The National Woman's Party has been fighting for women for more than century. Since 1913, we have marched, picketed, and demanded gender equality, and our work today is grounded in the lessons, triumphs, and victories of our past. Read on to learn more about the movement that defined American democracy and continues to inspire generations of women's rights activists.
The NWP’s Fight for Equality
Alice Paul was a well-educated Quaker woman working and studying in England in 1907 when she became interested in the issue of women’s suffrage. She met Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, who were causing controversy throughout England with their militant tactics to secure the vote for women. Paul’s participation in meetings, demonstrations and depositions to Parliament led to multiple arrests, hunger strikes, and force-feedings.
She returned to the United States in 1910 and after completing a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1912, turned her attention to the American suffrage movement. After the deaths of the two great icons of the movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902 and Susan B. Anthony in 1906—the suffrage movement was languishing, lacking focus and support under conservative suffrage organizations that were concentrating only on state suffrage. Paul believed that the movement needed to focus on the passage of a federal suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After joining the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and assuming leadership of its Congressional Committee in Washington, DC, Paul created a larger organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Paul’s tactics were seen as too extreme for NAWSA’s leadership and the Congressional Union split from NAWSA in 1914.
In 1916, the Congressional Union formed the Woman’s Party, comprised of the enfranchised members of the Congressional Union. In 1917, the two organizations formally merged to form the National Woman’s Party (NWP). From the Pankhursts, Paul adopted the philosophy to “hold the party in power responsible.” The NWP would withhold its support from the existing political parties until women had gained the right to vote and “punish” those parties in power who did not support suffrage. Under her leadership, the NWP targeted Congress and the White House through a revolutionary strategy of sustained dramatic, nonviolent protest. The colorful, spirited suffrage marches, the suffrage songs, the violence the women faced (they were physically attacked and their banners were torn from their hands), the daily pickets and arrests at the White House, the hunger strikes and brutal prison conditions, the national speaking tours and newspaper headlines—all created enormous public support for suffrage.
In 1920, the 72-year struggle ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony” Amendment, granting women the vote. Paul believed that the vote was just the first step in women’s quest for full equality. In 1922, she reorganized the NWP with the goal of eliminating all discrimination against women. In 1923 Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), also known as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, and launched what would be for her a life-long campaign to win full equality for women.
The current version of the ERA reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex.” Congress passed the ERA in 1972, but set a deadline for states to ratify the amendment. The original deadline was 1979, which was later extended to 1982. By the time the deadline arrived, the ERA was three states shy of ratification. For over fifty years, the ERA has been introduced in every session of Congress, and – despite the deadline passing decades ago – states continue to consider ratifying the original amendment. Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017, and Illinois ratified in 2018.
In addition to working on issues affecting American women, the NWP was extensively involved in the international women’s rights movement beginning in the early 1920s. In 1928, the NWP assisted in the establishment of the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW), which served as an advisory and policy-planning unit on women’s issues for what is now the Organization of American States. The NWP sought equality measures for women at the League of Nations through Equal Rights International and the International Labor Organization. The Party also provided assistance to Puerto Rican and Cuban women in their suffrage campaigns. In 1938, Alice Paul founded the World Woman’s Party, which, until 1954, served as the NWP’s international organization. In 1945, Paul was instrumental in the incorporation of language regarding women’s equality in the United Nations Charter and in the establishment of a permanent UN Commission on the Status of Women.
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Little in Alice Paul’s cloistered Quaker background foreshadowed the charismatic and clever tactician she would become at the helm of the National Woman’s Party, the militant wing of the twentieth century woman suffrage movement.
Born on January 11, 1885, on a small farm in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the eldest of four, young Alice “never met anybody who wasn’t a Quaker,” with one notable exception: the Irish Catholic maids who attended dances. There was no music in the Paul homestead, where time was believed better spent in less worldly pursuits. Quakers believe in absolute equality and dedication to a divinely inspired “concern.” For an earlier generation it was abolition. For Paul, it was suffrage.
She graduated from Swarthmore in 1905, flirted with social work on New York’s lower east side and travelled to England for further studies, where she enlisted in the Woman’s Social and Political Union, the original “suffragettes,” headed by firebrand Emmeline Pankhurst. Paul dreaded public speaking, but was fearless of confrontation. She returned to the United States in 1910, a veteran of imprisonments, hunger strikes and an ugly episode of force feeding.
Borrowing tactics she had learned abroad, she launched her American campaign with a massive suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. But four years of rallies, lobbying, petitions, parades and election campaigns failed to budge Congress or gain the president’s support. On January 10, 1917, Paul led a dozen women to the gates of the White House. The first people ever to picket the White House, they called themselves “Silent Sentinels” but they carried banners that shrieked:
“MR. PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?”
“MR. PRESIDENT WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE?”
As war fever swept America, ever more strident banners accused Wilson of hypocrisy in his call for world democracy. Incensed by their disloyalty, mobs attacked the women. The suffragists were arrested, jailed and force fed when they went on hunger strikes. Alice Paul was seized and confined to a prison psychiatric ward. The press bowed to pressure from the administration to bury news of the protestors, but reports of brutal treatment leaked out.
