National Women's Party
NATIONAL WOMEN'S PARTY
After the Nineteenth Amendment provided for woman's suffrage in 1920, most activists reorganized as the League of Women Voters. A few militant activists, however, wanted more for women than suffrage, and they pursued that goal through the National Women's Party, which was formed in 1916 by Alice Stokes Paul and others. Although membership never topped fifty thousand, the National Women's Party was active and vocal, promising to support female political candidates but never putting up its own.
In 1921, the National Women's Party declared its primary objective to be the passage of a national equal rights amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. Paul drafted an amendment in 1923 to eliminate gender discrimination in federal, state, and local laws: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." Although a few congressmen sponsored the bill, by 1938 it had only been reported to the House Judiciary Committee three times.
During the 1920s, the National Women's Party tried to enlist the League of Women Voters and other women's groups to lobby through the Women's Joint Congressional Committee for the passage of the ERA and other legislation of interest to women, including child labor laws, nondiscriminatory civil service classifications, the formation of a federal bureau of education, and the establishment of uniform marriage and divorce laws. Members of the Women's Joint Congressional Committee, however, adamantly opposed the ERA. Many women's groups, including the League of Women Voters, the National Women's Trade Union League, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, the American Association of University Women, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and the National Council of Jewish Women opposed the ERA on the basis that it would be detrimental to existing legislation that protected women. The National Women's Party, on the other hand, considered such protective laws, such as those limiting women's working hours, as discriminatory and advocated "not removal of protection, but removal of the sex basis in protective laws." Opponents to the ERA also claimed the amendment would allow women to be drafted into the army, would endanger child custody, and would force women to pay alimony.
The National Women's Party lost ground during the Depression as many businesses ruled against the employment of married women, who were accused of taking jobs from men, the "breadwinners." The 1932 Economy Act, which allowed the firing of married women whose husbands were employed by the government, was not repealed until 1937. In addition, half of the states prohibited married women from working and three-fourths of states banned married women from being hired as teachers. National Women's Party member Alma Lutz charged that the enemies of married women workers were not men but single women "obsessed with the idea that their salvation depends upon barring married women from paid labor."
The National Women's Party also tried to fight discrimination against women in New Deal programs. The National Recovery Administration's (NRA) Labor Advisory Board codes, for example, allowed lower wages for women doing the same work as men, while section 213 of the National Industrial Recovery Act forced two-thirds of women civil service workers to resign. The Civilian Conservation Corps was open only to men, and did not hire any of America's four million unemployed women. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt's network of women also held firm against the National Women's Party and its goals. Only the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs broke ranks, finding that protective laws hindered business and professional women as the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act gave minimum wage and maximum hours protection to both sexes.
Frustrated with the party's lack of success in the United States, Paul expanded activism internationally as chair of the Nationality Committee of the Inter-American Commission on Women, on the executive committee of Equal Rights International in Geneva, and on the Committee on Nationality of the League of Nations. Perkins, however, squelched National Women's Party efforts to put the ERA before the 1936 Buenos Aires Inter-American Peace Conference. There were steps forward, however, when the Democratic Party endorsed the ERA in 1944, and Eleanor Roosevelt withdrew her opposition to the amendment. Although the 1945 United Nations Charter had an equal rights for women resolution, the ERA was not approved by the U.S. Congress until 1972. Thereafter, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification, but was not approved.
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Perkins, Frances. "So Women in Industry Need Special Protection? Yes." Survey 55, no. 10 (1926): 529–531.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. 1980.
Sochen, June. Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900–1970. 1973.
Ware, Susan. Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal. 1981.
Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. 1984.
Blanche M. G. Linden