the society and had seemingly no intentions of paying back. In 1834, the society utilized the press to bring public charges against McDowall to the New York Presbytery, which found the minister guilty and dismissed him from his post. In their fight against McDowall, society members reasserted their social influence and reaffirmed their commitment to less scandalous, more traditional methods of fighting “vice.”

Presented By
Suzanna Krivulskaya, California State University San Marcos

“Virginal Child” or “Party Girl?": Madge Oberholtzer and the Fall of D.C. Stephenson

In 1925 Madge Oberholtzer was invited to the Indianapolis home of D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Stephenson drugged, kidnapped, tortured, and raped her repeatedly over two days. At one point, Oberholtzer briefly escaped, found a drug store, and purchased and consumed bichloride of mercury tablets. Upon finding that she had tried to poison herself, Stephenson took her back to Indianapolis and left her on her parents’ doorstep. Here, Oberholtzer’s story takes a turn: her parents summoned an attorney, who took Oberholtzer’s deathbed deposition (she survived for weeks after incident). In shocking, agonizingly thorough, and crystal-clear language, Oberholtzer described everything Stephenson had done to her. Her testimony was used to try and convict Stephenson of mayhem, rape, kidnapping, and conspiracy. Stephenson was sentenced to life in prison, and the Klan went down with him. Locals quoted in the press, however, assumed that Oberholtzer was “a party girl” who went willingly to Stephenson’s house. Some alleged that she had seduced Stephenson and manufactured the story to ruin his reputation and bring down the Klan. To others, the Oberholtzer murder was evidence of the Klan’s depravity and immorality. The details of this case are well-known to Indiana historians and local history aficionados, which is where my interest lies. My work engages with the ways Oberholtzer’s story has been interpreted since her death from injuries Stephenson inflicted. The multiple meanings of Oberholtzer’s story reveal much about history, memory, and narrative.

Presented By
Kelly Hacker Jones, Baruch College, City University of New York

Recalling the Mayoress: Power, Politics, and Historical Memory in Hunnewell, Kansas (1911)

In 1911 the small oil town of Hunnewell, Kansas elected an all-female slate of new municipal officers, including the mayor, the city clerk, and the first female sheriff in political history. These women unseated deeply entrenched incumbents, including in some cases their own husbands. The all-male city council remained in power, however, and set itself against the new officeholders. Eventually, the state’s attorney general and its high courts were involved in determining the legitimacy of the “mayoress” and other town officials. The story became a national media sensation, sparking public debates that offer rich insight into contemporary ideas about gender, family, politics, and even regional identity. However, the story has received little scholarly attention, in part due to apparent efforts by subsequent Hunnewell governments to expunge it from the town’s history. This paper contextualizes the Hunnewell story within a broader historiography on female officeholders in the years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Examining newspaper reports and court documents, it also ruminates on the surprising gaps in the archival record, to offer new insights into Progressive women’s political successes and their challenges—not only in terms of governing but also in terms of being duly remembered.

Presented By
Emily Suzanne Johnson, Ball State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Katherine Mooney, Florida State University

Presenter: Emily Suzanne Johnson, Ball State University
Emily Suzanne Johnson is the author of This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, which examines the careers of six nationally prominent women who helped to build the modern religious right. More broadly, her work focuses on themes of gender, power, and politics in the twentieth century United States. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications including Religion and American Culture and popular venues including The Washington Post. She is assistant professor of history at Ball State University.

Presenter: Kelly Hacker Jones, Baruch College, City University of New York
Kelly Hacker Jones recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Stony Brook University, where she focused on twentieth-century medical and cultural history in the United States. Her work has been published in the Asian Review of World Histories and Points, the online blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. Her current project, “Eastern Medicine, Western Bodies,” examines the popularization of Chinese medicine in American society. Jones is an experienced public historian who has held multiple positions outside the academy, including at the Indiana Medical History Museum, Big Onion Walking Tours in New York, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, and the Museum of the City of New York. She is an adjunct instructor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury.

Presenter: Suzanna Krivulskaya, California State University San Marcos
Suzanna Krivulskaya is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a dissertation about Protestant sex scandals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The project, titled “Disgraced: How Sex Scandals Transformed American Protestantism, 1832-1988,” explains how pastoral sex scandals have been covered in the popular press and how Protestant denominations and the reading public responded to this coverage. Her work has been published in the Journal of American Studies and is forthcoming from the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and from Current Research in Digital History.