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Partner and I

Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics

Copyright Date: 1987
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 342
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  • Book Info
    Partner and I
    Book Description:

    A fascinating exploration of the private and public worlds of Molly Dewson, America's original female political boss. In the first biography ever written of Dewson, Susan Ware not only examines her political career as a trusted member of the Roosevelt team throughout the New Deal but also considers how Dewson's fifty-two year partnership with Polly Porter and her woman-centered existence strengthened her success as a politician."Susan Ware's excellent biography of Molly Dewson restores one of Franklin Roosevelt's chums and an irrepressible battler for women in politics to her proper place in the history of the New Deal."-Arthur Schlesinger, Jr."Rich, readable, and intriguing biography."-Estelle B. Freedman,Women's Review of Books"Readers should welcome Ware's spotlight on Dewson, which widens to disclose wonderfully human views of FDR and Eleanor and brings to life many virtually forgotten feminists of an era that threatens to fade into gray."-Publishers Weekly"Provides a lively and refreshingly concrete sense of everyday activities in reform and political circles. … A wonderful account of the model of a modern political woman."-Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,Times Literary SupplementSusan Ware is assistant professor of history at New York University, where she also coordinates the Women's History Program.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16069-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Molly Dewson—Boston-bred and Wellesley-educated—was America’s first female political boss. At the height of her power in 1936, she controlled eighty thousand women as director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee. During the depression decade of the 1930s, she built the Women’s Division into one of the most effective components of the newly revitalized Democratic party, winning places for women in politics and government on an unprecedented scale. These breakthroughs gave women their own New Deal.

    Male politicians had never seen anything like her. She strode into their offices, a tall, sturdy, middle-aged woman with New...

  5. Part One: Progressive Patterns

    • CHAPTER ONE A New England Girlhood
      (pp. 3-13)

      “I TOOK my first breath in a sparkling snowy land with lots of elbow room,” Molly Dewson recalled with characteristic optimism. Mary Williams Dewson was born on February 18, 1874 in Quincy, Massachusetts, a town which she remembered as “steeped in history.” She lived around the corner from the Adams homestead, and as a child watched the aged Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to the Court of St. James’s during the Civil War and the son and grandson of American presidents, walk along its garden paths. She worshipped at the First Church of Christ in Quincy, the burial place of John...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Education of Molly Dewson
      (pp. 14-31)

      “WHEN I was seventeen, I told my father I ‘ached’ to know more and wanted to go to college. I had never consciously met a woman college graduate but I had chanced on a Bryn Mawr catalogue.”¹ Like many women graduates of her generation, Molly Dewson relied on a moment of epiphany to explain her decision to attend college. Instead of Bryn Mawr in distant Pennsylvania, however, she and her family settled on nearby Wellesley College.

      Many aspects of Molly Dewson’s adult life had roots in her years at Wellesley. She was an ambitious young woman who arrived on campus...

    • CHAPTER THREE A Progressive Apprenticeship
      (pp. 32-47)

      IN a class book published by Wellesley College in 1910, Molly Dewson wrote exuberantly to her fellow classmates: “We used to play at choosing the period in which we would rather have lived. But what time could be more thrilling than our own, when in every city and town are springing up hundreds of sane, alert people to fight under scientific leadership the problems of their community with sympathy and sense?”¹ Dewson thus placed herself squarely within the Progressive reform tradition that animated early twentieth-century America. Coming of age during that period fundamentally shaped the course of her career.


    • CHAPTER FOUR Polly
      (pp. 48-61)

      “I MAY not always have been considered the most conservative member of ’97, but I have qualified now,” Molly Dewson reported to her Wellesley classmates in 1910. “I am still living with my mother in the house where I was born, and I am working for the same employer who interviewed me in the College Hall reception room in 1897.”¹ Was this dutiful daughter living at home the same woman who had been proving her professional competence in the widening social welfare networks of Progressive America? These two images are not mutually exclusive. For many college graduates, work and independence,...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Farmer-Suffragettes
      (pp. 62-72)

      IT is the spring of 1913 in the small central Massachusetts town of South Berlin. Two unmarried women have just moved into the old Lamson place down on River Road. The women seem serious about farming: they are building up a herd of Guernsey cows and have invested in a DeLavelle milk separator. Whenever they meet local townspeople at the store or at farm auctions, they seem knowledgeable about dairy herding and cattle management. And yet everyone in South Berlin realizes that Molly Dewson and Polly Porter are not typical Massachusetts farmers.

      For one thing, they spend money at a...

    • CHAPTER SIX Women at War
      (pp. 73-86)

      ON board the S. S.Adriaticafter fifteen months in France with the Red Cross during World War I, Molly Dewson wrote her close friend Lucy Stebbins, “Here we are one day out of New York and my war experience is nearly over. It certainly has been the great adventure of my life. The anguish of war for me was between its declaration and the time I got to work …. What a God given thing it is to know what you think you should do and to be able to do it.”¹

      Many other Progressives shared Dewson’s support for...

