Born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 12th, 1885, Tracy Mygatt was inspired by her New England ancestors’ religious convictions and translated those spiritual roots into radical social change, one that was highlighted by her own political determination.
After her graduation from Bryn Mawr College in 1908, she devoted her life to a number of reform causes, which included child labor and unemployment, world peace through her association with peace organizations and calls for world government, and an economic system based on democratic-socialist principles.
A Christian socialist through and through, Mygatt first began urging that her very own Episcopal church establish food and shelter programs for the many homeless unemployed in New York City as the wave of immigrants coming to American shores began populating the nation’s expanding urban landscape. This devotion to the eradication of social ills not only coincided with a Progressive Movement seeking political reform in America, but also found a new expression with the outbreak of the First World War in Europe.
Forming an inseparable relationship with her lifetime companion, Francis Witherspoon, the two women established a Socialist Suffrage Brigade within the Christian Socialist League, which not only encouraged the vote for females, but more importantly, tied this crusade to world peace. The war acted as a catalyst inspiring women to become more actively involved in the movement for world peace. With Mygatt and Witherspoon’s leadership, the League’s banners carried the slogan “Votes for Women/For Socialism and Peace,” as they marched through the streets of New York on May Day in 1915.
Crucially, the war marked a turning point in Myatt’s life. Despite the organized peace movement’s religious underpinnings dating back to the establishment of the American Peace Society in 1828, Mygatt viewed war as a “crucifixication of humanity” and aligned herself with the socialist-militant wing of the antiwar movement in New York; she considered the traditional religious pacifist wing of the movement too conservative and politically timid.
The more radical peace organizations emerging during the Preparedness Movement of 1915-1916 included the Woman’s Peace Party, founded by Jane Addams, the socialist People’s Council, the American Union Against Militarism led by newspaper editor and grandson of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Oswald Garrison Villard, and the famous Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes, and the religious-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, which would attract famous figures such as A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
During the Great War, Mygatt also worked as co editor of Four Lights, the newsletter of the New York City branch of the Woman’s Peace Party and wrote a popular antiwar play, Watchfires (1917), which was performed in smaller theaters as part of the radical-bohemian Littler Theater Movement touting artistic innovation.
In 1915, in an effort to temper the overzealous appeals to patriotism and war preparedness, Mygatt teamed up with Witherspoon, Jessie Wallace Hughan, and Roger Baldwin, among others to form the Anti-Enlistment League; the purpose of the league was to provide free legal advice for poor conscientious objectors and to discourage others from enlisting in the military.
Along with the Woman’s Peace Party, the American Union Against Militarism put on a popular “War Against War” Exhibit in Brooklyn and Manhattan in late April and May of 1916. The exhibit consisted of large billboard displays of antiwar images and cartoons as well as a play entitled, Arbitration. Between five and ten thousands visitors a day witnessed the exhibit.
In 1917, after the United States entered the war, the League changed its name to the Bureau of Legal Advice once a conscription law was enacted. The Bureau received some of its funding from the newly-formed Civil Liberties Bureau that Baldwin, Crystal Eastman who would later be deported to the Soviet Union in 1919, and four-time Socialist Party presidential candidate (and long-time New Yorker) Norman Thomas, established a few months later.
Subsequently, in the wake of the New York State Legislature’s Lusk Committee investigations and Red Scare, the American Civil Liberties Bureau was created and took over the legal aspect of the Bureau of Legal Advice. That transition enabled Mygatt and her radical pacifist colleagues to create the still extant War Resisters League, which called upon all adherents to renounce all wars, whether offensive or defensive.
In the 1920s, while devoting time to her activities in the War Resisters League, Mygatt assisted the Women’s Peace Union in its efforts for supporting the principle of nonviolent opposition to war and encouraging nations to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. In the 1930s, after the adoption of the Kellogg-Briand or Pact of Paris in 1928, Mygatt volunteered her services working with North Dakota Senator Lynn Frazier’s unsuccessful attempts calling for a constitutional amendment for unilateral disarmament on the part of the United States in order to give credibility to the principle behind outlawing war.
The failure of peace efforts after the First World War and the advent of the Second World War merely strengthened her resolve. With the onset of the Cold War and growing fears of atomic and then nuclear war, Mygatt helped organize the Campaign for World Government — she would serve as the east coast secretary until her death on November 22, 1973. Like many in the contemporary United World Federalist movement, her belief was that only one government empowered with the ability to rule globally could prevent war and unchecked national ambitions. Her own nongovernmental organization worked with the newly-established United Nations.
In working with the United Nations, Mygatt attempted to convince member nations that it should become the mechanism for establishing universal democracy and world federation — a nearly impossible task given the totalitarian makeup of communist governments. However, her vision was inspired by the emerging nations, especially in Africa, who were now overthrowing the yoke of colonialism. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she continued her lifelong commitment to social justice by participating in an end to segregation and racism in the United States, a cleaner environment — one hailing the implementation of Earth Day, and consistent with her pacifism an end to the bitterly divisive American military involvement in the Vietnam War.
While Tracy Mygatt may not have captured the attention of other notable female peace activists such as Jane Addams, Jesssie Wallace Hughan, Emily Greene Balch, and Jannette Rankin, this native-born New Yorker did her part to keep peace and social justice activism alive in America. In many respects, she was the glue holding together the true principles behind our democratic tradition that this nation can always get better and that we should never give up hope that our world can be saved from death and destruction.
Photos, from above: Tracy Mygatt, Frances Witherspoon, and Mercedes Randall (Papers of Mercedes Randall, Swarthmore College Peace Collection); Anti-Enlistment League flyer (Anti-Enlistment League Collected Records, Swarthmore College Peace Collection) and a photo from the play Arbitration, from the War Against War Exhibit, 1916 (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom files, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).