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Tue, 02.23.1892

Agnes Smedley, Activist, and Social Radical born

Agnes Smedley

*Agnes Smedley was born on this date in 1892. She was a white-American activist.

The daughter of a laborer, she was born in Osgood, Missouri.  At the age of ten, the family moved to Trinidad, Colorado. Her father, Charles Smedley, deserted the family in 1903 when she was fourteen. Agnes found work as a domestic servant to help to support her family. In 1908 Smedley passed the New Mexico teacher's examination and, although only sixteen years old, started to teach only to return to Osgood to look after her younger brothers and sisters on her mother's death. In 1911 Smedley came to Tempe College, immediately getting involved in student politics and the campus newspaper.

She married in 1912 and moved to a teacher's college in San Diego, where she was dismissed for her socialist beliefs. In 1918, divorced and living in New York City, she was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act for attempting to stir up rebellion against British rule in India. While in prison, Margaret Sanger and John Haynes Holmes led the campaign for her release. After being released, Smedley began writing for the New York Call and the Birth Control Review, a journal by Margaret Sanger.  Smedley also published Cell Mates, a collection of stories inspired by women she met in prison.

In 1920 Smedley moved to Germany with the Indian revolutionary leader and set up Berlin's first birth-control clinic. Smedley returned to the United States in May 1941 and went on a nationwide lecture tour of the Deep South, where the Jim Crow laws appalled her. Smedley caused a stir when she gave an interview to the Los Angeles Tribune, where she complained, "we can't treat men like dogs and expect them to act like men." As a result of this outburst, J. Edgar Hoover instructed FBI agents to investigate her political past.

In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry.  Smedley responded to these events by helping to form the Progressive Citizens of America. This civil rights group was committed to defending Hollywood writers, directors, and producers named communists or communist sympathizers by the HUAC committee. However, America was now entering the period of McCarthyism, and this was the first of many smear stories circulated about Smedley she decided to move to England in November 1949.  Throughout her life, she supported various views of intersectionality and its difficulty in coexisting in America.  Agnes Smedley went to Oxford in poor health, and she died of acute circulatory failure there on May 6, 1950.



The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition.
Copyright 1996 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
ISBN 0-85229-633-0

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