Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

* * *

3. Two Women:
Florence Kelley
and Alice Paul

Then, as now, there were many gender-based injustices and anti-women discriminations that the proposed Equal Rights Amendment might have helped eliminate or reduce. The social-feminists could not fail to feel the attraction of such an amendment. They were for equal rights, and if an amendment could make an approach to equality, then it could be a good thing (quite apart from the strategic question of concentrating the whole movement on it).

At first some of them thought that the obvious impact of the Amendment in destroying labor legislation for women was only a matter of bad formulation. The National Woman’s Party itself began by being unclear about this, at least entertaining the possibility of a reformulation that would not have such a catastrophic effect. Perhaps its leader had not begun by thinking the issue through. But quite soon the N.W.P. came out officially with what turned out to be its permanent line: the destruction of labor legislation for workingwomen was not an undesired by-product of the Amendment; it was one of the basic aims of the Amendment itself. “Special protective legislation” for women was evil, and had to be rooted out.

Florence Kelley was one of the members of the National Council of the N.W.P.; she had been attracted to the organization on the militancy issue. She was one of those who began by believing that an agreement could be reached between the social-feminists and the Paulites that would allow the whole movement to advocate an equal rights amendment. We need not take the space to describe her serious efforts to reach an agreement; they ended when she realized (or, quite possibly, when Alice Paul realized) that the N.W.P. had declared war-on-principle against the women’s social legislation to which she, Kelley, had been devoting a large part of her life.

Mary Anderson, the Women’s Bureau head who had grown up as a dedicated trade-unionist, also pondered the Amendment for some weeks before concluding that no alternative wording could be devised to preserve labor legislation. The conclusion for Anderson, Kelley, and others like them, was that there was no possibility of drafting a suitable text acceptable to the N.W.P. that would spare workingwomen’s gains. Kelley spoke out her opinion that a blanket equality decree of the one-blast type would do more harm than good; she broke with the N.W.P., and became one of the leading opponents of the E.R.A.

Kelley’s whole career, her whole life, explains why she had to come to this conclusion. That career and that life characterize one of the greatest leaders of the women’s movement in this country. Her commitment to progressive social change began very early.

Born in 1859, she came from a well-to-do, socially conscious Quaker family in Philadelphia. As she later wrote: “Free Soilers and Revolutionary ancestors, Quakers and Abolitionists and Non-Conformists, family figures who had put their consciences to the tests both of endurance and action. Such [was] ... the heritage of one Philadelphia child of sixty years ago.” [1] Her father, a Republican Congressman, actively supported women’s suffrage, opposed slavery, and condemned the newly developed ills of an industrial society. Childhood memories of accompanying her father on factory tours (“a living horror”) remained with her all through life. And she often recalled the philosophical directive her father had emphasized:

That the duty of his generation was to build up great industries in America so that wealth could be produced for the whole people. “The duty of your generation,” he often said, “will be to see that the product is distributed justly. The same generation cannot do both.”

Florence Kelley can be seen as the very model of the generous-hearted middle-class liberal that this country produced in quantity in its progressive era; but she was also different. She went farther than liberalism.

After graduating with a B.A. degree from Cornell in 1882, she was denied admission to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, which still refused to matriculate women. She went to Europe, therefore, and began graduate work in Zurich in 1883. It was there that she first heard a lecture on The Program of the Social Democracy given by the exiled German socialist leader Eduard Bernstein (then still in his leftist phase). The discussion that followed his remarks greatly excited Kelley, and (as she tells us) she took an “eager plunge into the enthusiasm of the new movement ...” She joined up as a socialist while still in Zurich, and never gave up her socialist convictions.

Through the winter of 1883–1884 she read much Social-Democratic writing, including works by Marx and Engels. Eager to make a concrete contribution to the movement in English, Kelley made arrangements with Engels to translate his forty-year-old work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, and her translation, revised by the author, was in fact published in 1887.

