“Is Common Sense Sex-Limited?” The 1928 Presidential Election in the National Woman’s Party’s “Equal Rights” Magazine

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The importance of women voters is often highlighted as a key element of this year’s presidential election, especially concerning suburban women, white women as determined by educational level, and, of course, the growing importance of women of color in our increasingly diverse society and electorate. It is interesting, then, to peruse the columns of Equal Rights, the official organ of the National Woman’s Party, in its issues of 20 and 27 October 1928, just prior to the presidential election pitting Democrat, Al Smith, governor of New York, and Republican, Herbert Hoover, the recent Secretary of Commerce under presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

The NWP was formed in 1916 as an outgrowth of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which was created by the prominent suffrage leader Alice Paul (1885-1977), who emerged to prominence after the deaths of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and aligned with the National American Woman Suffrage Organization. Because Paul, a Quaker who earned her doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania and, in 1928, a PhD in civil law from American University, cut her teeth in the movement with the controversial Emmeline Pankhurst while study in England from 1907-1910, the NAWSO cut ties with the Congressional Union.

It was those women in the Congressional Union who could vote in those states that allowed for the franchise for females that formed the membership of the NWP and the two merged in 1917. Paul’s philosophy included the notion that members should not support any political party that did not endorse the organization’s suffrage goals and platform. Aggressive (for the time) tactics in terms of marches, hunger strikes, pickets and non-violent demonstrations that led to arrests did provide publicity and growing support leading to the enactment a century ago of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in federal elections.

Paul then turned the attention of the NWP to eradicating all forms of discrimination against women and, in 1923, she wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was commonly referred to as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, in honor of another seminal leader in the woman suffrage movement.

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 wording of the proposed amendment at the time was: Men and women shall have Equal Rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Despite persistent and prolonged campaigning for the ERA, the NWP and others struggled against mighty odds and resistance to it. In 1972, however, Congress passed the ERA and a seven-year deadline was established for its ratification by two-third of the states, a requirement for constitutional amendments. While the deadline was extended to 1982, there were still three states needed for ratification. The legislation continued to be introduced at each congressional session and two states, Nevada (2017) and Illinois (2018), have ratified it since—leaving just one state needed to accomplish this nearly century-long quest for equality.

From the early 1920s, moreover, the NWP has worked for international women’s rights and, in the election year of 1928, helped launch the Inter-American Commission of Women, to advise and plan for the promotion of issues regarding women at the Organization of American States. The association also promoted equality at the League of Nations and the United Nations. Notably, and not surprisingly, the roster of officers in the Party showed a decided bent towards the east coast with a few members from California and Oregon and none between those states and Wisconsin. Moreover, it is presumed they were all white women and likely all were from the middle and upper socio-economic classes.

So, it is notable that there is content in these two numbers of Equal Rights dealing with the struggle of women in other parts of the world, including the seeking of a codification of international law to protect female rights. If, however, it is assumed that the NWP’s efforts in this country’s presidential campaign of 1928 meant that that the organization was left-leaning, then read on!

In the 20 October issue, the feature editorial is titled “Judged by his Record” and notes with dismay that Frances Perkins, of the New York State Industrial Commission and speaking to a meeting of female Democrats in Baltimore, urged the election of Governor Smith because he “had always actively sponsored industrial legislation applying to women, but not to men.” Such laws as those specifying an eight-hour workday, a 48-hour work week, and limiting work at night “were brought forward as proof positive that women should support Governor Smith in the present campaign.”

Yet, the piece continued, “to the horror of the few members of the Woman’s Party who were present the Democratic women applauded Miss Perkins’ remarks lustily and long.” Bluntly stated, however, “Governor Smith is, as Miss Perkins quite unintentionally pointed out, the most formidable enemy of Equal Rights in public life today.” This was because “he strikes at the very room of women’s emancipation, namely, their earning power.”

The concern was that, as Smith “has actively sponsored eight-hour legislation applying to women, but not to men” this served to “forbid more than nine days overtime for women throughout the entire year.” The publication cited the testimony of a woman before a New York state senate committee in which she said “this 48-hour law would harm women in our plant, because our work mingles with that of the men, and it is required that the men and women should work the same number of hours.” If the law was enforced, she claimed, “all of the women will be replaced by men.”

There was a vital difference, the editorial continued, between Smith’s eight-hour day concept, which would end overtime for women in mercantile houses and factories, and one developed by trade unions that would require application to men and women. This did not constitute equal opportunity and, therefore, was against the notion of equal rights espoused by the NWP. Despite this, Smith “endorsed and pushed through to passage . . . the eight-hour law for women alone” and, if he became president, “would endeavor to make this and other restrictive laws nation-wide in their scope.” The piece ended with the statement: “we submit therefore that judged by his record Governor Smith is a candidate whom no believer in Equal Rights can legitimately support.”

