Thursday, June 23, 2016
Political caricature by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1936. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPolitical caricature by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1936. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

During the 1910s and 1920s, commercial artist, feminist, and social activist Anita Parkhurst Willcox (1892–1984) created numerous images of the “New American Woman”—idealized images of young, fashionable, beautiful women. Her artwork featuring these women appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and other magazines.

By the early 1930s, however, she was uncomfortably aware of the dichotomy between the images she was presenting to the public and her own life as a working mother of five children. This led her to give up commercial art, focusing instead on projects that reflected her interest in social justice and world peace. She drew political caricatures and also designed posters for the League of Industrial Democracy and Americans United for World Organization. In 1949, her family founded Village Creek, an interracial cooperative community in Norwalk, Connecticut. This community, the first of its kind on the Eastern seaboard, was declared a National Historic Monument in 2010.

Willcox and her husband, engineer Henry Willcox, traveled to Beijing, China in 1952, to represent the Quakers at the Asia and Pacific Rim Peace Conference. This trip had significant consequences: their participation in the conference led the United States government—and many of their neighbors—to consider them communists. Upon their return to the United States, their passports were confiscated and Henry Willcox was forced out of the construction business he had founded. Anita Willcox’s opportunities for freelance work were also affected and murals she had designed as a gift for the Honeyhill Elementary School in Norwalk, Connecticut, became the source of considerable local controversy.

Collier's covers by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1929. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCollier's covers by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1929. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
While the murals’ subject (the history of Norwalk harbor) was uncontroversial, some local citizens, led by former State Senator Stanley Stroffolino, vehemently opposed the school’s acceptance of the work of an alleged communist. Stroffolino maintained that accepting the murals would be tantamount to teaching children to condone “unAmerican acts.” The American Civil Liberties Union supported Willcox and the murals, and the matter was ultimately resolved by the Board of Education, which ruled against the school accepting the murals. In 1977, the one mural she had completed was accepted and hung in the John D. Magrath School in Norwalk.

In 1955, Willcox became involved in the Matusow case. Henry Matusow, a member of the Communist party, had become an FBI informant in 1950, and in 1955 wrote the book False Witness, in which he admitted to being a government agent and stated that the government had paid him to lie about fellow members of the Communist party. He was then charged with perjury, and Willcox paid his bail, noting that although she had never met Matusow, ". . . I do not see why a man should be jailed for trying to right the wrong he has done." She was called before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security (also known as the Eastland Committee) and questioned on the Matusow matter and also on her trip to China. The transcript of this hearing is available online.

Mural Designs by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1954. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMural Designs by Anita Parkhurst Willcox, 1954. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

The following year, Henry Willcox was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned extensively about the trip to China. This hearing transcript is also available online. After a prolonged court case which reached the Supreme Court, their passports were returned in 1959. (This case was brought by twelve people including Willcox and her husband, the actor Paul Robeson, and the civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin.)

Upon the return of their passports, Willcox and her husband resumed international travel, visiting Ghana and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and returning to China in 1971, where they were reunited with Guo Moruo, the president of the peace conference they had attended in 1952.

Anita Parkhurst Willcox died at Village Creek in April 1984.

See Anita Parkhurst Willcox Papers


Susan Earle