Alice Paul and the ERA

This article is a revised and updated version of the article of the same name published in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA, edited by Joan Hoff-Wilson for the Organization of American Historians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986). Reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press.Amelia R. Fry

Alice Paul was eighty-seven when the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed Congress in 1972. Though she had lived and worked for forty-nine years of the campaign in National Woman's Party (NWP) headquarters across from the national Capitol, she did not venture out to join the cheering women in the Senate that day. Instead, she saw the victory as presaging the amendment's ultimate defeat in the upcoming ratification process. She believed that the bill contained fatal flaws-not in the language of the amendment itself (which she had drafted in 1922 and reworded in 1943) but in its enabling sections.
During those last months, Paul had lobbied frantically, sometimes almost alone, to change the flawed passages back to her original version. She had never allowed a time limit to be placed on "her" bill, but this one carried a seven-year deadline for ratification. Paul had always stipulated in the enforcement section of her draft that the power would reside in "Congress and the several States," but the final version omitted the reference to "the States" and left enforcement to the federal government-hardly a section that state's righters would approve. Paul had warned that states in the South would be needed for the ratification total, and "the several States" would at least give the organizers a point in ideological debates. She had also pointed out that doubtful legislatures in states convening biennially could postpone a ratification vote for more than seven years just by assigning it to a study committee every four years. But no one-not even a majority in control of her own NWP-agreed that changing those clauses was worth postponing the vote in Congress.

A few generalizations can be offered about the methods and strategies that Paul used in the long ERA campaign. First, the target was different from that of her suffrage campaign: after 1920, the campaign for equality was directed no longer at the party in power but at educating American women, at "changing their thought." Second, gender equality was pursued on all fronts in whatever public issue, national or international or local; but always the ERA was the central question. Third, Paul abandoned the direct militant actions and civil disobedience events for which she had become famous in the suffrage campaign. (For one reason, "American women" were too diffuse a target to picket or burn in effigy!) Fourth, she operated deliberately with a small party but a decentralized network that included NWP state chapters of varying sizes, and also with the chapters of other organizations, even some whose national offices were still opposed to the amendment. Fifth, she consistently based her tactics and arguments on thorough and meticulous research, which she generally directed. Sixth, she organized for state legislative reform, as well as a federal amendment. And finally, she used the international arena of the Pan American Union, the League of Nations, and the United Nations to press for codes and treaties equitable to both genders-the better to bring pressure on the United States to institute internal equal rights. This unique combination of strategies belies the usual description of Paul as a single-minded zealot intent only on a federal amendment.

When the Second Women's Movement arrived on the scene in the late 1960s, its participants' energies delighted Paul, but their scattered strategies distressed her. Although she never volunteered her views publicly, Paul felt that women, sometimes referred to as "New Wave" feminists, were creating opponents for the ERA by demanding rights for lesbians, legal abortions, peace in Vietnam, and school busing. Paul had spent half a century accumulating support for equal rights among liberal and conservative groups alike that had begun by opposing the amendment: the right wing, the Catholics, the radical left, states' righters, and especially organized labor and its allies, who saw the ERA as eliminating the special protections they had worked for on behalf of women. Few old or new feminists, including Paul, consciously anticipated that Phyllis Schlafly would emerge in the mid-1970s. However, Paul intuitively sensed that someone like Schlafly could coalesce the wide variety of groups that were offended in the burgeoning conservative climate following the end of the Vietnam War.

Born in 1885 into a well-to-do Quaker family in Moorestown, New Jersey, Alice Paul attended Quaker schools until she went to Swarthmore College, and spent a year on New York's Lower East Side training in social case work. In the summer of that year, she worked on a project to persuade labor unions to admit women. She also helped to form a milliner's union.1 In 1907, Paul finished her master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and she attended the Quaker Woodbrooke Institute in conjunction with the University of Birmingham in England. Even though she had been disillusioned with social work as an effective corrective for poverty, she continued to use her training in various charity organizations in Birmingham and London. Paul also studied at the London School of Economics, lived by personal preference in London's East End among the disadvantaged with whom she worked, and engaged in six months of militant activities for the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union in England and Scotland. By the end of 1909, she had undergone a series of jailings and imprisonments, hunger strikes, and forced feedings. It was this challenge that solidified her goal of women's rights as her life's work, and rightly so: it was very Quaker, quite progressive and reformist, and very Swarthmorean.2

Paul returned to the United States in 1910, finished her Ph.D. in 1912, and took charge of the federal amendment campaign for suffrage. That was a small committee in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which soon split off to become the Congressional Union before renaming itself the National Woman's Party (NWP). Her strictly non-violent program-parades, picketing, and burning President Wilson's words on democracy in urns with graceful pageantry and careful elocutions-though it differed greatly from the Pankhursts' actions, nonetheless resulted in incarceration, hunger strikes, and forced feedings.

