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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The National Woman's Party

Chapter 5: Toward Equal Rights

by Marina Hodgkin and Halle McClain

Women Ask President Harding for Equal Rights Legislation 1921
(Library of Congress)

Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the country saw an inevitable split among suffragists, now called feminists. This divide, occurring along generational lines, determined the route women’s organizations would take moving forward. The older generation of “social feminists” saw the suffrage victory as the end goal, while the younger “radical feminists” saw the victory as only a starting point.[1] The social feminists believed in traditional roles for women and had no desire to challenge societal gender roles. The radicals, on the other hand, understood that a larger societal change was necessary to achieve equality. However, a concrete vision for what equality looked like was not immediately clear to the younger generation.[2]

In the first years following ratification, many women retired from the NWP and other organizations. The women’s movement seemed to be falling apart. Many called upon Alice Paul, who was working toward a law degree, for direction. In January 1921, Paul reemerged, declaring that the primary objective would be equality for women and the “removal of legal disabilities of women.”[3] This objective caused the divide between social and radical feminists. The social feminists (also referred to as protectionists) believed protection of women was beneficial, while the radicals saw protective legislation incompatible with complete equality.[4]

Officers of the National Woman's Party organizing the First Convention of Women Voters Since Suffrage Passed to meet in Washington, February 1921 (Library of Congress)

The NWP, revitalized with a new fight, spent the next decade working on massive information gathering efforts, conducting studies and examinations of the legal positions of women in all aspects of the law. The NWP had relied on newspaper coverage for many years, and after the last issue of The Suffragist was published at the beginning of 1921, they began publishing one-pagers to inform legislators of their early work on the Equal Rights Amendment.[5] They also met protectionists head-on to reveal “fundamental inadequacy” of “discriminatory legislation, regardless of on whose behalf it was passed.”[6] In response, NAWSA argued that removal of legal disabilities would undo 20 years of hard-earned labor legislation. Most organizations accepted this notion, believing full equal rights would not be beneficial. Just as they did almost a decade earlier, NAWSA painted Paul and the NWP as elitist troublemakers, an image that pitted them against virtually every other women’s organization.

            Throughout 1921, the NWP honored suffragists and revolutionary feminists. On January 10, the group held a memorial service for pioneer suffragists in the Capitol attended by 16 national women’s organizations.[7] These organizations formed a “ways and means” committee to raise funds for suffrage memorial statues.[8] They formed a committee of 1,000 women, each of whom would contribute 25 dollars to the Women’s Memorial Fund.[9] When the memorial statue pieces arrived at the Capitol from Italy, the officials in charge of the building refused to receive the delivery, first claiming they had no authority to do so and later refusing due to its contents.[10] They eventually agreed to put it in storage, and on February 13, the NWP presented the suffrage sculptures of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony in the U.S. Capitol to Congress “as a gift from the womanhood of the nation.”[11] The unveiling of the memorial was followed by a four-day NWP convention in Washington D.C.

Alva Belmont, who donated the headquarters of the National Woman's Party, speaking at the dedication ceremony, May 21, 1922 (Library of Congress)

            From February 15-19, the NWP held a convention to discuss the course of the party and to reorganize their efforts to raise women’s social, economic, and legal statuses both nationwide and worldwide.[12] Though convention was successful, there was much criticism over the lack of inclusivity at the event. In his 2008 article titled “Alice Paul Pulls the Strings,” Fred Kirchwey criticized the NWP’s treatment of black delegates at the convention.[13] Black women from 20 states requested that the NWP urge Congress to investigate the alleged disenfranchisement of black women in the South, but their request was largely ignored[14] While being a one-issue party sometimes led to success, the NWP’s unwillingness to fight for the rights of all women regardless of race or class was a major shortcoming.

 At a Women’s National Republican Club lunch in January 1922, over 15,000 attendees heard a letter penned by current First Lady Florence Harding urging partisanship and unity among women. Mrs. Medill McCormick followed with a speech echoing the First Lady’s sentiments, saying, “The time has passed for separate woman’s organizations, whether you call it the league of women voters or the woman’s party.”[15] The NWP disregarded the First Lady’s message and in February sent member Gena Thompson on a tour of nine states whose legislatures were deciding on legislation concerning women.[16] During this time, ten different organizations held a mass meeting to protest the legislative bills proposed by NWP.[17] One of the organizations in attendance, the National Consumers’ League, would prove to be the biggest adversary to the NWP and their equal rights movement.

Fourth Headquarters - 1922-1929 National Woman's Party, 21-25 First Street, N.E., Washington, D.C

As newly elected NWP president, Alva Belmont gifted the Party a new headquarters strategically located near the Capitol. The organization publicly planned an extravagant dedication ceremony, garnering attention from many news outlets. Just days prior to the celebration, Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt had banned the broadcast of the speeches to be made at the ceremony. Roosevelt said naval radio should not be used for political purposes, and allowing the NWP access would set a disastrous precedent.[18] The women moved forward with their planned celebration, but were again disappointed by President Harding’s failure to attend. The President had previously accepted their invitation, but instead sent a letter of support and congratulations in his place. Despite these setbacks, this celebration marked a new era for the NWP as they reaffirmed their dedication to equal rights for women.[19] [20]

Weeks after the party, Mrs. Frank Putnam encouraged state legislatures to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin, where equal rights laws had been passed a year earlier.[21] Florence Kelley quickly condemned the statement, arguing that a year was too short of a time to judge success.[22]

The summer of 1922 was one of many meetings, luncheons and announcements. In early June, the National Consumers’ League set out on a summer-long campaign in opposition of equality bills. At their luncheons, they called for the passing of individual laws for specific issues.[23] By July, the NWP was busy advocating for equal rights legislation. Legislative chairman Maud Younger and Baroness Virginia Nugent of the NWP organized an event in New York to discuss the NWP’s work.[24] Back in D.C., Adelaide Stedman addressed a gathering at the NWP headquarters, saying the 20th century would be known as the “age when women came into their own,” and shared her hope that Missouri would remove all discriminations in the upcoming election.[25] In August, the NWP publicly held a meeting to celebrate the victories won in Virginia regarding equal rights legislation, followed by an inspirational speech delivered by Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer at her home in Stamford, Connecticut.

