Glenolden’s Mildred Scott Olmsted Acted Out in her Youth—and Never Stopped

The women’s rights leader illegally taught birth control classes to Main Line women, among other rebellious pursuits.



Mildred Scott Olmsted

Some children never rebel. Others never stop. Mildred Scott Olmsted was among the latter.

Born in Glenolden, Olmsted was a peace and women’s rights activist who worked with everyone from Jane Addams and Margaret Sanger to Eleanor Roosevelt and Gloria Steinem. She was among the early advocates of birth control. Despite opposition, she organized the first social service department at Bryn Mawr Hospital. During World War I, she worked for the YMCA and the Quakers in France and Germany, coming away from the experience a committed pacifist. 

And in 1921, when she married lawyer Allen Olmsted, later a county judge, she informed him that she would neither obey nor even promise to love him. “What if you do something that makes me stop loving you?” Olmsted recalled telling him in a 1988 interview.

“Well,” her husband replied, “would you promise to strive to love me?”

To that, at last, she consented.

How different things might have been if she had grown up in a more loving family.

Born Mildred Scott, she was the second of three daughters of Henry Scott, a lawyer, and Adele Hamrick, a high-society beauty. Her older sister was prettier, her father was cold, and her mother allowed herself to be treated with disrespect. And that early experience of the world—in which men were cruel and unfair, and women helpless—formed the bedrock of her later convictions.

Conflicts between Mildred and her father were legendary—some explosive, others quiet and hurtful. As a child, she accused him of loving Adele, her older sister, more. His response: “You always prefer the first child.”

As a girl, Mildred desperately wanted a horse and began saving her pennies. Eventually, she had saved $90, which her father insisted that she put in the bank. But when the bank failed, he refused to reimburse her. “She has to learn what the world is really like,” he said. 

Later, a family friend who owned a horse named Mildred said it “ought” to belong to her. Mildred Scott thought the mare was beautiful and expected that she’d be taking it home. The owner, however, just laughed at the idea. “Mildred, with a burning sense of injustice, realized that she had been trifled with,” wrote Olmsted biographer Margaret Bacon. “She felt physically sick for days afterward. Her distrust of adults, and particularly of men, grew.”

Meanwhile, she witnessed the deteriorated state of her parents’ marriage, which had begun as a love affair but became its opposite. Henry Scott controlled the family’s money and enlisted his wife to ingratiate him with clients. He insisted that the family board an older woman—a stranger—who he claimed was important to his legal practice. Unable to resist actively, Adele did so passively, often by overspending. “Both (sister) Adele and Mildred remembered scenes between their parents when the monthly bill from Wanamaker’s came to the house,” wrote Bacon.

Another figure in the family was Harriet Scott, a paternal aunt. According to Bacon, Harriet had been “designated” to care for the Scotts’ elderly mother. Later, after the older woman’s death, and too old for marriage herself, Harriet went to live with Mildred’s family, despite her mother’s objections. It was a humiliating experience for both women. “Aunty was another reason that Mildred was determined not to be trapped in the female role,” wrote Bacon.

Mildred graduated from Friends’ Central School and Smith College, though she found the latter a disappointment. When she arrived on campus in 1908, she found other students dismayingly conservative. Few of them were interested in careers, expecting to marry and raise children. (Mildred, by then, had determined never to marry.) 

Even women’s suffrage was frowned upon. Mildred, an advocate, was annoyed to be dubbed “our little suffragette.” In later years, she didn’t even return for the reunions of the Class of 1912.

She did, however, meet Ruth Mellor of Plymouth, Mass., and the two would remain close for the rest of their lives.

Mildred’s degree was in history, but her interest was social work. In 1913, she earned a certificate from the Pennsylvania School of Social and Health Work and began a series of short-term jobs in the helping professions. She helped run a settlement house for kindergarten children of working parents and performed surveys of children with mental, physical and emotional handicaps in the Philadelphia area.

Also in 1913, Mildred announced her intention to march in a suffrage parade in Philadelphia. Her father forbade it, saying that no daughter of his walked the streets. She said she was going anyway, as a matter of principle, to which he responded, “Then you need not come home tonight.” (She did go home again, and the subject was never again discussed.)

In 1915, the Main Line Federation of Churches hired her as a field secretary. To appear older and more mature, she took to wearing a stiff collar and a tie. The work brought her into contact with Bryn Mawr Hospital, which had no social work department. Soon, Mildred put a proposal in the hands of the board, which was approved and funded, and she was hired to as a social worker.

