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The Spider Web Chart
by Jo Freeman

This piece was posted to H-Women in May 1995

After World War I the country was enveloped in a general "red scare" in which many organizations and individuals were accused of aiding Bolshevism. Even women's colleges were denounced by Vice President Calvin Coolidge as hotbeds of radicalism (Coolidge, 1921). The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) tried to tar Suffrage with the socialist brush and the American Medical Association claimed that the Sheppard-Towner Act was communistic but their accusations did not find a wide audience. (Lemons, 1973, 210-11). NAOWS had denounced woman suffrage, socialism and feminism as the "three branches of the same tree of Social Revolution" as soon as the Bolshevicks won power in Russia (11 Woman's Protest, Feb. 1918, 7, quoted in Lemons, 1973, 10). After Suffrage, NAOWS became the Woman Patriot Corporation and continued its attacks. It was not until a couple years later, when the inferences that all women reformers were "pink sisters" appeared to come from the War Department, that they acquired some legitimacy.
During the War its Military Intelligence Division had collected material on "feminism" and had undercover agents among women war workers. In 1922 it turned its attention to women's political activities. In 1919 the Woman's Peace Party was reorganized by Jane Addams into the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). It did not join the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC), but many of its members were also involved with WJCC organizations, with whom they shared a concern for peace and welfare legislation, including cutting military appropriations. President Harding and his Secretary of War, anti-suffragist John D. Weeks, wanted continued conscription and increased appropriations, but Congress, tired of war and influenced by Progressive and pacifist groups, did not agree. The role of the WILPF in this defeat brought it into direct conflict with the War Department. In 1922 Secretary Weeks and several generals began to publicly denounce pacifist groups and dismiss women opponents of military preparedness as hysterics. In addition to the WILPF, they also attacked the PTA, the YWCA, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Girls' Friendly Society (an Episcopal Church group), all members of the WJCC.
In May of 1923, Lucia R. Maxwell, the librarian of the Chemical Warfare Service of the War Department published a chart based on the Department's files. In the center column was a list of the "Women's Joint Congressional Committee Participating and Cooperating Organizations in [the] National Council for Prevention of War". On the sides were listed prominant individuals along with summaries of their radical views and other organizational memberships. Lines linking these people and organizations gave it the name of the "Spider Web Chart". At the top, in big black letters, was a claim that "THE SOCIALIST-PACIFIST MOVEMENT IN AMERICA IS AN ABSOLUTELY FUNDAMENTAL AND INTEGRAL PART OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM (Lusk Report p. 11)". At the bottom the librarian had written a poem, entitled "Miss Bolsheviki". (The version described herein was obtained from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Other versions may be available elsewhere.)

Miss Bolsheviki has come to town,
With a Russian cap and a German gown,
In women's clubs she's sure to be found,
For she's come to disarm AMERICA.

She sits in judgment on Capitol Hill,
And watches the appropriation bill
And without her O.K., it passes --- NIL
For she's there to disarm AMERICA.

She uses the movie and lyceum too,
And later text-books to suit her view,
She prates propaganda from pulpit and pew,
For she's bound to disarm AMERICA.

The male of the specie has a different plan,
He uses the bomb and the fire brand,
and incites class hatred wherever he can
While she's busy disarming AMERICA.

His special stunt is arousing the mob.
To expropriate and hate and kill and rob,
While she's working on her political job,

This chart was circulated widely and eventually printed in the March 1924 Dearborn Independent with an article entitled "Are Women's Clubs 'Used' by Bolshevists?". The article claimed that under the generalship of avowed socialist Florence Kelley they were using such fronts as the Children's Bureau to advance the purposes of the Kremlin. A month later the WJCC wrote Secretary Weeks that the Chemical Warfare Service's attack was contemptible and threatened reprisals from 12 million women. Weeks admitted the chart had errors, insisted the librarian had not published it in her official capacity and ordered all copies destroyed. (Material in this section is based on Lemons, 1973, Chapter 8; Johnson, 1972, 47-48; Anderson, 1951, 188-192 and Jensen, 1983. See also O'Neill, 1969, 229n2.) One such error was the inclusion of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). While it had once been a progressive organizations, it was not a member of the WJCC, and eventually out-red-baited the War Department).
Despite this retreat, the chart found an eager audience and continued to be used by opponents of legislation favored by the WJCC and reform organizations, not just disarmament or Child Labor Amendment foes. Accompanied by charges of "bolshevism", "socialized medicine" and "nationalization of children" the Spider Web chart was read into the Congressional Record in 1926 when the five-year appropriation for the Sheppard-Towner Act ran out. Because the program was considered a success, proponents did not anticipate any resistance to additional authorization of funds despite continued opposition from the medical profession. This turned out to be true only in the House. The Senate refused to consider it for eight months despite President Coolidge's support. After a "life and death struggle", a Senate filibuster was broken and funds appropriated for another two years, with the proviso that the entire program would expire in 1929 unless renewed. It wasn't. (Johnson, 1972, 47, 48, 51. Lemons, 1973, 172-174. Chambers, 1963, 247. Nielson, 1996.)


Anderson, Mary, Woman at Work, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951.

Chambers, Clarke A., Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action 1918-1933, Minn.: U. Minnesota Press, 1963.

Coolidge, Calvin, "Enemies of the Republic: Are the 'Reds' Stalking Our College Women?" 98 The Delineator, June 1921, 4-5, 66-67.

Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers, New York: W.W. Norton, 1971.

Lemons, J. Stanley, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Jensen, Joan M., "All Pink Sisters: The War Department and the Feminist Movement in the 1920s", in Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen, eds. Decades of Discontent: The Women's Movement, 1920-1940, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Johnson, Dorothy, "Organized Women as Lobbyists in the 1920's," 1:1 Capitol Studies, 1972.

Nielsen, Kim, The Security of the Nation: Anti-Radicalism and Gender in the Red Scare of 1918-1928, Ph.D. Dissertation, U of Iowa, 1996. Published as: Un-American Womanhood : Antiradicalism, Antifeminism, and the First Red Scare / Kim E. Nielsen. Columbus : Ohio State University Press, 2001.

O'Neill, William L., Everyone was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

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