Women’s struggle for suffrage and liberation: The road to legal equality

Mar 8, 2022

20,000 march for women's right to vote in New York City in 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. Source: Wikicommons.

This article originally appeared as the fifth chapter in Donna Goodman’s Women Fight Back: The Centuries-Long Struggle for Liberation, published through Liberation Media and available for purchase here. Liberation School has a study and discussion guide for the book here.

The early years of the 20th century saw political struggle in all areas of American life. The explosive growth of industrial monopoly capitalism of the late 19th century structured all the major changes of the era—urbanization, proletarianization, extreme inequality and instability, record immigration, and the dawn of U.S. imperialism stretching overseas. All of society looked out at a world that appeared to be in perpetual flux and crisis, rapidly transforming how people lived, worked, and interacted.

For women, the upending of tradition and new modes of social organization created new forms of exploitation and oppression, as well as openings for struggle and independence. From 1900 to the beginning of World War II, women fought for equality in all political and social arenas, playing a prominent role in the increasingly mili­tant labor movement, the anti-World War I peace movement, changes in family relations and control over fertility, and the development of the socialist and communist movements in the United States.

The struggle for suffrage: Internal and external victories and challenges

As of 1900, only four states—Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado—had legalized women’s suffrage. From 1896 to 1910, no new states were won, and nationally the movement was in a rut. Susan B. Anthony’s death in 1906 created a leadership vacuum at the national level, and movement activities languished in repetitive meetings and petitions. During this time, the British suffrage movement, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, began to engage in militant direct action that provoked violent police repression and imprisonment. Incarcerated suffragists demanded to be treated as political prisoners. Several went on well-publicized hunger strikes and suffered brutal forced-feedings.

At one rally, Pankhurst noted that “window-breaking, when English men do it, is regarded as honest expression of political opinion. Window-breaking, when English women do it, is treated as a crime.”

Inspired by the British movement, Harriot Blatch, a journalist and daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women in 1907 in New York City. The League held mass meetings and outdoor parades and developed detailed membership files based on political districts in order to conduct targeted lobbying of politicians. According to Blatch, “We all believed that suffrage propaganda must be made dramatic, that suffrage workers must be politically minded” [1].

The League brought working women and labor unions into the cause. Blatch and her allies “saw the need of drawing industrial women into the suffrage campaign and recognized that these women needed to be brought in contact, not with women of leisure, but with business and professional women who were also out in the world earning their living.” At an Albany hearing on women’s suffrage, the League invited working women to speak, one of whom said: “We working women are often told that we should stay at home and then everything would be all right. But we can’t stay at home. We have to get out and work. … Bosses think, and women come to think themselves, that they don’t count for so much as men” [2]. In 1910, the League came to be called the Women’s Political Union.

Another suffrage leader who was inspired by the British movement was Carrie Chapman Catt, who in 1909 pulled together a coalition of New York suffrage groups into the Women Suffrage Party, which brought out large numbers of suffragists to put pressure on Tammany Hall, the New York City and state Democratic machine.

There were both victories and problems at the state level. Activists in Eastern states emulated the League’s tactics and received support from the Suffrage Party. They held parades, trolley tours, and car caravans of small towns, and descended upon state legislatures to demand the vote. On the West Coast, suffragists revived their state-by-state efforts and won the vote in Washington in 1910 and California in 1911, in a close vote that was decided by rural precincts and small towns.

However, the South was almost solidly opposed, as were the manufacturing states of the Northeast. Election fraud stole the vote in Michigan. In Wisconsin and Ohio, the liquor interests defeated suffrage, and in Illinois the governor refused to hold a vote.

Another problem with winning the vote at the state or local level was that newly enfranchised women became beholden to political parties, which could then omit suffrage from their national platforms. As of 1914, while suffrage was gradually won in some individual states, the federal suffrage amendment, which was introduced in Congress in 1878, had not been debated in the Senate since 1887 and had never reached the House floor. It was Alice Paul who breathed new life into the movement for a constitutional suffrage amendment. Paul herself was a veteran of the British suffrage movement, where she spent time in prison and was subjected to forced-feeding while on a hunger strike. Returning to the United States in 1910, Paul teamed up with Lucy Burns, another militant suffragist who had worked with the British movement, and began efforts to pass a constitutional amendment.