Paul also combined the Gandhi-like strategy of passive resistance and civil disobedience with mainstream political initiatives. She sent organizers out west (where some states had already enfranchised women) to campaign against all congressional candidates of the "party in power" on a one-issue platform: suffrage. Her aim was to create publicity for the cause amid competing "heavies" -such as war and peace-and to plant the threat of a possible women's cohesive vote in the minds of the Democrats. Whether or not the women's votes were, indeed, gender-conscious, Paul hoped that the threat of such would prod western Democrats to bring pressure on their more conservative southern congressmen to vote for the amendment. It was her first lesson in congressional lobbying.3

The two issues of states' rights and women's role as homemakers have been central throughout the battle for ratification of the ERA. From its inception in the early 1920s, Paul had to face an added grievance: that an amendment for "blanket" equality for women would eliminate the protective legislation that for years reformers-including Paul and many members of her NWP Council-had sought for female industrial workers. For two years, Paul made determined efforts to keep the NWP neutral on the issue of protectionism while she worked to get other associations to agree on a construing clause that would exempt the amendment from changing any industrial protections for women.

At the same time, Paul appointed a committee of thirteen female attorneys, headed by Burnita Matthews, to survey discriminatory laws in each state and to write corrective legislative packages for each, which NWP state chapters presented and lobbied for consistently. Sometimes a blanket amendment was included-with and without the construing clause. The Wisconsin chapter led the passage of an ERA with the clause on June 21, 1921, but there were to be no others. By the end of the 1920s, the women could point to about three hundred state laws changed out of the six hundred they had submitted or advocated in all the states, although some were rescinded by successively conservative legislatures or ignored by state justice systems.

By the time the NWP had the ERA first introduced in Congress in 1923, Paul saw women in industry as chief among those she should convert to effective advocates for the ERA. Her NWP Industrial Council had at least four hundred women lobbying and organizing in the 1920s. Many were workers who had lost their jobs to men when employers did not want to pay the higher minimum wage to women or to institute women-only protection policies. Paul had come to believe that the first step for economic transformation of women's oppression should be constitutional protection against legalized inequality, and the organizers from her industrial council were women who agreed and viewed protections as an obstacle to employment in general, and economic advancement in particular. Paul, while born into an upper-middle class family, as a Quaker social worker had seen women barred from labor unions, denied job opportunities that required night work, and denied the right to decide for themselves between taking a job that required the lifting of twenty-pound objects or being paid lower wages. At the root of her decision to drop the construing clause and to oppose protectionism was her belief that women should be treated as individuals under the law just as men were, not as a class subject to mass governmental regulation. The ERA would do away with this underlying across-the-board inequality that permeated so much of women's lives. Once it was ratified, "then," Paul would say, "we shall see." Each woman would be free to exercise her autonomy if she chose, and to choose her own life-style, her role in the family, and her work.4

Paul believed that women were, indeed, different from men, that they were the nurturers and peacemakers and men the hunters and warriors. But she held that this difference was irrelevant to the question of equality in a democracy, and on this principle she built her pro-ERA arguments.

