Hal Draper & Stephen F. Diamond

The Hidden History of the
Equal Rights Amendment

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6. The “Right to Work”

One can see why the manufacturers’ associations saw labor legislation for women as the entering wedge of a general social program that could cost them billions of dollars. But their propaganda efforts to save women from the indignity of better working conditions was considerably aided by a free gift to their position by the leaders of the then labor movement.

It has been mercifully forgotten by most people that for decades – up to the coming of the New Deal – the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers was one of the most virulent opponents of social legislation for the protection of labor’s interests. Minimum-wage laws were Gompers’ special bugbear, and he did not support such laws even for women, though he let his guard down for shorter hours for women. Gompers’ A.F.L. opposed social insurance – in the name of freedom.

Sore and sad as I am [wrote Gompers in 1916] by the illness, the killing, the maiming of so many of my fellow workers, I would rather see that go on for years and years ... than give up one jot of the freedom of the workers to strive and struggle for their own emancipation through their own efforts. [1]

This lofty principle Gompers called voluntarism, and no self-styled Libertarian of today could be more enthusiastic about denouncing “the State” than these labor leaders of the day who looked to labor-management collaboration as the answer to all social ills. It is not recorded that the workers who were sickened, maimed, or killed by their conditions of work were able to maintain the same staunch belief in Freedom.

The Gompers A.F.L. maintained that protective legislation (for men) would divert the attention of workers from their tradeunion organizations to political activity. The advocates of social legislation made people believe that law was a panacea for all ills. The A.F.L. convention of 1913 condemned a minimum-wage law because “Through organization, the wages of men can and will be maintained at a higher minimum than they would if fixed by legal enactment.” Yes, but how about that large majority of America’s workers who were not organized, and were not going to be organized very soon, either, if they depended on Gompers? (Keep your eye on this question, for it includes most women workers.)

The A.F.L. was violently opposed to the government’s adopting a patriarchal attitude of concern for workers. The following pronouncement by Gompers is close in spirit to the business and professional women who claimed to be insulted and demeaned by protective legislation for women:

That the state should provide sickness [insurance] for workers is fundamentally based upon the theory that these workmen are not able to look after their own interests and the state must interpose its authority and wisdom and assume the relation of parent or guardian. [2]

Gompers wound this up by hailing the “free-born citizen.” Modern E.R.A.-feminists would invoke their repugnance to the “male” assumption of mastery, presumably inherent in special protective laws for women. It is very, very easy today to see what was bothering Gompers.

The fact was that the labor aristocracy whom Gompers represented – the higher-paid skilled craft workers – did not need a minimum-wage law and would only have been embarrassed by it. When they argued that a minimum wage might be used to impose a maximum, they meant they wanted to protect their privileged position as against hoi polloi. You see the pattern of a better-paid elite who are willing to make their advances by stepping on the recumbent backs of brother- and sister-workers.

This was why the Gompers-A.F.L. argument against special protective laws for men sounds so much like the contemporary feminists’ attack on special protective legislation for women. The only difference is that the former has been completely buried by history, and the latter is very much with us. But no one can formulate a critique of the Gompers-A.F.L. position that is not at the same time a refutation of the same theory as refurbished by N.O.W.

On the national scene, the drive for labor legislation – on a minimum wage, shorter hours, social insurance, etc. – was spearheaded by the social-feminists, who helped to mobilize the local and state organizations of the labor movement against the Gompers philosophy. The two outstanding social-feminist groups that played this great role were the National Consumers League under Florence Kelley and the Women’s Trade Union League.

Both were substantially influenced by the fact that Europe and other civilized parts of the world were way ahead of the United States in this regard, and incidentally showed that none of Gompers’ phantasmagorical predictions about the dire effects of social legislation on Freedom were coming true. (Readers of Sylvia Hewlett’s A Lesser Life may be struck by the fact that she, too, was appreciably impressed by the difference between the U.S. and Europe, to the discredit of the country that she had liked to think was “advanced.”) Kelley had joined the socialist movement in Europe; the W.T.U.L. had more than a leavening of socialist women inside it; Gompers’ pontifications about Freedom did not confuse the social-feminists, by and large. The role of the National Consumers League may be misapprehended nowadays by confusion with organizations like Consumers Union, dedicated to product testing and evaluation; but Kelley’s organization had nothing to do with this. It had been organized, and it functioned, as an auxiliary troop to aid the self-organization of workingwomen; it existed because the labor movement repudiated the organizing function it should have had in this regard. The National Consumers League sought to organize consumers’ action (like boycotts) where women workers’ organization was at stake.

