The Life and Work of Suzanne La Follette
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Suzanne La Follette (1893–1983)"]
Suzanne La Follette came into this world 118 years ago on June 24, 1893, the fourth of seven children (four boys, three girls) born to a family that owned large wheat and fruit farms along the Snake River in southeastern Washington state. As she told an interviewer who tracked her down many years later, she and her siblings "grew up on horseback" at a time when "the automobile had not yet come in." It had begun coming in, though, a few years later, when Suzanne was on the verge of entering her teens and her father decided to lease out his rural property and build a new family home in the college town of Pullman, near the Idaho border.
Today Pullman, Washington, is home to about 25,000 people. In the middle years of the first decade of the 20th century, however, it was home to only around 1,500 or 1,600 people. But both then and now, the majority of those people were connected in some way — as students, faculty, or administration — with Washington State University. That school opened its doors in Pullman in 1890, so that it had been in business there more than 15 years by the time the La Follette family showed up in town.
Eight miles east of Pullman another college town, Moscow, Idaho, has long served as the site of the University of Idaho, founded one year earlier than Washington State. The population of Moscow has also been about half accounted for by students, faculty, and administrators from the university. The whole area has been permeated by students. It was and is an area in which higher education is a major industry. And though the combined population of Moscow, Idaho and Pullman, Washington when Suzanne La Follette first saw them was no more than around 5,000, it probably seemed urban and sophisticated to her when she arrived there at the age of 12, a brand new import from the farm. Suzanne finished high school in Pullman and, at the age of 16, enrolled at Washington State. But she had only about a year there before her family was uprooted again. Her father was elected to Congress, and they all moved to the other Washington, the one on the Potomac.
Now, at this point, I should interrupt the flow of my narrative to clear up a possible confusion. Suzanne La Follette's father was not the famous La Follette. The famous La Follette was Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, the Progressive Republican from Wisconsin, who served three terms in the US House of Representatives in the late 1880s and early 1890s, two terms as governor of Wisconsin in the first years of the 20th century, and two decades in the US Senate between 1906, when he left the governor's residence, and 1925, when he died. Suzanne's father was William La Follette. He was Fighting Bob's first cousin, and his junior by five years. But he was not, like Fighting Bob, a professional politician.
Apart from two years in the Washington State House of Representatives at the turn of the century and some time on his local school board, William La Follette confined his political career to the second decade of the 20th century, when he himself was in his 50s. But that single decade in Washington, DC was an eye-opening experience for his daughter Suzanne. She was 17 when she arrived in the nation's capital and 26 when she left. She worked part time in her father's congressional office and in her cousin Bob's senatorial office, while finishing up her degree at Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University). She witnessed Woodrow Wilson's two terms in the White House from what amounted to a front row seat, including his disastrous decision to intervene in World War I and his attempt to suppress the dissent that decision naturally touched off all over America.
For the first four years of her father's time on Capitol Hill, Suzanne lived in what she later recalled as "a huge old house on Sixteenth Street," with her parents, those of her siblings who were still living at home, Fighting Bob and his wife, and their three youngest children. For the first three of those four years, Fighting Bob's youngest kids included Robert La Follette Jr., two years younger than Suzanne. The younger La Follette moved back home to Madison in 1913 to attend the University of Wisconsin, then succeeded his father in the US Senate in 1925 and spent more than two decades as a Senator himself. Meanwhile, his cousin Suzanne had decided to leave Washington altogether for what she hoped would be greener pastures in New York. She had decided to try her hand at journalism, and by 1919, she had landed herself a job at a weekly magazine called The Nation, which was owned and edited by a tireless advocate for civil liberties and against imperialism named Oswald Garrison Villard.
I'm tempted to describe Villard as an unreconstructed classical liberal — except that he was in the process of being reconstructed when Suzanne La Follette met him in 1919. His commitment to civil liberties and anti-imperialism remained stalwart, but he had been seduced by the supposed triumphs of Woodrow Wilson's "war socialism" and was becoming convinced that government could plan and administer an economy that would work better than what would result from a policy of laissez faire.
