Women won the right to vote in 1919, but African-American women continue to be disenfranchised. At the National Women’s Party convention in 1921, their pleas for representation were rebuffed by suffragist leader Alice Paul. The Nation‘s outraged correspondent Freda Kirchway reports.
The spirit of the National Woman’s Party convention at Washington last week was summed up in two striking sentences. Said a disheartened delegate after the last day’s session: “This is the machine age.” Said one of the leaders of the Party to another delegate who tried to plead for a free consideration of a real program: “At a convention human intelligence reaches its lowest ebb.”
That was what it amounted to; the leaders acted on the theory of an amiable contempt for their followers; the rank and file, either cynically or enthusiastically, watched the wishes of the leaders become the law of the convention. With quiet precision the Woman’s Party machine–a veritable tank–rolled over the assembly, crushing protestants of all sorts, leaving the way clear–for what? If anyone left the convention with a distinct idea of what the Party will do now that it has solemnly disbanded and solemnly reorganized, it is, perhaps, Alice Paul and the Executive Committee and some members of the Advisory Council and a few State chairmen. The rank and file, not realizing that their intelligence was at a low ebb, are vaguely disappointed. They do not know what their party will do; they only know that no action was taken in behalf of the Negro women, who have not yet got the vote in spite of the Nineteenth Amendment; that birth control and maternity endowment and most of the questions that stir the minds of modern women were ignored; that disarmament was ruled out; and that the program finally adopted–the majority report of the resolutions committee–declared vaguely against “legal disabilities” and for “equality” leaving the future definition of those terms and their translation into action to the executive board. The only specific application of the word equality appeared in the demand that it be “won and maintained in any association of nations that may be established”!
It may, of course, be asserted that since this mild and hypothetical program was adopted by a vote of the convention it was therefore the will of the convention, but one is forced to wonder whether the result would have been the same if a dissenting delegate or a minority committeeman had presented the winning report, and if Alice Paul’s program had included disarmament or birth control or the enfranchisement of Negro women. I, for one, would back Miss Paul’s chances on either side she chose to support. When the minority report recommending disarmament was before the house it was opposed vehemently by several ardent militarists of the order who declare: “I am as much against war as anybody in this room, but when the world is on fire . . . ” From the point of view of the leaders this opposition was undesirable; the majority report would only be weakened by militarist adherents. Presently the floor was taken by a well-known pacifist who set herself squarely on the side of immediate, complete disarmament and then proceeded on other grounds to an effective attack on the disarmament program. Later in the day this same pacifist–who is also a radical and a feminist–had a program of her own in the field in opposition to the majority report. This new dissenting program was specific. It demanded, in addition to the removal of the legal disabilities of women, the rewriting of the existing laws of marriage, divorce, guardianship; and sexual morality on a basis of equality; the abolition of illegitimacy; the establishment of motherhood endowment and of the legal right of a woman who chooses homemaking as her profession to an equal share in the family income; the repeal of all laws against the dissemination of information regarding birth control.