National Woman's Party

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National Woman's Party
National Womens Party.jpg
Formation June 5, 1916 (1916-06-05)
Extinction 1997
Purpose "To secure an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women" and to pass the ERA
Headquarters Washington, DC
Key people Alice Paul, Lucy Burns
Formerly called Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage

The National Woman's Party (NWP) was a women's organization founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913 that fought for women's rights during the early 20th century in the United States, particularly for woman suffrage. The NWP prioritized the passage of a constitutional amendment ensuring women's suffrage. After the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the vote in 1920, the NWP turned its attention to passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

Early history[edit]

After their baptism into militant suffrage work in Great Britain, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns reunited in the United States in 1910. The two women originally were appointed to the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In March of 1913, the two women organized a parade of 5,000-8,000 women (by differing estimates) in Washington, D.C. on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. Though beautifully planned as an elegant progression of symbolically dressed, accomplished, and professional women, the parade quickly devolved into riot. The D.C. police did little to help them; the women were assisted by the Massachusetts National Guard, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and boys from the Maryland Agricultural College, who created a human barrier protecting the women from the angry crowd.[1]

After this incident, which Paul used to rally public opinion to the women's cause, Paul and Burns founded the Congressional Union in April 1913, which split off from the National later that year. The Congressional Union began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Suffragist, in November 1913. Paul and Burns were mostly frustrated with the National's approach of focusing on individual state referendums; while they were pursuing the congressional amendment, that was not the focus of their work. Alice Paul had also chafed under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, as she had very different ideas of how to go about suffrage work, and a different attitude towards militancy.[2]

The split was confirmed by a major difference of opinion on the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment. This amendment was spearheaded by Alice Paul's replacement as chair of the National's Congressional Committee, and was a compromise of sorts meant to appease the racist South. Shafroth-Palmer was to be a constitutional amendment that would require any state with more than 8 percent signing an initiative petition to hold a state referendum on suffrage. This would have kept the law-making out of federal hands, a proposition more attractive to the South. Southern states feared a congressional women's suffrage amendment as a possible federal encroachment into their restrictive system of voting laws, meant to disenfranchise the black voter.

Needless to say, Paul and Burns felt that this amendment was a lethal distraction from the true and ultimately necessary goal of an all-encompassing federal amendment protecting the rights of all women - especially as the bruising rounds of state referendums were perceived at the time as almost damaging the cause. In Paul's words: "It is a little difficult to treat with seriousness an equivocating, evasive, childish substitute for the simple and dignified suffrage amendment now before Congress."[3]

Militant suffragists[edit]

March 8, 1913 front page of Woman's Journal

During the group's first meeting, Paul clarified that the party would not be a political party and therefore would not name a candidate for United States president during elections. While non-partisan, the NWP directed much of its fire at President Woodrow Wilson when criticizing those responsible for the social situation in which women of the era lived. The National Woman's Party also opposed World War I.

Women associated with the party staged a suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson's inauguration.[4]

Picketing the White House[edit]

NWP members picket the White House in 1917; the banner reads, "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty."

Members of the National Woman's Party became the first women to picket for women's rights in front of the White House. Known as "Silent Sentinels", their action lasted from January 10, 1917 until June 1919. The picketers were tolerated at first, but when they continued to picket after the United States declared war in 1917, they were arrested by police for obstructing traffic. Many of the NWP's members, upon arrest, went on hunger strikes; some, including Paul, were force-fed by jail personnel as a consequence. Anne Henrietta Martin, the NWP's first vice chairman, was sentenced to the Occoquan Workhouse, though Wilson pardoned her in less than a week.[5] The resulting scandal and its negative impact on the country's international reputation at a time when Wilson was trying to build a reputation for himself and the nation as an international leader in human rights may have contributed to Wilson's decision to publicly call for the United States Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment.[6]

Fighting for equal rights[edit]

After the ratification of the Nineteenth amendment in 1920, the NWP turned its attention to eliminating other forms of gender discrimination, principally by advocating passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Paul drafted in 1923. The organization regrouped and published the magazine Equal Rights. The publication was directed mostly towards women but also intended to educate men about the benefits of women's suffrage, women's rights and other issues concerning American women.

"Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." [7]

The NWP spoke for middle class women, and its agenda was generally opposed by working class women and by the labor unions that represented working class men who feared low-wage women workers would lower the overall pay scale and demean the role of the male breadwinner. Eleanor Roosevelt, an ally of the unions, generally opposed the NWP policies because she believed women needed protection, not equality.[8]

After 1920, the National Woman's Party authored over 600 pieces of legislation fighting for women's equality; over 300 of these were passed. In addition, the NWP continued to lobby for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.[9] In 1997, the NWP ceased to be a lobbying organization. Instead, it turned its focus to education and to preserving its collection of first hand source documents from the women's suffrage movement. The NWP continues to function as an educational organization and museum.

