by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A post in this blog about seven weeks ago, before our presidential election, covered a late October 1928 issue, just before that year’s campaign, of Equal Rights magazine, a publication of the National Woman’s Party, which advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which remains an issue over nine decades later. That number focused extensively on the organization’s support for Republican Herbert Hoover and its disdain for Democrat Al Smith. It turned out that Smith never had a chance, as the 1920s was a decade dominated in presidential politics by the G.O.P., which easily swept to victory in all three campaigns (Warren Harding in 1920, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and Hoover in 1928.)
With the election long over by just before Christmas (compared to the competing realities of 2020), the 22 December edition of the magazine turned to a variety of news items relating to the cause of the NWP. This included a movement for an international “Equal Rights Treaty” seeking basic rights for women throughout the globe. In an editorial, “The Business Before the Meeting,” it was noted that “the international work of the National Woman’s Party is immensely intriguing” as “the fairy wand of childhood beckons one on in the Equal Rights Treaty.” While it was tempting, apparently, for some to believe that all it took was “a gesture, an agreement, and Equal Rights will prevail here, there and everywhere,” it was added that “fairy wands are not to be had for the asking.”
Rather, it would take “steps, long, steep, arudous steps” to get to such a treaty “whether in the Americas or in Geneva” and one of those ,”perhaps the first step,” was the ratification of “the Federal Equal Rights Amendment right here in our own country.” At the time the wording introduced in legislation at the beginning of 1928 by Charles Curtis, who was the vice-president elect after the election but was a Kansas Senator, and then in the House in mid-May by Representative Frederick Magrady of Pennsylvania, was: Men and women shall have Equal Rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.
It was noted that “the Feminists of the United States in the various organizations that are on record in favor of Equal Rights are already sufficient in numbers and influence to steer the amendment to victory.” But, the piece continued, “all that is necessary is the same sort of single-minded devotion that characterized the climax of the campaign for woman suffrage.” This meant fundraising, lobbying members of Congress, attending meetings and events, improving local efforts, and getting new members to the NWP and subscriptions to Equal Rights. It was passage of the ERA that was now the critical matter of hand and the piece ended by imploring “let us concentrate on that, now that Congress is in session.”
A main feature article was about the visit in Washington, D.C. of Lady Mary Heath, considered “Great Britain’s foremost woman aviator, and the only woman delegate to the International Civil Aeronautics Conference” held in America’s capital. On 11 December, the NWP hosted a reception for Heath, who spoke about aviation and her role in it. Two days later, she was introduced as an honored guest in the House of Representatives, where NWP officers accompanied her and the party was mentioned as requesting the introduction, and received on the floor of the Senate. The full text of the House introduction was reprinted in the article and it was added that she met Vice-President Charles Dawes prior to her visit to the Senate. Notably, nothing was said directly about women’s rights in the piece, which focused solely on her achievements on aviation and athletics, as she recently held a world record for the high jump.
Another piece concerned Ruth Litt, who toured Africa, the Middle East and Europe “studying the Feminist movements in these coutries” and spoke about her travels at the District of Columbia branch of the NWP, declaring that “working women should organize internationally to prevent the establishment of industrial inequality by international legislation.” Litt also went to the International Labor Office in Geneva and spoke with staff there about the issue of women labor and equality. She stated that “in Egypt the Feminist leaders, while not largely concerned with increased educational opportunities for women, believe in complete equality in every respect” and noted that rapid industrialization there made it an imperative to organize for women’s rights. Despite the statement on education, Litt did meet with female educators, but noted that women could not go to medical school, for example, and had to leave Egypt if they wanted to seek such education. She also traveled to Beirut (spelled “Beyrouth”) and met with women’s groups and spoke to a Jewish woman involved in the Equal Rights movement in what was then Palestine.
An article by Alma Lutz in the Vassar Quarterly was reprinted and it was noted “how prevasive the opposition to Equal Rights is even in the conservative realm of education.” In looking at the future of college education for women, it was noted that “large endowments are needed for women’s colleges if they are to continue on an equal footing with colleges and universities for men” as financial problems were a major issue for women’s schools, even as “education for women appeared to be flourishing.” It was added, though, that “the problem is essentially a woman’s problem” as opportunities for them increased in higher education compared to the obstacles raised against them in the 19th century.