At The Nation, Suzanne met a fellow staff writer and editor, much older than she, almost as old as her father, certainly old enough to be her father. He was a former Episcopal clergyman who had enlisted in the ranks of radical journalism a decade earlier, working on the American Magazine with Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and John Reed. He was erudite, aloof, sardonic, utterly fascinating. His name was Albert Jay Nock.
Nock immediately recognized the talent and intelligence of this fresh-faced 26-year-old from Washington. He took her under his wing, became her mentor, made her his protégé. A year later, in 1920, when the financing came through for a new weekly magazine of which Nock would be editor in chief — The Freeman it was to be called — he took her with him and made her managing editor. The Freeman was a Georgist paper, and its editorials (which Nock himself wrote) took a more or less Georgist line, though never really an orthodox Georgist line — Nock was never really an orthodox Georgist. Moreover, Nock brought in many non-Georgists to write for the magazine. He really didn't care what their opinions on political economy were if they weren't writing about political economy.
As his literary editor, Nock hired Van Wyck Brooks, who had spent the war years as an admirer of H.G. Wells and a supporter of Eugene Debs. As one of his most frequent contributors, Nock chose Lewis Mumford, who later served as one of the real-life models Ayn Rand relied upon when she created the character of Ellsworth Toohey in her novel The Fountainhead. "At one time or another," Nock recalled two decades later when he wrote his autobiography, the Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, "we printed quite a bit of stuff that none of us believed in, but it all conformed to our three conditions." The "three conditions" Nock refers to here are the three requirements of The Freeman's editorial policy. "The first one," he wrote, "is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third one is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English."
Nock acknowledged in his Memoirs that he had never believed The Freeman could survive and was not surprised when it met an early death. "I had no illusions about the enterprise," Nock wrote,
for I knew it had no prospect of ever even beginning to pay for itself, and therefore it could not last long. … The venture did, however, present the chance of what I thought might be an interesting experiment, which turned out to be so, far beyond my expectations. The idea was, first, to see whether such a paper as we had in mind could be produced in this country. I did not believe it could be; I doubted that there was enough latent literary ability of that grade to supply us with contributors. I was soon proven wrong about that. Then, second, we proposed to see whether the quality and character of the paper could be successfully held up from issue to issue. Jumping three or four hurdles of the same height is perhaps no great feat, but jumping fifty-two at a stretch is another matter. Again I had sturdy doubts that this could be done, and again I was proven wrong. Finally, we thought that the paper's distribution might give us some sort of rough measure of the general level at which the best culture of the country stood. I had my own ideas about this also, and for once I was approximately right. Anyone who remembers the state of the public mind in the early 1920s does not need to be told that we launched our experiment under as unfavorable circumstances as could well be imagined; and this made such success as we had all the more satisfactory to me. In my eyes the marvel was, and will always be, that we had any success at all.
Their success was modest, certainly. They never attracted more than a few thousand readers. The Freeman never began to pay for itself. For four years, its losses were picked up by the sort of financial "angel" a magazine of that kind can seldom survive without. In this case it was the heiress to the Swift meat-packing fortune. She had married a Georgist and decided she wanted to use her wealth — or at least some of it — to promote Georgist ideas. But after four years The Freeman's benefactor tired of reaching so small a readership and announced that she was withdrawing her support from the project. As the year 1924 got underway, the staff of The Freeman scattered to the four winds and the demands of different careers that no longer shared a single track.
There is a sense in which Suzanne La Follette spent the rest of her own career trying to recapture what Albert Jay Nock had put together and managed to hold together for four years there in Manhattan. For Suzanne, it was the best job she ever had, the high point of all her years in journalism. She had loved working with and for Albert Jay Nock. She had learned so much from him. She had wanted it to go on forever. Until she was well into her 60s, she worked indefatigably to find financial backers who would underwrite a reborn Freeman.
Twice she actually brought something of the kind off — or, at least, helped to bring it off. In 1930, six years after the original Freeman had ceased publication, at the age of 37, she became founding editor of a weekly magazine called The New Freeman. By all accounts she did a fine job. She even managed to lure Nock back to write a column. But again, the financial angel for the project backed out, this time after only 15 months. And it was nearly two more decades before Suzanne was able to bring off anything comparable in her ongoing effort to resurrect The Freeman.