While still living in Europe, she fell in love with a Russian socialist exile, Lazare Wischnewetsky; they were soon married, and returned together to the United States. (Until her divorce she used the name Mrs. Florence K. Wischnewetsky; after divorce she returned to the name Florence Kelley, under which her great subsequent career is best known.) In the United States the Wischnewetskys joined the only socialist organization then existing, the Socialist Labor Party – which, as she personally knew – her friend Engels regarded as a disaster for socialism; and indeed both Wischnewetskys were expelled in 1887 for opposition to the incredibly sectarian and hidebound leadership of this peculiar organization. Later Kelley joined the Socialist Party, and was active in the Intercollegiate Socialist Society for a number of years; but her main activity was carried on in more broadly based organizations involving immediate reforms. It was through this work that she made a lasting impact on the lives of workingpeople in America.

During the 1890s Kelley lived and worked at Jane Addams’ famous settlement house (plus social and political center), Hull House, in Chicago. Here she directed a landmark survey of slum conditions on the city’s West Side. The survey results helped Kelley’s next fight: ending the widespread practice of industrial homework, or “sweating,” a system in which thousands of men, women and children toiled under the worst possible conditions. Her efforts, in coalition with organized labor in the state, led to the passage of Illinois’s first Factory Labor Law, in 1893. The act prohibited child labor, shortened the work-day for women and teen-age workers, set health and safety standards for industrial working conditions, and allowed the state to oversee enforcement of the law through factory inspection.

These appreciable gains for the worst-exploited victims of the sweatshops she later had to defend against the strictures of middle-class feminists – middle-class not because of their personal origins but because of their mental inability to see the real social world through the eyes of the victims of the system, rather than its upper crust. Kelley tried to explain why these victims could not protect their interests through trade-unionism alone:

The vast majority of women wage-earners are between the ages of 16 and 25 years. They are not the material of which militant trade unions are formed. Their wages are too small to supply war chests for strikes. Their accumulated experience is too slight for the successful conduct of more than an occasional brief walkout. These facts common to all industrial countries compel protective legislation for women. [2]

Kelley herself served as Illinois’s first Chief Factory Inspector under this law. When a conservative governor took office a few years later, she lost this position.

In 1899 she moved to New York City, where she took on the job she would have for the rest of her active life: general secretary of the National Consumers League. Middle-class women had organized this league to assist department store clerks, largely women, to improve their working conditions, using the weapon of consumer boycotts. Trade unions had not succeeded in this field (as yet); this is a good example of how workingpeople (specifically, mostly workingwomen) got an important assist from middle-class well-wishers. The N.C.L.’s constitution stated that its aim was to “educate public opinion and to endeavor so to direct its force as to promote better conditions among the workers, while securing to the consumer exemption from the dangers attending unwelcome conditions.” [3]

Using the N.C.L. as her base, Kelley participated in dozens of battles for social progress over the next three decades. She led efforts to shorten the work-day, to set a minimum wage, to end child labor and the industrial homework system, to improve health and safety on the job, and to urge passage of a comprehensive federal bill for infant and maternity care (the issue which Professor Sylvia Hewlett had to painfully rediscover for herself). We have already mentioned her activity in favor of women’s suffrage, first as vice-president of NAWSA, then as a national leader (temporarily) of the more militant N.W.P., and always as an independent woman.

For Kelley, obviously, the suffrage victory left no gap that had to be filled by inventing another issue; there were a large number of battles still to be won. On first hearing of the N.W.P.’s proposal for the one-blast Amendment, Kelley, like other social-feminist leaders, made an attempt to reach a compromise to save women’s legislative gains. According to Josephine Goldmark, Kelley’s co-worker in the National Consumers League and later her biographer:

On December 4, 1921, Mrs. Kelley, for the National Consumers League; Miss Ethel Smith, for the National Women’s Trade Union League; Miss Maud Wood Park, for the National League of Women Voters; and representatives of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and of the Young Women’s Christian Association met for two hours with Miss [Alice] Paul and two members of the board of the [National] Woman’s Party, but to no effect. [4]

This sentence sums up the battle lines between the most active organizations of the women’s movement, on the one hand, and on the other, the “topsy-turvy feminism” of the new group. (The term was Kelley’s.)