While some women then fought for improved access to college educations, it was averred that “women of today have made no effort at all for their education” as “it has come to them so easily because of the hard courageous work of the pioneers.” Indifference and ignorance were major issues in limiting financial support for women’s colleges, including among the wealthy. Lutz’ concern was that “the dangerous reactoinary tendency to feminize women’s education must also be recognized and guarded against” and she claimed that “women, as a whole, lack a certain loyalty to their sex” or, at the very least, it was due to “thoughlessness,” as women of means were likely to give to schools attended by their husbands and sons. While some such women might argue the money was her husband’s, it was noted that “fair-minded people today realize that husband and wife should share equally in a fortune that they have built up together.” The words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the early 1890s were cited as she said “this is the best work women of wealth can do, and I hope in the future they will endow scholarships for thir own sex instead of giving millions of dollars to institutions for boys, as they have done in the past.”
In “New Recruits to Equal Rights in Industry,” it was reported that the English National Council of Women passed a resolution calling for such rights, stating that regulations and restrictions in laws shoujld be based on the nature of the work, not the gender of the worker; that women should be identified as adults not “young persons” in legislation; that equality of conditions with night-time work, overtime and holidays be pursued; and that any bills passed in Parliament take into account safety, fire drills, better processes in factories and other matters regadless of sex. “Equal Rights the Ultimate Aim” discusssed the call for the eleventh annual conference of the International Alliance of Women for Suffage and Equal Citizenship to be held in Berlin in June 1929.
The organization existed in forty-two nations since it was founded in 1904 and it was noted that “our program will largely be a triumphant record of or twenty-five years’ progress” but that “we shall not forget the work still to be done” to achieve improvements throughout the world. Moral standards; the status of unmarried women; the legal position of married women; employment; and other questions still needed to be addressed. It was added that “women must recognize that they have a contribution to make to the State and to society which no man can make in exactly the same form.” Emerging from male points of view and pormoting their own position as citizens made education, as well as securing the vote, critical for the Alliance and it was proclaimed that “only when women learn to work for their country and for mankind on a basis of spiritual independence will they attain freedom in the highest sense of the word. That freedom is not yet won.”
A section of “Feminist Notes” included a statement that there were more married women workers in Denver, according to research conducted by the Y.W.C.A.; that Secretary of Labor James J. Davis reported to President Hoover that “complete equality in immigration requirements and privileges as between men and women” as it had been law that “the wife of an American man, but not the husband of an American woman, could enter the country outside the quota” system. Meanwhile, Carolyn C. Pendray made history as “the first woman to be elected to the General Assembly of Iowa” in the November general election and did so as a Democrat “in a normally Republican district over two Republican opponents, although only thirteen other Democrats were elected” to that body. Pendray served two terms in the House, followed by two terms in the state Senate through 1936 and she introduced legislation for the equality of women in education, property law and inheritance law.
The “News from the Field” section included the news that the NWP’s vice-chair, Gail Laughlin, was likely to be made a member of the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives in Maine. A lawyer, Laughlin ran for the state legislature in 1929 and won a seat, serving three terms, advocating heavily for women in labor, mental health and jury service. She then was elected to the state senate and served for six years. Margaret Lambie, a NWP member and lawyer in New York and the District of Columbia, was admitted to practice before the bar of the United States Supreme Court. She was known to advocate strongly in hearings of Congress for feminist issues and specialized in working for the immigration of professors to work in women’s colleges on the East Coast. A debate in Washington between two women attorneys, Vivian Simpson and May Bigelow, concerned the ERA with Simpson being a Students’ Council officer of the NWP in college. Finally, there was criticism of a proposed Constitutional amendment by a male House Republican who proposed that Congress have the power to adopt labor conditions for children and women and prohibit child labor under defined ages, but the NWP vigorously approved such attempts to single out women separate from men when it came to legal proscriptions for labor.
Another editorial, with which we’ll close this post, asks the reader “How would you like to be Santa Claus?” and suggests that a “living, palpitating kind of happiness, an immortal gift, that you can give, you personally, to every child on the planet, this Christmas” was through “making a gift in the coin of the realm to the National Woman’s Party.” In this way, “Equal Rights means equal opportunity; equal opportunity meas just what is says, a gift, an equal gift, for everybody.” This involved “a long and arduous program” which involved significant expense, so “why not make your gift, your real Santa Claus gift, this year, through the National Woman’s Party?” The value of education, the right to vote, civil rights, pursuit of a professional and “you very self-respect in a measure, was due “to the pioneer Feminists,” so the reader was implored to “think what those gifts mean to you and thn determine to play Santa Claus to future generations.”