  6. Part Two: A New Deal for Women

    • CHAPTER SEVEN “When Red Roses Are Green”: The National Consumers’ League
      (pp. 89-104)

      THE year 1920 is often portrayed as a great divide in women’s history.¹ The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment ended an arduous seventy-two year struggle and represented an important milestone for the nation’s women citizens. Now, it seemed, women were the political equals of men.

      Optimism and excitement surrounded the suffrage victory. Suffrage leaders envisioned a future in which women citizens would use their franchise to support the issues of greatest concern to them, especially the promotion of international understanding and the furthering of social and humanitarian justice. Organized politicians, foreseeing a doubled electorate, quaked in fear that women might...

    • The Porter-Dewson Scrapbooks
      (pp. 105-132)
    • CHAPTER EIGHT A Small World: New York in the 1920s
      (pp. 133-147)

      WHEN Molly Dewson resigned from her job at the National Consumers’ League in 1924, she was fifty years old and tired. The several years before her entry into Democratic politics in the late 1920s were one of the breathing spells which she, consciously or unconsciously, built into her life. “I seem to remember I wanted a rest,” she observed about this gap.¹

      She picked an opportune time to pull back from the hectic pace of her career. With the Republicans firmly in control of the federal government and booming prosperity diverting attention away from structural weaknesses in the economy, the...

    • CHAPTER NINE Baptism into Politics
      (pp. 148-157)

      MOLLY DEWSON often remarked that, before FDR, women’s status in politics was “nebulous.” Women political leaders had little power or independence. “Outside of a few exceptions they were just figure-heads, symbols acknowledging that women had the vote. They waited for the go-ahead signal from the man who was responsible for their appointment.” When women received any reward at all, it was based not on their ability but on “their looks, their money, or their late husband’s service to the party.”¹

      Dewson’s rather bleak assessment showed how difficult it had proven to implement the goals women set when they won the...

    • CHAPTER TEN F. R. B. C. (For Roosevelt Before Chicago)
      (pp. 158-174)

      MOLLY DEWSON’S friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt grew more slowly than hers with Eleanor Roosevelt. With Eleanor, it all happened in a rush; with Franklin, it took several years to mature. But both relationships were among the most satisfying, both personally and politically, that Molly Dewson ever enjoyed.

      When Molly first met Franklin through Eleanor in 1925, his political future was still very much in doubt. He seemed pleasant enough, but he had not yet demonstrated the grasp of social and economic conditions he later displayed in the New Deal. Dewson saw glimmerings of a deeper Roosevelt during his first...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Patronage Politics
      (pp. 175-195)

      IN the winter of 1932–33 came the cruelest despair of the Depression. Despite official statements from politicians and business leaders that prosperity was just around the corner, three years after the stock market crash of 1929 the economy was still contracting. In 1932, industrial production was at barely half the 1929 levels. Farmers had huge surpluses, but consumers could not afford to buy their products. Worse, between twelve and fifteen million American men and women were unemployed, as much as one-quarter of the workforce. The economy had come to a virtual standstill.¹

      The political system proved inadequate to deal...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Campaigns Are Won Between Elections
      (pp. 196-211)

      “TODAY is to me a milestone in woman’s evolution,” Molly Dewson told a group of women Democrats in Richmond, Virginia, in 1935. All her life—as the head of a state department, a suffragist, a member of the boards of civic organizations, and a Democratic politician—she had been observing women expand their roles in public affairs. In the 1930s, something new was happening among women: “at last the women of a great national political party have decided to understand and explain as their first duty and function, and to do so as a recognized part of their party organization.”...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN The 1936 Campaign
      (pp. 212-226)

      MOLLY DEWSON never doubted that Franklin Roosevelt would run for reelection in 1936. She had been planning for that eventuality almost since Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933. Roosevelt’s bid for a second term would give her the chance to demonstrate that her efforts to organize Democratic women between campaigns had not been wasted. And she was eager for one last campaign before retirement: “I expect by next November I will have taught the Dem. gals all I know, and can sit in the sun awhile.” But most compelling was her continued faith in Roosevelt and the New Deal. “I am...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN A Just Measure of Social Decency
      (pp. 227-244)

      ROOSEVELT’S second term opened on a somewhat frivolous note for Molly Dewson. Immediately after FDR’s inauguration, Democratic women got together for a “Molly Dewson Round-Up.” Led by Eleanor Roosevelt and Jim Farley (who had to crash the party because men were not invited), Democratic women joined together to heap praise on their beloved leader. Practically every prominent women in the Roosevelt administration was there. Before the gathering broke up, the assembled women had nominated Molly Dewson for president in 1940.¹

      Dewson had a chance for more public fun in mid-February. At Franklin Roosevelt’s suggestion, Molly was deputized to give Jim...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Castine Revisited
      (pp. 245-262)

      “I THINK when you have to slow up it’s hard to do it halfways,” Molly Dewson admitted to Frances Perkins in 1939. “If you get far enough away for perspective you lose driving force. If you stop for long enough to get rested you lose momentum.” While Dewson believed that “few die of overwork compared with those who die of boredom,” by the late 1930s she felt she could no longer actively participate in public life without seriously jeopardizing her health. Consequently, she cut back on politics and embraced domesticity. And her emotional life entered a final distinctive phase: “Polly...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 263-318)
  8. Index
    (pp. 319-327)