Today in Feminist History: (March 28, 1931)

March 28, 1931: Efforts by the National Woman’s Party to fight widespread bias against women in the workforce have now gained some support from a few of the nation’s governors.

Today’s announcement at National Woman’s Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., was a rare encouraging development in the midst of increasing attacks on employed women, especially those who are married. One major offensive in that war was launched by the Cotton-Textile Institute last year when it urged mill executives to stop employing women for night work as of March 1, 1931.

When that day arrived, it was announced that 83% of the industry had complied. Telegrams were then sent by the N.W.P. to the governors of all 48 States saying:

“National Woman’s Party calls your attention to nationwide efforts to throw women out of night work and otherwise handicap them by legislation or regulation restricting their conditions of labor but not those of their male competitors. We urge you to oppose every such effort in your own State. Women work because of necessity and should have equal opportunity with men to get and hold a job.”

Today it was revealed that several governors, including those of Florida, Virginia and New Mexico, have now pledged themselves to oppose any kind of legislation based on sex rather than the nature of the work. Unfortunately, most of those contacted are still non-committal. A typical response came from Governor Philip LaFollette of Wisconsin, who replied: “Thank you for your telegram of today. I appreciate your suggestions and assure you that they will have my careful consideration.”

In 1921, Wisconsin became the first State to pass an amendment to its constitution assuring women equal rights, but it exempted laws that gave women “special protection and privileges.”

So it is not a true State Equal Rights Amendment because (a) it specifically validates “privileges” for one gender, and (b) it cannot be used to challenge labor laws that restrict the jobs that women do or the hours they may work, since these regulations could be considered by some judges to be “protective” rather than restrictive. 

Laws and individual company practices restricting women’s employment clearly predate the current economic crisis, but have been on the increase recently as a way of trying to give more work to unemployed and underemployed men.

In 1924, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of States to prohibit women from working after certain hours when it ruled in the case of Radice v. New York (264 U.S. 292).

The High Court said that it was legal to prohibit women from working in restaurants between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in large cities because the loss of a restful night’s sleep was allegedly more harmful to women than to men due to a woman’s “more delicate organism.”

The National Woman’s Party has been fighting these kinds of stereotypes and restrictions for many years, and launched a major campaign on December 26, 1927, to equalize New York State’s labor laws. Though restrictive legislation is often called “protective,” a member of the Women’s Press Club disagreed with that description last year when testifying at hearings before the New York State Senate and Assembly Committees on Labor and Industry.

Ida Slack said: “We are being ‘protected’ in this manner by the very same influences that ‘protected’ us against the suffrage, a college education, and a place in the professions.”

As economic conditions have continued to deteriorate, the “fire a woman / hire a man” philosophy has become even more widespread, with women’s rights advocates valiantly fighting an uphill battle against those who discriminate against women in general and married women in particular.

But as Anna Kelton Wiley noted in September, when launching the N.W.P.’s latest campaign for workplace equality, this strategy cannot be a real solution to the current crisis:

“It is ridiculous to attempt to solve the unemployment problem by taking work away from one group and giving it to another, for that will not decrease the number of unemployed. The theory that women work for ‘pin money’ was long ago exploded. They work for the same reason men work, and that reason is economic necessity. Studies made in the United States reveal that as between single men and single women who are gainfully employed, women contribute in larger proportion than men do to the support of dependent relatives.”

Hopefully, efforts by groups like the National Woman’s Party will allow reason, equality and justice to eventually prevail, despite the trying economic challenges America faces today, and will undoubtedly have to endure for some time to come.


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.