By Elisabeth Israels Perry
Professor Emerita, St. Louis University
Suffragist, National Woman’s Party administrator, writer, pacifist.
“Becky,” as her friends called her, was the daughter of middle-class, secularized, Russian immigrant Jews. Her father, Isaac A. Hourwich, an attorney, had been exiled to Siberia for revolutionary activities, escaped, and immigrated to the United States in the early 1890s. After earning a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University, he became a professor and wrote prolifically on immigration. Her mother, Lisa Jaffe Hourwich, was the daughter of a Ukrainian school teacher who brought his family to the United States when Lisa was twenty-six. Lisa studied law and hoped to share a practice with Isaac, but the arrival of children forced her to go into teaching instead. In her oral memoir, Rebecca said her mother’s life experience influenced her own “passionate support” of women’s careers.
Rebecca Hourwich came early to feminism, marching at age sixteen in the famous 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., where her family then lived. Two years later, while taking courses at Columbia University’s extension division, she took part in street meetings in Newark, N. J., for the Women’s Political Union and suffrage organizing work in Brockton, Mass., for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After suffragist Anne Martin recommended her to Alice Paul, Hourwich became a loyal supporter of Paul’s crusade for the federal amendment and never worked for the NAWSA again.
In January 1916 she entered the University of Chicago, where she would study on-and-off for many years until awarded her degree later in life. In 1917 she married writer Ferdinand Reyher and moved back to Washington, where she worked in the National Woman’s Party office, sold The Suffragist in the street (she hated doing this), and did some picketing. She was never arrested. In fall 1917, while traveling through the South to publicize the arrests, by chance she met Sue Shelton White and persuaded her to join the suffrage movement in Washington. She felt that this was one of the best things she had done for the movement.
Between 1918 and 1922 she gravitated between the Boston, New York City, and Washington NWP offices. She gave birth to a daughter, Faith, in May 1919 and continued course work (sometimes by correspondence) in Chicago and at the New York School of Social Work. In managing the NWP’s offices, she did whatever Alice Paul asked of her—dealing with visitors, distributing publicity, raising money, and accompanying prominent women on lobbying activities. Faith’s birth, which was physically hard on her (she was a “bleeder”), led her to stop, although later she would do “spot jobs” for the party.
Her life as a writer began in the early 1920s with articles about feminism for Equal Rights, of which she was then Associate Editor. Her placing of articles in Hearst’s International launched her free-lance writing career in earnest. The magazine sent her to South Africa in 1924, the first of six subsequent trips to the continent. By then living apart from her husband (she would not divorce him until Faith was fourteen), she supported herself and her daughter with advertisement copy writing for the J. Walter Thompson Company in New York. In 1929 she took a leave to take accept being a translator and guide to a wealthy woman traveling to Europe, Russia, and the Near East. When she returned the Depression was in full swing and the company no longer had a job for her.
By then on the New York board of the NWP, she wanted to stay in the city. Between 1930 and 1931 she worked as a public relations assistant and speech writer for Joseph McKee, then president of the Board of Aldermen. She initiated and wrote a column for him under his signature called “Your City and Mine,” which appeared in the New York World three times a week, and did a radio series on the history and administration of New York. Other political “bosses” admired her work and wanted to promote her own political career, but the corruption she observed in City Hall alienated her and she declined.
Other jobs she held in the 1930s included consultant and adviser for Sears Roebuck and Company on the “woman’s point of view.” In 1934 she made her second trip to Africa, this time to Zululand, where she collected material for her book Zulu Woman. Despite an endorsement from famed anthropologist Ruth Benedict, she could not find a publisher for it until 1945. Between 1935 and 1937 she worked as a regional director of the Works Progress Administration for New York and New England, and from 1937 to 1939 as assistant to the director of the WPA’s Information and Motion Pictures Service. Her work with Mabel Vernon in international peace work and the resettlement of World War II refugees garnered much publicity. She published a second book on Africa, The Fon and His Hundred Wives, in 1952.
She did not use her husband’s name until she was divorced and was applying for a passport for herself and her daughter. She knew she was bowing to convention but thought having the same name as her daughter would make traveling easier for Faith.
Here’s how her friend, writer Nancy Hallinan, described her in the preface to Hourwich’s oral memoir: “She has a smile like sunshine, a wide bright smile; dark brown eyes full of twinkles (one might almost say mischief), and most infectious of all, a low, throaty laugh, a marvelous warmth.” She had a “special sensitivity to womankind.” “She is loyal, loving, stubborn, dedicated, idealistic, understanding; she is also enormously courageous, and graced with a beautiful sense of humor.” Hallinan saw her as a complicated self, perhaps “many selves”: suffragette, columnist, lecturer, teacher, WPA director, traveler, author of motion picture documentaries, articles, books, radio personality, popular anthropologist, and more. In short, she was a creative, multi-faceted, and productive scholar and writer.
Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, “Search and Struggle for Equality and Independence,” Interview Conducted by Amelia R. Fry and Fern Ingersoll, 1977 (714 pp. typescript, indexed) http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/rohoia/ucb/text/struggle4equalit00reyhrich.pdf (accessed June 23, 2016). Her views were featured in Silas Bent, “The Feminist Magna Charta,” New York Times, Dec 10, 1922; the Times featured her peace work in the 1940s; a short Times obituary appeared on Jan. 13, 1987. See also Linda G. Ford, Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991) and Melissa R. Klapper, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (N.Y.: New York University Press, 2013). Reyher’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library (https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/6010).