Gentle Persuader and Loyal Friend: Mary Stone McDowell

In December 1955 the New York Times published an obituary, titled "Mary McDowell, Peace Crusader." The subtitle read: "Teacher Dismissed in ’18 for Pacifism and Re-instated in 1923, a Quaker, is Dead." Mary Stone McDowell, age 79 and a member of Brooklyn Friends Preparatory Meeting, had passed away that month after a long bout with complications from cancer. Her meeting’s memorial minute, adopted First Month 1956, was a strong affirmation, stating that "those who knew her will always remember her for the values which she so untiringly and staunchly upheld. She lived in selfless simplicity, close to her Heavenly Father, devoting her time, her thought, her every effort toward bringing about a peaceful and better world for all of her fellow men. Gentle and serene in the face of endless obstacles, she spent herself courageously for others."

The years leading up to and during World War I brought many charges against teachers refusing to sign loyalty oaths and to teach "citizenship," a euphemism for aiding their students in draft registration. Many teachers left their jobs before actual charges could be brought against them. Mary Stone McDowell, a high school Latin teacher in the New York City public schools, lost her job for a period of five years because she refused to join what, in retrospect, may be seen as a conflation of patriotism and war hysteria. Her case represented the first test of pacifism and academic freedom moving through a state court system in the United States. She was labeled as "unpatriotic" by her fellow faculty members and her school administrators and was accused of being disloyal to the government of the United States. Throughout this ordeal, she is remembered as never wavering in her belief that her faith compelled her to "live in the virtue of that life that takes away the occasion of all wars."

Robert K. Murray, in his book, Red Scare, notes that during the years 1919-1920 there was a marked increase in the U.S. government’s "conversion of thousands of otherwise reasonable and sane Americans into super-patriots and self-styled spy chasers." This was fueled by the establishment of several agencies devoted to perpetuating a conservative ideology, groups such as the National Security League, the American Defense Society, and the American Protective League. Some of these were funded privately. Their task was to root out those individuals who were potentially guilty of sabotage and sedition. The U.S. Committee on Public Information, in tandem with the media, was preaching messages of patriotism. So-called "draft dodgers and slanderers" were particular targets. People were beaten and tarred and feathered for refusing to buy war bonds and for refusing to support local Red Cross drives. Many of these espionage laws predated U.S. entry into the war and remained on the books long after, such as the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.

Mary Stone McDowell was a Friend from birth, born in 1876 in Jersey City, New Jersey. She was one of three children, two girls and a boy. Later her family moved to Brooklyn. Mary’s father Joseph McDowell’s family was of Scotch-Irish descent. A merchant, he died in 1911. Her mother, Annie Livingston Stone, came from a Maryland Quaker farm background. Mary never married. Until Annie’s death in 1943 Mary resided with her, nursing her mother tirelessly during the last years of Annie’s life.

Mary McDowell attended Friends Seminary in New York, and later Swarthmore College, graduating in 1896. She had prepared to be a teacher, and in 1897 she won a Lucretia Mott Fellowship to study for a year at Oxford. In 1900 Mary received a master’s degree from Columbia University. She was an outstanding scholar, very serious and studious, although lively and social as well. She and her mother hosted many gatherings at their home. Physical fitness remained important to her throughout her life.

After returning from England, Mary obtained a position teaching Latin and Greek in Jersey City. Later she also taught English. In 1905 she moved to the New York City public schools and remained there until her retirement in 1946, with the exception of the five years she was suspended due to the charges made against her. During the years of her suspension, she first taught at George School in Bucks County, Pa., and then worked for Fellowship of Reconciliation. Her teaching skills were superb. Even in the midst of her trial, her superiors never doubted her sincerity and her devotion to her students.

In 1917 the Board of Education began insisting that New York teachers sign loyalty oaths to actively support the war effort. This involved the requirement to teach a course in "citizenship, once or more a week," which Mary refused, wishing to qualify what she thought of as a euphemism for support of the war, to more reasonably reflect, given her views, what she felt she could teach. In January 1918 she was brought before the Board of Superintendents and asked to resign. She refused, citing several specifics including that she did not think it an obligation of a teacher to train his or her students to support the United States government in its measures for carrying out the war. In May she was given a hearing before a special committee of the New York City Board of Education "In the Matter of the Charges of Conduct Unbecoming a Teacher Preferred Against Mary S. McDowell."

She was supported and defended by a cadre of prominent civil libertarians and Quaker attorneys, including Wilson Powell, chair of the Law Committee of New York Yearly Meeting. The defense based its case on that of religious freedom, on the argument that schools cannot fire teachers based on their beliefs, according to the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. The argument was made that she would have to foreswear her religion in order to retain her job. Attorney Austen Fox concluded with an impassioned plea for the retention of the right of conscience in the classroom and a reminder to the Board that Quakers have always been patriotic and law-abiding citizens.

