Throughout the history of the women’s suffrage movement, there have been opposing forces wanting the same ends but disagreeing about the means. In the early years, the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), both formed in 1869, were often in bitter dispute about how to achieve their mutual goal.
In the decades prior to the 1919 passage and 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, two other organizations had evolved: the buttoned-down National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the radical National Woman’s Party (NWP) — again supporting differing ideas about how to achieve their goal. Both strategies were indispensable for achieving passage of the federal amendment that gave women the vote. The progressive NWP garnered most of the attention while the conservative NAWSA showed that even the nice ladies felt strongly about their suffrage right. The women’s vote was achieved through both groups’ utilization of different means toward the same end.
Since the earliest days of women’s rights consciousness, there has been disagreement about methods. These were often due to secondary issues behind the pure right to vote, such as maintaining the traditional roles of women versus more (later termed) feminist concerns. One example of disagreement was whether or not to pursue divorce law reform.
In the Beginning
Many historians point to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England, as the initial catalyst that gave birth to the concept of an American women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled with her husband to attend the conference as a delegate, only to be denied participation based on her gender. After suffering this indignity and returning home, Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other participants began discussing some type of organized movement to right these wrongs. These early rumblings led to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the official birth of the United States women’s rights movement. (Cullen-DuPont, 2002.)
The American Equal Rights Association was formed in May 1866 and was dedicated to promoting the civil rights of women and African-Americans. After the Fourteenth Amendment passed (June 1866) and the Fifteenth Amendment’s passage was imminent, a split began to occur in the organization. These amendments upheld the voting rights of African-Americans but not women. One faction (later to become AWSA) was staunchly abolitionist and believed that the Fifteenth Amendment might not pass if they tried to add women’s suffrage to it. The other group (later to become NWSA) was equally adamant about including women’s rights by inserting the term sex into the amendment’s wording. (Hill, 2006.)
In 1869 two prominent women’s suffrage organizations emerged from the dissolution of the American Equal Rights Association: the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). AWSA, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, was the more conservative. It allowed men in the group, and it still held the traditional view of a women’s place. Many viewed AWSA as the group more interested in strengthening marriage through its traditional perspective. Its publication was benignly named The Women’s Journal. AWSA also took the more conservative stance that women’s suffrage was best pursued through states’ rights channels rather than a federal amendment. (Hill, 2006.)
NWSA, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was more progressive. It supported a federal amendment to attain the vote for all women. Additionally, it supported other women’s rights causes such as divorce law reform. Their more provocative literary publication The Revolution was founded in 1868 and published by Stanton and Anthony. (Hill, 2006.)
A Woman President?
In 1870 the flamboyant Victoria C. Woodhull announced her candidacy for the United States presidency. In January 1871 Woodhull addressed the judiciary committees of both houses of Congress to assert that, in fact, women already had the right to vote by virtue of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. She averred that the Fourteenth Amendment declared women U.S. citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave all citizens the vote. Woodhull was also famous for her advocacy of free love, the term for sexual liberation at that time. (Hill, 2006.)
Because of her bold actions, NWSA embraced Woodhull and invited her to speak at two of their meetings. At the May 1871 meeting, Woodhull stated that if the government would not give women the vote, “We will plant a government of righteousness in its stead, which shall not only profess to derive its power from the consent of the governed but shall do so in reality.” Woodhull did not officially become a member of NWSA and, ultimately, her Equal Rights Party and her penchant for sensationalist publicity fell out of favor with Anthony and NWSA just before the election. (Hill, 2006.)
AWSA and NWSA …
The juxtaposition of AWSA and NWSA on the late nineteenth century political stage illustrated two unique approaches to the same goal. Though at odds, their methods were complimentary in an unintended, abrasive way. Between the two groups, they provided a home for suffragists from a range of political persuasions. Whatever their activism level or conservative-liberal stance, a suffragist could find a place to be comfortable in one or the other.
By approaching their goal from different directions, AWSA and NWSA inadvertently helped set the stage for most of the citizenry to support their aims. While AWSA positioned itself to represent the more ladylike women, NWSA wanted more than just the vote. AWSA supported the conservative route of state-by-state suffrage while NWSA supported a federal amendment.
Though seen as ineffective by liberal suffragists, the states’ rights strategy was important. First, it gave men (and some women) who were only lukewarm to votes for women an easy out. They could appear to support it while at the same time remaining relatively noncommittal when action might have been required. Second, in the several years prior to 1919 and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the 10 to 15 states that had granted women the vote were pivotal in the National Woman’s Party’s strategy to oppose the party in power.
Conversely, the federal amendment approach by NWSA served to draw more attention to the movement, even if it was often negative attention. (Although, even Anthony and NWSA drew the line at Woodhull’s theatrics near the end of her presidential run.) The unintentional teamwork was that NWSA drew most of the negative publicity, and AWSA provided the respectability. This theme would follow the movement through to 1919.
… Combine to Form NAWSA
In 1890 AWSA and NWSA merged to become the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). After years of disagreement, the two groups were now much more alike in their methods. They could attain their goal more efficiently as one entity. An important factor that drew their philosophies together was the negative fallout for NWSA after the Woodhull debacle. In the aftermath of NWSA’s early support for Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony was prompted to redirect the organization away from the controversial side issues of marriage, free love, and religion, and focus solely on the issue of suffrage, as AWSA had mostly concentrated on all along. Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated at the time, “Lucy [Stone] and Susan [B. Anthony] alike see suffrage only … hence they may as well combine for they have one mind and purpose.” (Hill, 2006.)
The new group narrowed their focus even further under Carrie Chapman Catt’s influence in the mid-1890s by downplaying the connection of the suffrage movement to the temperance movement. After earlier state victories in Colorado and Idaho, the new organization realized the importance of this strategy. (Hill, 2006.)
Carrie Chapman Catt would become President of NAWSA in 1900 when Anthony stepped down. As Catt said in her acceptance speech, no one could ever succeed Susan B. Anthony, with her tireless history and personal trademark on the movement, but Catt would do her best. (Cullen-DuPont, 2002.)
By 1914, 12 states had passed suffrage for women. As impressive as this seemed, certain pockets of NAWSA membership were becoming impatient, especially the younger ones. Many were starting to realize that the state-by-state strategy had severe shortcomings. First, they believed there were many states, mainly in the South, that would probably never pass women’s suffrage. Second, with the state-by-state method, any state could reverse its passage with the next incoming anti-suffrage administration or legislature. Increasing numbers of the membership were coming over to the federal amendment strategy.
The Radicals: Alice Paul …
One of these young women was Alice Paul, a young college graduate from a comfortable upper middle-class Quaker background. Though Paul was a quiet, reserved woman before entering the movement, she stated in a 1974 interview near the end of her life, “One of their [Quaker] principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea. … the principle was always there.” (“Alice Paul Institute,” 1985.)
In 1910 Paul returned to the states from Europe a changed, dynamic, committed woman. She had interrupted her Ph.D. studies to accept a fellowship to study sociology in 1907 in Woodbridge, England, which was the center for Quaker philosophy training. While in England, Paul was enchanted by the British suffragist movement and engaged in their cause.
She became a devotee of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst (mother and daughter), the militant English suffragist leaders. Their philosophy involved using radical methods for change, and it was producing results. These methods included civil disobedience based on Gandhi’s efforts (and success) in throwing off British rule in India. Pankhurst also advocated violence such as destroying property. In England under Pankhurst, Paul learned the basics of protest marches, picketing, getting arrested, hunger strikes, and other aspects of civil disobedience. It was also during this time that Paul would meet Lucy Burns, her compatriot for the rest of the suffrage movement in America. (Lunardini, 1986.)
… and Lucy Burns
Upon Alice Paul’s 1910 return, after her last British prison term, she became affiliated with NAWSA but not actively engaged. In 1912, however, two important developments came together to change that: Paul completed her Ph.D. in sociology, and her new-old friend Lucy Burns returned from the U.K. United in their impatience and desire to engage in more aggressive methods of social change, the younger women attempted to convince the old guard of NAWSA to step up (radicalize) their methods. Though initially shooting them down, NAWSA finally agreed to allow Burns and Paul to stage a large suffrage parade on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President on March 3, 1913. This would be the first significant protest of its kind using the White House as a backdrop. It set a precedent for consciousness-raising through to the present. (Lunardini, 1986.)
NAWSA set up a committee — the Congressional Committee, later to evolve into the Congressional Union (CU) — with Paul at the helm and Burns as her second-in-command. Thus commenced the eventual split between NAWSA and the Congressional Union, later renamed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Though originally sanctioned by NAWSA, the Congressional Committee-Congressional Union proved much too liberal for NAWSA’s leadership.
The young suffragists wanted to push a feminist agenda along with the suffragist cause. NAWSA, the more conservative and older group (with older members), wanted to retain the ideal of the traditional woman, albeit, one with the vote. At this time, NAWSA was still committed to the moderate state-by-state method, whereas, the CU was heavily pushing the federal amendment approach. NAWSA took a nonpartisan stance, whereas, Paul and Burns were deeply committed to the strategy they learned in England: opposing the party in power, even if it meant ousting some suffrage-friendly politicians. These differences combined ultimately to cause NAWSA to expel the Congressional Union in 1914. (Lunardini, 1986; Wheeler, 1995.)
The NAWSA Split …
Alice Paul did not want a split with NAWSA. She felt that the two opposing factions could still work together to achieve their one universal goal. In the end, Carrie Chapman Catt and the NAWSA leadership would not agree. It was an ugly split, with NAWSA attempting publicly to disparage Paul’s reputation with false accusations of financial impropriety involving Congressional Union fundraising.
Catt seemed to be particularly involved in the backbiting and character attacks. In one of the final NAWSA meetings before the split, Catt publicly accused Paul and her CU of the fundraising improprieties and of reneging on Paul’s promise not to interfere with the New York state suffrage campaign. Jane Adams, a prominent and respected member of the movement, stood up publicly to remind Catt and the NAWSA board that, in fact, the CU was simply following NAWSA’s earlier fundraising directive: that the CU would get no funds from the national organization — they had to raise their own. (Lunardini, 1986.)
Alice Paul produced copies of letters to prove that she had not reneged on her New York promise, but she was gracious enough to say that Catt must not have been aware of this information, when, in fact, she was. Despite Paul’s best efforts to maintain unity, NAWSA expelled the CU later that year (1914) for being “too British.” The CU later became the National Woman’s Party (NWP). (Wheeler, 1995.)
… Gives Birth to NWP
NWP proceeded to implement their plan to oppose the party in power. They supplemented their membership with many younger NAWSA members who were also growing impatient with NAWSA’s slow, conservative ways. Over the following several years, many women held membership in both organizations. These women ultimately had it right: It would take the combined forces of both associations to achieve national women’s suffrage. Though the two groups were at odds up until the amendment passed in 1919, their methods would complement each other’s whether they liked it or not. It was mostly NAWSA who was critical of NWP. It is unfortunate that NAWSA never saw the advantages of coordinating a good cop-bad cop approach in the final run. But whether they consciously cooperated or not, their efforts were synergystic.
NWP’s first important campaign was the midterm Congressional elections in 1914. They succeeded in ousting approximately 20 Democrats (the party in power), some of them suffrage-friendly. They received much bad press from NAWSA and others, but NWP viewed it as a success. They followed this up with an equally intensive anti-Democratic campaign in 1916, causing President Wilson an embarrassingly small margin of re-election victory. NWP had sent a powerful message that politicians who do not support a federal women’s suffrage amendment were at risk of losing NWP support and their office.
NAWSA: The “Nice” Ladies
Meanwhile, members of NAWSA could criticize NWP’s tactics while benefiting from the results. Additionally, NAWSA held itself up as the reasonable, nice ladies’ suffrage movement, the ones who were not threatening the very fabric of American family life. NAWSA provided safe haven for suffrage supporters, male and female, who did not want to be associated with radicals, while NWP was garnering most of the attention and bringing the general issue to the forefront of American consciousness.
NWP’s campaign against Democrats, the party in power in 1914 and 1916, owed much of its success to NAWSA’s previous state-by-state successes. As stated, 12 states had passed women’s suffrage by 1914, and a few more would follow — most notably New York state, an important breakthrough in the eastern part of the country. NWP’s strategy relied heavily on the women’s vote in these states to defeat Democrats. This success was another direct result of the two organizations complementing each other’s efforts without agreeing to. It illustrates again that NAWSA’s attempts to win suffrage on its own would not have been enough. The effort required both strategies working together concurrently.
In 1915 NAWSA again called upon Carrie Chapman Catt to assume the presidency. The following year NAWSA narrowed their methodological focus to the same end as was NWP’s all along: a federal amendment. This was the result of Catt finally realizing that the federal route was the only effective one. Even the nice, reasonable ladies were becoming impatient. Catt codified this new strategy in her pitch to the membership as “The Winning Plan.” To achieve this win, the plan called for the establishment of a new Washington, D.C., lobbying organization, new board members with greater political skills, and a push for new money from rich socialite supporters.
Ironically, NAWSA’s strategy was now in confluence with NWP’s, but hell would freeze over before Catt would give Alice Paul any credit or attempt to work with Paul’s organization. It is interesting to note that many history books about the movement barely mention Paul and NWP, giving most of the credit for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to NAWSA, Catt, and President Woodrow Wilson. (Burnett, 1968.) Perhaps Alice Paul’s role has only been properly credited in the decades since the 1960s — or perhaps this is a carry-over of Wilson’s version of history in which NAWSA allowed him to save face while finally throwing his support to the amendment.
World War I
A new and enormous disagreement was now looming between the two organizations involving the question of changing or pulling back suffrage promotion tactics now that the United States was about to enter World War I (which occurred in April 1917). NAWSA was dead-set against causing any ruckus during a time that many felt warranted patriotism over suffrage.
Conversely, NWP made a conscious decision to carry on their campaign. They took their cue from the lessons learned when the movement backed off during the Civil War — many observers saw this action as setting back the suffrage movement by decades. Again, NWP attracted attention for the cause while reasonable people could still support it by aligning with the reasonable suffragists: the National American Women Suffrage Association. On January 10, 1917, NWP began picketing the White House gates in an attempt to pressure President Wilson to use his influence to push through the proposed federal amendment. NAWSA, on the other hand, began participating in patriotic services such as the Red Cross and the War Saving Stamps campaign.
Between January 1917 and March 1918, NWP picketers kept up their campaign while antagonism toward them grew. Starting early on, the picketers experienced rude, crude treatment from anti-suffragist men. Many of these were often soldiers who had returned from the war. And many were intoxicated. In the spring of 1917, the anti-protesters turned violent, engaging in shoving matches with the suffragists and ripping their signs and banners away from them. In the face of this abuse, the picketers remained nonviolent. The one tactic that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns did not incorporate from their internships with the Pankhurst family in England was violence. One positive development for NWP was that Wilson and his Washington, D.C., police force took a lot of criticism for failing to protect the protesters.
In June, the police began arresting picketers, charging them with traffic obstruction, though protesters always remained on the sidewalks. Rather than discourage them, the arrests emboldened the picketers. What started in June, with three-day sentences handed down, progressed to 60-day sentences by July. Ultimately, Alice Paul, herself, was arrested and sentenced to seven months in a harsh workhouse, all for legal participation in a peaceful demonstration.
Throughout this time, the president alternately ignored, pardoned, and cracked down harder on the protesters. During imprisonment, the women engaged in hunger strikes. Under the probable direction of Wilson, the warden responded with violent forced feedings, worm-infested food, beatings, and a cover-up of the harsh punishment. Largely due to Rose Winslow’s accounts of prison conditions that were smuggled out and made public, Wilson eventually was no longer able to cover up the outrageous treatment of prisoners. (Hill, 2006.)
Rather than break their spirit as he had hoped, Wilson’s harsh treatment strengthened the suffragists’ resolve. Wilson’s predicament became more dire when the imprisoned protesters, at the suggestion of Peggy Baird Johns (a prominent woman reporter and prisoner), demanded political prisoner status. All the while, new picketers continued to take the place of the arrested ones, resulting in approximately 500 protesters arrested and 168 of those imprisoned. Prominent, well-to-do grandmothers were landing in jail. The public relations fiasco became so damaging that Wilson finally concluded he must support the amendment to stop the protests.
Secret Jailhouse Negotiations
On the evening of November 27, 1917, Alice Paul received an unusual visitor, David Lawrence. The discussions and implications of the conversation have remained in some dispute over the years. But Christine Lunardini is very clear in her reporting of the visit. Lawrence was a reporter and close friend of President Wilson. The visit occurred in private and well after visiting hours — unheard of exceptions to the prison rules. Though Lawrence claimed to be speaking only for himself, he stated that Paul and her organization had put the administration in a bind with their demand for political prisoner status. Lawrence implied that it would be easier for Wilson to support the amendment than grant this status, an amazing declaration. The clear implication was that if NWP would end the protests, Wilson would promise to put the amendment through both houses of Congress within a year. Within days, all of the suffragist prisoners were released without explanation. White House protests, while not eliminated, slowed to a crawl, with sporadic arrests and minimal, symbolic sentences. (Lunardini, 1986.)
Lunardini writes that there were two primary reasons Wilson was cornered. First, there was a series of court appeals filed on behalf of all the imprisoned protesters. These appeals were considered destined to succeed. Second, the mood of the country had shifted in favor of women’s suffrage, largely due to NWP’s tenacity. If Wilson did not succumb to pressure for his support of the amendment, he would be thoroughly embarrassed when the appeals succeeded, and he would be out of step with the national mood.
In spite of this tremendous turn of events, Wilson could not be perceived as caving to radical NWP pressure. Again, the inadvertent convergence of NAWSA and NWP tactics served their mutual goal. NAWSA never protested the harsh treatment of the protesters and, in fact, regularly berated them as “the enemy with banners” and “those wild women at the [White House] gates.” At the time, this complete lack of support from NAWSA for NWP’s tribulations probably seemed heartless and weak-minded. In the end, it was inadvertently brilliant. (Lunardini, 1986.)
Woodrow Wilson Saves Face
Wilson followed through on the promise he made to Alice Paul through his emissary. But all the public credit for the amendment went to NAWSA, the reasonable, cooperative suffragists. They had been respectfully lobbying the White House through the entire year-plus of NWP protests, all the while expressing their displeasure with NWP tactics. As all expert negotiators are aware, the party making the concession must be allowed an avenue for saving face. NAWSA was just this avenue for Wilson.
Clearly, NWP’s pressure forced Wilson’s hand. NAWSA, however, received all of the president’s praise. Wilson expediently backed the amendment and asserted his strong influence wherever needed until it passed. After passage, Wilson hosted a White House reception for Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw of NAWSA. Without exception, Wilson accepted suffragist visitors and representatives only from the cooperative NAWSA while completely ignoring Alice Paul and NWP. (Lunardini, 1986.)
Though denied the limelight, Alice Paul and NWP were lionized by those in the know. Regardless of which group received the credit, at the time or through the lens of history, the Nineteenth Amendment and its subsequent ratification would not have been realized for additional decades if not for the existence of both groups. The separate conservative and radical strategies were both imperative. If not for NAWSA, Wilson might have simply outlasted NWP’s protests or drastically watered down his commitment to Paul through his prison-visitor surrogate. He would not have had NAWSA’s face-saving avenue, the lack of which might have strengthened his resolve not to give in to the protesters.
It is interesting to speculate how much more effective the two groups could have been had they coordinated their efforts, even if secretly. Nevertheless, the conservative efforts of NAWSA and the radical but peacefully civil disobedient tactics of NWP were essential to the attainment of their mutual goal: national women’s suffrage rights for women.■
“Alice Paul Institute”; AlicePaul.org; 1985.
Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn (Ed.); American Women Activists’ Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2002; 2002.
Hill, Jeff; Women’s Suffrage; 2006.
Lunardini, Christine A.; From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, 1910-1928; 1986.
Wheeler, Marjorie S.; One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement; 1995.