Today in Feminist History: The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage Becomes Official (March 31, 1915)

March 31, 1915: Today was a busy one for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage as it became a national organization, adopted a constitution and launched a suffrage campaign that puts it in direct competition with another effort by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). 

PHOTO: Members of the Congressional Union leaving Peg Woffington’s Coffee House in New York City, where the early session of today’s meeting was held. The “Suffragist,” seen in the lower right corner, is the C.U.’s official publication.
Front row, from left: Elizabeth Colt, Elizabeth Kent, Elizabeth Selden Rogers, Olive Halladay Hasbrouck, with Hazel MacKaye holding the magazine.
Second row: Marie Theodosia Armes, Lucy Burns, and Jessie Davisson.

The result of this all-day meeting of the Congressional Union’s Advisory Council makes it clear that there are two very different philosophies among national suffrage groups in regard to attaining their common goal of woman suffrage. But the enthusiasm to work for that goal is reassuringly high in both groups. 

The Congressional Union was formed two years ago by Alice Paul as a local Washington, D.C., organization to help support N.A.W.S.A.’s Congressional Committee, which she led at the time. Congressional Union activists have always taken a more aggressive and flamboyant approach to the battle for the ballot than N.A.W.S.A. officers felt advisable.

The C.U. engages in activities ranging from colorful parades, pageants, motorcades, and other spectacles to public confrontations with Democratic Party candidates over their party’s failure to use its majority status in Congress to pass a nationwide suffrage amendment. 

Though both N.A.W.S.A. and the C.U. have the same goal of enfranchising women, N.A.W.S.A. still favors a State-by-State approach, while the C.U. sees a Constitutional amendment as the only realistic solution.

The primary goal of the new organization is to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, sometimes called the Bristow-Mondell Amendment after its current sponsors in Congress. If approved by 2/3 of the House and Senate and ratified by 3/4 of the States, it would immediately and permanently prohibit any State from denying any of its citizens the right to vote on account of sex. 

N.A.W.S.A. favors State campaigns, and though it is causing dissent within the group, has endorsed the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment, which if it becomes part of the Constitution would mandate a State referendum on woman suffrage if 8% of the registered voters of a State (all of whom would be male, of course), signed petitions requesting it.

It would obviously be less controversial, and therefore easier to get Congress to pass and the States to ratify, but it would directly enfranchise no one, and leave women in some States voteless for as long as a majority of male voters in their State continue to be opposed to equal suffrage. N.A.W.S.A. sees nationwide suffrage coming only after women have won the vote in a large number of States, and have enough power to directly influence members of Congress to pass the far more effective Anthony Amendment. 

As might be expected, relations between the two rival suffrage groups have not been cordial since Alice Paul was ousted from leading N.A.W.S.A.’s Congressional Committee after refusing its demand that she resign from the Congressional Union. An attempt at reconciliation early last year failed, and the two organizations have been engaging in a kind of “family feud” ever since.

N.A.W.S.A. has referred to the C.U. as an “unruly child” for its work against Democrats during last year’s midterm elections. Democrats have the Presidency plus majorities in both House and Senate, but have failed to advance the Anthony Amendment. Like the British militants, Alice Paul believes that the party in power should be held responsible for keeping women disenfranchised.

Today, N.A.W.S.A., gearing up for a campaign to pass a suffrage referendum in New York State in November, issued a scathing letter signed by Katherine Dexter McCormick, its Vice-President, denouncing the C.U.’s actions:

“The officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association agree with Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and Mrs. Harriot Stanton Blatch that this is not the time nor is New York the place for reopening the discussion as to the best way to bring about a Federal amendment for suffrage.

“It would have shown more imagination, more consideration from the women in New York, had the conference, with its appeal for funds and help, been held in some other State, but perhaps that is asking too much of an organization which is interested only in Federal suffrage. We see, usually, only what we are interested in.

“But I do want to say, in all generosity, that the Congressional Union is to be heartily congratulated on giving up its policy of attacking the Democratic Party as the sole obstacle to suffrage. This was a short-sighted policy which we all deplored. It is based upon a romantic desire to imitate English tactics rather than upon a realization of the political situation in this country. We are glad to learn that the union has abandoned it and we only wish that step had been taken before the union’s policy had misled and antagonized thousands of Democratic voters last Fall in Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri, and the two Dakotas.”

In response, C.U. co-founder Lucy Burns advised her fellow members who might also be in N.A.W.S.A. to resign and stop supporting it in any way until it revokes its endorsement of the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment.

After a vigorous discussion, it was decided that the new group’s membership will be composed of women only, though men are welcome at the meetings, and the work of Marsden J. Perry, in attendance today, was praised.

The main work of the day was planning how to expand the group’s presence into all 48 States, though no Congressional Union meeting would be complete without a discussion of plans for some spectacular event.

The one presently being planned is the Susan B. Anthony Pageant, scheduled for just before the opening of the next Congress, and it is hoped that it will be the biggest suffrage event ever staged. 

Despite the obvious friction between two major suffrage groups, the movement is now more powerful than it ever has been, and all suffragists are united on the goal of “Votes for Women” everywhere. Though the “how” and “when” of victory cannot be predicted, a major step in that direction was taken today. 


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.