National Woman's Party

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National Woman's Party
National Womens Party.jpg
Formation June 5, 1916; 102 years ago (1916-06-05)
Purpose "To secure an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women" and to pass the ERA
Headquarters Washington, D.C., U.S.
Key people
Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Anne Henrietta Martin
Formerly called
Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage

The National Woman's Party (NWP) is an American women's political organization formed in 1916 to fight for women's suffrage. After achieving this goal with the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the NWP advocated for other issues including the Equal Rights Amendment, which is still seeking ratification today. The most prominent leader of the National Woman's Party was Alice Paul.


The National Woman's Party was an outgrowth of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which had been formed in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to fight for women's suffrage. The National Woman's Party broke from the much larger National American Woman Suffrage Association, which was focused on attempting to gain women's suffrage at the state level. The NWP prioritized the passage of a constitutional amendment ensuring women's suffrage throughout the United States.

The National Woman's Party was under the leadership of Alice Paul, who learned from militant suffragettes in Britain. Paul used both visual and rhetorical tactics, as well as picketing to help get Suffrage passed in the United States. Paul's strategy was to use publicity to hold the party in power, the Democratic Party and President Woodrow Wilson, responsible for the status of woman suffrage. Starting in January 1917, NWP members known as Silent Sentinels continued their quest for equality by protesting outside the White House.

The NWP pickets were controversial as they continued during war time.[1] Many NWP activists were later arrested on the charge of obstructing traffic, and many went on hunger strikes in prison to protest their unlawful detention.[2] Abusive treatment of the protesters, who believed themselves to be political prisoners, angered some Americans and created more support for the suffrage amendment. They were eventually released and their arrests were later declared unconstitutional. In the meantime, NAWSA helped pass the 1917 referendum in New York State in favor of suffrage. In early 1918, Wilson came out in favor of the amendment, and it passed the House, but failed in the Senate despite another round of protests and arrests. After the NWP helped replace anti-suffrage senators in the 1918 elections, the amendment finally passed both houses and was sent to the states for ratification. The Nineteenth amendment, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote on the basis of sex, became the law of the land when it was ratified by a sufficient number of states in 1920. Many African American women and men in the Jim Crow South, however, remained disenfranchised after the ratification of this amendment.

After ratification, the NWP turned its attention to passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Historian Nancy Cott has noted that as the party moved into the 1920s it remained ideologically consistent in the pursuit of equal rights for women and that:

it remained an autocratically run, single-minded and single-issue pressure group, still reliant on getting into the newspapers as a means of publicizing its cause, very insistent on the method of "getting in touch with the key men."...NWP lobbyists went straight to legislators, governors, and presidents, not to their constituents.[3]

Today, the National Woman's Party exists as a 501(c)(3) educational organization.[citation needed] Its task is now the maintenance and interpretation of the collection and archives.[4] The NWP operates out of the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington, DC, where objects from the collection are exhibited.

Early history[edit]

Alice Paul was closely linked to England’s Women's Suffrage Political Union (WSPU), organized by Emmeline Pankhurst. While a college student in England, Paul became involved with the Pankhursts and their English suffrage campaign. During this time Alice Paul met Lucy Burns, who would go on and be a co-founder of the NWP. Although Paul was closely tied to the militant suffrage campaign in England, when she left to pursue suffrage in the United States, instead Paul pioneered civil disobedience in the United States. For example members of the WSPU heckled members of parliament, spit on police officers, and committed arson.[5]

While the British suffragettes stopped their protests in 1914 and supported the British war effort, Paul continued her struggle for women's equality and organized picketing of a wartime time president to maintain attention to the lack of enfranchisement for women.  Members of the NWP argued it was hypocritical for the United States to fight a war for democracy in Europe while denying its benefits to half of the US population. Similar arguments were being made in Europe, where most of the allied nations of Europe had enfranchised some women or soon would.

After their experience with 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 1913, the two women organized the first national suffrageparade of 5,000–8,000 women (by differing estimates)[6] in Washington, D.C. on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. This was designed as a political tactic to show the strength of women and to show that they would pursue their goals under Wilson’s administration. Leading the parade was Inez Milholland who wore all white and rode on a white horse, which later served as a symbol for the suffrage movement. This placement of Millholland at the start of the parade was strategic because of Mulholland's beauty, Paul knew she would attract media attention and followers. One of the criticisms of this first national suffrage parade was the barrier of colored women from participating side by side with white women. Even though Paul never opposed black women getting the right to vote, she barred them from marching with the white women and forced them to be in the back of the parade with the men to appease southern women. The parade quickly devolved into chaos due to violent reactions from the crowd and a lack of support by the local police. The D.C. police did little to help the suffragists; but 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.[7]

After this incident, which Paul effectively used to rally public opinion to the suffrage cause, Paul and Burns founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in April 1913, which split off from NAWSA later that year. The Congressional Union began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Suffragist, in November 1913. Paul and Burns were frustrated with the National's slower approach of focusing on individual state referendums and wanted to pursue a congressional amendment. 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.[8] Catt disapproved of the radical strategies, inspired by the British "Suffragettes", Paul and Burns were trying to implement into the American Suffrage Movement.

