Mother Knows Best: The Portland Housewives League and Motion Picture Censorship
by Brianne Moodie
Members of the Portland Housewives League benefited from their organizational abilities and social status when bettering their city. The Housewives League was a national club with chapters in many cities. In general, members of this club worked to address high costs of living, supply the home with wholesome foods, and protect their cities from moral and visual blight.* The Portland chapter met weekly in Portland’s Central Library and hosted cross-club seminars. Membership in the Housewives League allowed a woman to make tangible change in her city without having to run for office. Most women in Oregon attained suffrage in 1912, but there was still some social stigma attached to female participation in politics. Politics were sometimes viewed as a corrupt and unsafe space for a respectable woman. By participating in the Housewives League, these Portland women were able to educate themselves about city-wide issues and work toward resolving problems with their elected officials. Between January and March 1920 these women set their sights on purifying a new social ill– film. According to a period study highlighted by Mary P. Erickson in her article “In the Interest of the Moral Life of Our City: The Beginning of Motion Picture Censorship in Portland, Oregon,” silent film had grown to prominence in Portland, “[contributing] over $1,000,000 annually to Portland’s overall commercial activity and [employing] 300 to 350 people.” (150) Despite the business brought in by moviegoers, theaters were becoming problematic. In Monitoring the Movies, Jennifer Fronc explains that theaters were vilified as “a likely source of crimes against children and an especially dangerous place for young women.” (6) The other danger, of course, was the subject material covered by the films played on the silver screen. In an effort to protect vulnerable children and women the members of the Housewives League mobilized, using the powers their citizenship and organizational savvy granted them. Members of the Portland Housewives League truly demonstrated that a woman could act as a moral figure in the “corrupt world” of politics.
Silent films had existed since the 1890s, but they did not fall under close scrutiny until the early 1910s. Fronc explains that the “Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use Act, colloquially referred to as the Comstock Act . . . made it illegal to transport ‘obscene, lewd, or lascivious’ material through the US mail.” (13) This act, passed in March 1873, laid the foundation for censorship on moral grounds. Any media that fell under the purview of the Comstock Act was subject to review. Women were often encouraged to head censorship efforts. As wives and mothers, they were viewed as moral examples who understood the needs of the many. The role of censor came with a measure of reverence and respect, and many women interested in civic reform took it on. In the book Policing Cinema, Lee Grieveson explains that “the mantle of moral superiority [was] forced upon [women] as a substitute for intellectual equality, but it also went beyond that, enabling middle-class women to stake out a place in the public sphere and to partly refashion that sphere.” (28) Women nationwide had some control over moral reforms in their cities, even those women without the political power of the vote before 1920. In Oregon, a suffrage state since 1912, some women may not have felt able to exercise that right because of their vision of politics as corrupt or due to pressures to conform to “respectability” as defined by their social identities. Women censors like Eleanor Colwell still had significant power over what material appeared in theaters.
Members of Progressive Era organizations approached film censorship in two ways during the golden age of the silver screen. First, according to Policing Cinema, members of organizations like the National Board of Censorship would view movies “not only to modify content but also to make claims about the organization and treatment of such content.” (26) Films with National Board approval were often appropriate for screenings nationwide. The second approach was through the formation of municipal censorship boards. These city level boards viewed films and designated cuts and edits to be made by theater owners.
On January 12, 1920, the Morning Oregonian ran two articles about the battle for effective censorship involving the Housewives League. “Film Exhibitor Replies” provides significant background information about the conflict. This battle was ignited over “the kiss scene in ‘The Thirteenth Commandment.’” The censorship board claimed that “the film was exhibited without the necessary eliminations ordered.” The proprietor of the theater claimed that the censors made “a poor judgement in film cutting” and that the cut was “out of [his] hands.” “Women Plan War on Risqué Films” outlines the goals of Housewives League members. The censorship board was largely staffed by men, but Mrs. Eleanor B. Colwell acted as secretary. The Housewives League commended her for her work, but they felt the board needed more women. They called for “a larger representation of women on the board, women from active clubs of broad interests…”, asking the people to “call upon Mayor [George] Baker and see whether this could not have been brought about.” Housewives were responsible for the care of the home and the moral upbringing of children. Fronc noted that women’s rhetoric seemed to “rise above narrowly partisan considerations” and women fell into roles of civic reform by asserting “their ability to speak on behalf of children and other vulnerable figures.” (6)
Two days later, the Housewives League made the Morning Oregonian again by calling to keep children out of theaters in a piece titled “Women Critici[z]e Movies”. Mrs. C. A. Johnson, member of the Portland Housewives League remarked, “To have a wayward girl offer the defense that ‘Well, motion picture actors do things like that’ is no new thing . . . As for the children, many plays that a mature person can see and understand are not fit for the youngsters.” Coding the movie theater as an unfit place for a child was a valuable strategic choice. According to Fronc, many working-class neighborhoods relied on movies as a “cheap form of entertainment for their children but also as a kind of daycare.” (11) Although some cities had begun to restrict youth access to theaters, Erickson highlighted a study that found “roughly 90 percent of schoolchildren in Portland, Oregon attended movies on a weekly basis.” (153) Condemning the movies for Portland’s youth population would inspire white middle-class mothers to limit access to films– but upwardly mobile immigrant mothers would also follow suit. Childcare was difficult to access for women working outside the home in this era, so working class and immigrant women began to rely on movie theaters. By 1920, the movie theater was advertised as a luxury. Names like “The Majestic” and stylish Art Deco architecture reinforced that concept. Fronc explained that the theater was an inter-class experience in many ways, and it allowed mothers to entertain their children with little effort (10-12). At the same time the Portland Housewives League condemned theaters, churches began advertising wholesome entertainment after school on weekdays. The simultaneous disparagement of movies and offering of church activities would have inspired less affluent women to pursue different forms of childcare. This kind of consumer strike put more pressure on Mayor Baker to increase the number of female censors on the board.
