Founding Feminists: March 31, 1915

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Today, Alice Paul’s “Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage” became a national organization, adopted a constitution, and launched a suffrage campaign that puts it into direct competition with another effort by the more conservative National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.).

The result of this all-day meeting of the Congressional Union’s Advisory Council makes it clear that there are two very different philosophies among national suffrage groups in regard to attaining their common goal of nationwide woman suffrage. But the willingness to work for that goal is reassuringly high in both groups.

The Congressional Union was formed two years ago by Alice Paul as a local Washington, D.C. organization to help support N.A.W.S.A.’s Congressional Committee, which she led at the time. Congressional Union activists have always taken a more aggressive and flamboyant approach to the battle for the ballot than N.A.W.S.A. officers felt advisable. The C.U. has engaged in activities ranging from colorful parades, pageants, motorcades and other spectacles to public confrontations with Democratic Party candidates over their party’s failure to use its majority status in Congress to pass a nationwide suffrage amendment.

Though both N.A.W.S.A. and the C.U. have the same goal of enfranchising women nationwide, N.A.W.S.A. still favors a State-by-State approach, while the C.U. sees a Federal amendment as the only realistic solution. The primary goal of the new organization is to pass the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment, sometimes called the Bristow-Mondell Amendment after its current sponsors in Congress. If approved by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and ratified by 3/4 of the states, it would immediately enfranchise women in every State on the same basis as men.

N.A.W.S.A. favors State campaigns, and currently endorses the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment, which if it became part of the Constitution would mandate a State referendum on woman suffrage if 8% of the registered voters of a State signed petitions requesting it. It would obviously be less controversial, and therefore easier to get Congress to pass, and the States to ratify, but it would directly enfranchise no one. N.A.W.S.A. sees nationwide suffrage coming about only after women have won the vote in a large number of States, and have enough power to directly influence members of Congress.

As might be expected, relations between the two rival suffrage groups have not been cordial since Alice Paul was ousted from leading N.A.W.S.A.’s Congressional Committee after refusing its demand that she resign from the Congressional Union. An attempt at reconciliation in early 1914 failed, and the two organizations have been engaging in a kind of “family feud” ever since.

N.A.W.S.A. has referred to the C.U. as an “unruly child” for its work against Democrats during last year’s midterm elections. Democrats have the Presidency, and majorities in both House and Senate, but have failed to advance the Anthony Amendment. Like the British militants, Alice Paul believes that the party in power should be held responsible for keeping women disenfranchised.

Members of the Congressional Union leaving New York’s Peg Woffington Coffee House, where the early session of their meeting today was held. The “Suffragist,” seen in the lower right corner, is the C.U.’s official publication. (Front row, from left: Elizabeth Colt, Elizabeth Kent, Elizabeth Selden Rogers, Olive Halladay Hasbrouck, with Hazel MacKaye holding the magazine; Second row: Marie Theodosia Armes, Lucy Burns and Jessie Davisson.)

Today, N.A.W.S.A., gearing up for a campaign to pass a suffrage referendum in New York State in November, issued a scathing letter signed by Katherine Dexter McCormick, its VIce President, denouncing the C.U.’s actions:

The officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association agree with Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and Mrs. Harriot Stanton Blatch that this is not the time nor is New York a place for reopening of the discussion as to the best way to bring about a Federal amendment for suffrage.

It would have shown more imagination, more consideration from the women in New York, had the conference, with its appeal for funds and help, been held in some other State, but perhaps that is asking too much of an organization which is interested only in Federal suffrage. We see, usually, only what we are interested in.

But I do want to say, in all generosity, that the Congressional Union is to be heartily congratulated on giving up its policy of attacking the Democratic Party as the sole obstacle to suffrage. This was a short-sighted policy which we all deplored. It was based upon a romantic desire to imitate English tactics rather than upon a realization of the political situation in this country. We are glad to learn that the union has abandoned it, and we only wish that step had been taken before the union’s policy had misled and antagonized thousands of Democratic voters last Fall in Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri, and the two Dakotas.

In response, Lucy Burns advised fellow C.U. members who might still be in N.A.W.S.A. to resign and stop supporting it in any was as long as it favors the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment.

After a vigorous discussion, it was decided that the new group’s membership will be composed of women only, though men are welcome at the meetings, and the work of Marsden J. Perry, in attendance today, was praised.

The main work of the day was planning how to expand the group’s presence into every State, though no Congressional Union meeting would be complete without a discussion of plans for some massive public event. The one presently being planned is the Susan B. Anthony Pageant, scheduled just before the opening of the next Congress, and it is hoped it will be the biggest suffrage event ever staged.

Despite the obvious friction between the two suffrage groups, the movement is now more powerful than it has ever been, and all suffragists are united and committed to the goal of “Votes for Women” everywhere. Though the “how” and “when” of victory cannot be predicted, a major step in that direction was taken today.

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