Her policy of networking through other organizations began in 1921 and continued throughout her life. The period immediately following World War I was one of decline for reform groups generally, but the damaging effects on Paul's organizational capabilities through the shrinking NWP were not severe; her connections with other federations of women were growing. "Our membership was always very tiny," she explained. "We thought the easiest way to get the Amendment through was to try to get each of the national organizations to come out for it with its membership, not try to build up a duplicate membership of our own."5

May 30, 1936, was a milestone day: the House Judiciary Subcommittee made its first favorable report to the parent committee. More groups than ever before testified with the Woman's Party for the ERA at the hearings. The following year, both House and Senate subcommittees gave it favorable reports, and in 1938 more extensive hearings took place. By this time, the National Business and Professional Women's clubs, the National Federation of Colored Women, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and several national professional associations had put their weight behind Alice Paul and her amendment. Paul instructed her state and national lieutenants to use the services of members and chapters of other organizations. On the practical level, labor regulations, which applied only to women and often restricted their employment in the name of protection, suffered a setback when the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which applied to men and women equally, was passed. Although the Supreme Court upheld this legislation in 1941, the AFL and CIO continued to oppose the ERA until the early seventies on the grounds of protectionism.

When most protectionist laws had been suspended during World War II to allow women to take the place of men in wartime industries, Paul had enjoyed the serious consideration that the ERA received in congressional committees. In a flurry of rewordings of the amendment, Paul's version was adopted by the Senate Committee, and more hearings led to a vote on the Senate floor in 1946. It passed by three votes, not enough for the required two-thirds majority, partly because of a surprise floor-call vote. Paul and her small group of lobbyists had such short notice that they had only minutes to see that all pro-ERA senators were in the Senate. When the vote was taken, eighteen senators sympathetic to the amendment were not yet in the chamber.6

The post-World War II years are usually identified by contemporary feminists as years of the "doldrums," the back-to-the-kitchen mystique in the suburbs. In the late 1940s, the NWP suffered from dwindling membership, in part because of an internecine fight for control of the party. A lawsuit in 1949 settled the matter in Paul's favor, and she immediately tried to attract new members and cooperate with more women's groups in the early 1950s, but with limited success. In addition, the Hayden and other riders consistently appended by ERA opponents in the 1940s and 1950s threatened the amendment's effectiveness and precipitated emergency lobbying just to keep it alive in committee. In the House, the head of the Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler, kept it in his "bottom drawer" the entire period he chaired the committee, 1951-65.

When the New Wave of feminists organized the National Organization for Women (NOW) two years later, Paul immediately joined. Martha Griffiths submitted the ERA in the House-her first time as a sponsor. Judiciary Committee chair Emanuel Celler immediately blocked it. New Wave feminist Betty Friedan wanted a new wording for the ERA and appointed a NOW committee of three, who came to see Alice Paul at NWP headquarters. But Paul convinced two of the three that they should allow the old version to stand, because it now carried the signatures of so many members of Congress that too many years would be required to amass comparable support for a new version. While the basic text prevailed, subclauses included a seven-year limitation for ratification and removed "the States" from the enforcement process. Paul fought both changes in committee, but the Griffiths-Bayh version had too many sponsors for Paul's objections to prevail. It passed both houses in 1972. In Alice Paul's words: "We lost."

Momentum for the passage of the ERA in Congress came, ironically, on the eve of the end of the war in Vietnam, which would precipitate a broadly conservative climate opposed to socioeconomic reform. Nonetheless, Paul's aging and small band of first-generation supporters of the ERA dug in with sharper arguments, expanding networks, and more hours in the hall of Congress. This time, they found eager allies among feminists organizing the Second Women's Movement. Few among this new and seemingly invincible coalition of women reformers, with the notable exception of the frail little woman who had started it all, anticipated that they were embarking upon a losing cause when in 1972 Congress sent the ERA to the states for ratification-forty-nine years after it had begun its tortuous legislative journey. (See Legislative Chronology of the ERA, at right.)

By 1972, Paul was almost alone, estranged from many in her own Woman's Party and perplexed about the many organizations and splintered goals of the new feminists. Although she used her telephone to activate key people in ratifying states, her failing health confined her to a nursing home. She died in 1977, knowing that the ERA would not be passed because of increased conservatism in the South and other parts of the country.

In 1980, the national Republican party dropped the ERA from its national platform, ironically when the female labor force was increasing in such numbers that a record two-thirds now worked, and two-thirds of those had children. Congress granted an extension of the ratification time to June 1982, but time ran out with three states still lacking. The following year, a House vote defeated the ERA by a margin of six, and although it continued to be introduced into Congress every year, longtime congressional advocates like House Judiciary Subcommittee chair Don Edwards waited fruitlessly for signs of public activity that did not come. In the eighties, women's organizations grew bigger and more active, but their newsletters show the ERA was submerged by new concerns that were more private and personal, such as child care, abortion rights, homosexual rights, and abuse. Interest in electing more women to public office was also rising.

