Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

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Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

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Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

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WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

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Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
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WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

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African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”

Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform

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If Roberta West Nicholson has received any recognition at all, it’s been from Men’s Rights Groups, who have praised her revolutionary Anti-Heart Balm Bill. However, the bill, like much of her work, was progressively liberal and centered around equality. As the only woman legislator in 1935-1936, in her work to educate the public about sexual health, efforts against discrimination in Indianapolis, and champion children’s causes, West was a public servant in the purest sense. Despite her tireless work, she struggled to escape the shadow of her father-in-law, famous Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, and to be associated with social reform rather than her “cuteness.” In an interview with the Indiana State Library (ISL) conducted in the 1970s, she did just that, but unfortunately, it has been largely overlooked.

Even as a young college student, the Cincinnati, Ohio native deviated from the norm. Nicholson attended one semester at the University of Cincinnati, leaving after an exasperating experience with the sorority system, which she found “excessively boring.” Unbending to sorority policies which required dating male pledges and attending numerous parties, it became evident that Nicholson interests were incompatible with those of her sisters. After one of several instances of bullying, she proudly returned the sorority pin, withdrew from the college, and went to finishing school.

Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI. In 1926, the two were married and she moved to Indiana, where she was “absolutely bowled over by the fact that it was virtually the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and their vile machinations.” From a politically conservative family, Mrs. Nicholson soon found that in Indiana “the Republican party, as far as I could ascertain, was almost synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. Well, how could you be anything but a Democrat, you know? That was to be on the side of angels so to speak.”

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Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” scene on a mural representing Indiana at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

The day of her wedding, Roberta’s father received two letters, “terrible penmanship-pencil on cheap lined paper-warning him to stop the marriage of his daughter to that ‘nigger loving Jew.'”* Her father spent a large amount of money trying to identify the author of the “vitriolic hatred,” an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The couple’s wedded bliss was also impeded by the Great Depression, in which Meredith Jr. lost everything in the stock market and “this beautiful dream world we’d been living in is all of a sudden gone.” Following the bankruptcy of her husband’s company, Roberta took a job at Stewarts book store, supporting the family on $15 a week.

After the adoption of liberal principles, Nicholson engaged in her first real reform work in 1931. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger solicited Nicholson to establish a Planned Parenthood center in Indianapolis. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

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Margaret Sanger, circa 1917, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Outside of her role in Planned Parenthood, she worked as a public educator, going into cities, sometimes “very poor, miserable ghetto neighborhood[s],” to increase awareness of the “menace of venereal disease.” It became clear to Nicholson that ignorance about sexual health was widespread, including her own lack of knowledge about diseases, which she had referred to syphilis as the “awful awfuls” and gonorrhea the “never nevers.” During these often uncomfortable meetings with the public, Nicholson sought to inspire an open dialogue and a back and forth about taboo subjects. Nicholson also showed reproduction films to middle schoolers a job that provoked titters by students and sometimes outrage on the part of parents.

Her dedication to improve the welfare of children intensified during the Great Depression, when she witnessed impoverished children modeling clothes made by WPA employees. This was an effort to prove to those Indianapolis newspapers highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal that social programs were effective. Seeing these children being used to “get some bigoted publisher to change his views on some very necessary emergency measures” made her think of her own children and brought her to tears. In her ISL interview, she stated that “I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping children that were disadvantaged, and I have.”

In 1932, Nicholson founded the Juvenile Court Bi-Partisan Committee, to convince politicians to reform juvenile justice and “keep the court out of politics and to employ qualified persons to handle the children.” These efforts proved successful, when in 1938 Judge Wilfred Bradshaw reformed the court. Nicholson served as a longtime committee member and in 1946, when other members became frustrated with progress and resigned, Nicholson stayed, saying “I feel that because you are going to sometimes lose your point of conviction doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Nicholson also worked to improve the lives of Indianapolis children as the president of the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency and group home, and in her work on the board of Directors of the Child Welfare League.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In her interview with ISL, she explained her motive for joining the effort to repeal the 18th Amendment:

“These women felt very deeply about the fact that prohibition had inaugurated the era of of the gangsters: the illicit traffic in liquor, with no taxes and everything. They were building this empire of crime…And I said, ‘I am interested in it because these are the craziest days.’ Everybody had a bootlegger. I suppose real poor people didn’t but you never went to a party where there weren’t cocktails. I remember feeling very deeply ashamed to think that my children would be growing up with parents who were breaking the law. How was I going to teach them to fly right? I certainly wasn’t up to bucking the trend. So I thought, ‘All right, Ill work on this, that’s fine.’”

In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition.

