Freda Kirchwey, Trailblazing Journalist and Defender of Democracy
Today we celebrate the birthday of Mary Frederika “Freda” Kirchwey, born September 26, 1893. Although she is not a household name, her actions and words stood out brightly during the darkest periods in American history.
Kirchwey was born in Lake Placid, New York, the daughter of pacifist attorney George Kirchwey. She attended Barnard College and began working as a journalist in New York City. In 1918, she began working at the magazine The Nation. She rose through the ranks to become sole editor in 1933, making Kirchwey the first woman to hold that position at a weekly newsmagazine. Four years later, in 1937, she purchased the magazine.
Kirchwey was an active member of many organizations, including AAUW. In 1945, she delivered the AAUW convention’s keynote address, “Democracy, Indivisible.” This convention, called A Meeting of Minds, Not Persons, was an innovative response to the wartime travel ban that was in place for large groups. Members, while not physically allowed to attend the convention due to the ban, could listen to it on recordings in their communities with other members of their branch. AAUW’s archives contain recordings of the 1945 convention and Kirchwey’s speech.
In “Democracy, Indivisible,” Kirchwey spoke about educated women’s heavy responsibility as defenders and upholders of democracy. Reminding women of their long, slow progress to freedom, she said, “Women cannot afford to let democracy go down.” This was 1945; World War II was winding down, and the responsibility Kirchwey spoke of was greater than ever. She continued starkly, “Our old assumption that democracy can be taken for granted has been blasted to dust by bomb and shell fire and tortured to death in Nazi concentration camps.” She grimly reminded members that if the Axis powers had not been defeated, organizations like AAUW would cease to exist.
I admire Kirchwey’s passionate yet educated opinions on the issues of the day. Never one to mince words, she said what no one wanted to speak or hear. During the war, she called President Franklin Roosevelt to task for his refusal to offer aid to Jewish victims of the Holocaust when the administration could have done something. Kirchwey scolded, “You and I and the president and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. … If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the 2 million Jews lying today in the earth of Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe.”
Kirchwey remained at The Nation for 22 years, until her retirement in 1955. In the 1950s, she spoke out against the “loyalty” investigations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. AAUW did as well. During these investigations, two AAUW board members, Esther Brunauer and Dorothy Kenyon, were accused of belonging to communist front organizations. Still a staunch defender of democracy, Kirchwey found herself alongside AAUW fighting for freedom once again.