A friend recently gave me one of those extreme wide-angle-lens black and white framed photographs that had belonged to his dad who was a White House correspondent in the 1940s. I had it hung in my office as a poignant object lesson, asking visitors to take a close look and to tell me what they see.
A close look can be a shocker. It was a photograph of the 1945 White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, with well over 1,000 people sitting at banquet tables and a head table that included President Truman and other recognizable dignitaries. What does it show?
It shows that every single person in that hall was a white male. It didn’t even show anyone who might have been part of the wait staff that was a woman or a person of color. This was the America at the end of the Second World War, just after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Women had won the right to vote 25 years earlier, the culmination of struggles dating back to the 1840s, but society had advanced very little on the issue, in terms of day-to-day life, by the end of the Second World War, as the photograph shows.
It was the impact of those two great wars of the 20th century that called into question in a fundamental way the ability of males to run human affairs. The two wars, aspects actually of one great war, were orchestrated by cousins, the three aristocratic monarchs of Britain, Germany and Russia, all blood relatives, who presided over the slaughter, between the two wars, of over 200 million of the best educated people in the world.
It should not be lost on anyone that women achieved the right to vote in 1920, following the end of the First World War just 100 years ago, on November 11, 1918, and the great flu epidemic that as a consequence that wiped out millions.
It led to the rise of the “modern woman,” who embraced fashion as an expression of a new independence, and it was their moral and intellectual development that accounted for most of the decent things that happened leading up to 1945. The decent things, not the brutal ones. Many of them introduced in the Franklin Roosevelt years were the result of the influence over the president that his “modern woman” wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had.
As one example, President Hoover called out the troops to suppress the protests of the American veterans struggling in the midst of the Great Depression who demanded their government pensions for the effort they made in World War I.
In July 1932, when 17,000 veterans showed up in Washington, D.C. with their wives and children, totalling 43,000 in all, to demand their pensions, they were known as the Bonus Army, and Hoover called out the U.S. Army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to root them out of their makeshift camps and destroy their possessions.
Roosevelt was elected that November, and when another demonstration was organized in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt interceded, personally visiting many of the veterans and their families herself. They were all offered jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps in West Virginia, and almost everyone accepted the offer.
By 1945, militant male-dominated society had prosecuted a Second World War at the cost of millions more lives, and it is hardly surprising that at its conclusion, institutions like the White House Correspondents Association would be all male, all white.
It didn’t advance much right away. It wasn’t until the late Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, convinced President Kennedy to boycott the White House Correspondents Dinner unless women correspondents were invited that things changed.
Significant progress was made in the 1960s, the result of a feminist movement that was rekindled in the context of the civil rights and anti-war struggles.
In 1972, Congress approved an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, requiring ratification by three-fourths of the states. But it fell three states short as the counterevolution to the feminists took hold.
But at last, the next feminist wave is about to hit in this November’s election.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].