Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

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2. The Original Alliance
for the E.R.A.

At about the same time that the group calling itself the National Woman’s Party proposed an Equal Rights Amendment as its new one-punch platform, an ominous economic development emerged on the scene in the wake of the First World War’s end.

Women had been drawn into the job market by the war; but when it was over, most companies wanted to get rid of them. Men workers, including unionized men, often wanted them out too, since they were economic competition in these uncertain times.

One such company was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which had employed a large number of women ticket sellers and now wanted to fire them and give their jobs to men. It looked around for a legal pretext, and found one at hand: the new 1919 law against night work for women. It is easy to show that other cities and other companies had found such laws no obstacle to the employment of women if the company really wanted to employ them. But when the B.R.T. in this city used the ploy of pointing to labor legislation for women, and made this its pretext for a mass layoff, that was enough for some purposes.

The old arguments against the employment of women were dusted off; and as the dust rose, the onus for the dismissals was laid not on the hard-headed company with its eyes on profits, but was channeled against the advocates of social justice and labor legislation. Some women dismissed from the B.R.T., flanked by some business and professional women, formed a group demagogically called the Equal Opportunity League, to fight the menace of labor legislation for women. This was the best kind of front for an old employers’ cause; for its advocates were self-motivated and sincere, and did not have to be paid. [1]

Even today the myth is encountered – especially in the pages of contemporary historians enthusiastic about the E.R.A. – that the night-work law was to blame for the dismissal of these women workers. The claim is made that the B.R.T. had intended to retain all women workers and rehire the returning soldiers, until male-controlled unions pushed through the 1919 law and thus “forced” the company to fire the women. [2] The facts tell a different story. B.R.T. correspondence itself admitted that a hiring freeze on women conductors went into effect as soon as the Armistice was signed, six months before the law went on the books. And throughout that six-month period hundreds of women were laid off. [3]

Testimony by the great women’s champion, Mary Anderson, head of the then new Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department, brought the foregoing out into the open in 1925, when she testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Speaking against the consequences of the proposed E.R.A., she noted that the B.R.T. tale was still being deployed by anti-labor propagandists:

One question [raised] yesterday was in connection with the Rapid Transit Co. of New York City. In the Rapid Transit Co. during the war many women were employed, and just as soon as the Armistice was signed the company began to discharge the women, and every month they discharged a greater and greater number. The law that affected the women on the R.T. Co. was not introduced until March; so that it was not the law but the after-the-war conditions that were responsible for the general-reduction of the women in the Rapid Transit Co. [4]

The B.R.T. case is the paradigm for the times. We will come back to it again in Chapter 5, to see how the facts were fully investigated for the first time.

Business found it understandably useful to blame the dismissal of wartime women workers on the evil labor legislation which “forced” them to take this step despite their kindly desire to do otherwise, with a noble disregard for profit ... Before we give too much credence to this fairy tale, we should understand the pattern behind it.

The target was not merely labor legislation for women. The target was labor legislation (period). For a whole period of time, court decisions had been striking down labor legislation for the protection of (men) workers on the ground that such laws violated the rights of property and “liberty of contract.” (Liberty, of course, was the great desideratum.) This basis for the erasure of whatever labor legislation got through the legislatures had only one loophole in it – but it did have one. From the early years of the century onward, the Supreme Court allowed only laws favoring women workers, on the ground of women’s “physical structure,” “maternal functions,” etc. Through the decade of the 1910s, such labor laws limiting “liberty of contract” made rapid progress, through being sex-based.

Now business was in process of discovering a new argument, and a new force, to mobilize against this big hole in its defenses against labor legislation. The historian Lemons summarizes this development:

The increasingly effective opposition included industrial and manufacturers’ associations, vengeful anti-feminists, reactionary organizations like the Sentinels of the Republic, some business and professional women, and extreme feminists of the National Woman’s Party. The courts also laid a withering hand on women’s protective legislation. The minimum-wage movement advanced until 1923, when, in the name of “liberty of contract,” it was nearly struck dead – and the National Woman’s Party hailed the defeat as a victory for equal rights. [5]

Readers of Prof. Sylvia Hewlett’s A Lesser Life will be forcibly reminded of her horrifying discovery – over a half century later – that N.O.W. was supporting and advocating the court decisions destroying legislative provision of maternity leave and job maintenance. In 1923, when the Supreme Court decision declared the minimum wage unconstitutional and the N.W.P. celebrated this great triumph for its cause, the social-feminists were aghast at this revelation that, to the minds of the Pure Equality advocates, it did not matter that tens of thousands of workingwomen were condemned to starvation wages, as long as Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont was spared the “insult” of being “protected” by legislation just like a wretched little seamstress or field picker.

