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Rep. Roberta West Nicholson, 1903-1987

Location: English Foundation Building, at 615 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis (Marion County, Indiana) 46204

Installed 2021 Indiana Historical Bureau, Family and Friends of Roberta West Nicholson

ID#: 49.2021.1

For more about Nicholson, see “Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform” and “Roberta West Nicholson: ‘Without a Scintilla of Prejudice’” on the Indiana History Blog.

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Side One:

Social reformer Roberta West Nicholson moved to Indianapolis ca. 1925. She co-founded the Indiana Birth Control League in 1932, renamed Planned Parenthood. As state representative, Nicholson sponsored a 1935 “Heart Balm Bill” that outlawed suing partners for broken engagements and infidelity, inspiring similar legislation and national discussion about women’s equality.

Side Two:

In the 1930s, Nicholson served as WPA Director of Women’s and Professional Projects in Marion County. In her work with the local Service Men’s Center, she procured recreational facilities for Black soldiers in WWII. She directed the city’s Social Hygiene Association from 1943 to 1960 and was awarded a lifetime board membership for her work with the Children’s Bureau.

Summary

Throughout her career, Ohio native and Indianapolis social reformer Roberta West Nicholson worked for equality. Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI in 1925 and moved to Indianapolis shortly thereafter. Roberta engaged in her first real reform work in 1931 when birth control activist Margaret Sanger reportedly solicited Nicholson to help establish Indianapolis’s first Planned Parenthood center. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate via Planned Parenthood, and later the Social Hygiene Association.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition. Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office, and in 1934 the county chairman convinced her to run for state legislature. The only female representative in the 1935-1936 session, she made national headlines with her “Breach of Promise Bill,” also known as the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” and “Gold Diggers Bill.” Nicholson’s proposed bill would outlaw the ability of partners (plaintiffs were typically women) to sue fiancés who broke their engagements. The bill also outlawed suing spouses for infidelity, along with suing those who helped spouses break their vows. Nicholson felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be condemned. Her bill sought to increase women’s agency within the institution of marriage, when it had essentially been a “basic common law, that the woman was chattel and that the man, in marrying her, was saying, ‘I buy you and agree to feed and clothe you’” (“Roberta West Nicholson Didn’t Know She was an Early ‘Libber,” The Herald, March 31, 1977).

At a time of collective anxiety and changing gender roles as women increasingly entered the workforce, the bill engendered intense national debate about women’s equality. The Pittsburgh Press opined on February 5, 1935 that “The whole conception of feminine equality is destroyed every time a woman hales a man into court and collects because he decides he doesn’t want to marry her.” However, the Indianapolis Star reported on February 14 that the Michigan City, Indiana League of Women Voters opposed H.B. 138, believing it would “deprive women of their just rights. The bill passed due to Nicholson’s political savvy and the widespread support of women, inspiring similar legislation in at least eleven other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing “SpotlightPathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

Once her term ended, Nicholson was appointed the Marion County Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In her role with the WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, and Nicholson felt that her approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.”

In addition to women, she worked to uplift disadvantaged children, like in her work to reform the juvenile court system. For decades, she worked with the Children’s Bureau of Indianapolis, which placed children in foster homes and strove to meet the medical, social, and educational needs of marginalized children. By the 1930s, Nicholson served on the Bureau’s board and in the 1940s served as president of the board. For her dedication, the Children’s Bureau presented her with an honorary lifetime board membership, the third awarded in the organization’s 110 year history.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle. Nicholson successfully fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts, including providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960. Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Annotated Text

Side One:

Rep. Roberta West Nicholson
1903-1987[1]

Social reformer Roberta West Nicholson moved to Indianapolis ca. 1925.[2] She co-founded the Indiana Birth Control League in 1932, renamed Planned Parenthood.[3] As state representative,[4] Nicholson sponsored a 1935 “Heart Balm Bill” that outlawed suing partners for broken engagements and infidelity, inspiring similar legislation and national discussion about women’s equality.[5]

Side Two:

In the 1930s, Nicholson served as WPA Director of Women’s and Professional Projects in Marion County.[6] In her work with the local Service Men’s Center, she procured recreational facilities for black soldiers in WWII.[7] She directed the city’s Social Hygiene Association from 1943 to 1960[8] and was awarded a lifetime board membership for her work with the Children’s Bureau.[9]


[1] “Roberta W Nicholson,” 1930 United States Federal Census, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, FHL microfilm: 2340344, page 2A, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; Death Certificate, Roberta Nicholson, November 5, 1987, Indiana State Board of Health, Death Certificates, 1899-2011, Indiana Archives and Records Administration, Indianapolis IN, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

[2] “Roberta West,” Marriage Record, October 14, 1925, Hamilton, Ohio County Marriage Records, 1774-1993, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “Roberta W Nicholson,” 1930 United States Federal Census, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, FHL microfilm: 2340344, page 2A, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; Roberta West Nicholson, Oral History Interview Transcript, conducted by F. Gerald Hanfield Jr., 1985, p.2, Indiana State Library (ISL), Indiana Division, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

[3] Board of Directors Minutes, February 4, 1932, January 8, 1934, April 2, 1934, and November 26, 1934, BV 2252, Planned Parenthood Association of Central Indiana Records, 1932-1985, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana.; Kathryn E. Pickett, “League Organized for Birth Control,” The Indianapolis Star, February 5, 1932, accessed Newspapers.com.; Diane Frederick, “Clinics Observe 50 Years of Aid,” The Indianapolis News, June 2, 1982, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.; Oral History Interview Transcript, p. 121-122.;  Carrie Louise Sorensen, “’One of the Proudest Achievements:’ Organized Birth Control in Indiana, 1870s to 1950s,” (master’s thesis, Indiana University, 2006): 69-70, accessed IUPUI ScholarWorks Repository.

[4] Certificate of Election of Representative to the General Assembly, Roberta West Nicholson, November 27, 1934, Box 1, Folder 18, Roberta West Nicholson Collection (RWNC), L320, ISL, Indianapolis, Indiana.; Mary E. Bostwick, “Only Woman Member of Legislature Says Being Lawmaker ‘Simply Swell,’” The Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[5] “Mrs. Nicholson Backed by Women in Fight to End Heart Balm Suits,” The Indianapolis (News?), Box 3, Folder “Newspaper and Magazine Clippings,” RWNC.; “Women Must Adapt Themselves to Equal Rights Says State’s Woman Solon; Puts Sex on Spot,” The Vidette-Messenger [Valporaiso, IN], January 23, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Letter, Ambrose Julian Fahy (Washington, D.C.) to Mrs. Roberta Nicholson (State Capitol), January 28, 1935, Box 1, Folder 16, RWNC.; Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana, Seventy-Ninth Session of the General Assembly, (Indianapolis: Wm. Burford Printing Co., 1935): 1388, Indiana Collection, ISL.; Doris Blake, “Tell Us, Women!,” Daily News [New York City], February 1, 1935, 91, accessed Newspapers.com.; Virginia Irwin, “The ‘Heart Balm’ Battle in Indiana,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1, 1935, 45, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Woman to Offer ‘Heart Balm’ Bill in Ohio,” The Richmond Item [Indiana], February 3, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com; Letter, Mrs. Mary L. Binder (Atlantic City, NJ) to Mrs. Nicholson, February 4, 1934, Box 1, Folder 17, RWNC.; Mrs. Walter Ferguson, “A Woman’s Opinion: Pity for Men,” The Pittsburgh Press, February 5, 1935, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Love v. Extortion,” TIME, February 18, 1935, Box 3, Folder “Newspaper and Magazine Clippings,” RWNC.;  “’Heart Balm’ Bill Passed by Senate,” The Indianapolis Star, March 8, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Chapter 208. H. 138. Approved March 11, 1935,” Laws of the State of Indiana, Passed at the Seventy-Ninth Regular Session of the General Assembly (Indianapolis: Wm. B. Burford Printing Co., 1935): 1009-1013, Indiana Collection, ISL.; “’Heart Balm’ Bill is Signed by Gov. M’Nutt,” The Richmond Item [Indiana], March 12, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Tells Chicagoans About Balm Bill,” The Indianapolis Star, March 28, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.; Frederick L. Kane, “Heart Balm and Public Policy,” Fordham Law Review, 5, iss. 1, (1936): 63-72, accessed Fordham.edu.: Hortense Myers, “Roberta West Nicholson Didn’t Know She was an Early Libber,” The Herald, March 31, 1977, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] “First Lady Sees WPA Sewing Work,” The Indianapolis Star, June 18, 1936, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “State,” Palladium-Item [Richmond, IN], June 1, 1937, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “With Unemployment Rising, Countian Recalls Days of WPA,” Brown County Democrat, August 4, 1982, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Oral History Interview Transcript, 41, 60-63, 81-82, 104-105.

[7] “Service Men’s Center Sponsors May Queen Contest, Victory Ball,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 22, 1944, 5, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “Citizens Urged Early to Share Christmas Joys with Servicemen,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 27, 1943, 5, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; Oral History Interview Transcript, 78-80.; “Funeral Rites Set for Ex-Lawmaker Roberta Nicholson,” The Indianapolis Star, November 7, 1987, 40, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] “Mrs. Nicholson to Assume Post,” The Indianapolis Star, June 30, 1943, 26, accessed Newspapers.com.; Pamphlet, “Roberta West Nicholson, Honorary Life Membership, American Social Hygiene Association, 1951,” Box 2, Folder “Misc. Materials, 1934,” RWNC.; Bernice O’Connor, “Controversy Surrounded Her,” The Indianapolis News, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.; Oral History Interview Transcript, 67-72, 77, 84-86.; “Historical Note,” Social Health Association of Central Indiana Records, 1919-1993, Mss 50, Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives, accessed University Library.

[9] The Indianapolis Star, January 23, 1937, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Board Re-Elects Mrs. Perry Lesh: Children’s Bureau, Indianapolis Orphans Home Names Officers,” The Indianapolis Star, December 18, 1938, 64, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Mrs. Nicholson Elected Children’s Bureau President,” The Indianapolis Star, November 25, 1942, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Mrs. Nicholson Is Tireless Fund Aid,” The Indianapolis News, October 7, 1954, 36, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Orphan Home Board Names Hitz Again,” The Indianapolis News, January 19, 1961, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; Oral History Interview Transcript, 42, 64, 78, 83.; Prepared by Weintraut & Associates Historians, Inc., For the Children’s Sake: A History of the Children’s Bureau of Indianapolis, Inc. (2000), 29, 37-38, 41, accessed childrensbureau.org.

Keywords

Political, Women