Today in Feminist History: Alice Paul’s Latest Fight for Equal Rights

December 11, 1921: The campaign for a 20th Amendment, which would assure equal rights for women and men, is quickly taking shape!

Though ratification of the 19th Amendment 16 months ago marked a major advance for women’s rights, winning the vote can only be a stepping stone on the path to total equality. As the National Woman’s Party’s founder, Alice Paul, noted on the day Tennessee’s ratification assured victory for the suffrage amendment: “With their power to vote achieved, women still have before them the task of supplementing political equality with equality in all other fields.”

PHOTO: Alice Paul

Today the National Woman’s Party announced a preliminary draft of a measure to transform the ideal of equal rights for women and men into a Constitutional amendment permanently and explicitly mandating it nationwide.

At the NWP’s convention in February—the first since ratification of the 19th Amendment was officially certified by the Secretary of State on August 26, 1920—the delegates demanded “absolute equality” as the party’s new goal. A committee of legal experts was appointed to draw up a preliminary proposal for accomplishing that task.

A Constitutional amendment was the means chosen, and the tentative text, announced today, reads:

No political, civil or legal disabilities or inequalities on account of sex, or on account of marriage unless applying alike to both sexes, shall exist in the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Among the many prestigious members of the committee who came up with the suggested wording were: Gail Laughlin, who was a full-time activist with the National American Woman Suffrage Association for many years, and was the first president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, serving from 1919 to 1920; Shippen Lewis, Secretary of the Legal Education Committee of the American Bar Association; Matthew Hale, former National Chairman of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party; and George Gordon Battle, former Assistant District Attorney for New York. 

According to Laughlin, “the amendment to the United States Constitution proposed by the National Woman’s Party asks nothing more for women than equal political, civil and legal rights with men, and certainly women should be satisfied with nothing less.”

George Gordon battle thinks the time is right for this next step on the road to equality: “Undoubtedly such an amendment is required by the preponderant force of moral sentiment and by the progressive tendency of the times.”

The National Women’s Trade Union League expressed a concern that a “blanket equal rights amendment” might endanger so-called “protective” legislation for women, which the National Woman’s Party considers to be “restrictive” rather than “protective.”

But Frank Walsh, former Joint Chairman of the War Labor Board and legal counsel for many labor organizations, said: “The political, civil and legal disabilities and inequalities leveled against woman, on the sole ground of sex, are so great in number, and so deeply engrafted in our legal structure by national and State statutes, as well as by court decisions, that I can see no way of approximating justice as affecting the sexes, except by passage of such an amendment as your organization has proposed. Indeed, without such an amendment, in my opinion, the late amendment guaranteeing women the right of suffrage would become a mere abstraction.”

J.D. Wilkinson summed up the reason why this new amendment is the logical companion to the 19th:

The Fifteenth Amendment followed the Fourteenth Amendment, and it was generally conceded that one was the complement of the other. An amendment to the Constitution should follow the Nineteenth Amendment, giving to woman her civil rights as the Nineteenth Amendment gives to her political rights. Indeed, the latter appears the more important of the two.

The struggle to end sex discrimination in regard to voting rights, culminating with passage of the 19th Amendment, took generations of hard work and sacrifice, so the campaign for the 20th Amendment may be a long one as well. Alice Paul may also wish to rewrite the amendment’s somewhat cumbersome language before having it formally introduced into Congress.

But the last phase of the battle for equality between the sexes has finally begun, and if supporters of this amendment have the same dedication and persistence as those who fought for the 19th, the result should eventually be equally successful!


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.