Elizabeth Dilling: “The Female Führer”

On of my favorite accounts to follow on the site formerly known as Twitter,* On This Day She –which just made its last post– previously made an important point at the head of its feed:

“A reminder: we do not ‘celebrate’ all the women we include in @onthisdayshe . Equal history means including those with whom we profoundly disagree. If the grim men are in the history books, we have to acknowledge the grim women too.”

A case in point: Elizabeth Dilling (1894-1966).

Dilling was a prominent member of the pro-fascist extreme right in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. According to professor Glen Jeansonne, who studied Dilling and her allies, she considered herself a “professional patriot,” defending flag and faith against an array of threats that included Jews, communism, the New Deal, and the liberal Democrats who supported New Deal policies.

She found her passion as a political activist of the Red-baiting variety on a month-long tour of the Soviet Union with her husband Albert in 1931. She came back an avid anticommunist—a position that would be absolutely understandable if it hadn’t developed into being “anti” a lot of other things. (See above) Over time, her hatred for communism grew into sympathy for the the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, which she saw as a bulwark against Soviet Russia. A Nazi newspaper gave her the nickname “the female Führer.” She called herself “Little Poison Ivy.”

Back in the United States, she threw herself into an intensive “study” of communism—the kind of study where you learn what you expected to find—and built a name for herself as an anti-communist speaker. Sometimes reaching audiences of several hundred at a time, she spoke to church groups, rotary clubs, women’s groups, most notably the DAR, and veteran’s organizations, including the American Legion.

In 1932, she founded an anti-communist organization, the Paul Reveres, that grew to 200 local chapters. Beginning in 1933, she spent long days researching and cataloguing groups and individuals whom she believed were threats to the United States

In 1934, encouraged by fellow anti-communist Iris McCord of the Moody Bible Institute, Dilling self-published The Red Network: A “Who’s Who” and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, a 352 page book that relied heavily on the idea of guilt by association that Senator Joseph McCarthy  would use so effectively in his own Red Hunt some years later. Roughly half of The Red Network  consisted of lists of more than 450 organizations that Dilling described as “Communist, Radical Pacifist,** Anarchist, Socialist [or] I.W.W. Controlled” and more than 1300 “Reds” and their affiliations,  including Jane Addams, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, Senator Robert M LaFollette, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, The book went into eight printings and sold more than 16,000 copies by 1941. Organizations such as the KKK, and the German-American Bund gave away thousands more.

She was involved in an attempt, led by retailer Charles Walgreen, to close her former alma mater*** the University of Chicago as a communist institution. Henry Ford, who was anti all the things she was against and willing to put his money where his hatred was, hired her to investigate communism at the University of Michigan. (She also investigated UCLA, Cornell, and Northwestern—finding all of them to be hotbeds of communism and a menace to the youth who studied there.)

She was a leader of the movement of women’s groups who opposed the United States entering the war in Europe on “maternalist” grounds, arguing that war was the antithesis of motherhood.**** They supported their argument with right-wing, anti-Roosevelt, anti-British, anti-communist and antisemitic rhetoric. She was arrested for disorderly conduct in 1941, after she led a sit-down strike outside the office 84 year-old senator Carter Glass of Virgina. Glass was not a fervent New Dealer by any standard, but he was appalled by the behavior of Dilling and her followers. He called on the FBI to investigate the women’s groups and publicly stated that “I likewise believe it would be pertinent to inquire whether they are mothers. For the sale of the race, I devoutly hope not.” (For the record, Dilling had two children.)

Many of the groups continued to oppose the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, unlike the better known America First Committee.

In 1942, Dilling and 27 other anti-war activists were indicted under the Alien Registration Act. (This is why she crossed my path. Sigrid Schultz served as a witness for the government.)  They were accused of holding pro-fascist views—which Dilling certainly did—and with being Nazi propaganda agents. Dilling was charged with plotting to incite a mutiny in the American Armed forces and setting up a Nazi state. Charges were dismissed in 1946, in large part because the trial had dragged on so long that the second judge who presided over it declared it a travesty of justice.

*And yes, Twitter is problematic. I am exploring other social media sites. But nothing to date has quite captured the things that made the app so satisfying. If you are looking for me elsewhere, I am currently on Bluesky as @pdtoler.bsky.social, on Instagram as pamelatolerauthor and on Facebook as, well, me. (Full disclosure, my Instagram account is mostly about my cat and food. I aspire to do more with it.)

** Apparently not the same thing as isolationists, which she approved of, at least in the context of WWII.

***She attended for three years but did not graduate.

****They were not the first to oppose mother and warrior. I explore this idea in some depth in the first chapter of Women Warriors.




America First; right wing extremist; pro-Germany; anti communist


  1. Linda Pippin on March 8, 2024 at 2:56 pm

    Thank you thank you – great piece

    • Pamela on March 11, 2024 at 4:55 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it.

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