On the other hand, on 4 January 1928, a joint resolution in the United States Senate was introduced by Representative Frederick Magrady of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, which concerned the ERA and read: “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” In the summer, Curtis became the Republican Party’s nominee for vice-president and Hoover’s running mate. This led the NWP to inform its readers that “everywhere the campaigners are finding great enthusiasm about Equal Rights as an issue in the election, and are redoubling their efforts for the election of Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis, supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, as the only candidates whose election offers hope for the prompt passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.”

The front cover image of the issue shows the executive secretary of the Party, Mabel Vernon, and member Mary Moss Wellborn, with their bags packed and furled banners at the ready, as they left the NWP’s headquarters to assist in the opening of a headquarters in New York to campaign for Hoover and Curtis. For the cover of the next week’s issue, dated the 27th, seven women comprising the New York City Committee of the Party, were shown as they “are now active campaigning” in the Big Apple.

An article with the headline “The Campaign Progresses” began with the declaration that “while other campaign speakers wrestle with the tariff, water power, and the farmers’ problems, Woman’s Party speakers are placing before the women of New York the position of women before the law and are urging them to vote in this election for the advancement of women.” Specifically, the piece went on, “night and night automobiles, placarded with Equal Rights and Hoover and Curtis signs, and with the purple, white, and gold banners of the Woman’s Party fluttering in the breeze, are carrying Woman’s Party speakers to busy street corners, where large crowds of men and women gather to hear about Equal Rights for men and women and to learn why women believe that there is more hope for the advancement of the legal status of women through the election of Hoover and Curtis than through that of Gov. Smith.”

It was asserted that, while usual street corner gatherings of this type were transient with people coming and going quickly, these of the NWP were so compelling that “nearly all of the men and women have stayed on through all of the speeches and in the end have asked questions which showed that Equal Rights for women was of interest to them.” If “a stray man” offered an opinion about the inferiority of females, it was added, “women in the audience had a ready retort in defense of their sex.”

Moreover, it was averred “that the rank and file of women believe in Equal Rights for men and women and that if a sufficient number of them could be reached, their votes might easily be the deciding factor in the coming election.” It cited the anecdote of a woman who, after hearing an hour of speechifying by NWP stalwarts, asked “can you tell me where I can register to vote? I hadn’t thought of voting this year for I don’t know much about the different questions they are voting on.” She cited the editorializing in the press about whether Hoover or Smith was the better candidate and professed “I don’t know what to believe.” But, being a hotel worker, she exclaimed “I know that everything that you have said here tonight about equal opportunity for women is right, and I want to vote for the man who says that he will work to remove restrictions of opportunity.” She concluded, it was purported, by declaring “I am not for any man for President who believes in this day and age that women who have to work for their living should be protected by laws that do not apply to men too.”

Finally, the featured editorial bears the heading of “Is Common Sense Sex-Limited?” It starts by offering that “one of the fallacies involved in welfare legislation for women only is the assumption that adult women are not as competent as men to decide what available jobs in the open labor market offer the best opportunity for making a livelihood.” Men are presumed to have the common sense to do this, but in the instance cited above with the New York law, “the State must make the decision for [women], as in the case of idiots, criminals and children.” Consequently “this is the assumption made by Governor Smith and constitutes the reason why the National Woman’s Party is opposing his election.”

With women also prohibited from working past 10:00 p.m., there were those working for newspapers, pharmacies, restaurants, messenger services, as elevator operators (with the notable exception of hotels,) and railroads and street railways who were affected. There were revolts, however, so that females working with newspapers, railways, ad pharmacies who were able to secure exceptions, while restaurant workers agitated during the 1928 legislative session in the Empire State.

The editorial continued that “the tendency in industry today is to dispense with or limit night work, whether for men or women” so that, if such employment was considered a problem for health or other reasons “the solution of the problem is to make night-work laws . . . apply to both men and women, as is now done in Norway, and not to pass no-night work laws applying to women alone.” Health would be improved for all and women would not be hampered in economic opportunity.

In addition, the piece proffered that “when night work is in operation an adult woman should have the same right as a men to engage in it if she chooses. It is for her, not for others, to decide whether or not her earnings in such work compensate for the disturbance of normal routing. It is for her, not for others, to decide whether or not private arrangements are better served by night work than by day work.” Finally, it ended by exclaiming “we believe that her decisions will be just as valid as are those of men, and we resent the interference of Governor Smith or any other person with her free choice of an occupation. The common sense of women being then at stake, we await with interest the outcome of the approaching election.”

As to the advocacy of Hoover and the aversion to Smith, it turned out that there was little reason to think that the Democratic standard bearer had much of a chance to win, given the sheer dominance of the G.O.P. during the 1920s. He won the popular vote in just eight states, six in the south, and did not even carry the state he governed. Hoover trounced his opponent by over seventeen points with over 21 million votes to Smith’s 15 million, while he secured 444 electoral college votes to just 87 for the so-called “Happy Warrior.”

As for the ERA, which is now worded as equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex, Virginia’s legislature voted at the beginning of this year by a wide majority to approve the amendment, making the state the critical 38th to do so. With the deadline, however, nearly forty years past, the crucial question is whether there is a way for Congress to address the issue, especially if the Senate has a Democratic majority once the election is over and votes, with women a critical element, counted.

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