Young members of the National Woman's Party are about to invade the offices of the senators and congressmen from their states, to ask them to vote for Equal Rights. 1923

In a September edition of The Woman Patriot, Mrs. Wadsworth accused the NWP of being part of the communist movement. Alice Paul responded to the accusations swiftly, acknowledging that though some members of the party might agree with socialism, communism or the like but that the NWP remained nonpartisan.[26] In a September study, a staff of women lawyers found that in New York, women were held inferior to men in all matters of the law.[27] This news fueled the NWP’s fire.

The second week of November in Washington, D.C., was described as a “battle scene.” The National Consumers’ League held their annual conference, where they shared their arguments against the equal rights amendments and the extreme measures of the NWP.[28] The NWP debuted their declaration of principles regarding equality for men and women – including equality of opportunity, authority and pay in the workforce and equality at home – as well as an outline of the work that still had to be done.[29] Doris Stevens, who had not participated in NWP events since her marriage, made her return to the cause that same weekend. Stevens was one of the suffragists arrested during the White House picketing, and her return reminded many women that the fight for equality extended beyond voting rights.[30] Soon after, female lawyers from 16 different states endorsed the NWP’s declaration for equal rights.[31]

A month after that tense week, Harriet Stanton Blatch gave a stirring speech to an audience at the NWP headquarters. For the first time, she offered adamant opposition to women’s and welfare organizations who were in support of legislative protection for women. She called upon women to do away with pleas for special protections and to begin protecting themselves.[32]

After Blatch’s speech, the year of 1922 ended quietly. The Washington Post published an article on New Year’s Eve explaning the plans of various women’s organizations for 1923, which was expected to be “the most active year in their history.”[33] As always, the NWP differed from the rest of the groups in methods and ideas. While they prepared to enter up to 40 states to campaign for equal rights, all the other organizations could do was prepare to oppose them.

Alice Paul sewing suffrage flag (Library of Congress) (

Just as Susan B. Anthony never got to see the suffrage victory, Alice Paul didn’t live to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified. When the fight for equal rights experienced a revival in the 1960s and ‘70s, Paul was there, fighting alongside a new generation of activists until her death in 1977. The Equal Rights Amendment has never seen ratification, although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included “sex” as a classification for discrimination in areas like employment and education. The results of the 2016 election did not favor the hopes of the women who visited Anthony’s grave on Election Day, making the image of the stickers on her headstone a somber one. Would Alice Paul be satisfied with the status of women’s rights in the United States today?

[1] Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928. (New York: New York University Press), 1986.

[2] Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928. (New York: New York University Press), 1986.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Women Plead for Equality.” The Los Angeles Times. February 17, 1921. Page 115.


[6] Ibid.

[7] “Coming to Honor Early Suffragists.” The Washington Post. January 10, 1921. Page 8.

[8] “Will Ask Funds for Statue.” The Washington Post. January 11, 1921. Page 7.

[9] “Form Statue Committee.” The Washington Post. January 14, 1921. Page 2.

[10] “Suffrage Memorial Halted at Capital.” The New York Times. February 9, 1921. Page 15.

[11] “Women Will Fight On.” The Los Angeles Times. February 13, 1921. Page 12.

[12] “Women Plead for Equality.” The Los Angeles Times. February 17, 1921. Page 115.

[13] Kirchwey, Fred. “Alice Paul Pulls the Strings.” The Nation. March 2, 2008.

[14] “Negro Women Seek Vote.” The Los Angeles Times. February 13, 1921. Page 18.

[15] “Women’s GOP Club Lunches.” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1922. p. 14

[16] “To Explain ‘Equal Rights’” New York Times, February 6, 1922. p. 7

[17] “Women Fight Bills.” New York Times, March 13, 1922. p. 7

[18] “Bans Radio Broadcast For Women’s Speeches.” The Washington Post, May 21, 1922. p. 2

[19] “Make Old Capitol Shrine For Women.” The Washington Post, May 22, 1922. p. 2

[20] “The New Era For Women.” The Washington Post, May 23, 1922. p. 6

[21] “Equal Rights Law A Success, Say Women.” New York Times, June 7, 1922. p. 40

[22] “Attacks Equal Rights Law.” New York Times, June 8, 1922. p. 28

[23] “Favor Laws for Women.” New York Times, June 11, 1922. p. 23

[24] “Open Fight For Women.” New York Times, June 20, 1922. p. 18

[25] “Calls 20th Century Woman’s Rights Era.” The Washington Post, August 1, 1922. p. 2

[26] “Are Not Reds, Woman’s Party Leader Retorts.” The Washington Post, September 5, 1922. p. 5

[27] “Women Disclose Inequality In Law.” New York Times, September 18, 1922. p. 12

[28] “Washington Is Battle Scene.” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1922. p. 116

[29] “Women Demand Equality in State, Church and Marriage.” The Washington Post, November 12, 1922. p. 3

[30] “Woman’s Party On Warpath.” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1922. p. 124

[31] “Women Give $85,000 For Equality Drive.” New York Times, November 13, 1922. p. 13

[32] “Let Women Protect Themselves, She Says.” The Washington Post, December 12, 1922. p. 5

[33] “Women Intensify Legislative Drives.” The Washington Post, December 31, 1922. p. 8