1921: Alice Paul Pulls the Strings
By Freda Kirchwey
This article appeared in the March 2, 1921 edition of The Nation.
July 31, 2008
Women won the right to vote in 1919, but African-American women continue to be disenfranchised. At the National Women's Party convention in 1921, their pleas for representation were rebuffed by suffragist leader Alice Paul. The Nation's outraged correspondent Freda Kirchway reports.
The spirit of the National Woman's Party convention at Washington last week was summed up in two striking sentences. Said a disheartened delegate after the last day's session: "This is the machine age." Said one of the leaders of the Party to another delegate who tried to plead for a free consideration of a real program: "At a convention human intelligence reaches its lowest ebb."
That was what it amounted to; the leaders acted on the theory of an amiable contempt for their followers; the rank and file, either cynically or enthusiastically, watched the wishes of the leaders become the law of the convention. With quiet precision the Woman's Party machine--a veritable tank--rolled over the assembly, crushing protestants of all sorts, leaving the way clear--for what? If anyone left the convention with a distinct idea of what the Party will do now that it has solemnly disbanded and solemnly reorganized, it is, perhaps, Alice Paul and the Executive Committee and some members of the Advisory Council and a few State chairmen. The rank and file, not realizing that their intelligence was at a low ebb, are vaguely disappointed. They do not know what their party will do; they only know that no action was taken in behalf of the Negro women, who have not yet got the vote in spite of the Nineteenth Amendment; that birth control and maternity endowment and most of the questions that stir the minds of modern women were ignored; that disarmament was ruled out; and that the program finally adopted--the majority report of the resolutions committee--declared vaguely against "legal disabilities" and for "equality" leaving the future definition of those terms and their translation into action to the executive board. The only specific application of the word equality appeared in the demand that it be "won and maintained in any association of nations that may be established"!
It may, of course, be asserted that since this mild and hypothetical program was adopted by a vote of the convention it was therefore the will of the convention, but one is forced to wonder whether the result would have been the same if a dissenting delegate or a minority committeeman had presented the winning report, and if Alice Paul's program had included disarmament or birth control or the enfranchisement of Negro women. I, for one, would back Miss Paul's chances on either side she chose to support. When the minority report recommending disarmament was before the house it was opposed vehemently by several ardent militarists of the order who declare: "I am as much against war as anybody in this room, but when the world is on fire . . . " From the point of view of the leaders this opposition was undesirable; the majority report would only be weakened by militarist adherents. Presently the floor was taken by a well-known pacifist who set herself squarely on the side of immediate, complete disarmament and then proceeded on other grounds to an effective attack on the disarmament program. Later in the day this same pacifist--who is also a radical and a feminist--had a program of her own in the field in opposition to the majority report. This new dissenting program was specific. It demanded, in addition to the removal of the legal disabilities of women, the rewriting of the existing laws of marriage, divorce, guardianship; and sexual morality on a basis of equality; the abolition of illegitimacy; the establishment of motherhood endowment and of the legal right of a woman who chooses homemaking as her profession to an equal share in the family income; the repeal of all laws against the dissemination of information regarding birth control.
These proposals were sternly opposed by the machine. The leaders declared that such a program was too vague; they declared that it was too definite; they declared that it was too comprehensive; they claimed that the majority program could be interpreted to include all those demands and more besides. But in expounding the majority program they were cautious; not one of the leaders specifically stated, for example, that it should be interpreted to cover the question of birth control. "And after all, that's the acid test," said one of the younger delegates. The new program received the support of a few of the less orthodox members of the Advisory Council, but its most persuasive advocates were among the young Party workers who charged that the majority report offered no more inspiration than the programs of other women's organizations which they had long been trained to look down upon as cautious, respectable, dull. Again the leaders were worried; they couldn't let the idea get about that only middle-aged respectability stood for the majority report. And presently a couple of the younger workers rose from their seats and opposed the radical program and swore by all the suffrage prophets that the majority report offered inspiration enough for any feminist. And it was well known to those who hung about in the lobby or watched the play from the wings, that Alice Paul had spoken the word necessary to make the pacifist oppose disarmament and the young radicals oppose the radical program.
Some day the story of the working of the National Women's Party machine will be told. It will be an interesting story, full of strange contradictions. It will tell of valiant self-sacrifice and magnificent defiance coupled with an incongruous willingness to appeal to the tradition of feminine weakness. It will be full of idealism and steadfast purpose and yet of a readiness to use any trick or pretense that might bring that purpose nearer to fulfillment. It will tell of independence and individual heroism existing side by side with obedience bordering on subservience. It will show sympathy and ruthlessness walking together. But that story cannot be written until the people who know it get out from under the spell of the Alice Paul legend. Today any attempt would be futile.