The representative of “topsy-turvy feminism” in this line-up, Alice Paul, came from a background that was superficially much like Kelley’s, but differed precisely with respect to preparation for social issues. Both were of middle-class origin, to be sure, but the immense difference was in how they viewed the world around them.

Alice Paul was twenty-six years younger than Kelley, born in 1885. She also came from a well-to-do Pennsylvania Quaker family, her father a successful banker. Her upbringing stressed the importance of education and an independent career, but provided no serious introduction to social questions. While she soon learned to be a sophisticated political organizer, her approach to social issues was rather simplistic. This is what she herself recalled later, in oral memoirs:

First of all, I never heard of the idea of anybody being opposed to the idea [of suffrage or equality]; I just knew women didn’t vote. I know my father believed and my mother believed in and supported the suffrage movement, and I remember my mother taking me to suffrage meetings ... It was just – I just never thought about there being any problem about it. It was the one thing that had to be done, I guess that’s how I thought. [5]

She graduated from Swarthmore College in 1905, did some graduate work at the Columbia School of Social Work (then known as the School of Philanthropy), and went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, which was no longer refusing to admit women as it had done in Florence Kelley’s day. Alice Paul wrote her doctoral thesis on women and equality, completing it in 1912.

Before completing the doctorate, however, she took time off to travel to Britain. It was there that she began working for women’s suffrage. After seeing Christabel Pankhurst shouted down at a British university, Alice Paul was moved to join the movement. She later recalled her motivation as follows:

... I just became from that moment very anxious to help in this movement. You know if you feel some group that’s your group is the underdog you want to try to help; it’s natural I guess for everybody.

She joined the British Women’s Social and Political Union, spoke at public meetings, sold its paper Votes for Women, marched in demonstrations, and was arrested more than once during protest “deputations” to Parliament and in other rallies.

On returning to the United States, she first joined NAWSA, the main suffrage organization, rising quickly in its leadership. In 1914 she split off from NAWSA to form the Congressional Union, and, as we have seen, this evolved into the National Woman’s Party in 1916.

When the N.W.P. adopted the one-blast Amendment as its end-all and be-all, Alice Paul remained true to her pattern of unconcern about splitting the movement to carry out her ideas. To a minor extent the first split was in her own organization; opposition to and suspicion of the Amendment were not limited to Florence Kelley in the N.W.P. But it was conceived not as a mass organization in the first place, but as an elite “ginger group,” and the loss of a few members was not important. She was not much affected one way or the other by the divisive effect of the E.R.A. strategy. When she looked back to this period in her oral memoirs, she tried to make this clear to her interviewer:

Fry: Was the equal rights concept then looked upon as a unifying concept of all these diverse interest groups?

Paul: No.

Fry: It wasn’t seen as some symbol of women’s equality like suffrage had been?

Paul: Well, you see we never thought that there was any great mass of people in the country that wanted equality. We knew we wanted equality.

Fry: Who’s we?

Paul: We of the Woman’s Party wanted equality.

What the interviewer found it a little difficult to understand was that Alice Paul had succeeded, in her own mind, in acquiring her very own issue; or, more accurately, her very own group’s issue ...

In 1921 the N.W.P. held a convention in Washington at which women’s organizations were invited to offer their proposals to the “Woman’s Party” for action; but in fact Alice Paul and her associates had already made up their minds. [6] It is interesting to see how in her oral memoirs she recalls the contributions of women’s leaders with social concerns, specifically Jane Addams and the well-known social-feminist leader Crystal Eastman. It was all a blur to her:

At the convention I remember Miss Jane Addams getting up and from the floor saying, “I hope you will all decide to join with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, make that your future.” And Crystal Eastman went with a very involved feminist program ... But it was – well, we didn’t give a second thought to it. It was more embracing everything that Russia was doing and taking in all kinds of things we didn’t expect to take in at all.

