Biographical Sketch of Bertha (Betsy) Wallerstein (Hutchison)

Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Bertha (Betsy) Wallerstein (Hutchison), 1899-1950


By Nina Farber, Independent Historian, and Delia Tash, librarian, Penn State University Abington.

Bertha (later known as Betsy) Wallerstein began campaigning for the vote at the age of 14. She was born in Albany, New York on May 25, 1899 to Alfred Wallerstein, a Harvard alumnus and businessman who successfully marketed the first collared shirt, and his wife, Nellie, who attended both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania. When Bertha was quite young, the family moved to the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon, a short train ride from downtown Manhattan. From an early age, Bertha's mother introduced her to the many women's leagues that had organized to promote wide social reforms, including woman suffrage.

By the time Bertha was fourteen, she was traveling into the city on her own to volunteer at the Woman Suffrage Party Headquarters on East 34th St. A diary, which the teenage Bertha kept from age July 1913 to July 1915, chronicles her early involvement in the New York suffrage movement. It includes a lively account of an August 1913 suffrage rally at City Hall in front of the statue of revolutionary hero Nathan Hale. Bertha, who was tasked with laying flowers at Hale's feet, delivered an impromptu speech to a group of men who had gathered in the plaza to hear baseball scores. She described herself as willing to "swallow" the "great patriot" "for the cause." She did not appreciate, however, an account in the New York Tribune, which reported that afterward, she "gritted her teeth" and jumped over the jeering crowd, while a "policeman grasped her little white silk ankle, guiding her safely back to the taxi as the crowd applauded." Reflecting on the news story in her diary, she called the reporter: "the biggest liar I ever heard of." A few weeks later, Bertha and Flora Gapen, the Woman Suffrage Party's business manager, were photographed on the steps of City Hall, after the Mayor refused their invitation to march with them to the Woman's Suffrage tent at the county fair in Yonkers. This time, Bertha was pleased with the Tribune's coverage. Apparently, in response to jeering onlookers, an "unperturbed" Miss Wallerstein called out: "give us another one of those chicken sandwiches."

In the summer of 1914, at the age of fifteen, Bertha traveled with her mother to London where she was introduced to George Lansbury, member of Parliament, Labour Party leader, and longstanding ally of the British militant suffragettes. On learning of Bertha's passion for the movement, Lansbury offered to introduce her to Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of the militant suffrage leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Six months earlier, Sylvia Pankhurst had broken from her mother's organization, the Women's Social and Political Union, to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which campaigned for the vote as a way of improving the lives of poor, working women. Bertha wrote in her diary that she "had to strain every nerve not to cry then and there," and that she could not believe that "[a]fter planning so many crazy ways of meeting Miss Pankhurst," she was "going to meet her perfectly sanely!" "But I won't be sane!" she said. Having already visited the W.S.P.U.'s offices, Bertha compared Sylvia's headquarters to those of Sylvia's mother: "They were not as beautiful, tasteful or spacious but had democracy . . . written all over [the] walls." She noted that the room was occupied by the "working people," namely "those to whom devotion to the cause means sacrifice of time and money, . . . not just a pleasant time passer." On meeting Sylvia, Bertha marveled that she was "a queen, ruling by love alone."

In 1916, Bertha enrolled in Barnard College but that did not stop her from campaigning for the vote. In the winter of her junior year, she traveled to Washington to help "man" a continuous "Watchfire" in front of the White House in which members of Alice Paul's National Woman's Party burned President Woodrow Wilson's speeches promoting democracy abroad, deeming them hypocritical. Bertha was arrested at least twice for burning copies of a speech, as well as the president's effigy, and spent five days in the district jail. She wrote of her experience in jail to Rebecca Hourwich, a National Woman's Party organizer who worked alongside Alice Paul. Bertha described jail as involving "a lot of waiting and so little happening" and joked that she had a "fiendishly healthy young appetite, and it's going to be the dickens with the hunger strike!" She was released, however, without ever having the opportunity to strike, something she lamented about years later to her daughter.

Upon graduating Barnard in 1920, Bertha worked briefly as an "organizer" for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and then sailed to England in 1921, where she studied at the London School of Economics while also working on the campaign of Labour Party leader, Ramsey MacDonald. At a defeat party for MacDonald, Bertha met her future husband, Keith Buckman Hutchison. After a romantic summer traveling Europe, the two had an on-again, off-again cross-Atlantic courtship for almost four years and finally married in a civil ceremony at New York's City Hall on September 8, 1925. For about four years after their marriage they continued to live apart much of the time, Keith working as a journalist in the U.K. while Bertha remained in the United States. During these early years of adulthood in the United States, Bertha held various jobs in New York and Washington, working for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., teaching at a school for immigrant girls, serving as Assistant Secretary of the National League of Girls Clubs and writing occasional articles for The Nation magazine. Her articles for The Nation included one in 1923 entitled "The New Emancipation of the Negro," in which she shed light on white women's efforts to cooperate with black women, who might otherwise have been strike breakers, to win a strike in 1919.

In 1929, Bertha finally joined her husband in London where they settled and had two children, a daughter Kate in 1932, and a son, David in 1934. In 1938, as the Nazi threat was becoming clearer, the family resettled in the United States. Although she did not work outside the home after her children were born, Bertha remained involved in politics, volunteering in Franklin Roosevelt's 1940 reelection campaign. Bertha died unexpectedly of a heart attack on July 3, 1950 in her apartment in New York City at the age of 50. Her story will be the subject of a forthcoming novel by her granddaughter, Nina Farber.

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Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), p. 369.

University of Washington had an article about the Watchfire Demonstration on their website Mapping American Social Movements through the 20th Century

Biographical details for Bertha Wallerstein Hutchison were found on, including birth and death dates and passenger lists

The Bertha Wallerstein diary is in the private collection of her daughter, Kate O'Neill, East Lansing, MI.

Information was also accessed from digitized copies of the Bulletin for the Association of Alumnae of Barnard and the Barnard Bulletin through the Internet Archive.

The Turning Point: The Suffragist Memorial Association had limited information.

The League of Women Voters of the Lansing Area also had an article with an excerpt from Bertha's diary:

The Today in Civil Liberties online feature had an article specifically about the watchfire demonstration Bertha was involved in.

For information on the East London Federation of Suffragettes and Sylvia Pankhurst see

"Jeer 'Suffs' in Ninth: Park Row 'Fans' Desert 'Jeff' Tesreau for Hale: Little Child Leads Them," New York Tribune, August 3, 1913.

"Suff's Waste 'Giddaps'; Slow Nags Both 'Antis': Hayrick Voyage to Yonkers Made Funereal by Horses that Resist Progress," New York Tribune, August 16, 1913.

Helgren, Jennifer, and Colleen A. Vasconcellos. Girlhood: A Global History. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Wallerstein, Bertha, "The New Emancipation of the Negro," The Nation 117 (September 1923); 30-36.

Veritch, Alan, Malibu Man (AuthorHouse 2017)

Bertha Wallerstein at the foot of the Nathan Hale statue.

New York Tribune, August 3, 1913.

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