- Historic Sites
An Empire Of Women
E.G. Lewis decided that a strong man could liberate American women and make money doing it
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
The league offered something rare and desirable, a cross between the security of a family and the power of a trade association. Rae Lyttleton, a member in Marshall, Texas, expressed the situation shared by most of the league’s members when she wrote to Taxile Doat, the former head of the Sèvres Works in France, whom Lewis had recruited for his own pottery department. She had been doing some ceramic work and wanted Doat to fire it for her, as she had heard he had done for other women. “There is no place near here to have it fired,” she said, “so I get very despairing at times.” Hers was a practical piece, she indicated, a design for a pocket electric light. “You have no idea how anxious I am to get the work done—so please, please— pretty please—say you can fire it for me. And down here, you know, when anyone says ‘ pretty please,’ nobody can refuse.”
“I am just a little thirteen year old school girl who loves art,” wrote Viola Myers of Pensacola, Florida. “I think I would like to paint dishes because I like to paint flowers best. Can a girl with one hand do that kind of work? Will it take much money to learn and how shall I begin? I am what the world calls poor. My mama has read about you in the Woman’s National Weekly which comes to us every week.”
By 1910 Lewis was claiming his first hundred thousand members. Clearly it was time to celebrate, to gather as many of the founders as possible at the national headquarters in University City.
It is no wonder that the thousand women who packed the Dehnar Garden Theater were open to Lewis’s promises. They tolerated, even welcomed, his absolute control of the league. And if the money flowing from the league endowment—which Lewis projected at over a million dollars for each year to eternity—went right back into Lewis properties, there seemed no reason to object because, at the end of five years, Lewis vowed to transfer everything to the league at a price set by an independent appraiser. By then there would be money enough for everyone forever.
So when Lewis got up to speak at the convention, he received an ovation. The delegates saw a short, elegant man, so radiant with energy that his eyes bulged from his face and his voice had a tendency to slip up an octave. His opening was somber; he had borne his troubles steadfastly but for so long, he said, that eventually “a blackness of night” had settled over his spirit. Enemies had lain in wait on all sides, counseling defeat. But Lewis had resisted because he alone heard a “voice that has come forward to every man since the beginning of the world and which has made him do everything that is worth doing—the voice of woman.” He had reached the refrain of his message: “I tell you, you are sitting here today at the signing of a new Declaration of Independence [applause]—the independence of woman … if better things are going to come in this land or any other land they have got to come through woman [applause].”
The solution, Lewis saw, was to turn the women of America into an army, with himself at the head.
As the waving of flags and handkerchiefs subsided, a group of women from the New York delegation began to sing an old hymn. Voice after voice took it up until the whole auditorium rang out:
The American Woman’s League Convention was a glorious moment for Lewis. At that time, he later wrote to a friend, he was on the verge of forming a great publishing trust, nothing less, yet one that touched the heart as it enriched the pocket. It was to be the “biggest subscription machine that was ever devised by a human brain. … Back of it as its active power has got to be sentiment, as it is the only thing that will drive it. Next door to it has got to be a bank, and an awfully big bank, and with this equipment I think we … will have gained a monopoly and a foothold. … If it succeeds, and I believe it will, it will be the biggest single handed power in this or any other Nation.”
For a brief time everyone did pull together, as Lewis kept admonishing, and the results seemed to fulfill all of Lewis’s hopes. He did actually build thirty-eight chapter houses, although not the seven hundred he once promised. They are substantial buildings, most of them still standing in such places as Corning, California; Kissimmee, Florida; and Avon, Montana. Their cottage-style design repeats a vision of the ideal suburban home that Lewis extolled in his magazines. The women who gathered in them enjoyed quite a few of the advantages that Lewis promised.