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 racist sentiment in the 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.

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."[9]

Opposition to Wilson[edit]

March 8, 1913 front page of Woman's Journal

Women associated with the party staged a very innovative suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson's inauguration.[10]

During the group's first meeting, Paul clarified that the party would not be a political party and therefore would not endorse a candidate for president during elections. While non-partisan, the NWP directed most of its attention to President Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, criticizing them as responsible for the failure to pass a constitutional amendment. The National Woman's Party continued to focus on suffrage as their main cause. It refused to either support or attack American involvement in the World War, while the rival National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under Carrie Chapman Catt gave full support to the war effort. As a result, a diverse group of activists such as pacifists and Socialists were attracted to the NWP due to its opposition to an anti-suffrage president.[11]

Picketing the White House[edit]

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

While the British suffragettes stopped their protests in 1914 and supported the British war effort, Paul continued her struggle for women's equality and organized picketing of a war time president to maintain attention to the lack of enfranchisement for women. 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.[12] Other suffragists arrested during the picket included Helena Hill and Iris Calderhead.[citation needed] The resulting publicity at a time when Wilson was trying to build a reputation for himself and the nation as an international leader in human rights was designed to force Wilson to publicly call for the Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment.[13]

Wilson favored woman suffrage at the state level, but held off support for a nationwide constitutional amendment because his party was sharply divided, with the South opposing an amendment on the grounds of state's rights. The only Southern state to grant women the vote was Arkansas. The NWP in 1917–1919 repeatedly attacked Wilson and his party for not enacting an amendment. Wilson, however, kept in close touch with more moderate suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. He continued to hold off until he was sure the Democratic Party in the North was supportive; the 1917 referendum in New York State in favor of suffrage proved decisive for him. In January 1918, Wilson went in person to the House and made a strong and widely published appeal to the House to pass the bill. The innovative non-violent tactics of the NWP were a contributing factor in getting Wilson to change his position on the suffrage bill. It passed but the Senate stalled until 1919 then finally sent the amendment to the states for ratification.[14] Scholar Belinda A. Stillion Southard has written that "...the campaign of the NWP was crucial toward securing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment."[15]

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 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.[16]

The NWP's agenda was at times 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 protective legislation, not equality.[17] However, the National Woman's Party found protective legislation to relegate women to a lower class, and aimed their work on the ERA and other legislation to combat this second class citizenship status. The NWP argued that protective labor legislation would continue to depress women's wages and prevent women from gaining access to all types of work and parts of society.

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[18] and under president Sarah Tarleton Colvin, who served in 1933, pressed for equal pay.[19][20] Scholar Mary K. Trigg has noted, "...the NWP played a central role in the women's rights movement after 1945. It stuck to its laser-like focus on the ERA, doggedly lobbying year in and year out for the amendment's introduction in Congress."[21] In 1997, the NWP ceased to be a lobbying organization.[citation needed] Instead, it turned its focus to education and to preserving its collection of first hand source documents from the women's suffrage movement.[citation needed] The NWP continues to function as an educational organization, maintaining and interpreting the collection left by the work of the historic National Woman's Party.[4]

First Lady Betty Ford's "Bloomer Flag"

Congress passed the ERA Amendment and many 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 some of the goals sought by the NWP.

Title VII of the 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 white 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?[22][23][24] 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.[25]

Smith asserted that he sincerely supported the amendment and, indeed, along with Rep. Martha Griffiths,[26] he was the chief spokesperson for the amendment.[25] 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 especially Paul. She and other activists had worked with Smith since 1945 trying to find a way to include sex as a protected civil rights category. Now was the moment.[27] Griffiths 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.[28] The amendment passed with the votes of Republicans and Southern Democrats. The final law passed with the votes of Republicans and Northern Democrats. Pauli Murray was also instrumental in the inclusion of sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.


