Today in Feminist History: The 19th Amendment Is Only the First Step (September 23, 1923)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


September 23, 1923 : Anyone who thinks the National Woman’s Party must have lost some of its drive or militance after finishing its campaign to put the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment into the Constitution on August 26, 1920, clearly wasn’t at today’s colorful pageant in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Schoolgirls holding up the purple, white and gold banners of the National Woman’s Party earlier today

Meeting over the weekend, the party celebrated 75 years of feminist progress, while making it clear that the battle for total equality is far from over. 

Alva Belmont, President of the N.W.P., let it be known at a banquet last night that the 19th Amendment was just one stepping stone on the path to equality, and that it’s time for women to assume political leadership:

“For twenty centuries men have been running the world. Now it is time for women to take over affairs, and as they very nearly hold a balance of political power at this time, the day may not be as far distant as old party leaders imagine when there will be set up a woman’s government by women for women, children and humanity in general.” 

Plans were announced in April to set up a separate “Women’s Congress” in Washington, D.C., possibly as early as December, to debate the same issues as those of the U.S. Congress, so that women’s views could be made known. There is presently only one woman in Congress, Representative Mae Ella Nolan, Republican of California. The National Woman’s Party is considering the possibility of becoming a formal political party with its own candidates and platform. 

Belmont had reassuring words for those who fear that feminists want to simply “get even” for thousands of years of patriarchal rule, and said that the goal of the National Woman’s Party is not to disempower and restrict men:

“Now don’t construe my meaning as that of a woman opposed to men. I am for men, but for women and children first. Men have forgotten us during the past, but we are going to remember them and take them right up and onward with us.”

One prime example of that “equality for all” philosophy is the party’s enthusiastic endorsement of an “Equal Rights Amendment,” which they have nicknamed the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” in honor of the pioneer feminist. Written by the party’s founder, Alice Paul, it would outlaw any form of discrimination against either sex by any State, the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. The party made full equality for women its “paramount issue” during the 1922 midterm elections, and intends to do the same in the 1924 General Election. 

Despite her many years of work and unrivaled monetary contributions to the suffrage struggle, Belmont said that she had never voted, and would refuse to do so until she could vote for a woman candidate nominated by a woman’s party. She also criticized other wealthy women for not getting involved in the struggle for dignity, opportunity and equality for all women: 

“For nine years I have been as one crying in the wilderness to women of wealth and leisure to give over their pleasure and frivolities and do something to justify their existence. I have cried in vain. No reform ever appealed to people who have all they want.” 

Fortunately, there are exceptions. On July 28th, E. M. Levy announced that she had bequeathed $50,000 to the party in her new will. She had never taken much interest in politics until the National Woman’s Party came along, but is now an enthusiastic supporter, who has already made a number of generous contributions, including a $1,000 Life Membership. 

The party concluded its conference today by putting on an elaborate pageant in the Garden of the Gods, and it was reminiscent of its suffrage spectacles in earlier days. It drew 20,000 spectators, plus reporters from many major newspapers, and film was shot by Fox, Pathe, and Universal for their nationally distributed newsreels. 

The program opened with Ruth Montgomery, assisted by a 200-voice chorus, singing “Angels Ever Bright and Fair,” followed by trumpets announcing the procession that followed. Led by Sally Halthusen Gough on a black horse, it was intended to salute previous efforts, and show how long the struggle has gone on since that original women’s rights convention 75 years ago in Seneca Falls, New York. It included everything from a covered wagon and bright red stagecoach to more modern forms of transportation, with hundreds of participants taking part. Many portrayed feminists of earlier days, and dressed in costumes from their time. 

The pageant also featured exuberant singing of confident songs, such as “The March of the Women,” an anthem from suffrage days, which begins with “Shout, shout, up with your song …,” accompanied by a large display of purple, white and gold banners of the National Woman’s Party held up by a delegation of schoolgirls. Other banners, bearing the words of Susan B. Anthony that “Failure is impossible” fluttered in the breeze as well. 

Colorado is a very progressive State. Women won the vote here in 1893, the first time suffrage had been won by a statewide referendum submitted to the entire (male) electorate. But the fact that the laws are far from equal even here was stressed in numerous speeches, and cited as proof that there is still much work to be done. Among today’s speakers were many veterans of the suffrage struggle, such as Alice Paul and Eunice Brannan. Sue White, who played a major role in her home State of Tennessee’s crucial 36th and final ratification of the 19th Amendment back in 1920, deplored the fact that even in 20th Century America, we are still living according to the English Common Law assumption that in marriage, the husband and wife become one, and that the husband is the “one.” 

It was noted by Alva Belmont that 30 years after winning the vote in Colorado, a wife’s earnings were still the property of her husband, and women cannot serve on juries, thus denying female defendants even so basic a right as a trial by a jury of her peers. Of course, she also noted that things are a lot better here than in Georgia, where a father can will his children to anyone he chooses without the wife’s consent. And in Louisiana, the husband is recognized as “head and master” of the household. 

In the 55 years since it was ratified, the 14th Amendment has failed to overturn any laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, and there is still nothing in the Constitution to explicitly guarantee equal treatment under the law for women and men. But that oversight is something the National Woman’s Party intends to remedy, and there are plans to get the Lucretia Mott (Equal Rights) Amendment formally introduced into Congress before the end of the year.

So, as exciting as their battle for the ballot may have been, there should be even more interesting times ahead for the National Woman’s Party on this long road to equality! 


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About

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.