For the same reason it is worth quoting her recollection of her conflict with Florence Kelley, though it takes a bit more space and the blur is stronger:

Oh, that was an enormous, enormous campaign to get us to go into the field that the Consumers League, with Florence Kelley, was into. That was tremendous because so many of our women had helped put through these special labor laws for women ... [Kelley] was one of our strong members in the suffrage campaign. She was a leader in the campaign and had a meeting in Washington to which she invited all women’s organizations to try to get them all to form a sort of coalition to work together for what the Consumers League was working for. She was one of the strongest people in trying to get this put in our program. Well, we kept saying, “But we stand for equality and your special labor laws are not in harmony with the principle that we’re standing for.” ... I remember these just bitter fights with the special-labor-laws-for-women people.

What this stream of consciousness accurately shows is how thoroughly abstract was Paul’s approach to the issue. Neither here nor elsewhere was she capable of analyzing the concrete social meaning and consequences of the “labor-laws-for-women” business, including the workingwomen’s conditions which she was out to break down. For the question was not posed this way in her mind. You are either for “equality” or you are not, and if you are for, you need only a few words to say so, and that’s an end on ‘t. Above all, it must not be supposed that Alice Paul wished any harm to come to workingwomen; she hardly could do so, since they scarcely existed in her mentality.

Alice Paul’s abstract Equality was intended to be a legal abstraction. She explained in her oral memoirs:

[The E.R.A.] is only a prohibition on the government of the country. An individual family, such as you and your husband, can have inequality with you the head of the family or he the head of the family or anything you want to do ... I think as far as law and government, the Amendment won’t do away with all the innumerable phases of the subjection of women ...

She herself took a roseate view of women’s traditional role in society, having swallowed some of the sexist illusions that made the early suffragist movement claim that women’s voting would revolutionize the political scene by itself.

I think men contribute one thing and women another thing, that we’re made that way. Women are made as the peace-loving half of the world and the home-making half of the world, the temperate half of the world. The more power they have, the better world we are going to have ...

The reason for this benign outcome, she thought, was that women are by nature “raisers of children” and “want to make it the best possible home.” Furthermore, “you have a force that’s not thinking all the time about going out and fighting somebody in the economic struggle or in any other struggle.” If a man were to utter these hallowed sentiments, he would be rightly accused of claiming that women’s place (or at least her best place) was in the home, and at any rate outside of “the economic struggle.”

Thus the abstract proponent of abstract women’s “equality” turns out to hold the same presuppositions about “women” as the typical men of her day. We would remind that in A Lesser Life Professor Sylvia Hewlett now demonstrates a somewhat similar pattern at work when she shows how the E.R.A.-feminism of the ‘70s and ‘80s produces the model of the “male-clone” as the “liberated woman” ... [7]

* * *


1. Unless otherwise noted, this account of Florence Kelley’s life is based on her own autobiographical series of articles in The Survey, four issues, Oct. 1, 1926, and Feb. 1, Apr. 1, and June 1, 1927; and citations are drawn from this source too.

2. Florence Kelley, Should Women Be Treated Identically with Men by the Law? in American Review, March–April 1923; quoted in Goldmark, op. cit. (2: n.9), 184f.

3. National Consumers League, Annual Report (N.Y., 1902), p. 3; Quoted in Allis Rosenberg Wolfe, Women, Consumerism, and the National Consumers League in the Progressive Era, 1900–1923, in Labor History, 16, Summer 1975, p. 380.

4. Goldmark, op. cit. (2: n.9), 182.

5. This and subsequent passages from Alice Paul’s oral memoirs come from: Conversations with Alice Paul ..., op. cit. (2: n.10).

6. Besides Paul’s oral memoirs, see also Lemons, op. cit. (1: n.1), 183f.

7. For this line of thought in Hewlett, see her book (op. cit., Pref.: n.2), p.

Last updated on 12 September 2020