Exactly one year after the picketing began, Wilson announced his support for the amendment “as an act of right and justice to the women of the country and the world.” When the suffrage amendment was signed into law on August 26, 1920, Paul had won more than the vote. A U.S. Court of Appeals had thrown out charges against the pickets. The legal precedents set by Alice Paul opened up Washington to generations of protestors to come, her pioneering campaign of civil disobedience the model.
Post suffrage, Paul armed herself with three law degrees for legal battles ahead. She was instrumental in winning guarantees of gender equality in both the United Nations charter and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Most notably, she wrote and campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. She died on July 9, 1977 at the age of 92, living to see the ERA pass, but dying too soon to know it would never be ratified.
The House Where it Happened
The historic house which the NWP calls home has been a center of political life in Washington for more than 200 years.
Robert Sewall, for whom the House was first named, was from one of Maryland’s most prominent and influential families. After purchasing the lots from Daniel Carroll and the federal government to build his new home, construction of the house at 2nd and Constitution Avenue, NE (formerly B Street) was completed by 1800.
Shortly after the house was built, Sewall rented it to Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury under President’s Jefferson and Madison, who occupied the house from 1801 until 1813. When Gallatin left in 1813, the United States was embroiled in war against the British (also known as the War of 1812). In August 1814 during the British invasion of Washington, the Sewall house became the only building from which an attempt was made to resist the British army. Subsequently, the house was significantly damaged and most likely destroyed. Sewall had the house rebuilt after the fire, and by the time of his death in 1820, the work was complete.
After remaining in the ownership of the Sewall family for over 120 years, the house was purchased by Senator and Mrs. Porter Dale, of Vermont, who rehabilitated the house after about 10 years of vacancy.
The National Woman’s Party (NWP) purchased the house from Senator and Mrs. Dale in 1929 as well as two row houses immediately north of the main house for use as their headquarters. Upon moving into the property, which they renamed the “Alva Belmont House,” the NWP headquarters also functioned as a hotel and second home for some members. By the time the group moved into the house it had occupied space in several locations in Washington. The prominence of its various headquarters was a reflection of the group’s desire to have a powerful impact on national politics, and also played a role in the visibility of its efforts. The group’s new location continued this tradition and retained a prominent presence for the group on Capitol Hill. The NWP finally found a permanent headquarters when it moved into the house, and has remained in the building ever since.
The house is architecturally significant for its location and early construction date as well as the alterations to the house that reflect both the changing tastes of its owners and the changing architectural styles in the city of Washington over the years.
Today, the house is known as the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, and is a women's history museum operated in partnership with the National Park Service. You can discover more about the Monument, including information about visiting, here .
the first feminist library
As the first library in the country entirely dedicated to works about women’s fight for equality, the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library is an essential resource for the study of women’s history and rights.
When the library opened to the public in 1943, the legal, economic, political, and social status of women in the United States was still unequal in many respects, including education. Women were continually denied admission to many of the largest libraries in the country. The National Woman’s Party had the vision to open a library that would provide resources to women about their own history as well as offer opportunities to join the movement for equal rights across the country and throughout the world. The library provided researchers with books about women, by women, and for women.
In 1940, the NWP created a committee to convert the Old Carriage House, once the stable of the Sewall property, into a library. Florence Bayard Hilles, former President of the NWP, was appointed the chairman of the committee. The committee hired a female architect, Elise Dupont, to design and renovate the new library. By October, 1941, the committee completed the physical conversion of the library, and Mary Elizabeth Downey, the former librarian of the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, installed the collection. On November 12, 1941, the NWP dedicated the Alva Belmont Feminist Library, the first feminist library in the United States.
Originally, the library was set up to house the Alva Belmont Book Collection, in storage since 1933. However, excited by the valuable addition to the NWP headquarters, members began accepting donations from all interested individuals in an effort to significantly increase the resources available. The library grew quickly as Downey began to actively promote the new library with calls for books, articles, scrapbooks and additional materials. She also initiated an impressive educational program of teas, lectures, and book discussions. By 1943, the library was a booming institution for researchers and NWP members and a source of pride for the organization.
On December 12, 1943, the library was rededicated in the name of Florence Bayard Hilles, the chairman of the library committee. Hilles was one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party and the members of the party believed she was one of the most outstanding feminists in the country. She picketed alongside Alice Paul, went to prison for picketing the White House, and went on hunger strikes. Additionally, she continued to play an active role in the NWP after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, when the Equal Rights Amendment was written and the fight for women’s equality continued.
The library continued to be an important resource on the NWP into the 1960s. However, with falling membership numbers and few monetary resources, the library quickly became neglected and fell into disrepair. On September 17, 1998 the NWP rededicated the Florence Bayard Hilles Library in order to publicize and gather support for the renewed restoration of the library. The project included cleaning and cataloging rare books, indexing old photographs, and preserving scrapbooks and personal papers.
Today, archivists continue to work on preserving this important collection for the use of future scholars. The library remains a major resource for researchers and scholars interested in the rare treasures within that tell the story of the National Woman’s Party and the 20th century struggle for suffrage and equal rights for women.