They were an unusual and proudly unruly group, mostly college-educated women, a rarity at the time, in the early 1900s. They came together every other Saturday afternoon in a bustling, smoky eatery called Polly’s, to debate the as-yet nascent definition and import of “feminism,” as well as other political and social issues of the day. Their club, appropriately named Heterodoxy for the divergent mix of opinions its participants posed, formed in 1912. It was just a few years before their scruffy Greenwich Village haunt became a magnet for the masses because of its reputation as a hotbed of free love and radical thought and a wellspring for revolutionary change.
Some of the group’s members were married, others in then-scandalous open relationships, and still others in same-sex unions. Many in the circle disavowed form-fitting clothes and long locks, instead choosing short haircuts and flowing batik-print tunics. Such were the stylish markers of where they worked, argued, staged satirical political plays, held salons and marched together for suffrage and workers’ rights, from the launchpad of their bohemian Village enclave.
So relates historian and author Joanna Scutts in “Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism,” a deeply researched and kinetic historical telling of Heterodoxy’s fruitful, if also fraught, period, from its inception until the early 1920s. In vibrant prose that summons the idealism and daring of the very existence of Heterodoxy as a center for sisterhood and women-led political thought, Scutts brings to life the stories of women who formed friendships among their ranks, the majority of whom were upper-middle-class authors, journalists, sociologists and artists.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Scutts says that she wrote most of “Hotbed” during the coronavirus pandemic and the stay-at-home guidelines in New York that began two weeks after she gave birth. Unable to travel to visit archives, she says, she received essential remote research resources, including digitized materials and photographs, from the New York Public Library, Yale’s Beinecke Library and the Schlesinger Library.
She notes that most of the Heterodoxy members have since faded from our written history. While some in the club were the subjects of biographies, many of those books are no longer available. For Scutts, this made “Hotbed” a critical text for posterity. As she writes in her introduction, “This is a story about feminism … in its first American incarnation. It’s also a story about how history is written: what matters and what doesn’t in the stories we tell; who gets forgotten and why.”
Among the Heterodoxy members, and perhaps the most well-known, was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the novella “The Yellow Wallpaper,” standard reading for today’s feminist scholars (although we struggle with the author’s legacy of racism). Grace Nail Johnson was the only Black member of the group and the wife of James Weldon Johnson, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a working-class union activist and socialist member of the club, whose fiery oratory style drew crowds. In describing how integral her full-body approach to speaking was for capturing audiences, Scutts quotes Gurley Flynn: “We gesticulated, we paced the platform, we appealed to the emotions. … Even when newly-arrived immigrants did not understand our words they shared our spirit.”
Together, Hurley Flynn and the other Heterodites agitated for upending societal constructs that made life brutal, or even deadly, for women, even as they argued over competing priorities implicating race, class and national vs. international agendas. Scutts takes us through such pivotal moments as the early suffrage parades with well-to-do women in white dresses and straw hats on horseback, spectacles she says were “designed to be seen, photographed, and discussed even more widely in the media—to go viral, 1910s-style.” The book also chronicles how Heterodoxy members spearheaded workers’ strikes to address deplorable factory conditions. Those efforts took place in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 workers — mostly Italian and Jewish — were killed. “Hotbed” moves on to World War I in 1914, the country’s first Red Scare beginning in 1917 and, in 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
One of “Hotbed’s” most compelling features is its unflinching depiction of Heterodoxy as a collective of mostly wealthy White women who struggled with how to forge solidarity across race and class boundaries. This took shape, for example, in their interactions with immigrant women striking for better working conditions. Scutts points out that “Many strikers resented the press attention lavished on these glamorous upper-class activists and suspected — not entirely wrongly — that their cause was at risk of being co-opted to advance the suffrage agenda.” As one striker suggested, rather starkly, to a Heterodoxy member: “You can go with us on the picket line. If there’s a lady with us the police won’t beat us up.”
Scutts is equally baldfaced in detailing the racism within the group’s microcosm. By example, she writes, “White suffragists rarely acknowledged that the risks of marching, or speaking out in public, were very different for a working-class African American woman. … They sidelined or excluded Black women, who nonetheless continued to participate … and fought to be treated fairly and recognized for their contributions.”
Perhaps the most trenchant features of “Hotbed” are the parallels to today’s landscape. Noting the disparate effects of inequality from more than a century ago, Scutts writes in “Hotbed,” “Rich women had always been able to control the size of their families and discreetly obtain contraceptives or abortions. It was working-class women whose health and futures were at risk. …”
Those statements are no less true today. As Scutts says in her epilogue, “Voting rights are under sustained assault, and feminists continue to turn out into the streets in the thousands to demand rights that the Heterodites were also fighting for—as well as some that they could only have dreamed about.”
Karen Iris Tucker is a Brooklyn-based journalist.
Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism