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Reading 2: The ERA and a new home on Capitol Hill
The National Woman's Party (NWP) did not break up after the women's suffrage movement ended. In 1921, the party leaders and members debated the organization's future. Some of its members believed the NWP achieved its goal, but its founder and its president believed the struggle for equal rights for women was not over. Alice Paul and Alva Belmont wanted the NWP to stay in Washington, DC, and to push for more laws to support women's rights. Most important of these laws was a proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This amendment would support total equal legal status between men and women in the United States.
Washington, DC, continued to be the center of National Woman's Party activity throughout the 20th century. The organization moved from Lafayette Park to Capitol Hill after the states ratified the 19th Amendment. Its leading members wanted to be close to Congress, not the president. In 1922, they moved into the Old Brick Capitol (which had temporarily housed Congress after the 1814 burning of the Capitol). Seven years later, that building was demolished to make space for a new Supreme Court building. In 1929, the NWP moved to a house located a block away from the Capitol. They named it the Alva Belmont House to honor the organization's president. Some NWP members lived there as well as worked there.
Alice Paul was active in the party during its second phase. In 1922 she reorganized the NWP with the goal of eliminating all discrimination against women. In 1923 Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and launched what would be for her a life-long campaign to win full equality for women. She also worked on a law degree at a nearby university and studied state laws that discriminated against women.1 She wrote the first version of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment when she was a law student in 1921:
“Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”
Paul believed that getting an ERA passed would be the end of the feminist movement's struggle for legal equality in the United States.2 Not all veterans of the suffrage movement agreed with Paul. During the 1910s, the National Woman's Party and the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) did not agree on tactics but they both wanted women to have the right to vote. The activists went in different directions once the 19th Amendment was ratified. The NAWSA became the League of Women Voters. This group focuses on registering women to vote, not on laws. The NWP stayed involved in politics and its remaining members supported an Equal Rights Amendment.
Paul and other members of the NWP thought equal suffrage was the first step toward making all laws equal for men and women. Other veteran members of the women's suffrage movement disagreed. These women had worked for years to get politicians to pass laws to improve working conditions and provide special benefits for women, like maternity leave and a minimum wage. These women feared that an ERA would make these benefits unconstitutional.3 They hoped that once they could vote they could get more women-specific laws passed. Another reason women opposed the ERA was they feared the changes in society and in private life that the ERA might bring. These differences split the broad women's rights movement into smaller movements in the 1920s.4
The ERA was its primary goal after the vote, but the NWP did more than support an ERA. The organization wrote federal, state, and local legislation about divorce and child custody rights, jury service, and property rights. Some of this legislation became law. Alice Paul traveled to Europe and South America to work for women's rights in international politics. She founded the World Woman's Party in Switzerland in 1938. She also worked with the League of Nations and the United Nations to make sure international groups remembered women's rights. She returned to the United States in 1941 and moved into the NWP headquarters. In Washington, Paul influenced Congress to outlaw sex discrimination when it passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This achieved some of the goals of an ERA.5
The current proposed version of the ERA reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex.” The NWP continued to advocate for the ERA into the 1960s when they were joined by groups like the “National Organization for Women.” Congress passed the ERA in 1972, but it has not been adopted. This is because it has never received the required ratification by three-quarters of the states. Alice Paul passed away in 1977. The ERA is still introduced in every session of Congress. Alice Paul passed away in 1977. The ERA is still introduced in every session of Congress.
National Woman’s Party headquarters became a public museum and archive in 1997. Its name today is the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum. The first part of the name comes from the original Robert Sewall family, who built the house in 1800 and rebuilt it after an 1814 fire. The name also honors benefactor Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. The house is still one of the oldest residences on Capitol Hill. The staff of the historic National Woman’s Party cares for the archive, house, and museum. It also offers educational tours and public programs; these programs celebrate women’s continued progress for women’s equality.
Questions for Reading 2
1) What is the Equal Rights Amendment? Why didn't some people support it in the 1920s?
2) List several ways the National Woman's Party worked for women's rights after the 19th Amendment. Do you think they were successful?
3) Even though she dedicated her life to women's rights, Alice Paul is famous for her leadership during the 1910s. Looking at Readings 1 and 2, why do you think she is remembered primarily for that?
4) Why did the NWP put pressure on Congress, not the president, after the 19th Amendment passed? How did the female activists' relationship with Congress change after they gained the right to vote?
Reading 2 is adapted from the “Alva Belmont House (Washington, DC)” National Historic Landmark nomination, written by Carol Ann Poh, from biographical material on Alice Paul developed by the Sewall-Belmont house, and from the website “Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party,” created by the American Memory Program at the Library of Congress.
1 Butler, Amy. Two Paths to Equality: Alice Paul and Ethel M. Smith in the Era Debate, 1921 -1929 (State University of New York at Binghamton, 1997).