In 1913, Paul and Burns organized, on behalf of NAWSA, the first successful national march down Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia, drawing some 8,000 women [3]. The march was planned for the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to ensure maximum crowds on the streets. However, hostile spectators rushed and attacked the marchers, causing a near riot that eventually cost the police chief his job. Newspapers reported on the fearless suffragists marching on through chaos. One report described a line of women students who “locked arms and formed a crowd-breaking vanguard.” The story went on: “The parade itself, in spite of the delays, was a great success. Passing through two walls of antagonistic humanity, the marchers, for the most part, kept their tempers. They suffered insult, and closed their ears to jibes and jeers. Few faltered, though some of the older women were forced to drop out from time to time” [4].

The march not only suffered attacks from outside but also dissension from within. Although NAWSA had welcomed all women to the march, organizers tried to segregate it, in order not to upset Southern participants, having Black women march at the rear, after the men’s contingent. Protests erupted among participants, and Black and white women ultimately marched together with their state contingents. Ida B. Wells was among those who refused to give in to segregation and marched with the Chicago delegation [5].

Racist division had remained a critical weakness within the suffrage movement since the passage of the 15th Amendment. The NAWSA convention of 1903 in New Orleans heard explicit proposals for property and educational qualifications for suffrage in order to maintain white supremacy [6]. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which had its own suffrage department, was excluded from the NAWSA, and even as late as 1919, the application of the Black Northeastern Federation of Clubs for membership in NAWSA was rejected.

Despite their exclusion, many Black women remained committed to the cause of suffrage. Among the most prominent were Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune [7].

Even after women’s suffrage was achieved at the federal level, most clubs remained segregated, reflecting Jim Crow and the racial divisions that existed throughout society. Separately, white and African American women built strong organizations that survived to support the women’s movement that emerged decades later. Women’s organizations also existed among Asian immigrant groups, and Latinas and Native American women organized within their own communities [8].

Combatting the terror of lynching brought Black and white women’s clubs together, under the leadership of Black women. Public crusades against lynching began with the exposes written by Ida B. Wells beginning in 1895 and were taken up by Black women’s clubs. It became a national issue only with the formation in 1910 of the NAACP, which publicized facts and lobbied for legislation [9]. A new study published by the Equal Justice Initiative in February 2015 documents 4,000 lynchings of men, women, and children between 1877 and 1950 — at least 700 more than were previously documented [10].

The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which was formed in 1930 by white women, worked to change public opinion in the South, especially the justification that lynchings were done to defend the honor of white women. They created a pledge to “create a new public opinion,” which received 40,000 signatures, and also acted locally to stop lynchings. They stopped short of supporting an anti-lynching bill before Congress, however [11]. No federal anti-lynching law was ever passed.

The question of racism, both within the movement and outside of it, and the question of how to organize women of different backgrounds, emerged again as a primary question 50 years later during the Second Wave of feminism, in which there were integrated groups, majority white groups with Black caucuses, and separate white and Black groups. All were part of the surge of activism toward justice for women, but these considerable differences in strategies, tactics, and even goals—which were inevitable given the vast differences in women’s lived experiences and class positions—gave the women’s movement a broad and decentralized character.

The complex road to the 19th amendment

Rallies, petitions, and marches continued in 1914 and 1915, when the suffrage amendment was finally voted on in both houses of Congress. It was defeated. Catt and Paul continued to fight for the amendment but differed strongly on tactics, on support for Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign and on support for World War I. Here again, the pull of opportunism became a central feature in the movement. Catt’s forces joined the war effort in order to raise their political standing with those who would ultimately vote on suffrage. They built a centralized national organization that prepared states to secure ratification of the amendment once it was approved by Congress.

The women’s movement was not the only one to split under the pressure — and perceived opportunities — of the war. The same process took place in the labor movement, with the AFL leadership supporting the war mobilization against the Industrial Workers of the World. In the socialist movement, the more radical forces around Eugene Debs bitterly opposed the war, while the reformists and social-imperialists supported it. Within the Black struggle, W.E.B. Du Bois urged Black Americans to “close ranks,” support the war, and prove their patriotism to win allies in the struggle against Jim Crow. Du Bois would ultimately repudiate his earlier position, accepting the anti-war stance of his critics within the Black community.

In the women’s movement, Paul’s forces held the Democratic Party responsible for Woodrow Wilson’s failure to endorse woman suffrage. She argued: “We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote.” They campaigned against Democratic candidates for Congress — even those who were pro-suffrage — and opposed Wilson’s reelection in 1916 [12]. Forming the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1917, they held pro-suffrage silent vigils and picket lines outside the White House, for the first time in history, and publicly opposed the war, which the United States had entered in April of that year. Their anti-war stance provoked hostility, violence, and arrests.