The Paulites did not draw back from the implications of their united front with big business, nor did the National Association of Manufacturers (then perhaps the leading representative of commercial and industrial capital in the country) fail to see how this group of militant women fell in with its aim of stemming the post-war tide of social legislation. The historian Lemons relates:

The NWP frequently appeared as the chief supporter of the manufacturers’ associations’ position on labor legislation and thwarted the effort of the other groups to win new protections for working women. The NAM recognized the value of the NWP in defeating labor legislation and endorsed the equal rights amendment in 1923. [6]

Thus one of the most openly reactionary organizations in the country became one of the first to offer official support to the Pure amendment. The political side of this alliance was consummated at the end of 1923: the Pure amendment, now blessed by the guaranteed anti-revolutionary manufacturers’ association, was introduced into the Senate by the Republican Party whip, Charles Curtis, a dim machine politician who later became Herbert Hoover’s vice-president.

This alliance, plus much else, was acted out at the Second Conference of Women in Industry organized in January 1926 by the Women’s Bureau and its Mary Anderson, to take up a number of problems important to the participating women’s organizations.

The main headlines on the first day of the conference were devoted to – the president of the National Association of Manufacturers; he denounced legislative interference in industry, “with only the N.W.P. members applauding.” The N.A.M. president charged that the women working for a child-labor law were Communist dupes, and that the government’s Children’s Bureau was promoting the work of a certain Soviet leader named “Madame Kollontai” ...

The small N.W.P. contingent, a brigade of about a dozen, was organized to work after a fashion that was made widely known only much later by Communist Party meeting-wrecking-squads. The famous militancy of the Paulites was now pointed, like a gun, against the rest of the women’s movement. Through the second day of the conference, the dozen N.W.P.’ers were on their feet with tumultuous demands that the conference be given over to their patented demand, the Pure E.R.A. Lemons summarizes the then-unprecedented scene quite calmly:

All of the dozen NWP members leaped to their feet demanding recognition, supposedly to make short seconding speeches. However, Mabel Vernon [NWP executive secretary] went around exhorting them to “get up and yell – you’ve got good lungs!” ... Near the end Anita Pollitzer of the NWP rushed over to the press table and asked, “Have we done enough to get into the papers? If we have, we’ll stop.” Finally a vote was taken on [Gail] Loughlin’s [NWP] motion, and it lost by a huge, angry majority. [7]

Even sympathizers of the N.W.P. were alienated if they were in attendance at this operation, but the operation was aimed not at the conquest of innocent bystanders but of the headlines in the press. As far as Alice Paul was concerned, disrupting a conference of serious women’s organizations was the same as disrupting a cabinet meeting in order to get headlines for militant suffragists ...

This National Woman’s Party was a split-off from what had been the mass organization of the suffragist movement, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). It first incubated inside NAWSA as a faction; then it split off in 1914, calling itself the Congressional Union; and it finally organized itself under the “party” name in 1916.

The N.W.P. had two distinctive characteristics from the beginning. The first – at first the more visible – was its striving for greater tactical militancy than NAWSA went in for, such as picketing; though in fact its tactics never reached the level of militancy of the British suffragists who had inspired its leaders. This difference faded in importance after the vote was achieved in 1920.

The second distinctive characteristic pointed to its future: from the beginning it believed in being a one-issue organization. Up to 1920 this meant concentration on the single issue of the suffrage amendment. After the 1920 victory, the N.W.P. had to reorient; it had to find another single issue to concentrate on; and in this period the deeper meaning of its type of concentration became more visible. It was a way of saying that these women were not interested in anything else.

What was “anything else”? The great leaders of the women’s movement, then and previously, had by and large been social progressives at the least, and social radicals at the best. To be sure, they understood these things in different ways, practiced them to different degrees, and exercised more or less consistency in application. Such differentiation was inevitable. But it remained for the founders of the National Woman’s Party to invent a new kind of feminism. This kind of feminism abstracted from all other social concerns a concern only with an abstract statement of equal rights, abstractly formulated.

This abstraction, or what formally looked like an abstraction, had a concrete social content, like everything else in the real world. It is not a matter of psychoanalyzing the motivations of the N.W.P.’s moving spirit, Alice Paul – an intense type for whom the one-issue approach may indeed have been an ideological abstraction. The approach which she presided over spoke loudly of its social content, not necessarily because of Alice Paul but despite her abstractionism.

