The room suddenly got very quiet, as you might imagine a room full of managerial, matriarchal women would. I felt sweat trickling down the back of my neck.
“The dowager and the society snob have long been the mainstay of the satirist and caricaturist, and people like to see them lambasted,” I continued. “Women in organization work are funny, too, largely because they are so obsessed with detail. But clubwomen are good sports and ready to laugh at themselves.”
And the clubwomen did laugh — after I confessed that I didn’t write those words. Another Washington Post columnist did. Her name was Malvina Lindsay, and she was the woman’s page editor of The Post and author of a regular column called “The Gentler Sex.” She spoke at the Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase’s March 1939 luncheon. I had quoted from her speech, which was titled “Women Are Funny.”
I’m pretty sure a male columnist in 2013 could not get away with delivering a speech called “Women Are Funny.” And given that I have made a close study of females over the past 30 years — a wife, two daughters — I’m not even sure I would call them “The Gentler Sex.”
Women’s clubs flourished at a time when it wasn’t easy for females to enter male-dominated endeavors: business, government, the academy. It would be easy to dismiss such groups as somehow light and frothy, devoted to bake sales, gardening and holiday pageants. But that would certainly be wrong in the case of the Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase.
I went through The Post archives, and here are some of the topics I found that were addressed by speakers at the club’s monthly meetings: arms control, immigration, school reform, prison problems, rat eradication, offensive billboards.
In January 1938, the speaker was a German journalist named Max Clauss. He said, “Viewed from the European as well as from the American standpoint, 1938 is a year of peace.” He mentioned a meeting held between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and said these two men “openly declared that they wished to live in peace with their neighbors.”
Riiight. Four years later, the ambassador from the Netherlands, Alexander Loudon, visited the Woman’s Club to say that Nazism must be crushed: “To win this war, we must be willing to sweat and shed blood, make whatever sacrifices are necessary.”
In June 1941 — with Europe in flames but America still on the sidelines — the club decided to cancel its typical summer recess and start a program of defense activities. It launched a weekly course in map study, teaching women the most direct routes to clinics and hospitals, and how to avoid congestion and conserve gasoline.
After Pearl Harbor, members also did such things as roll bandages, sell war bonds and take up plane spotting, scouring the skies over Chevy Chase for enemy Messerschmitts and Zeroes.
I don’t think the Nazis ever stood a chance.
When I spoke Saturday — at the group’s Connecticut Avenue clubhouse — I said I didn’t mean to be unfair to Malvina Lindsay, who after being The Post’s women’s editor joined the opinion staff and wrote three times a week about social issues. When Lindsay said, “Men resent bossy women even as they find them amusing” she wasn’t criticizing women. She was commenting on men.
In November 1945, she wrote a column in The Post titled “Momma, Take a Bow.” America was pulling itself together after the horrendous war. Lindsay had noticed that pundits were bemoaning the fact that too many young men were unfit for military service and too many young women had refused to join the war effort. It was claimed that U.S. mothers had coddled their children so much that the kids of America lacked mental toughness, self-reliance and a sense of public responsibility.
And to this, Malvina Lindsay said: Give me a break.
She wrote: “In view of what she has faced, it might seem that Mom should be the one to revolt. Too much has been expected of her in the past, and in doing it she has had too little help from Pop, as well as from society….
“If women, in rearing the next generation of children, get more assistance from schools, churches, public health agencies and from marriage partners who are educated to a greater sense of responsibility in the home, there will be much less danger of their becoming either matriarchs or maternal vampires.”
Malvina Lindsay retired from The Post in 1959 and died in 1972 at the age of 79. Many of the problems explored at the Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase live on.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.