Hilda Johnston, Lady Butterfield 1883-1957

Hilda is the key figure in my recently published article, ‘Change and Continuity, Networking, Newspaper, Kinships and Twentieth Century Elite Women’ Family and Community History (2017) which can be found here.

By birth, she was part of a powerful kin-based business network centred upon the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As an individual woman of wealth, she hit her peak confidence from her late 50s through to her death as an aid organiser, peace campaigner and as a person who could exert socio-political influence. The article discusses her personal development, that took her from social activity, into the heart of self-financing, self-organising philanthropy of the mid-twenieth century as part of a century’s worth of social change; Hilda was the daughter of a self-declared woman who lunched, as well as the mother of a woman who was on the cusp of being a breakthrough figure at the New York Bar Association. She was also twice a wife who experienced varied forms of patriarchy but who benefitted from an elite education advanced by her father that exposed her to ideas of change about women’s roles in society. As the wife of a Yorkshire Tory grandee and cousin-in-law of the presidential Roosevelt’s in her second marriage her portrait is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.

The article places Hilda, her mother Ethelinda Thorsen and daughter Carolinda Waters into three types of kinship structure, her close stem and collateral biological kin, parents, siblings, child, spouses, nephews and nieces. Then her wider matrifocal kin group, her female relatives by biology and law who may well have inspired her directly by active relationships or indirectly through stories, the Great Aunt, doyenne of a Jacksonville mansion, her mother’s globetrotting sister, her female cousins who shared her educational experiences or who exercised influence in Nazi-occupied Europe. Thirdly there were her fictive kinships made up of her women from the elite American families like the Roosevelts and Merrils, and women she had been schooled with at Vassar College who eased her arrival into London’s high society of the 1920s.

Not only does the article discuss ideas of kinship but it tackles the interaction between wealthy women from influential families and newspapers. Initially querying who was manipulating whom the paper digs further to consider whether the relationship with the press was a tool for further social power even through the seemingly powerless women’s pages. All of these elements are brought together to consider whether the economic breakthrough exhibited by elite women in elite organisations in the 1970s ought to be examined through the lens of their mothers and grandmothers life arcs.





Author: collating kinship

Iain Riddell is a University of Leicester PGR commencing Nov 2014 focused upon building an understanding of the application of kinship as a tool to explore UK socio-political and economic history post 1800. He has previously worked in inner urban local community and faith-based projects, specialising in marginalised communities.

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