Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.
An amazing victory for the National Woman’s Party today, in a struggle which caused some of the country’s youngest feminists to unite with suffragists who had fought for the vote half a century ago. Their common purpose was to save the N.W.P.’s headquarters, and the property immediately surrounding it. A bill had been introduced in Congress to take 2/3 of the N.W.P.’s land and even some structures attached to the main house, for a proposed New Senate Office Building extension. After getting approved in the Senate, the bill was just a quick House vote and a Presidential signature away from enactment.
The National Woman’s Party’s “Silent Sentinels” picketed the White House from 1917 to 1919, enduring jail sentences, hunger strikes and force-feedings in a successful campaign to pressure President Wilson into becoming an active suffrage advocate. So the N.W.P. wasn’t about to be intimidated by any of today’s politicians. When confiscation was threatened, party members vowed that if it became necessary, they would use the same civil disobedience tactics in 1968 as were used in 1918. New feminist groups, such as the National Organization for Women and other Women’s Liberation organizations immediately offered to help. Barbara Ireton, president of the local N.O.W. chapter, promised a ring of women around the building to protect it if a condemnation bill passed.
A preliminary victory was won a week ago, when House Majority Whip Hale Boggs, Democrat of Louisiana, informed Alice Paul, the N.W.P.’s founder and honorary chair, that the vote would be postponed. At the same time, Patricia McDonald, accompanied by fifteen college students and recent graduates, arrived in town, and they began personally lobbying the House members about the historic status of the house. According to McDonald: “No hearings have ever been held, in either House or Senate, so we knew the members of Congress didn’t know anything about the house and its history.”
Today, victory was made complete when the House voted to kill the condemnation bill. “It is indeed a relief,” Alice Paul said. “It is almost unheard of for the House to vote against the Senate on a measure that affects the internal problems of the other house. A very unusual procedure.” But the house is also very unusual: one of the oldest structures on Capitol Hill, it was built between 1799 and 1800 by Robert Sewall, was damaged by the British during the War of 1812 when used by Americans defending the city, and was later bought by Alva Belmont for the purpose of donating it to the National Woman’s Party in 1929 as a national headquarters.
With this battle behind them, all of the party’s efforts can once again be concentrated on getting Congress to approve, then 38 states to ratify, the Equal Rights Amendment. Written by Alice Paul, it’s been the N.W.P.’s top priority since they formally kicked off the campaign for it on July 21, 1923.
The Equal Rights Amendment states:
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
The Congress shall have to power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.