Nina E. Allender, The Spirit of '76.' On to the Senate!, 1915

The Suffragist newspaper was founded by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913. It was referred to as "the only women's political newspaper in the United States" and was published to promote women's suffrage activities.[29] Its articles had political cartoons, a form of visual propaganda, by Nina E. Allender to garner support for the movement and communicate the status of the suffrage amendment.[29]

The woman who reads our paper will be informed as to happenings in Congress, not only suffrage happenings, although they come first, but all proceedings of special interest to women. Men do not realize how serious are the changes that are taking place in the conduct of Congress. Women will have to inform them. Only in the pages of The Suffragist will you find the information you need.

— The Suffragist, 1914[29]

After the amendment for the women's right to vote was passed, the publication was discontinued by the National Woman's Party and succeeded in 1923 by Equal Rights.[29] Published until 1954, Equal Rights began as a weekly newsletter and evolved into a bi-monthly release aimed at keeping NWP members informed about developments related to the ERA and legislative issues. It included field reports, legislation updates and features about the activities of the NWP and featured writing from contributors including Crystal Eastman, Zona Gale, Ruth Hale and Inez Haynes Irwin.[30] Josephine Casey appeared on the cover of the publication in April 1931 as a result of her recurring column about the labour conditions of female textile workers in Georgia.[31]

Notable members[edit]

The Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, Washington DC, Headquarters of the Historic National Woman's Party

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Cott (1987), pp. 51–82.
  2. ^ "Learn:National Woman's Party". Archived from the original on October 11, 2016. Retrieved September 21, 2016. 
  3. ^ Cott (1987), p. 80.
  4. ^ a b "About the NWP". Retrieved September 12, 2018. 
  5. ^ Lance, Keith (June 1979). "Strategy Choices of the British Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-18". Social Science Quarterly. 60: 51–53 – via JSTOR. 
  6. ^ Boissoneault, Lorraine (January 2017). "The Original Women's March on Washington and the Suffragists Who Paved the Way". Smithsonian. Retrieved September 12, 2018. 
  7. ^ Baltimore Sun, March 4, 1913.
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Adams & Keene (2008), p. 103.
  10. ^ Flexner, Eleanor, Century of Struggle, enlarged edition (1959; Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 255–257.
  11. ^ Cott (1987), pp. 59–61.
  12. ^ "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 September 12, 2018. 
  13. ^ Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, edited by Ronald McDonald (1920; NewSage Press, 1995), pp. 59–136.
  14. ^ Lunardini, Christine A.; Knock, Thomas J. (1980). "Woodrow Wilson and woman suffrage: A new look". Political Science Quarterly. 95 (4): 655–671. doi:10.2307/2150609. JSTOR 2150609. 
  15. ^ Southard, Brenda A. Stillion (2011). Militant Citizenship: Rhetorical Strategies of the National Woman's Party, 1913–1920. College Station: Texas A & M Press. p. 190. 
  16. ^ Carol, Rebecca; Myers, Kristina; Lindman, Janet. "The Equal Rights Amendment". Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist. Alice Paul Institute. Retrieved February 10, 2016. 
  17. ^ Pfeffer, Paula F. (1996). "Eleanor Roosevelt and the National and World Woman's Parties". The Historian. 59 (1): 39–57. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1996.tb00983.x. 
  18. ^ Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 24–44.
  19. ^ "Mrs. A. R. Colvin to Be Honor Guest". The Star Tribune. Minneapolis, Minnesota. December 17, 1933. p. 26. Retrieved January 3, 2018 – via  open access publication – free to read
  20. ^ "St. Paul Woman Elected". The Minneapolis Star. Minneapolis, Minnesota. November 6, 1933. p. 7. Retrieved September 12, 2018 – via  open access publication – free to read
  21. ^ Trigg, Mary K. (2014). Feminism as Life's Work. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. pp. 178–179. 
  22. ^ Freeman, Jo (March 1991). "How 'Sex' Got into Title VII: Persistent Opportunism as a Maker of Public Policy". Law and Inequality. 9 (2): 163–184. 
  23. ^ Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (2008) p. 187–88.
  24. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 245–246, 249. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Olson, Lynne (2001). Freedom's daughters: the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement, p. 360.
  27. ^ Rosenberg, Rosalind (2008). Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century, p. 187 notes that Smith had been working for years with two Virginia feminists on the issue.
  28. ^ Harrison, Cynthia (1989). On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945–1968, p. 179
  29. ^ a b c d "Suffragist Newspapers". National Woman's Party. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  30. ^ "Equal Rights Newspapers". National Woman's Party. Archived from the original on September 23, 2016. Retrieved December 27, 2015. 
  31. ^ Storrs, Landon R. Y. (2000). Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers' League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-6099-9. 

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