Today in Feminist History: Militant Tactics or Traditional Lobbying (September 27, 1914)

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 27, 1914: Alice Paul and her Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage are now fighting on three fronts.

In addition to their traditional conflicts with anti-suffrage forces, and their recently declared war on Democrats, who have the power to pass the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment in Congress but have failed to do so, there is now open hostility being expressed toward the C.U. and its militant tactics by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.).

Alice Paul was formerly in charge of N.A.W.S.A.’s Congressional Committee, but after she coordinated the hugely successful march and pageant in Washington, D.C., on March 3rd of last year, dissension between N.A.W.S.A.’s militant and its more conservative factions increased rapidly. So Paul created an independent group, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, in order to pursue her goal of getting the Anthony Amendment approved by Congress and then ratified by the required 36 of 48 States using whatever tactics seemed best at any particular time, without asking N.A.W.S.A.’s approval.

The top priority for the Congressional Union at the moment is working against Democratic Congressional candidates in the nine suffrage States of the West where women can vote. Thirteen days ago, the C.U. began sending speakers with carloads of literature to the districts where Democrats will be up for election in November, hoping to get the West’s four million women voters to replace Democrats with Republicans and tip the balance in favor of suffrage in the next Congress. Another massive shipment of literature for the Western campaign left today, according to C.U. members who spoke to the press at party headquarters tonight. 

The tactic of holding the party in power responsible for blocking suffrage is one Alice Paul learned from her time in England when she worked with the militants there. She has certainly given the Democrats a chance to gain her favor. Numerous delegations have been sent to meet with President Wilson, but he has yet to give any kind of support to the Anthony Amendment. The President considers women’s voting rights a matter for each State to decide (which for all practical purposes means the men in the State Legislature or the all-male electorate in a referendum). Meanwhile in Congress, Democrats continue to block the Anthony Amendment. 

While Alice Paul has been becoming more militant, N.A.W.S.A. seems to be turning more conservative. It originally said it just wanted to postpone pushing for the Anthony Amendment until more States have been won for woman suffrage, so that millions of newly-enfranchised women voters could pressure their U.S. Senators and House members to pass it. But in March, N.A.W.S.A. endorsed another amendment as well. The Shafroth-Palmer Amendment, even if passed and ratified, would not directly grant the vote to any woman, but would only mandate a State suffrage referendum if 8% of a State’s registered (male) voters petitioned for one. 

Though obviously easier to pass, the Shafroth-Palmer Amendment is clearly not a path to nationwide woman suffrage or a guarantee that it would be a permanent and explicit Constitutional right. Paul thinks direct Federal action is the best strategy, that the time is now, and that their resources can best be spent persuading 64 out of 96 U.S. Senators and 290 of 435 House members to pass the Anthony Amendment by the 2/3 majority required, and send it to the States for ratification by 3/4 of their legislatures, rather than trying to convince a majority of male voters in the 39 States where women do not have equal suffrage to vote in favor of expensive, exhausting, and often unsuccessful suffrage referenda.

There certainly would be advantages to having our movement totally united on a single strategy, but it’s also quite possible that this dual approach may turn out to be the most effective. Some of those who support equal suffrage might only be willing to work for groups who use militant tactics, while others may be attracted to only traditional means of lobbying. And, of course, different politicians may be persuaded by different tactics. We shall certainly see what this new development in our movement brings, because no one in any faction has any intention of giving anything less than their maximum effort until victory is achieved.


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.