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Terre Haute Brewing Company, circa 1934, likely celebrating the repeal of prohibition, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office. In 1934, she was convinced by the county chairman to run for Legislature during the FDR administration because “the Democrats smelled victory, because of the dramatic actions of the president. They wanted to get some names they thought would be meaningful to the voters so they invited me.” Although Nicholson had studied the issues in depth, it turned out that in order to be elected “all that was expected of one was to step up to the podium and say, ‘I stand four square behind FDR.’ That did it.”

Win she did, becoming the only woman to serve in the 1935-1936 Legislature, where she routinely faced sexism. According to the Indianapolis Star, during her time as secretary of the public morals committee, she informed her committeemen, “‘If you you think you’re going to stop me from talking just because I’ll be taking minutes, you’re wrong-I’ve got some things to say, and I’m going to say them.'” Nicholson elaborated that many of her colleagues thought:

“Wasn’t it cute of her. She’s got a bill. She’s going to introduce it just like a man. Isn’t that darling?’ I restrained myself, because after all I was in the distinct minority. I could not offend them. So I would just bat my eyelashes and beam at them and act as if I thought it was the way I wanted to be treated. Wasn’t that the only thing to do?”

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Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.

Not only did she “have” a bill, but her breach of promise bill, dubbed the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” made waves in Indiana and across the country. Nicholson’s proposal would outlaw the ability of a woman to sue a man who had promised to marry them, but changed their minds. She felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be absolutely condemned. Nicholson described her reasoning for the bill,  which had been protested by some women’s groups:

“…it just seemed perfectly silly to me, that from time immemorial, a female being engaged to be married could change her mind and say, ‘Sorry Joe, it’s all off.’ But if the man did, and if he had any money, he could be sued. I thought that was absolutely absurd. . . . The thing that was so amazing and truly surprising to me is that it was widely interpreted as giving free reign to predatory males to take advantage of chaste maidens which, of course, was diametrically opposed to what my conception was. I thought-and I still think-that it was an early blow for women’s liberation. I thought it was undignified and disgusting that women sued men for the same changing their mind about getting married.”

Nicholson’s bill passed the House fairly easily, but was held up in the Senate because, in her opinion, “Something new was being tried and several of the senators felt, ‘Why should we be first?” The bill also encountered resistance by lawyers who profited from breach of promise suits. Eventually the bill passed, inspiring similar legislation in other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing the “Spotlight, Pathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

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Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon, courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

After passage of the “Gold-Diggers bill,” Nicholson was invited to speak around the country. At an address to the Chicago Association of Commerce and the Alliance of Business and Professional Women, she said “It seemed to me that we should say to these gold diggers and shyster lawyers, as did the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Off with their heads!” She added, “I am not a professional moralist, but I have attempted to set up a deterrent to irregular relations by removing the prospect of pecuniary profit from them.”

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The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Nicholson also received criticism during her legislative career for supporting the Social Security Act, for which a special session was called in 1936. The Head of the Indiana Taxpayers Association stopped her near the statehouse and asked if she would be voting for “‘that terrible communist social security.'” When she confirmed she was, Nicholson noted that his face creased with rage and he sped off in his chauffeured car. A state senator shared his conviction, contending that the act’s supporters were “‘Trying to turn this country into a GD Ethiopia!'”

Perhaps the most intense scrutiny Nicholson faced as a lawmaker was in her role as a working mother. The Indianapolis Star noted that nothing made Nicholson madder than “to have interfering friends charge that she is neglecting her family to pursue the career of a budding stateswoman.” The paper relayed Nicholson’s response:

“‘Some of my friends have told me that they think it is ‘perfectly terrible’ of me to get myself elected to the Legislature and spend the greater part of sixty days away from the children. . . . I told them, ‘I don’t spend any more time away from my children than other mothers do who play bridge and go to luncheons all the time.’ I try to be a good mother and so far as my being in the the Legislature preventing me from going to parties is concerned, I don’t care much for parties anyway!'”

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Nicholson with her daughter, Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1941, p.55, accessed Newspaper.com.

Despite criticism, Nicholson proved steadfast in her political convictions and was perceived of as a “force” by many observers; the Indianapolis Star proclaimed “Mrs. Nicholson yesterday wore a modish dark red velvet dress and smoked cigarettes frequently during the proceedings, and if any of her fellow legislators didn’t like it, it was just too bad. It was a pleasure to watch her.” When her term ended, the tenacious legislator ran for reelection, but lost because the political climate swung in favor of the Republican Party. However, this was far from the end of her public service.

Check back for Part II to learn about her WPA work alongside Ross Lockridge Sr.; visit with Eleanor Roosevelt; tiresome efforts to find housing for African American soldiers in Indianapolis who had been turned away; and observations about the Red Scare in local politics.

*The Nicholsons were not Jewish. It is likely that the author of the letter used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term for progressives.