It was the National Consumers League in 1910 that had initiated agitation in this country for minimum-wage legislation, while Gompers was denouncing “governmental paternalism” that would discourage union organization of women workers. [3]

This Gompers viewpoint was echoed by the E.R.A.-feminists once they had hardened their line on protective legislation. Their hearts bled for women workers, of course, just like Gompers’ did, but women workers should go and organize themselves in trade unions, like the men, and thus better their conditions, instead of getting embarrassing laws put on the books ... The social-feminists, of course, were really for women’s trade-unionism, and thus knew only too well how difficult was that road to better conditions. They had a simple question to put: men workers had always had two weapons with which to fight, depending on the situation – self-organization (trade unions) and protective legislation. Why should women workers be limited to one only (the first)?

A prominent social-feminist, Alice Hamilton, explained in a published debate on the E.R.A., in 1924:

... it is not really accurate to call this an amendment for “equal rights” for both sexes, when practically it forbids one sex [women] to proceed along lines already tried and approved [labor legislation] unless the other sex will come too. Organized working men in the United States long since adopted the policy of seeking improvement in hours, wages, and conditions of work through their unions and not by legislation. [The last phrase is untrue. – H.D./S.D.] Women, whose labor organizations are young and feeble, have sought to secure reforms through legislation. This amendment would make it impossible for them to do so. [4]

This was unanswerable, and in fact never answered. Why was it fair, in the name of a pseudo-equality, to restrict women workers to the single weapon of trade-unionism? Just because men trade-unionists had adopted a certain policy (the Gompers policy)? Some of the Pure feminists’ argumentation had a ring of plausibility only insofar as their audience swallowed A.F.L. ideology whole – a sad commentary on their feminism.

We need not doubt that the National Woman’s Party could trot out a female trade-unionist who would testify that getting more money in her pay envelope made her feel “inferior” every Friday – just as the anti-E.R.A. sexist could produce many a woman who would testify that voting made them feel “unwomanly.” In both cases the feeling is real. But the existence of these feelings is not an argument – it is the problem. Only certain women, in certain situations, with certain backgrounds, feel threatened by special laws favoring women.

The vice-chair of the National Woman’s Party was quite frank on the subject of who these “certain women” are. In a 1924 debate with Mary Anderson, Gail Loughlin wrote the following. (The bracketed interpolations are added by us.)

The restrictions placed upon the labor of women, unless removed, will shut the door of opportunity to women. [What women is she talking about? Watch!] Executive positions in the business or industrial world, which mean influences and high salaries, are never filled from the ranks of clock watchers. But a law diminishing the hours of labor for women makes all women clock watchers ...

Because such restrictions mean the closing of opportunity to women whose ability would enable them to rise to executive positions, the business and professional women of the country are nearly a unit in opposing them ... The Woman’s Party will never rest from its labors until Women [the capitalized kind] have reached the goal visioned by the great leaders of 1848 – the complete emancipation of women. [5]

In another magazine confrontation, the veteran advocate of Pure feminism Harriet Stanton Blatch took off after “welfare workers” who were “wrapping women in cotton-wool,” in the course of a venomous attack on a Women’s Bureau conference held in behalf of workingwomen. She denounced Florence Kelley for opposing the “home work” system – which was one of the most vicious forms of labor exploitation ever developed, especially to squeeze profit out of homebound women’s labor. She triumphantly quoted a British report that expectant mothers “do not seem to suffer harm from working in factories.” Of course she attacked the very idea of minimum-wage legislation.

Writing about the same Women’s Bureau conference, Clara M. Beyer reported that the National Woman’s Party had refused to send delegates unless granted special privileges; but –

Whether the Woman’s Party was officially represented or not, its point of view on industrial legislation was expressed by two of the speakers: Miss Merica Hoagland, of the Diamond Chain and Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, and Mr. Charles Cheney, of Cheney Brothers, silk manufacturers of Connecticut. These speakers opposed industrial legislation for women as an interference with their property rights and their freedom of contract and an unnecessary discrimination against them in the labor market. [6]

We can think back to such eminently free contractual parties as the women workers on California’s crops who asked for toilets in the fields, and wonder whose “property rights” Miss Hoagland and Mr. Cheney were worried about ...

The current doctrine of the courts had a similar content. The minimum-wage law in the District of Columbia had just been quashed. The judges were not Fabians like Mrs. Blatch, but allegedly they were worried only about the interests of the proletariat: “no greater calamity,” said the decision, “could befall the wage-earners of this country than to have the legislative power to fix wages upheld ...” This fused the N.W.P. philosophy with the Gompers doctrine.

All this – the drive against labor laws for workingwomen, in which the Pure feminists and the pure sweatshoppers worked hand in hand – was the predecessor of what was later known as the “Right to Work” movement, organized by industry’s publicists after another world war. In both cases, in all such cases, proponents could show a number of injustices done to individual workers by pro-labor laws that benefited the vast majority (the Gladys Smith syndrome).

