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Zelma Corning Brandt (May 23, 1891 - February 19, 1990) was a social activist who worked to advance international understanding, especially through support for colonial nations, and to advocate for American minority groups, including women, American Indians, and the elderly. She was a member of the Heterodoxy Club.
Zelma Corning Brandt was born in New York City on May 23, 1891, to James Wells Corning and Hermione Thorsch. She attended The Veltin School for Girls in New York City, graduating in 1909. As a young girl, Brandt’s family often travelled abroad during the summer, and she began to write poems, and to keep a diary of her travels. After her graduation from The Veltin School, Brandt attended Bryn Mawr College, where she took mostly English courses. She left Bryn Mawr after two years, in 1911, to marry Carl Brandt (1892-1957), a literary agent.
During World War I, Brandt began to work with her husband and brother-in-law at their publishing agency. There, the Brandts worked side-by-side, editing manuscripts and selecting works for publication. They had two children, Barbara Galton and Lois Triffin, born in 1915 and 1917, respectively. They divorced in 1927.
After her divorce, Brandt left the firm and began to travel extensively, utilizing a small family fortune that had been inherited through her paternal uncle. At first, she travelled mostly to Europe to visit friends and family, but her travels soon broadened in scope, as she sought to enhance her understanding of foreign cultures. She developed a particular interest in countries struggling for independence, especially India and the African countries of Ghana, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, and French and British Cameroon. In 1957, Zelma was made a correspondent for the Trans-Radio News Agency, to cover Ghana’s independence celebrations. In 1962, she became an observer for the United Nations, specifically focusing on African and Colonial matters under the auspices of the International League for Human Rights (formerly the International League for the Rights of Man). Through this entire period, Brandt also travelled extensively through Europe. She visited the Soviet Union multiple times at the height of the Cold War, and tried for many years to go to Cuba and China. She was finally able travel to China in 1972, at age 81. Brandt also financially supported relatives in Hungary who had been cut from her mother’s will, and sent packages of food and other necessities to friends in Europe during and after World War II.
Domestically, Brandt was active in several women’s organizations. Her first involvements were in the suffragist movement and in Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League. Later, she focused on women’s groups advocating for peace. She was an early member of the Women’s International Democratic Foundation. Her involvement in WIDF resulted in accusations of Communist sympathies. She was also active in Women Strike for Peace, which opposed US involvement in Southeast Asia and nuclear proliferation. Brandt also strongly advocated for the American Indian, especially after the Wounded Knee Massacre, and she guided her granddaughter into a lifelong career in Native American affairs. As she aged, Brandt became especially interested in geriatric issues, especially those related to care of the elderly. She was active in the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving quality of life for semi-independent and dependent seniors. She declared herself financially “inactive” at age 95, although she continued to follow the developments in her various organizations very closely. She died on February 19, 1990 at age 99, after spending a decade in a nursing home, which she derisively christened her “gilded cage.” She actively corresponded until a few months before her death.
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