The Last Page

If I Only Was a Man

By Vassar Quarterly

Every once in a while I go rummaging through my past in an attempt to figure out who I am. Among the various items I recently came across was a newspaper clipping from the December 15, 1932 edition of the New York Herald Tribune. The headline over the one-column story that ran on an inside page was “Fiery Cross on Jersey Lawn of Clubwoman.” The “clubwoman” was my mother, Elvira Kush Fradkin, class of 1913. Also among the items was an unpublished manuscript of 43,000 words.

These two artifacts encapsulate what I inherited from my mother: an attraction to causes and to the written word. Her activism dated back to her years at Vassar College when she was suspended for a short time for attending a suffragette rally and conference in New York City. It was an exciting time in the fight for women’s suffrage: British women had stormed Parliament, and American women were marching on Wall Street. There were two large rallies in Carnegie Hall in the last week of October 1909. No silly college rule kept my mother from attending them.

The 1932 newspaper story concerned the burning of a cross on the lawn of my parents’ Montclair home by the Ku Klux Klan. The anonymous reporter wrote, “Dr. Fradkin, a Russian-born dentist, apparently is not a target of the demonstration except as the husband of Mrs. Fradkin, the former Elvira Kush, one of the foremost supporters of peace movements, to which the anonymous messages alluded.”

The messages, consisting of two letters and a postcard delivered prior to the cross burning, read in part: “This is a challenge to the peace movement” and “Challenge to Communism.” All were signed “K.K.K.” Crosses were drawn on them in red ink. My mother was quoted in the article: “To deliberately confuse the work for peaceful settlements of disputes between nations with Communism is one of the most insidious methods of the Ku Klux Klan to frustrate the efforts for peace.”

As for the clubwoman label, the story identified her as president, honorary president, or former chairman of a number of organizations dedicated to international understanding and peace. True, listed among the groups were womens’ clubs and those oriented toward women university graduates, my mother having received a graduate degree from Columbia University in 1914. But there was an important omission in the background information. My mother also happened to be a published author. A monograph she had written, titled Chemical Warfare: Its Possibilities and Probabilities, was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1929. It was praised by the president of Columbia as “the most complete work on that subject ever written.”

Yet she was still a “clubwoman” to the Herald Tribune. In those days the word was code for an active, intelligent woman. Two years after the cross-burning incident, which did not deter my mother in the least, her first book, The Air Menace and the Answer, was published by Macmillan. She clearly was trespassing in male territory with a powerful totem: a book about warfare. Hoffman Nickerson, the author of another book on weapons and peace, reviewed her book in The New York Times Book Review. He wrote, “If anyone wants to know why American pacifists, especially women pacifists, have accomplished so little, the harsh lesson can be learned by cataloging her fallacies.”

A number of distinguished people rode to my mother’s defense. Carrie Chapman Catt, who had led the fight for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, wrote in a letter to the editor that Nickerson’s review “sounded as though inspired by a spirit of hostility or an angry militaristic mind.” My mother marshaled the positive appraisals of others, ranging from the president of the World Organization of Jewish Women to the president of Vassar.

Her third major work, A World Airlift, was published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1950. In it my mother advocated a United Nations Air Police Patrol (UNAPP) that would enforce peace. Her friend Eleanor Roosevelt plugged the book in her newspaper column, and my mother appeared on Roosevelt’s radio show.

My mother’s last work — the unpublished manuscript I recently discovered — expanded on the idea of an airborne United Nations peace presence. It was to have been the capstone of her career. I can still hear my mother say after meeting with editors during a long day in New York, or upon receiving another rejection letter in the mail: “If I only was a man!”

My mother worked for twenty years on this book and only gave up upon her death in 1972. She was in her eighties. Skimming part of the manuscript the other day, I found a note documenting her struggles, both for publication and for peace; she cited “the constant rejections both of the basic plan, which I tried out on family, friends, diplomats at the UN, and the so-called experts in arms control.” Nevertheless, she persisted: “The more rejections,” she wrote, “the more I determined to continue.”

As an author, I salute her determination.

— Philip L. Fradkin is the author of eleven books and the brother of Vassar alumna Rosalind Foster Fradkin ’40. For more information on the author, visit

Photo Credit: Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries
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