I connected last month with America historian Catherine M. Burns via Twitter (@cmburns21) as I published my Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland series. Burns has written about the April 1920 women pickets joined by Russell, both in her dissertation, “American Identity and the Transatlantic Irish Nationalist Movement, 1912-1925” (cited in my series), and in her chapter on Kathleen O’Brennan in The Irish in the Atlantic World.
Burns holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The New York Irish History Roundtable recognized her dissertation research with its award for distinguished graduate work on the history of the Irish in New York City. Her articles on Irish-American courtship and the Irish Home Rule movement in New York City have appeared in the journal New Hibernia Review. She has also written about Irish-American theater and the 1922 fight for control of the Irish consulate for Gotham, for the scholarly blog of the Gotham Center for New York City History. We conducted this question-and-answer via email.
What is the background of the 1920 women’s pickets on behalf of Irish independence?
BURNS: Dr. William J. Maloney, an advocate for U.S. recognition of the Irish Republic, orchestrated the picketing in Washington, D.C. that began on April 2, 1920. The women he organized are often called the American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America’s War Aims, but that’s not right. I found that women with more radical outlooks later formed that group in New York City.
Maloney envisioned the picketing as a short-term publicity opportunity and deliberately selected young, pretty women who could easily get their photographs in newspapers. He thought the pickets would spend a few days in Washington protesting outside the British Embassy before the Easter holiday. They would call on the British government to pay back war loans owed to the United States rather than funding warfare in Ireland. All the while, the women would pose for newspaper photographers who would, in turn, spread their images and the Irish republican message across the country.
Maloney was surprised when 10 pickets were arrested on the Monday after Easter and faced a federal grand jury. The arrests effectively ended his involvement. Women bolder than Maloney took over the picketing, extended it, and turned it into something more in line with the media stunts of militant women suffragists. Two days after the arrests, Mollie Carroll, a young actress previously paid to picket by Maloney, generated newspaper copy all over the United States by flying an airplane over Washington and dropping pro-republican handbills over the city.
How was the media coverage? What was the reaction from the Irish and Irish America?
BURNS: Prior to the arrests newspaper coverage was relatively even-handed although suspicious of the women because picketing was associated with militant women suffragists. [The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was passed Aug. 19, 1920.] Several newspapers throughout the country published photographs of a regal and somber–looking Mary Manning Walsh, co-leader of the picketing, carrying a sign reading: “England: American women condemn your reign of terror in the Irish Republic.” Maloney had hoped the picketing would brand Walsh as the face of women’s support for the Irish Republic in the United States. This did not come to pass, but Walsh did succeed in drawing the kind of attention Maloney envisioned. After police took pickets into custody, newspapers tended to portray the women as somewhat dangerous. Headlines describing Mollie Carroll’s airplane leafleting as a “bombing” of the British Embassy served to imply that the violence of the Irish War for Independence had come to the United States.
Daniel Cohalan, the leader of the Friends of Irish Freedom, was also suspicious of Maloney and the pickets. He and his associates gathered intelligence on them, eager to see if they were being directed by Sinn Féin. The Friends advocated for Irish self-determination but stopped short of demanding that the United States risk its relationship with London by recognizing the Irish Republic. Maloney and the pickets rejected this view. Some newspapers, including the Washington Post, stated that the Friends were behind the pickets. Such reporting dismayed Cohalan.
In addition to Ruth Russell, who were the other journalists in the crowd?
BURNS: The Easter 1920 picketing venture was designed to appear in newspapers and female journalists and recognizable women with media connections helped to generate the publicity that Maloney and the pickets desired.
Picket Honor Walsh of Philadelphia made her living as a journalist and editor with the Catholic Standard and Times. Constance Todd, a magazine writer married to a Washington newspaper correspondent, was on picket duty. So too was Rosa Hanna, wife of the socialist journalist Paul Hanna. He penned sympathetic reports on the protest for the New York Call. Pickets Theresa Russell and Matilda Gardner were both prominent woman suffragists, but they, too, had close family ties to journalists and newspapers. Gardner’s father was the editor of the Chicago Tribune.
I think journalism is key to understanding the involvement of Kathleen O’Brennan and Gertrude Corless in the picketing. O’Brennan was an Irish journalist and her family played an important role in the revolutionary movement in Ireland. She relayed select information about the pickets to reporters, emphasizing their Protestant faiths and long family lineages in the United States in order to claim that people outside of Irish circles supported the Irish Republic. Gertrude Corless—who shared a Washington hotel room with Ruth Russell—served as the pickets’ co-leader and public spokesperson. Notably, she had ties to the Hearst newspapers. In 1920, the Hearst newspapers backed Irish envoy Harry Boland’s scheme to generate anti-British sentiments in the United States. Corless was the private secretary of an editorial writer who penned pro-republican editorials for Hearst newspapers. As picket co-leader, Corless directed the production of such propaganda.