On McCarthy’s Blacklist: Celebrating AAUW and Women’s History

A black-and-white photo of Brunauer at a writing desk

AAUW member Esther Brunauer was put on Sen. McCarthy's infamous blacklist in the 1950s.

March 17, 2014

Each year for Women’s History Month, the National Women’s History Project identifies a theme and selects several honorees to celebrate. This year’s theme is “celebrating women of character, courage, and commitment.” In years past, we have been able to highlight some AAUW connections to the project’s list of honorees. They were AAUW members, fellows, or awardees. We take pride in those connections. However, this year we have also created our own list of honorees that is uniquely AAUW. Every Friday in March, we will publish a blog post to celebrate AAUW’s very own women of character, courage, and commitment.

We start with a woman whose work with AAUW got her on the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist.

Esther Brunauer wore many hats within AAUW. Not only was she part of the staff, but she also was an AAUW member and a fellow. Her first contact with AAUW was as a recipient of a Margaret Maltby Fellowship in 1926 while she was pursuing her doctorate at Stanford University. She had also served as associate of the AAUW International Relations program from 1927 to 1944. So to say that AAUW was a big part of Brunauer’s life would be a huge understatement.

May 1954 article from the National Republic entitled "Pink Ladies of AAUW"

May 1954 article from the National Republic entitled “Pink Ladies of AAUW”

In 1944, Brunauer resigned from her job at AAUW to accept a position with the State Department. In his notorious five-hour speech in 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused Brunauer (or “Case No. 47,” as she was called) of being “instrumental in committing this organization to the support of various [communist] front enterprises.” Another AAUW member was also on McCarthy’s list, Judge Dorothy Kenyon, a well-known activist and attorney. Kenyon was second vice president of AAUW and also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1930.

Following the accusations, AAUW General Director Kathryn McHale and the board of directors rose to Brunauer and Kenyon’s defense, both personally and as AAUW associates. In a letter of support, McHale wrote, “Mrs. Brunauer’s record with AAUW was marked by personal and professional integrity, devotion to the public good, and loyalty to the government of the United States.” In a subsequent 1950 New Year’s Eve statement to the members of AAUW, the board issued a call to members to continue their important work despite the crisis and reminded members that it was only through their “practical work in education” that the nation “produce and maintain citizens who are sensitive to human values and who will strive to protect them.”

Both women vigorously defended themselves and refuted the accusations that they were tied to communist front organizations or that AAUW operated in such a manner. The charges against Kenyon were dismissed. Unfortunately, the defenses were not strong enough to exonerate Brunauer, who along with her husband, Stephen, a chemist for the Navy, were named as security risks and subsequently dismissed from their positions — a fate that was not uncommon at the time. Brunauer’s life was forever changed by the accusations.

The attacks against AAUW continued into the mid-1950s. The AAUW archives contain records relating to this battle. The records include AAUW responses to the allegations and copies of articles from the National Republic with titles such as “The Pink Ladies of AAUW,” written by pro-McCarthy journalists who combed through the pages of the AAUW Journal and other publications for evidence of our supposed communist and socialist leanings.



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  1. Avatar Kathryn Horvat says:

    I would like to add some missing information about Esther Caukin Brunauer. What she did between the time she left her job at AAUW and lost her job in the State Department, she had some major achievements. As the AAUW International Representative, she was very active in advocating on issues of war and peace during the 1930’s up until the time that the United States began to fight in World War II. Then the focus changed to creating a United Nations, so she became a leader in this effort. She was asked to join the U.S. State Department in 1944 to serve in the department that was developing the United Nations. She served as a technical advisor at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944 and the San Francisco Conference in 1945. From doing research in the National Archives, I learned that during that time, she was the one consulted on issues involving women and higher education. In fact, I found a list she created of suggestions for women to be appointed to the UN Delegation. Virginia Gildersleeve was the one who was eventually chosen by President Roosevelt to serve.

    Once the United Nations was created, Esther Brunauer was assigned to the UNESCO Relations Staff of the Department of State. In 1946 President Truman appointed her to the post of the United States Representative on the UNESCO Planning Commission, with the rank of minister. (At that time, no woman had been given the title of ambassador, and she was only the third woman minister.)

    Once UNESCO was created she continued to serve on the UNESCO Relations Staff until she was suspended from her in 1951, a year after being named by Senator McCarthy. The reason that Dorothy Kenyon and many of the others named by McCarthy did not lose their jobs is because they weren’t working for the State Department at the time of the attacks.

    Kathryn Brunauer Horvat

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