First Lady Betty Ford’s “Bloomer Flag”

Congress passed the ERA Amendment and most states ratified it, but at the last minute in 1982 it was stopped by a coalition of conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly and never passed. However in 1964 the NWP did succeed, with the support of conservatives and over the opposition of liberals, blacks and labor unions, to have "sex" added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thus achieving most of the goals sought by the NWP.

Civil Rights Act of 1964[edit]

In 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage differentials based on sex.

The prohibition on sex discrimination was added by Howard W. Smith, a powerful Virginian Democrat who chaired the House Rules Committee; he was a conservative who strongly opposed civil rights laws for blacks. But he supported such laws for women. Smith's amendment was passed by a teller vote of 168 to 133.

House Rules Committee clerk's record of markup session adding "sex" to bill.

Historians debate Smith's motivation—was it a cynical attempt to defeat the bill by someone opposed to both civil rights for blacks and women, or did he support women's rights and was attempting to improve the bill by broadening it to include women?[10][11][12] Smith expected that Republicans, who had included equal rights for women in their party's platform since 1944, would probably vote for the amendment. Historians speculate that Smith was trying to embarrass northern Democrats who opposed civil rights for women because the clause was opposed by labor unions.[13]

Smith was not joking: he asserted that he sincerely supported the amendment and, indeed, along with Rep. Martha Griffiths,[14] he was the chief spokesperson for the amendment.[13] For twenty years Smith had sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment—with no linkage to racial issues—in the House because he believed in it. For decades he had been close to the National Woman's Party and its head Alice Paul, one of the leaders in winning the vote for women back in 1920 and the chief supporter of equal rights proposals since then. She and other Suffragettes had worked with Smith since 1945 trying to find a way to include sex as a protected civil rights category. Now was the moment.[15] Griffith argued that the new law would protect black women but not white women, and that was unfair to white women. Furthermore, she argued that the laws "protecting" women from unpleasant jobs were actually designed to enable men to monopolize those jobs, and that was unfair to women who were not allowed to try out for those jobs.[16] The amendment passed with the votes of Republicans and Southern Democrats. The final law passed with the votes of Republicans and Northern Democrats.

Notable Members[edit]

Sewall-Belmont House, Washington DC, Headquarters of the Historic National Woman's Party

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Katherine H. and Keene, Michael L. Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign. (2008). 274 pp., the standard scholarly biography excerpt and text search; online review
  • Butler, Amy E. Two Paths to Equality: Alice Paul and Ethel M. Smith in the Era Debate, 1921-1929 (2002)
  • Cooney, Robert P. J. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Santa Cruz, CA: American Graphic Press, 2005.
  • Dodd, Lynda G. "Parades, Pickets, and Prison: Alice Paul and the Virtues of Unruly Constitutional Citizenship," Journal of Law and Politics, Fall 2008, Vol. 24#4, pp 339–433
  • Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928 (2000) excerpt and text search, the standard scholarly history
  • Walton, Mary. A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (2010)


  1. ^ Baltimore Sun, March 4, 1913
  2. ^ Flexner, Eleanor (1959). Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 259. ISBN 0-674-10654-7. 
  3. ^ Adams and Keene. Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign. University of Illinois Press. p. 103. 
  4. ^ Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle, enlarged edition (1959; Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 255-257.
  5. ^ "Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party". Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 364. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, edited by Ronald McDonald (1920; NewSage Press, 1995), pp. 59-136.
  7. ^ Carol, Rebecca, Kristina Myers, & Janet Lindman. "The Equal Rights Amendment". Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist. Alice Paul Institute. Retrieved 24 Jun 2013. 
  8. ^ Paula F. Pfeffer, "Eleanor Roosevelt and the National and World Woman's Parties," Historian, Fall 1996, Vol. 59, Issue 1
  9. ^ Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 24-44.
  10. ^ Freeman, Jo. "How 'Sex' Got Into Title VII: Persistent Opportunism as a Maker of Public Policy," Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Vol. 9, No. 2, March 1991, pp. 163-184. online version
  11. ^ Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (2008) p. 187-88
  12. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. pp. 245–246, 249. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  13. ^ a b Gold, Michael Evan (1981). "A Tale of Two Amendments: The Reasons Congress Added Sex to Title VII and Their Implication for the Issue of Comparable Worth". Faculty Publications — Collective Bargaining, Labor Law, and Labor History. Cornell University Press. 
  14. ^ Lynne Olson, Freedom's daughters: the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement (2001) p 360
  15. ^ Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (2008) p. 187 notes that Smith had been working for years with two Virginia feminists on the issue.
  16. ^ Cynthia Harrison, On account of sex: the politics of women's issues, 1945-1968 (1989) p. 179

External links[edit]