However, Bryn Mawr’s head nurse vetoed every responsibility except that of sitting in the clinic each day from noon to 2 p.m. So that is what she did until, one at a time, the head nurse reassigned each of the responsibilities previously deleted from Mildred’s original list. On her own initiative, she later expanded her duties to include serving public schools and assisting at well-baby clinics.

Her work with mothers brought Mildred into contact with birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who swayed her with stories of poor women dying after multiple childbirths. Mildred joined the Main Line Birth Control League and, for a time, thought this cause might be her life’s work. Teaching birth control was illegal, so the group met quietly in private homes—until one member convened a session at the Merion Cricket Club, where her husband was on the board. “Word got out, and the meeting was mobbed with women who thought they were going to be told how to prevent pregnancy,” wrote Bacon. “The Main Line was scandalized.”

The club passed new rules to prevent a recurrence.

Scott family friends told her that she would ruin her reputation as a young lady if she consorted with birth-control advocates, to which Mildred retorted, “I am not here as a young lady. I am here as a social worker.”

 

In 1919, Mildred Scott went to France for the YMCA, which had hired her to organize recreation for troops awaiting demobilization. In Paris, the troops were receptive to her proposal for weekly talks on post-war politics. The first guest was peace activist Jane Addams, who was
traveling to a meeting that would lead to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

“No record of what [Addams] said is available,” wrote Bacon, “but Mildred kept among her most precious memories the day Jane Addams met with a group of soldiers in the garden of the [YMCA] house on Rue de Rivoli.”

Other speakers followed, until word filtered up the ranks to Mildred’s YMCA superiors, who considered the political lectures dangerous. Just “keep the boys dancing,” she was told. (“Men …” she might well have thought.)

Mildred moved on to Berlin, where she worked for the American Friends Service Committee, feeding famine-stricken Bavarian children. During this post-war period, she also began a reluctant romance with Allen Olmsted, a Philadelphia lawyer (like her father) with compatible political views. They married in 1921, but the relationship was always stormy. Among the problems was Mildred Scott Olmsted’s continuing relationship with Ruth Mellor, who sometimes lived with the Olmsteds in Rose Valley. In many ways, the marriage was always a triangle.

Returning to Philadelphia in 1920, Olmsted sought out the local WILPF chapter, which then consisted of just a few people. She worked as a volunteer but, in 1922, became executive secretary, a position she would hold until 1966. WILPF suited both her passion for peace and her desire to work with other womentoward a big goal. Olmsted proved so successful at recruiting new members that the organization’s Pennsylvania branch soon accounted for a third of all U.S. members.

Peace work has always been controversial, and Olmsted was frequently accused of being a communist. In 1938, she arrived in Johnstown for a scheduled meeting, only to have the local committee suggest  that she go home because the American Legion had threatened to tar-and-feather her. Would Henry Scott’s daughter back down at such talk? 

“Mildred said she would prefer to stay,” wrote Bacon. “She had never been tarred-and-feathered before, and would like to see what happened.” 

In her remarks, she compared WILPF members to the pioneer women who had settled the West, and was applauded at the end, even by the legionnaires.

Olmsted’s success brought her to the attention of WILPF’s national board, which appointed her to a series of top positions, including national executive secretary. She served on the international executive committee from 1937 to 1953.

Among her most demanding trips was a 1934 visit to Nazi Germany to check on the status of an imprisoned WILPF member. Olmsted was in Berlin for a week, during which she walked and listened, met furtively with a few WILPF members, and even heard Hitler speak. The experience sent her home with a horror of Nazism. But she favored sanctions and non-violent civil defense as events escalated toward World War II. 

Back in the States, she formed a committee to advise conscientious objectors. In 1940, she opposed a bill to resume the military draft, which she considered little more than slavery. “I have often wondered,” said Olmsted, “why it is that a family, which would make a great protest if the government took away their automobile or even their dog, says nothing when the government takes away their sons.”

Olmsted had met Franklin Roosevelt twice and, through WILPF activities, knew Eleanor Roosevelt well. She had supported FDR’s administration. “[Now] he had betrayed her, as her father had betrayed her so many years ago,” Bacon observed.

Somehow, it always came back to the same thing. What a difference a better father might’ve made.

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