The pattern was symbolized by the ascendancy to the presidency of the organization by its bankroller, Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont, the blue-blood socialite, who liked to orate that “henceforth women are to be dictators” and to predict portentously that the N.W.P. would soon “be strong enough to impose any measure it may choose.” [8] It was a thin upper crust of women (and those who aspired to make it up there) who could afford to be uninterested in “anything else,” that is, to ignore the social conditions of the mass of workingwomen. In practice, this approach meant counterposing abstract “women’s rights” to concrete women’s conditions.

All this was acted out when the feminists had to turn from the suffrage victory to the question of what to do next. The social-feminists had plenty to do. They went to work for a number of causes: independent citizenship for women, particular abuses in women’s rights, the first federal venture into social-welfare legislation (the Maternity and Infancy Protection Act), consumer legislation, conservation, and many other social-reform and good-government issues, of more or less interest to women as such.

The N.W.P., on the other hand, as a one-big-blast organization, had to devise a “pure” single-shot issue to replace the vote. Its choice was still another constitutional amendment, carpentered as a general statement of “equal rights.” This Equal Rights Amendment was launched at a Washington convention in early 1921, and formalized in 1923. [B]

The implications of the N.W.P.’s new single-shooter were immediately apparent to both kinds of feminists. Lemons summarizes the immediate outcome as follows:

The National Woman’s Party was quite alone in 1923 with its amendment, but began picking up support in the late twenties, especially among business and professional women. After the buffeting which social feminism took over the child labor amendment [because of its defeat] and as professional concerns increased among women, a growing number turned from social issues to questions of personal interest. The equal rights amendment provided a pole toward which business and professional women gradually moved in the 1920s; and the 1930s saw a substantial number of the business and professional women’s associations endorse the Woman’s Party amendment. [9]

In other words, to use a term popular among the social-feminists, the N.W.P. took on the role of a “vanguard” organization for middle-class feminists. It never sought mass numbers; and in this sense did not really pretend to be a “party” in any popular sense. Its self-orientation was that of an elite. It could and did boast of Very Important Women: women who had made it in the arts and letters; tycoons’ wives, like Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and the wife of General Motors’ president; Pearl Mesta and Gloria Swanson; presidents and deans of women’s colleges; a couple of presidents of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs; and so on.

Such an organization would not have been well equipped without a token trade-unionist or two. The woman whom Alice Paul especially recruited to play this part was Maud Younger of San Francisco, who qualified for her N.W.P. role by helping to organize a waitresses union in the first decade of the century and then playing a leading role in the movement for an eight-hour day for women. Younger, wrote Alice Paul in her memoirs, was the N.W.P.’s “leading woman ... in the women’s trade-union movement ... Everything to do with labor, we always turned over to her.” Recruited in 1915, Younger remained with Paul to become one of her hatchet-wielders to destroy the kind of legislation which had gained her the confidence of the trade-union women to whom she now offered the one-sentence amendment as the new salvation. [10] Florence Kelley, her friend and former colleague, wrote her in the early 1920s that sadly “your present activity runs counter to my continuous efforts of more than five and thirty years,” [11] but politely refrained from saying that it also ran counter to whatever had earned Younger the friendship of great souls like Kelley. Alice Paul’s memoirs did not indicate how Younger explained her apostasy, or if she did, but she was hardly the first defector in the ranks of labor.

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B. When the E.R.A. was first introduced in Congress, its essential sentence read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” From May 1943 on, the one-sentence formula went as follows: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

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1. For the B.R.T. case, see Lemons, op. cit. (1: n.1).

2. For instance: Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement (N.Y., Free Press, 1979), 2: 93–95.

3. Letter, W. Seibert, Superintendent of Surface Transportation, to J.J. Dempsey, Vice-President, B.R.T. Co., June 12, 1919; in National Woman’s Party, Papers, Reel No. 3.

4. Mary Anderson, testimony, House Judiciary Committee, February 1925, page 58.

5. Lemons, op. cit. (1: n.1), 143f.

6. Ibid., 191.

7. Ibid., 193; he is also quoting Second Women’s Industrial Conference and the Assaults Upon It, Life and Labor Bulletin, IV (Feb. 1926), p. 2.

8. These samples of Mrs. Belmont’s thinking are from her article in the Ladies Home Journal, September 1922.

9. Lemons, op. cit. (1: n.1), 182.

10. For Alice Paul’s taped memoirs, see Alice Paul, Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman’s Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley 1975. Unpublished typescript; interview conducted by Amelia Fry. Quoted here by the kind permission of the Director of the Bancroft Library. Re Maud Younger, see pages 430–32.

11. Florence Kelley quoted in Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader, 181f.

Last updated on 12 September 2020