The National Woman’s Party’s E.R.A. campaign was, in effect, the first “Right to Work” movement.

From the beginning, the “Right to Work” ideology, with all of its fair-seeming appeal, continually peeped out of the agitation against special laws for workingwomen. Consider what happened in one 1919 confrontation at a New York State legislative hearing, where bills to improve workingwomen’s conditions drew a mass supporting delegation rallied to Albany by the leading women’s organizations. The opposition to these bills was also voiced by women, including two from the Equal Opportunity League which we have mentioned earlier, plus “Amy Wrenn, a Brooklyn lawyer, [and] Nora Stanton Blatch, an engineer of New York.” (This Blatch was the daughter of the other.) The president of the Equal Opportunity League demanded “industrial equality.” It was defined as “the right to work when and where she pleased.” [7]

All labor laws to better working conditions interfere with this “right to work when and where etc.” This was the central device of the Right to Work drive of the post-1945 period, and it was already in full flower as a device of the united front of the Pure feminists and impure industrialists that gathered strength in the ‘20s. Its proponents addressed themselves to certain women, as we see in Lemons’ summary:

From a position of early neutrality on the issue of protective legislation, business and professional women moved increasingly to oppose such laws. Class considerations entered because these women came to identify with management’s view of industrial and labor questions. They saw industrial women as workers, not women.

This was a concise statement also of the mentality of the “business and professional women.” Lemons continues:

Moreover, they believed that the modest progress being made by business and professional women was being hindered by the protective laws. They came to feel in the late 1920s that their gains and position had not matched earlier expectations, and many felt threatened by legislation which sought to prevent the exploitation of industrial women. [8]

The basis for this turn was not simply that labor legislation which benefited other women made these women feel “inferior.” For one thing, there was an overlapping area between workingwomen in industry and “businesswomen”; for instance, there was the gray area between the cruelly exploited store clerks and the upwardly mobile women supervisors, assistant managers, buyers, and so on. Some protective laws were so loosely formulated that their impact went needlessly beyond the work force itself; and at least part of the difficulty could have been eliminated by careful redrafting. But the would-be and could-be businesswomen were not interested in hearing about such an accommodation.

In the battleground of New York State, the lineup over labor legislation was a lesson in sociology. In one corner, the Women’s Trade Union League mobilized allies like the Consumers League and the League of Women Voters. In the other corner, the Equal Opportunity League mobilized organizations of women journalists, doctors, dentists, lawyers, real-estate agents, and the activists of the women’s clubs movement.

Yet it took several years before even the national organization of the business and professional women, the B.P.W. [C], was weaned away from its social concerns and converted to Pure feminism – the kind that “saw industrial women as workers, not women,” not their sisters. One reason, it seems, was happenstantial. During much of the 1920s the B.P.W.’s legislative chair was a socially conscious woman named Mary Stewart, who waged a battle against the N.W.P. elements in the organization and kept it neutral on the issue of labor laws – for a while. It was only in the late ’20s that the N.W.P. viewpoint tended to become dominant, and, even so, it was not until 1937 that the B.P.W. endorsed the Pure amendment. So difficult was it for the old concerns of social-feminism to be cast aside for what was easily seen as group selfishness.

Many state divisions of the B.P.W. had gone beyond their national organization in this direction. The N.W.P. had pioneered the road for these. For instance, the Indiana federation of the B.P.W. was involved in an outstanding job of alliance with the Manufacturers Association and right-wing business groups to kill progressive labor legislation in the state. Its organ mingled editorials reprinted from the N.W.P. and from the manufacturers’ press. In 1928 it mobilized a united front of business and “civic” groups to block a proposed survey of state industrial conditions by the Women’s Bureau, out of the express fear that this was “but a forerunner of the labor department’s attempt to obtain an eight-hour day for the Indiana women.” (Blocking the survey meant that they could continue to claim uninhibitedly that hundreds of thousands of Gladys Smiths had lost their jobs because of labor legislation.) These Pure feminists were so successful in their state that Indiana remained one of only five states that had no hours law.

They had important successes elsewhere, too. Impelled by its N.W.P. members, the Women’s Lawyers Association took on a crusade against labor legislation for women. In California a proposed eight-hour law was defeated. A national Business Women’s Legislative Council was formed by 1928 to make sure that workingwomen had at least the same right to be sweated as any men; a member of the N.W.P. became its president, and it endorsed the Pure E.R.A. in 1931. The first major women’s organization to support the amendment was the B.P.W.; and indeed, as the N.W.P. faded in activity and weight, it was the B.P.W. that became the main proponent of the Pure E.R.A.

