Hotbed by Joanna Scutts – a book of the Secret Club that sparked Modern Feminism in America

Hotbed by Joanna Scutts

It is difficult to do justice in a relatively short review to an immense book that introduces “Bohemian New York and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism”. In Joanna Scutts’ Introduction which is invaluable in setting the style and nature of a coming together of women in America in 1912 onwards, as well as a book which surveys them in all their different agendas, lives and work, she outlines some of the difficulties of setting out the nature of the Society.  Despite its loose association and arguable lack of structure compared with other campaigning groups, it survived a World War and more local pressures in terms of Prohibition, Depression and pressure on its key members from legislation and life choices, and only faded in the onset of another cataclysmic World War. Taking the form of a secret social club in which discussion and activism in so many fields, including women’s suffrage, equal marriage, free love, child rearing and labour rights dominated activities, the “Heterodoxy” was far from a single issue group. Perhaps its strength was its loose form, which allowed and perhaps even tacitly encouraged experimentation and different lifestyle choices from its members rather than the strict and focused efforts of the various suffrage groups in Britain, which split on such things as the level of activity some members proposed as necessary and the personalities of some of its founder members. 

The group had its origins in the college educated women who would gather in certain restaurants in New York for informal discussions. Led and somehow hosted by its first founder, ex religious minister Marie Jenney Howe and her husband Frederic, a coming together of women in a cheap and somewhat district called the Village for lively discussion and resulting activities which blossomed into an organisation which attracted the articulate and dissatisfied. A significant number were relatively well off financially, which meant that publications and campaging magazines could be funded and could be distributed. Many members were writers, some of whose radical and innovative works gave new insights into a woman’s lot. One of the best known was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had published a serious work “Women and Economics” as early as 1900, but who is perhaps best known today for her novella “The Yellow Wallpaper” which is a fictional but no less powerful protest against masculine medical oppression in female mental health. Many remarkable women identified with the causes central to Heterodoxy, including those in same sex relationships, and many who chose to use the forms of birth control then available to limit their families. Experiments with family structures, childcare arrangements and living arrangements were essayed – most women associated with the society had the financial and intellectual resources to write, live and generally challenge the social norms of the time. This is not to suggest that the living was easy – there were personal tensions, and divisions caused by War did upset some. There were also outside pressures on those who openly questioned the status quo and political organisations from the highest level. 

This is an immense work which like its subject, does not confine itself to straightforward chronological descriptions. There are pen portraits of leading memebrs of the group, together with such debates such as “Pacifism Versus Patriotism”. This book is about the early days and waves of “feminism” in America, and while the definition of even that basic term is debated in this book, the Epilogue sets out how femisinism today can be affected by some of the basic tenets of the group in terms of coming together.

Technically this is a very readable yet academically robust book. The Notes section at the end of the book gives notes and references for each chapter in enormous detail. The bibliography, or here “Works Cited and Consulted” is equally extensive. There is also an Index, which also highlights the well chosen illustrations. 

This book is a huge achievement in terms of women’s studies but also the nature of political and intellectual awareness and activity in America in the early part of the twentieth century. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.