As racially charged rhetoric takes over civil political discourse and “true” patriots warn of an impending leftist gun-grab, we should be reminded that this type of fear-mongering is not new to the American political scene. Agnes Waters, single-mother and outspoken nationalist, ran for president numerous times during the 1940s and 50s. She relied on exploiting white Americans’ fear of the “other.” She argued that women were stronger than men and therefore the “pistol-packin’” mothers of the right would forcibly rid the government of “non-American” threats like Blacks, Jews and communists with “a good, old-fashioned American revolution of mothers.”1 Her platform relied upon a strain of xenophobia, antisemitism, and conspiracy-backed anticommunism that found a small but vocal audience among the American public.
Agnes (Mulligan) Waters was born in New York City in 1893. She moved to Washington, D.C., as a young woman during World War I where she worked in the War and Labor Departments. She campaigned for women suffrage and also worked as a personal secretary to Alice Paul of the National Women’s Party. After the war, Waters married a veteran and had two daughters. Her husband died soon thereafter. Waters, a devout Catholic, never remarried. She worked as a successful real estate agent and made herself a small fortune as she raised her daughters on her own. It was also during this period that she began reading extensively on communism and by the 1930s became a staunch anticommunist.
Soon thereafter, Waters quit the real estate business and devoted herself entirely to politics. She voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and supported him during his first reelection bid until she attended the Democratic National Convention. When the party refused to adopt her proposed anticommunist platform, she turned completely against Roosevelt. She believed that Roosevelt and his administration had been taken over by “communist Jews.”
It’s unclear when Waters’ extreme antisemitism began. Perhaps she had always held such beliefs or maybe the slight by the DNC, as she perceived it, fueled her conspiratorial views towards Jewish people. Regardless, after 1936 Waters launched her campaign against the “Jewish conspiracy for world domination” in earnest. She came to believe that Roosevelt was a disciple of Lenin and had surrounded himself with communist Jews who were inspired by the devil.
Waters found a willing audience in the nationalist crusade known as the Mothers’ Movement. This was a loose confederation of women’s clubs that formed a right-wing coalition of isolationist, anti-Semitic, “true American” mothers and women. Groups such as the National Legion of Mothers of America and the National Blue Star Mothers supported Waters and invited her to speak at their meetings and rallies.
Waters often testified before congressional committees and railed against any bills she deemed communistic. She spoke on behalf of the Mothers’ Movement but also acted independently, testifying as a concerned citizen and an “expert” on communism. She had the support of enough members of Congress to legitimize her actions, yet she was forcibly removed from a number of hearings when her conspiracy-filled speeches, liberally laced with profanity and biblical references, pushed her listeners too far. She was instrumental in defeating the 1939 Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have provided a safe haven for twenty thousand German Jewish children. Her argument rested on extreme nationalistic ideas of race and ethnicity, stating, “the refugees have a heritage of hate … they could never become loyal Americans.”2 At a different hearing a few years later she yelled, “Just let the Jews come in and the pistol-packing mamas will take care of them. There will be nothing left of them.”3
When Roosevelt ran for a third term Waters argued that the President and his appointees should be executed. This went for his supporters as well. She only wanted “real Americans” in positions of authority instead of “Moscow Jews and Negroes.” She also warned that, “There are 100,000 Communist Jews at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country …. They will rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.”4 Armed mothers needed to rise up and take back their country and they needed a leader. Waters would be that leader and announced her 1944 bid for the presidency.
Waters worked the mothers’ movement circuit during her years of campaigning. She promised that if elected, she would prohibit all immigration into the United States and arrest all communists and Jews. She also promised to kill all Black people in the country because, she said, they were traitors and communists. She believed the NAACP was controlled by Moscow and that Blacks were indoctrinated into communism by a branch of the University of Moscow in North Carolina. She promised to appoint only “real” Americans to her Presidential cabinet, not “incompetents and dirty Jews.”5
Waters was surprised when neither the Republican nor Democratic parties nominated her as their candidate. She had expected to win both major parties’ nominations. Instead, she was forced to run a write-in campaign and canvassed nationalist mothers’ meetings across the country for support. Many women in the mothers’ movement backed her, but she never gained enough support from right-wing nationalist leaders to make a real run for the presidency. Her acerbic personality made her impossible to work with and made coalition building impossible. She ran for president three more times after her first failed presidential run. She actively campaigned for herself and could be seen on big-city sidewalks like Chicago sporting a sign that read, “The pistol-packin’ Mama—Agnes Waters, only Woman Candidate for President of the United States.”6
Agnes Waters is not well remembered because she never headed her own organization and only published one book. Nevertheless, Waters remained active in nationalist politics well into the 1960s. Although Waters’ conspiracy theories and brand of politicking often existed in the realm of the ridiculous, there was enough antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia circulating in the United States to create an eager audience for her brand of politics. Waters is a prime example of fear-mongering at its finest and shows that hate is not confined by gender or sex. In fact, her entire platform rested on ideas of gender and the “pistol-packin’ mamas” who would clean up what men had corrupted. Furthermore, Waters’ run for the presidency reminds us that female candidates come from all sides of the political spectrum. Women politicians hold a variety of political ideologies, highlighting how women’s politics and women’s issues are not monolithic entities but are as diverse as the American electorate.
Jeansonne, Glen. Women of the Far Right: The Mothers’ Movement and World War II. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
- Glen Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right: The Mothers’ Movement and World War II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 148. Return to text.
- New York Times, April 23, 1939, quoted in Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right, 144. Return to text.
- Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right, 147. Return to text.
- LIFE, April 13, 1942. Return to text.
- Jet, April 30, 1959, Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right, 147. Return to text.
- Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right, 174. Return to text.