By the mid-nineties, the ERA was resurfacing-tentatively, amid groups with conflicting strategies, and in surprising ways. In 1993, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced the ERA bill without a time limit. But outside Congress and in the huge membership of NOW, leaders struggled for a consensus to drop the Alice Paul ERA and instead promote a bill that would specify abortion rights, homosexual rights, and sex equality. An "ERA Summit" also formed. Composed of many women's groups (NOW included), it was galvanized into action by Congress's mind-boggling approval of the ratification of the 203-year old "Madison" amendment (which restricted the power of Congress to grant pay raises to members). The intriguing implication was that the "contemporary consensus" requirement for ratification periods could be ignored. Choosing between attorneys' confusing and conflicted opinions about the untried procedure, Summit members voted to publicly declare that only "an additional three states" were needed to put the unratified ERA into the U.S. constitution. The Summit happily agreed with opinions that the former time limit was not binding because it had never been placed in the body of the amendment. In 1995, Congress may have been noted for its conservative dominance, but House member Robert E. Andrews and others, backed by the Summit and bolstered by the "Madison" precedent, continued collecting more colleagues' signatures to his "letter of intent" pledging that once the third and final state ratified, Congress would "take action necessary to affirm the ratification" of the ERA as part of the Constitution. Paul herself could not have seized the Madison moment with more alacrity.

But public recognition was still low. Adults now in their early twenties had been children in grade school when attention turned away from Alice Paul's amendment in the early eighties, and most were still unaware of the sex equity issue. NOW continued to pursue a revised, three-part solution, and the Summit was keeping a second ERA track open to start an Alice Paul amendment from scratch, if necessary.

To assess Alice Paul's contribution to equalitarianism in women's history-or in human history, for that matter-one has to follow the trail of her influence beyond her party and into other organizations. A picture emerges of her handiwork, often behind the scenes in good Quaker fashion: in Don Edward's office of the House Subcommittee, in New York or Minnesota or Louisiana legislative debates on equalitarian codes, in the chambers of the League of Nations and the International Labor Office, in working committees of the United Nations, on the telephone lines to add the category of "sex" to "race" and "religion" in the Civil Rights Act. She led the proceedings of the Inter-American Commission for Women, and provided amicus curiae briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court.7 On the front lines, she directed some of the most brilliant professional workers of her day, as well as industrial workers and government employees' groups. Her goal of "educating" successive generations of these women, by changing their attitudes toward equal rights, can, I believe, be said to have succeeded. The political goal of her ERA is yet to be achieved, but she probably moved it a greater distance than anyone else-at least halfway up the mountain.

1. Amelia R. Fry, "Conversations with Alice Pauquot; (an oral history conducted for the Regional Oral History Office, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1972-73), p. 436.

2. Fry, "Conversations," pp. 1-49; see also Alice Paul clippings collections, Newark Public Library, Newark, New Jersey; and Amelia R. Fry, "Alice Paul and the Divine Discontent," Proceedings, New Jersey History Symposium, 1981.

3. For a fuller treatment of this hypothesis, see Amelia R. Fry, "Alice Paul, Suffrage, Racism, and the South" (paper delivered at the Southern History Association Conference, Louisville, Kentucky, 1981).

4. Fry, "Conversations," pp. 271, 402-40; see also Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), chap. 7.

5. Fry, "Conversations," p. 442. A glimpse of efforts to get other organizations to work for the ERA is provided in Helen Hunt West's "Progress Report" of the Congressional Committee of the National Woman's Party for July 16, 1938 (Helen Hunt West Collection, the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College). It is a typical example.

6. Fry, "Conversations," p. 517; and Alice Paul to Helen Hunt West, August 8, 1946 (Helen Hunt West Collection, folder 9).

7. Two examples of amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court are Adkins v. Children's Hospital 261 U.S. 525 (1923) and West Coast v. Parrish 300 U.S. 379 (1937).

Amelia Roberts Fry is currently writing Alice Paul's definitive biography, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf. She is on leave from the Regional Office of the Bancroft Library of the University of California-Berkeley, where she has been engaged in the development of the library's collection of women's history resources.