According to Flexner, “Too much emphasis has been put… on the merits of the picketing — its aid or harm in winning votes for women — and too little on the fact that the pickets were actually among the earliest victims in this country of the abrogation of civil liberties in wartime.” The arrests, which began in June 1917, were confined to the demonstrators, who were never charged with disturbing the peace. No one who physically attacked the demonstrators was arrested. The women were imprisoned under terrible conditions. Like their British sisters, the suffragists protested the illegality and brutality of their arrests with hunger strikes, and the authorities responded with forced feeding [13]. They narrowly escaped being charged under the Espionage and Sedition Acts—probably because they filled their banners with noble-sounding quotes from President Wilson.

Despite the NWP’s cruel treatment, rival suffragist groups never came to their aid, and publicly disavowed their tactics instead of condemning the arrests. Much of the public, however, was outraged at the injustice, and the women were finally released in November, with all charges dropped four months later. The war brought women in large numbers into the workplace and public life and also gave the suffrage movement a propaganda point. With women taking on social and workplace responsibility during the war that was being fought for democracy, how could this democracy exclude women [14]?

In addition to suffrage activists, there were other political forces in favor of the woman’s vote. The Socialist Party, founded in 1901 with union leader Eugene V. Debs as its standard bearer, favored women’s suffrage from the beginning and included women as candidates and in party leadership positions. The middle-class “Progressive” movement (which was politically diverse, and took both right-wing and left-wing forms) influenced people’s thinking on many social issues and brought more women into political activity. Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party included women’s suffrage in its 1912 party platform, helping to bring the suffrage issue out of the states and into the national political arena.

Each major party, Democratic and Republican, was split on suffrage and neither included the issue on its national platform. International developments, however, had just begun to exert influence on the U.S. situation: Soviet women were granted suffrage and many other rights immediately after Russia’s communist-led revolution in 1917. British women won theirs in 1918. This proved an embarrassment to many in the U.S. ruling class who portrayed the country as a beacon of democracy. The forces arrayed against suffrage were not only an expression of anti-woman sentiment on the part of sexist men. The well-oiled political machines of both parties, fueled by corruption and kickbacks saw the women’s vote as a destabilizing factor that could threaten their privileges and operations.

One industry that had much to lose was the large alcohol business, which was a target of the women-led temperance movement. Other industries that strongly opposed woman suffrage were the railroads, oil interests and manufacturing, where bosses and investors feared being forced to pay women a fair wage and prevented from exploiting child labor. Many prominent upper-class women were also in the opposition, on behalf of their family and class interests. The South was solidly anti-suffrage, arguing for state’s rights—a reactionary anti-federalist slogan that sought to hold back this push for a centrally mandated advance in civil rights, which would disrupt the Jim Crow system of white supremacy.

In order to gain favor with potential Southern allies, some members of national suffrage groups engaged in a “Southern strategy.” Their proposal was to allow the vote for educated women only — a clear attempt to appeal to white supremacy, as Black women were almost entirely denied access to educational institutions. They periodically tried to exclude Black suffragists from participation in conventions and marches, as in the 1913 march in Washington, D.C. There was also a current of suffragist leaders who tried to exclude poor immigrants from the franchise [15].

Ten years after it was submitted, Congress finally voted in favor of a woman suffrage amendment in January 1918, one day after President Wilson himself at last declared his support. Four Congressmen dragged themselves out of sick beds to vote for suffrage. After being ratified by 36 states, the 19th Amendment was certified on August 26, 1920, 53 years after the first state suffrage referendum in 1867. The amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Susan B. Anthony wrote the original words.

For Black women in the South, the 19th Amendment was—like the 14th and 15th Amendments—largely a dead letter. Since the onset of Jim Crow laws in the 1880s, literacy and other tests, as well as poll taxes and “grandfather clauses,” obstructed and largely eliminated Black voting in large sections of the South. Where these racist laws were not sufficient, Ku Klux Klan violence and stonewalling by election officials kept a great many Black people from voting. It took until the Black-led civil rights movement created the conditions for passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many of these roadblocks to voting were torn down. Even today with voter identification impediments, voting rights are being challenged by the right wing, with support from the conservative Supreme Court [16].

While the vote did not bring an end to gender discrimination, any more than it erased racial and class inequality, it was a major step in the direction towards equality under the law. It was attained through struggle, not given out of the charitable feelings of the elite. In fact, the women of this first wave of feminism were scorned, ridiculed, and subjected to repression. Their tenacity, bravery, and ingenuity set a high standard for the generations that followed.

Obtaining female suffrage was the culmination of the First Wave of the woman’s fight for equality in the United States. It took more than 40 years for the Second Wave to get started, but that did not mean that feminism and fighters for women’s rights simply disappeared.

