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Freda Kirchwey biography. The whole world was her beat

By Ruth Walker / July 3, 1987



Freda Kirchwey, a Woman of The Nation, by Sara Alpern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 368 pp. $27.50. FREDA KIRCHWEY was a radical American liberal, ever ready to fight for justice and equality, ever optimistic that humanity was improvable and her ideals realizable.

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And Kirchwey (1893-1976) was indeed a woman of The Nation. She started out as an editorial assistant in the international relations section of this liberal journal, and rose to become not only its editor but its owner.

At a time when her brand of liberalism seems almost quaint, like Sen. Paul Simon's bow ties, Kirchwey's story might seem less than immediately relevant. But in discussing Kirchwey and the issues she wrestled with throughout her life, Alpern not only introduces a quite interesting character to a whole new generation of readers but also charts quite a bit of American diplomatic and social history.

Mary Frederika Kirchwey was born into a comfortable New York family - her father was a professor of law at Columbia University - with a tradition of passionate interest in reformist politics.

She was a bright student, despite lackluster grades, and a natural leader. She wrote extensively even in high school - short stories, essays on social subjects - and after graduation from Barnard in 1915 went to work for the Morning Telegraph. Nominally her assignment was covering general news from ``the woman's angle''; in fact her top priority was to use her position to crusade for the vote for women.

Then in 1918, after some other short-term jobs, she went to work for The Nation, which had been founded in 1865 and was being newly re-energized by Oswald Garrison Villard, a committed reformer.

She was actively involved with The Nation until her retirement in 1955. To review the list of public-policy issues that occupied Kirchwey's thoughts and columns over the years is to realize how slowly the issues change. The question of how much of what the Soviets say can be taken at face value, for instance, was also a question in the 1920s.

Kirchwey's was the foreign-policy wisdom against which today's conservatism, neo-conservatism, and other variations on those themes, are the reaction.

But it is Alpern's discussion of the private issues in Kirchwey's life that makes her seem most contemporary. She kept her own name after she married Evans Clark in 1915; he was what would today be called a ``supportive'' husband. She expected her children to call her and their father by their given names. She struggled to balance work and family at a period when there was no particular support within society for a woman's attempt to do so. But whereas today's working parents worried about having adequate ``quality time'' with their children, Kirchwey and her husband had to face the deaths - through no fault of theirs - of two of their three sons, one in infancy and the other as a young boy.

The deaths of her sons, along with strained periods in her relationship with her husband, led Kirchwey at times to doubt her own femininity. In today's parlance, we might say that for all her self-conscious feminism, she had internalized traditional sex roles more than she realized.

At a time when newspapers everywhere were still running sections labeled ``the women's pages,'' Kirchwey took the whole world as her beat - which was not a typically ``feminine'' thing to do. And much as she admired the anarchist Emma Goldman, for instance - she said of Goldman, ``Her collective emotions moved her as only private feelings move most of us'' - yet she also worried whether Goldman somehow ``lacked femininity.''

Kirchwey's was a generation with sublime confidence in the advice of ``the experts,'' notably in fields where relying on tradition was the conventional approach. At one point, when Kirchwey and her husband were experimenting with extramarital relationships, she decided that The Nation should look into ``moral questions'' in a big way. And so Alpern gives the reader a curious picture of Kirchwey unsure about how to feel about adultery until she has a panel of experts in to discuss the pros and cons - and even then she's uncertain.

Like many liberals of her generation, she had a blind spot about the Soviet Union and continued in unjustified optimism over its leaders' motives. However, when Clement Greenberg, a former Nation staff member, charged in the letters column of The New Leader that The Nation was a mouthpiece for the Soviet Union, she launched a painful and protracted libel suit. It was a drag on the journal, it cost her the esteem of many of her friends, and it was ultimately settled out of court, anyway.

On balance, though, she was a strong voice for her ideals, and a committed and caring journalist. She was a woman of the nation - and the world.

Ruth Walker is an editorial writer for the Monitor.