VIDA DUTTON SCUDDER: A Companion for Today's Comrades

This magazine exists because of Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954)—Anglican churchwoman, socialist radical, and longtime English professor at Wellesley College. That’s her in profile on the cover of the first issue, and again, haloed in vaporwave pink, in The Hour’s Twitter pic. Her 1917 book The Church and the Hour not only lends this magazine its title, it also tells us what makes her a fitting companion for Christian Leftist comrades today: her insistence that the church speak against the injustice of the moment, and her confidence that the church has its own resources to contribute to the fight for social justice.

In 1884, Scudder became one of the first American women to study at Oxford University. There she heard some of John Ruskin’s final public lectures. Ruskin’s plea for beauty and justice against the aesthetic and moral ugliness of industrial capitalism helped to radicalize her and propelled her to volunteer, first with the Salvation Army, and then to help establish a settlement house in New York City.

From early on, Scudder joined ora with labora in her work for social justice, like the monastics she so admired. She joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, an Anglican women’s order devoted to intercessory prayer, in 1889. In 1890, she helped to launch the Episcopal Church of the Carpenter in Boston under Rev. W. D. P. Bliss. This Christian Socialist church plant strove to bring together “all sorts and conditions” of people in worship of the God who became human as a homeless worker.

The essay re-published here, “Socialism and Spiritual Progress,” is from 1896. It contains in embryo the argument of her most important political statement, her 1910 book Socialism and Character. Both offer rejoinders to the conservative canard that socialism makes for lazy and entitled citizens—an attack still levelled against young socialists today. Scudder demonstrates that socialism, by removing unnecessary barriers to right action, can actually raise the ethical level of the populace. This polemically useful argument also embodies the most important gift that Christian Socialism can offer to the wider Left: its vision of morality and politics, the quest for holiness and the quest for the good society, as inseparable. Leftist movements that sever ethics and politics have, in the past, ceased reckoning what philosopher Alain Badiou calls “the singularity of human lives” to disastrous results.

But why did it take Scudder fourteen years—a period of time in which she published several other books—to work “Socialism and Spiritual Progress” up to full length? Part of the answer might lie in the personal and professional turmoil those years held. In 1900, Scudder helped lead an ultimately unsuccessful protest against Wellesley’s acceptance of a large donation of “tainted money” from the Rockefellers. Worn out and betrayed—she had thought women’s colleges were a force for progress but now understood, for all the good they did, how deeply they were imbricated in the capitalist establishment—she had a neurasthenic breakdown. In her distress, she found strength in the writing and example of St. Catherine of Siena, publishing a translation of her letters, and of St. Francis of Assisi.

Equally important was the courage she drew from her “Comrade and Companion” Florence Converse (1871-1967), the socialist novelist and poet with whom she lived. Scudder dedicated Socialism and Character to Converse in a preface she composed at La Verna in Tuscany, where Francis had received the stigmata. The preface announced her bond with Converse to the world; it also declared that the two had stepped beyond churchly organizations of social action to join the Socialist Party of America. In their courageous solidarity and the boldness of their love, Scudder and Converse might offer particular companionship to LGBTQ+ comrades on today’s Christian Left.

Jonathan McGregor

Irmo, SC

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