The efforts--finally successful--of the birth control advocates to secure a chance to speak at the convention would form an amusing chapter of that story. At the second day's session representatives of women's organizations with legislative programs made brief addresses stating their aims. Even old-time enemies of the Woman's Party were given a place. For weeks before the convention the head of the Voluntary Parenthood League had been in correspondence with the Party leaders demanding her chance to be heard. First the leaders refused, then they demurred, finally they surrendered; but their written objections to the presence of this organization on the platform of the convention were redolent with the faint fragrance of Victorian delicacy and reserve.
The efforts--wholly unsuccessful--of the representatives of the colored women would form a tragic chapter of the same story. A delegation of sixty women sent by colored women's organizations in fourteen States arrived in Washington several days before the convention. They requested an interview with Alice Paul so that they might take up with her the question of the disfranchisement of the women of their race. They were told Miss Paul was too busy to see them. They said they would wait till she had time. Finally, grudgingly, she yielded. The colored women presented their case in the form of a dignified memorial--which read as follows:
We have come here as members of various organizations and from different sections representing the five million colored women of this country. We are deeply appreciative of the heroic devotion of the National Woman's Party to the women's suffrage movement and of the tremendous sacrifices made under your leadership in securing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.Miss Paul was indifferent to this appeal and resented the presence of the delegation. Their chance of being heard at the convention was gone. A Southern organizer told the one active supporter of the colored women--a white woman and a delegate from New York--that the Women's Party was pledged not to raise the race issue in the South; that this was the price it paid for ratification. But no such sinister motive is necessary to explain the treatment of the colored delegation; they were simply an interruption, an obstacle to the smooth working of the machine. Their leading members were not allowed to ride in the elevators of the Hotel Washington where the convention was held, until finally they made a stand for their rights. And only by the use of tactics bordering on Alice Paul's own for vigor and persistence, did their spokesman--the delegate from New York--get a moment to present a resolution in their behalf-a resolution which was promptly defeated and which left the question precisely where it stood.
We revere the names of the pioneers to whom you will do honor while here, not only because they believed in the inherent rights of women, but of humanity at large, and gave themselves to the fight against slavery in the United States.
The world has moved forward in these seventy years and the colored women of this country have been moving with it. They know the value of the ballot, if honestly used, to right the wrongs of any class. Knowing this, they have also come today to call your attention to the flagrant violations of the intent and purposes of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in the elections of 1920. These violations occurred in the Southern States, where is to be found the great mass of colored women, and it has not been made secret that wherever white women did not use the ballot, it was counted worthwhile to relinquish it in order that it might be denied colored women.
Complete evidence of violations of the Nineteenth Amendment could be obtained only by Federal investigation. There is, however, sufficient evidence available to justify a demand for such an inquiry. We are handing you herewith a pamphlet with verified cases of the disfranchisement of our women.
The National Woman's Party stands in the forefront of the organizations that have undergone all the pains of travail to bring into existence the Nineteenth Amendment. We can not then believe that you will permit this amendment to be so distorted in its interpretation that it shall lose its power and effectiveness. Five million women in the United States can not be denied their rights without all the women of the United States feeling the effect of that denial. No women are free until all are free.
Therefore, we are assembled to ask that you will use your influence to have the convention of the National Woman's Party appoint a special committee to ask Congress for an investigation of the violations of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in the elections of 1920.
The attitude of Alice Paul and her supporters toward these disturbers of the peace--Negro women and birth control advocates alike--was the attitude of all established authorities. "Why do these people harass us?" asked Miss Paul. "Why do they want to spoil our convention?" The answer, that never occurred to her, was this: "For the very same reason that made you disturb the peace and harass the authorities in your peculiarly effective and irritating way: because they want to further the cause they believe in."
In the lobby, among the futile opponents of the machine, there was much discussion of the cause of their leaders' hostility to all that was new and clear-cut. The great fighting issue was gone; if the organization was to continue it must turn its attention to other issues and work for them one at a time or several together, not only in Congress but in the States. Would the leaders evolve out of their vague program an issue which they could again attack with military precision and on which they could hope again to raise their disciplined volunteer army? Would they justify their tactics, as they had so often done before, by the brilliant success of their results? Or were they only greedy of power, eager to hold the final decision close in their own hands, unwilling to trust to the desires of their followers? Or were they, perhaps, only half awake to the fulness of life? Absorbed in a task of immense proportions, for years they had forfeited, as soldiers must, the common enterprises of life--love, marriage, children, the economic struggle. Had they thereby lost touch with the plain demands of modern women who are more interested in their opportunities for personal expansion and economic freedom and the right to bear children when they choose than they are in the presence of women in the councils of an unborn or dying League of Nations? The opponents of the machine never decided those questions; the Alice Paul legend hung too closely over them and its phrases sounded in their ears through the closed doors of the convention hall.
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About Freda KirchweyFreda Kirchwey was a former managing editor, literary editor, editor and, ultimately, publisher of The Nation. She died in 1976.