Excerpts from the testimony include the following: "that she did not want to help the United States government in carrying on the present war and that she was unwilling to assist the government by every means in her power. . . ; that she would not urge her pupils to support the war. . . ; that she would not urge her students to buy Thrift Stamps. . . ; that she does not believe that a teacher is under special obligation to train his or her pupils to support the government in its measures for carrying on the war. . . ; that she is opposed to the war of the United States against the German government."

In her defense, McDowell stated that she never specifically refused to carry out any of the duties that the Board had asked her to perform. She had objected to certain passages in the Loyalty Oath, requesting to modify it and also to be relieved of her assignment to teach citizenship once a week. The defense also cited a long history of conscientious objection in the United States, beginning with George Washington having exempted Quakers from service during the Revolution, and continuing during the Civil War, when Quaker teachers were not required to bear arms.

Mary McDowell was relieved of her duties as a teacher at the Manual Training School. This was a difficult time for her, as she was the sole support of her widowed mother. The case was appealed to the New York Supreme Court but to no avail; it cited the "peace and safety of the state" as paramount.

In 1923, one of her attorneys wrote a letter to the Board requesting her reinstatement. The matter was referred to the Committee on Law. The president of the School Board admitted that her case had occurred during the "height of war hysteria." Subsequently she was reinstated. In 1940 McDowell helped to found the Pacifist Teachers League. When she refused to help her students at the Manual Training School register for the draft prior to World War II, she was excused for one day without pay.

Mary McDowell continued to be active in many peace organizations and activities until her death in 1955. Included among these are Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Committee of New York Yearly Meeting (of which she was clerk for many years), and the Brooklyn Meeting Ministry Committee and First-day school. She is remembered as tireless in bringing issues of peace before her meeting.

Vernon Martin, currently a member of Keene (N.H.) Worship Group and formerly a member of New York Monthly Meeting, received help from Mary McDowell in 1950 in renouncing his commitment to the Naval Reserves. Martin remembers that some Quakers inwardly groaned as Mary rose to speak in meeting for business, as they knew they were about to be asked again to examine their consciences and put before the public some issue that required action. Mary McDowell continued to be active in local socialist gatherings and to write voluminous letters, many of which are contained in her archives at Radcliffe College. She was immensely disappointed when several socialist organizations with whom she was associated supported the Korean War. She also wrote to President Harry S Truman in the early 1950s, urging him to withdraw support for the atom bomb and to work toward disarmament. She steadfastly refused to pay a portion of her income taxes each year and, according to Vernon Martin, the IRS dutifully "attached part of her pitifully small teacher’s pension, out of which she also gave to charity."

In her later years, Mary McDowell wrote many letters, editorials, and pamphlets, some self-published, some published in Friends Intelligencer, and at least one published by American Friends Service Committee. In What Shall be the Future of Our Country? she wrote, "If the people who support the new Patriotism are willing to risk their lives as do the soldiers, God will support them and their influence will grow. What part will you take in the great adventure of making durable peace?"

Though quiet and reserved by nature, Mary McDowell enjoyed Friends gatherings at her home, often directed to meeting, peace business, and other social purposes. She was fond of music and played the piano; the composer Edward McDowell was her cousin (though the families were not close). She is remembered as a kind and sympathetic friend who spent little on her own comfort or possessions. Throughout the ordeal of her trial, she refused to show anger or recrimination. A socialist friend later remarked, "I could only marvel at her tolerance and patience." Others remember her as quietly stubborn, particularly when it came to causes in which she held deep beliefs. Often she felt stung by the criticisms directed at her, but would hold her tongue and at some of these times be found smiling, after a period of quiet waiting. "She is a Quaker," a point emphasized by her high school principal and which was the driving force for her life, according to Anna Curtis, who wrote a brief biographical piece on McDowell for New York Monthly Meeting in 1960. "To be a Friend was in itself a distinction and always a responsibility. Whatever services she rendered to individuals, or for the cause of peace, she performed as a Friend, because she fully realized the deeper meanings of Quakerism and what it stands for."

In 1964 Mary Stone McDowell’s life was featured on the TV series "Profiles in Courage," based on the 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John F. Kennedy. Each episode highlighted the life of an historical person who, in spite of vilification and public pressure, took an unpopular stand and stood by his/her beliefs. Each was an exemplar of outstanding character in the pursuit of justice. The legacy of Mary McDowell also lives on in a Brooklyn school named in her honor.

Mary Lee Morrison

Mary Lee Morrison is a member of Hartford (Conn.) Meeting and teaches, writes, and consults on peace education. This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2003 Friends Association for Higher Education conference held at Pendle Hill and Swarthmore College.