Before we leave this period, let us say a summary word about it in relation to the contemporary world better known to the reader, namely, the present time. It is a question of a couple of contrasts between then and now.

For one thing, the present-day reader may be a little surprised by the openness and uninhibited frankness of the alliance made between the union-busters of the National Association of Manufacturers (and similars) and the National Woman’s Party. But in fact the liberal rhetoric had not yet become the all-compassing Newspeak of the establishment. We merely point this out without digressing further into sociopsychology. What forms the same alliance took after the Second World War are still to be seen.

For another and more important thing, we must record with some emphasis that the social-feminism of the 1920s, which we have been seeing in action, did not remain in existence in the postwar world. This is only part of a broader phenomenon which is not our subject. The Second World War and the post-war stagnation of radicalism produced a hiatus – a well-recognized break in continuity in the tradition and organization of leftist currents in the United States. The long tradition of social-feminism, a feminism furthermore allied with militant women trade-unionists, faded out in this same hiatus. When a “New Feminism” blossomed in the late 1960s, it emerged from a milieu that was unfortunately quite alien to the concerns of wage-earners, namely, from some circles of the predominantly middle-class student New Left at a time when this tendency was already crumbling into elitist and authoritarian fragments.

In consequence, as you read these words some decades later, there is no significant current that corresponds to the social-feminists of the 1920s and 1930s. An attempt was made especially in California, under the impulsion of Anne Draper, with the organization of Union W.A.G.E. (to be discussed later). But the present women’s movement, as it exists in the public eye and as crystallized in groups like N.O.W., is the spiritual descendant of the National Woman’s Party.

This movement, to be sure, contains at least a couple of shadings: there is the economic career-woman emphasis of the B.P.W. types, and there is the general-abstractionized feminism of the Alice Paul type. Ms magazine may lean toward the former and N.O.W. toward the latter, but the spread between is only from A to B.

This pattern is not gainsaid by the existence of a minor current that calls itself “Radical Feminism,” articulated by Shulamith Firestone, for example. But in fact this current goes back explicitly to the ambiguous legacy of Alice Paul. Firestone insists on this connection, quite accurately. She reads most of previous feminism out of her tradition: “the majority of organized women in the period between 1890–1920 – a period usually cited as a high point of feminist activity – has nothing to do with feminism.” This means her neo-feminism has “nothing to do with” the social-feminism of the great days. What then is the feminism that Firestone recognizes? She bluntly traces the lineage of her “Radical Feminism” to “the militant Congressional Union subsequently known as the Woman’s Party,” and pays special homage to Harriet Stanton Blatch. [10]

Thus, social-feminism in the historical sense has been leached out of American society (though, as Sylvia Hewlett found on looking around, not in Europe), just as any and every liberal political tendency has given up any organizational existence in this country. And all that remains is the Pure feminism that made the Pure E.R.A. its banner, and that has yet to have a glimmering of comprehension of why the country refused to ratify it. Most if not all of the “New Feminist” activists have never even heard of the long historical connection between an equal rights amendment and the problems of workingwomen.

Most of them are not even aware of what happened to the E.R.A. as recently as the postwar period. We now turn to this chapter of the story.

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C. The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (for short, B.P.W.) had been launched in 1918 as an offshoot of a War Department project to mobilize women for the wartime economy. With $65,000 allotted from military funds, a gathering of selected “women leaders” set up a small National Business Women’s Committee, which then proceeded to call a convention in 1919 and set up the Federation. With the early slogan of “A Better Business Woman for a Better Business World,” it stressed its stand for “genuine Americanism,” against socialized medicine, and so on. [9]

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1. Michael Rogin, Voluntarism..., in Charles M. Rehmus and Doris B. McLaughlin, eds. Labor and American Politics, 122.

2. This and the preceding quotation from Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., 5: 129, 130.

3. See the historical sketch on The Minimum Wage in The American Labor Year Book 1919–1920, ed. by Alexander Trachtenberg (N.Y., Rand School, 1920), 240f. For “government paternalism,” see Foner, op. cit. (6: n.2), 6: 134.

4. This debate was published in the magazine Forum, August 1924.

5. Gail Loughlin is here quoted from the Congressional Digest, March 1924.

6. Blatch and Beyer are quoted from The Nation, January 31, 1923.

7. Survey (magazine), March 15, 1919.

8. Lemons, op. cit. (1: n.1), 199; see also pages following.

9. From a historical note The Federation Story in the organization’s organ, the National Business Woman, July 1957.

10. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex (N.Y., Bantam, 1971, c1970), 37 and 20–21.

Last updated on 12 September 2020