One month and two weeks later, the Housewives League met to discuss film censorship again. On February 25, 1920 the Morning Oregonian covered this meeting in an article titled “Housewives Hear of Birth Film Ban.” They noted that Eleanor Colwell “had half of the gathering on their feet firing questions and criticisms.” Colwell spoke on the municipal board’s organization and explained to the women that “5 percent of these pictures do not go to this board and there must be someone to run these down.” She was present to advocate for a federal board of censorship, but the housewives had other questions. They asked Colwell to speak about children’s films, defects in the censorship board, and the recent ban of a film showing childbirth. Housewives League members left the meeting fired up and prepared to mobilize for change.
On March 13, 1920 the League found success. The Morning Oregonian ran a story titled “Nominations Made for Woman Censor” that outlined an ordinance for a new censorship board. The first two members of the new motion picture censorship board were selected by the Portland City Council. The ordinance required the council to choose “one name from a list of three submitted by motion picture interests and also to select a woman member of the board.” These two members would then choose the third. Many names were submitted, including Sylvia [Mrs. Alexander] Thompson, Mrs. [Gernell] Kane, and Mrs. E.H. Franzelle; all were active club members. Mayor Baker, the author of the new ordinance, was not satisfied, “his principal objection being to the designation of sex which was written in at the solicitation of women appearing before the council.” These women were members of the Housewives League, pushing for stronger representation for a cause they held dear.
Following March 1920, the Portland Censorship Board was staffed by Mrs. Eleanor Colwell as secretary, Sylvia Thompson, Mr. C.S. Jensen, and Rabbi Jonah B. Wise. Erickson notes the Portland Censorship Board was active until 1961, when the Oregon Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional. (165) The Housewives League, satisfied with the censorship board, turned to other projects. They continued their work by bettering the city in other ways. Civic activism allowed women to refashion their cities into safer places. Beyond that, it showed that women could participate in politics without losing their “moral superiority.” For many cities, women’s clubs like the Housewives League were instrumental in teaching women how to act on the new right of suffrage. The Portland Housewives League educated its members and encouraged them to better the city. Although the Portland Housewives League was made up of members with leisure time (it is unlikely that someone in the working class would have time to meet at 2:00 PM in the Portland Central Public Library every week), their efforts influenced the behaviors of women from many class and cultural backgrounds. In a culture focused on preserving the “respectability” of women, these wives and mothers found ways to leverage their status to reshape the city in the ways they saw fit. Extending their influence into the homes of working class women, into the practices of business owners, and into the minds of lawmakers the Portland Housewives League found meaningful success. Film censorship on the city level was one way for members of the Housewives League to exert their political influence– allowing women to test the waters of civic activism and encouraging them to make the changes they saw fit.
*Author’s Note: There is minimal literature on the Housewives League. Below are some Oregon news articles that detail the activities of this League in Portland and nationwide in 1920. The Portland Housewives League (sometimes referred to as the Housewives Council) met in the story-hour room of the Portland Central Library on Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m.
“Food Control Proposed,” Morning Oregonian, April 07, 1920, 11.
“Honolulu Has City Market,” Sunday Oregonian, June 06, 1920, Sec. 5: 3.
“Housewives Tell of Market Abuses,” Morning Oregonian, December 18, 1920, 13
“Film Exhibitor Replies,” Morning Oregonian, January 12, 1920, 2.
“Housewives Hear of Birth Film Ban,” Morning Oregonian, February 25, 1920, 4.
“New Movie Board Filled,” Morning Oregonian, April 15, 1920, 8.
“Nominations Made for Woman Censor,” Morning Oregonian, March 13, 1920, 10.
“Women Critici[z]e Movies,” Morning Oregonian, January 14, 1920, 22.
“Women Plan War on Risqué Films,” Morning Oregonian, January 12, 1920, 1, 2.
Erickson, Mary P., “In the Interest of the Moral Life of Our City: The Beginning of Motion
Picture Censorship in Portland, Oregon.” Film History 22, no. 2. (2010): 148-169:
Fronc, Jennifer. Monitoring the Movies. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017.
Grieveson, Lee. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
About The Author: Brianne Moodie is a business student attending Western Oregon University. She wrote this work under the guidance of Professor Kimberly Jensen in a colloquium course on the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment.