Freda Kirchwey was born at Lake Placid on 26th September, 1893. Her father, George Washington Kirchwey, was a professor at the Columbia University Law School. A pacifist, Kirchwey helped establish the New York Peace Society in 1906. He also supported women's suffrage and the development of trade unions.
Kirchwey went to Barnard College (1911-15) where she was taught by Charles Beard and Frank Boas. She became politically active and was a member of the Woman's Peace Party and sold the Woman Voter on the streets of New York.
After graduating in 1915 she became a reporter for the New York Morning Telegraph. Later that year she married Evans Clark, who worked as research director and legislative secretary for the Socialist members of the New York City Board of Aldermen. After working for Every Week Magazine (1917-18) and the New York Tribune (1918) she was recruited by Oswald Garrison Villard to work for The Nation. Others working for the journal at that time included Norman Thomas and Emily Balch.
In her articles for the journal Kirchwey argued passionately against American support for the forces fighting the Bolshevik government in Russia. She argued: "In a world that is sick with the diseases that breed from capitalist-imperialism, the virility of Russia may hold out the best hope for civilization." Kirchwey also gave her help to Margaret Sanger in her campaign for the dissemination of birth control information.
In November 1922 Kirchwey was promoted to Managing Editor. In this role she commissioned articles by Bertrand Russell, Elsie Clews Parsons, Raymond Gram Swing, Heywood Broun, Floyd Dell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Max Eastman, Henry Louis Mencken and Louis Fischer.
Kirchwey and her husband, Evans Clark, worked closely with Charles Garland, who inherited a considerable fortune in 1922. A socialist, Garland decided to set up an institution to dispense money to radical, liberal and trade union causes. Over the next few years the American Fund for Public Service provided financial help to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in its campaign against lynching, subsidized the radical magazine New Masses and aided the defence of arrested trade union leaders.
Kirchwey joined John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the campaign to save the lives of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco.
A strong supporter of women's rights, in December 1926 she argued: "The women's revolution may mark the first half of this century more deeply than any other social change. The emotional conflicts that confront the modern woman, the profound choices that are forced upon her, the subtle interactions in home life, in the relations of the sexes, in factory and office are here discussed lightly yet with informed wisdom. I look forward to a future when women shall have found their sea legs and the impressive activities of the advancing women of today will seem like the earnest and awkward yet somehow promising movements of a land lubber on his first day out."
On his retirement in January 1933, Oswald Garrison Villard appointed Kirchwey as editor of the The Nation Villard remained the publisher, but Kirchwey now had complete control over the content of the journal. Although she had campaigned for Norman Thomas for president, she supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programme.
Raymond Gram Swing, who worked for The Nation during this period: "Of Miss Kirchwey, on whom the chief responsibility for conducting the magazine rested, I wish to say that she was one of the best and most likable journalists with whom I ever worked. I am tempted to call her the best woman journalist I ever encountered, but hesitate to rank her ahead of Dorothy Thompson, who was a better writer. But she was among the superior women journalists of her time."
Over the next few years she used her power to campaign against the fascist regimes in Europe. When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 she wrote that he represented "the abolition of personal liberty, for prejudice, for reaction, for race hatred and persecution, for terror and murder." Kirchwey argued that the United States should abandon its policy of isolationism and urged the government to impose economic boycotts on Germany and Italy.
Kirchwey also advocated a close alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In August 1935 she warned "that the basic conflict of the next ten years will not be between capitalism and revolution but between fascism and democracy - a struggle in which the forces of revolution must support." However, Kirchwey's views on the soviet government were dramatically shaken by the Great Purge when some of her political friends were executed by Joseph Stalin.
Kirchwey also wanted the United States administration to aid republicans in Spain against General Francisco Franco. In an article she wrote entitled Spain is the Key in February 1937 she made the forecast that "Franco's success would encourage the Nazis to go and do likewise in Czechoslovakia, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, or anywhere else. Defeated in Spain, Hitler would be sobered and checked. He would also be weakened by the expenditure on Franco of several hundred million dollars. If the fascists are beaten in Spain, they are weakened everywhere. The supreme test of an anti-fascist is not what he says but what he does for Spain."
On 2nd February, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech attacking the Supreme Court for its actions over New Deal legislation. He pointed out that seven of the nine judges (Charles Hughes, Willis Van Devanter, George Sutherland, Harlan Stone, Owen Roberts, Benjamin Cardozo and Pierce Butler) had been appointed by Republican presidents. Roosevelt had just won re-election by 10,000,000 votes and resented the fact that the justices could veto legislation that clearly had the support of the vast majority of the public.
Roosevelt suggested that the age was a major problem as six of the judges were over 70 (Charles Hughes, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, Louis Brandeis, George Sutherland and Pierce Butler). Roosevelt announced that he was going to ask Congress to pass a bill enabling the president to expand the Supreme Court by adding one new judge, up to a maximum off six, for every current judge over the age of 70.
Kirchwey supported Roosevelt and in an editorial in The Nation she wrote "The soil of economic chaos out of which fascism grows has been amply supplied by the court's refusal to allow national action for economic control." This upset her publisher, Oswald Garrison Villard, who believed that the president was wrong to try and control the decisions of the Supreme Court. Kirchwey refused to change her stance on this issue and to maintain her independence she decided to try and buy the journal. In June 1937, Kirchwey and her husband purchased it for $20,000.
In 1938 Congress established the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate people suspected of unpatriotic behaviour. Kirchwey believed that the setting up of the HUAC was an attempt to restrict the freedom of the press and she accused Martin Dies, its chairman, as a "one-man Gestapo from Texas." She added that "Dies isn't after sedition; he is after you and me and the President."
After the outbreak of the Second World War Kirchwey campaigned for the United States to give more help to Jews trying to escape from persecution in Germany and the occupied territories. She wrote in January 1940 that "thousands of European Jews will die, unnecessarily, if we do not reach them with our life-giving dollars."
Kirchwey also called for universal military training in the United States. This upset Oswald Garrison Villard who severed all ties with the journal and stopped writing his weekly column, Personal and Private. Kirchwey's articles in favour of American support for the Allies against Nazi Germany lost the journal a large number of readers. She refused to compromise her views and in August 1941 wrote: "Before its total, uncompromising demands are laid upon them, the people of America must learn that this war is their war; that they cannot dodge it or buy their way out of it; that they must fight it because fighting is the only alternative to surrender.
By January 1942 over half a million Jews had been exterminated in Europe. This received little coverage in newspapers in the United States. This was not true of The Nation and the journal published a series of articles by Philip S. Bernstein detailing what was happening in the concentration camps being run by the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Kirchwey upset many liberals in March 1942 by arguing in favour of the fascist being suppressed. Her long time friend Norman Thomas wrote to her pointing out: " In ten years or less it won't be the people you want to suppress now who will be suppressed and stay suppressed by your theory; it will be yourselves along with many others, unless, indeed, you want to go farther than I think you do in support of a Roosevelt totalitarianism. Don't forget that neither Roosevelt nor anybody else is immortal. The principles once established are apt to outlive men."
When the American Civil Rights Union (ACLU) decided to defend the freedom of the fascist press she resigned her membership. John Haynes Holmes wrote to her explaining the decision of the ACLU: "I would fight to the death to maintain their (fascists) liberties, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a democracy which disappears when such liberties are withdrawn. Indeed, it is no longer a democracy, but to the extent at least that civil liberties are denied, has already itself become a fascist state."
The Nation continued to lose money and was in danger of closing. In 1943 Kirchwey made an appeal for $25,000 to keep it in business. The readers raised $36,000 and the money was used to establish Nation Associates. This new organization published the journal and arranged political conferences.
After the war Kirchwey was criticized for of her support of the Soviet Union. When long time staff member Louis Fischer resigned over this issue, Kirchwey wrote in the journal: "We believe Russian policy is primarily a security policy, not an imperialist one; it can become dangerous to the world, therefore, only if Russia decides that the other major powers are plotting against it."
Kirchwey was one of America's strongest critics of McCarthyism. In one article written in June 1950 she defined McCarthyism as "the means by which a handful of men, disguised as hunters of subversion, cynically subvert the instruments of justice and hold up to contempt the government itself in order to help their own political fortunes."
In September 1955 Freda Kirchwey retired as editor of The Nation and was replaced by Carey McWilliams. Over the next few years she was very active in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in its campaign for civil rights.