In 1950, at the age of 57, she joined with Henry Hazlitt and John Chamberlain to found yet another, fortnightly, version of The Freeman; she served as managing editor, as she had on the original Freeman back in the 1920s. This latest version of the magazine attained a larger paid circulation and survived longer than either of its predecessors. It was 1956 before it was sold to the Foundation for Economic Education and transformed into a monthly of a very different sort — a kind of Reader's Digest for radical free marketeers. But by then, the end clearly in sight, Suzanne had moved on, becoming, at the end of 1955, the managing editor of yet another startup, a fortnightly magazine edited by a young man named William F. Buckley, Jr. and called the National Review.
That job at National Review was the last job Suzanne La Follette ever took in the world of magazine journalism. Four years later, in 1959, at the age of 66, she retired. She began almost immediately to fade into the obscurity that remains her lot today. To the extent that she is remembered at all, 118 years after her birth, it is as a protégé of Albert Jay Nock and a figure of some consequence in American magazine journalism of the first half of the 20th century.
Perhaps, however, she should be remembered for more than that. You see, for most of her career, Suzanne La Follette was not a magazine editor. For most of her career, she was a freelance writer, contributing to magazines like the American Mercury, The Nation, The New Republic, and Scribner's. In the late 1920s, in the years just after the dissolution of Nock's Freeman, she also wrote a couple of books. The later of the two, Art in America, was published in 1929. The earlier of the two came out in 1926. It was entitled Concerning Women.
the most important influence in writing [Concerning Women] … was Nock rather than the [contemporary] feminist movement. It was Nock … who encouraged La Follette to write it. And Nock … was well-pleased with her efforts. "I knew it would be a good book," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "but I assure you it is so far beyond all my expectations that I cannot say enough in praise of it. If I am any judge, it is a truly great book."
I expect Nock felt this way at least partly because Suzanne's analysis in her new book was so — Nockian is really the only word for it.
"It is impossible," she wrote,
for a sex or a class to have economic freedom until everybody has it, and until economic freedom is attained for everybody, there can be no real freedom for anybody. Without economic freedom, efforts after political and social freedom are nugatory and illusive, except for what educational value they may have for those concerned with them.
She wrote of "the cynical disregard of both law and principle which government in America regularly exhibits" and warned feminists of the '20s that
under these circumstances no guarantee of rights is worth the paper it is written on, and the women who rely on such guarantees to protect them against prejudice and discrimination are leaning on a broken reed. They will do well to bear this in mind as they proceed with their demands for equality, and to remember that however great may be their immediate returns from the removal of their legal disabilities, they can hardly hope for security against prejudice and discrimination until their natural rights, not as women but as human beings, are finally established.
La Follette believed that even if the feminists of the '20s gained all their objectives, "we are obliged to face the fact that under such a regime women would enjoy precisely that degree of freedom which men now enjoy — that is to say, very little."
"The ultimate emancipation of women," she wrote, "will depend not upon the abolition of the restrictions which have subjected her to man — that is but a step, though a necessary one — but upon the abolition of all those restrictions of natural human rights that subject the mass of humanity to a privileged class."
And, of course, the institution that had subjected the mass of humanity to a privileged class was … none other than the state. "It is evident from the very nature of the state," Suzanne wrote, in a passage one can only call Nockian, very Nockian, "that its interests are opposed to those of society; and while the complete emancipation of women … would undoubtedly imply the destruction of the state … their emancipation, far from destroying society, must be of inestimable benefit to it."
What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is the first book since Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 to lay out the case for individualist or libertarian feminism, and it's a thoroughly Nockian case. Feminist scholar Alice Rossi wrote in 1973 of Concerning Women that "on issue after issue La Follette comes down on the side of the least degree of state interference in the lives of men and women and a consistent belief that it is only through full economic independence and personal autonomy that sex equality will be achieved." This is a book that should be better remembered — and treasured as an important contribution to the libertarian tradition.