Women, work, and labor unions

After passage of the 19th Amendment, women continued to challenge sexism in family and social life and in popular culture. Women activists were also a political force in several ground-breaking social movements. Until the mass uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, no single women’s issue gained the same public prominence as suffrage, but women were in motion nonetheless. Labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble expressed the importance of women’s activism after the First Wave:

“All too often chroniclers of women’s reform define feminist activism narrowly and assume that all-female organizations dedicated only to sex equality are the prime bearers of the feminist impulse. From this perspective the 50 years following women’s suffrage in 1920 appear as a retreat for women’s rights, with a dwindling band of white middle-class feminists making minimal headway in a society largely dismissive of women’s issues. Expanding the definition of feminism and of women’s movements to include working-class and minority feminists rewrites this standard story.

Instead of decline, we see a robust and diverse of group of feminists in mixed-sex organizations making considerable progress. Feminism and feminist activism did not diminish in the decades after suffrage: rather, from the 1930s to the 1960s, the struggle for the rights of low-income women and women of color surged forward as the labor and civil rights movements gained ground” [17].

Labor feminists wanted equality with men and also special treatment based on the particular needs of women. “Theirs was a vision of equality,” Cobble wrote, “that claimed justice on the basis of their humanity, not on the basis of their sameness with men. Where the male standard, or what labor feminists called the ‘masculine pattern’ did not fit their needs, they rejected it” [18].

The fight for suffrage was also important to the struggle for a living wage and economic independence for women: without political influence, women were destined to continue to suffer economic inequality [19]. Working women’s struggles focused above all on the appalling working conditions and low pay endured by women.

The labor requirements of a growing industrial economy, as well as innovations in technology, opened up the workplace for new workers. The desperate need of poor women, including many immigrants, for an income, and families’ need for wives’ and mothers’ wages, drove more and more women into paid employment. In the decade between 1890 and 1900, the number of women in the workforce increased by nearly 33 percent, to 5.3 million. The next 10 years saw another increase to 7.4 million [20]. With this influx of women workers came new needs and demands — for fair working conditions, wages equal to those of men, representation by unions, and recognition of and help with women’s “double day” — the full-time unpaid job women did at home after the shift of paid work.

In 1900, the largest cohort of women workers, nearly two million, were clustered in domestic work or service occupations. Some 700,000 worked in agriculture, and about half that number as teachers. More than a million women worked in factories, most of them in garment and textile trades. Women also began to be hired as office workers.

The period between the turn of the century and World War I saw the growth of labor unions comprised mostly of women, with the garment trades producing some of the first of these unions. Sweatshop conditions abounded in this industry, with filthy shops, windows nailed shut, long hours, low pay, deafening noise and harassment on the part of bosses. Locals of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were born in 1900 [21]. Other industries that had significant female union membership included tobacco, shoe making and book binding [22].

International Women’s Day, which is celebrated worldwide each March 8, was also established during this period. Initiated by the American Socialist Party, Women’s Day was founded in 1909 to commemorate important strikes by women workers and to serve as a day of solidarity for working women. In calling for political, economic, and social rights for women workers, the event lent a clear working-class aspect to the suffrage movement. In 1910 the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, led by German communist Clara Zetkin, adopted Women’s Day as an international holiday [24]. IWD also became a vehicle to protest against World War I. In fact, it was an IWD demonstration led by women workers in St. Petersburg in 1917 that sparked Russia’s February Revolution in 1917, and paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution eight months later.

In an environment when most traditional U.S. unions pushed for higher wages for men as the typical heads of household, many AFL leaders feared that women earners would drive down men’s wages, and for the most part excluded women members — even while supporting women’s suffrage and some other social reforms that feminists championed. Women workers clearly needed advocates of their own. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) served that purpose. Composed of working-class, middle-class, and some wealthy women, it was formed in 1903 to help women workers organize into unions and secure better working conditions, to support their efforts financially, and to help them obtain legal advice and publicity for their struggles.

The cross-class women’s solidarity at work in the WTUL would show up periodically in the life of the women’s movements. Excluded from leadership positions and often membership in traditional labor unions and in the AFL, working women gained leadership experience and took on important responsibilities in the WTUL. WTUL’s national program called for the eight-hour day, a fair wage, and the elimination of night work. Yet the League received only lukewarm support from the AFL, which balked at the WTUL’s primary goal of organizing more women into unions.

The WTUL strongly encouraged working women to fight for suffrage and encouraged the creation of Wage Earners’ Suffrage Leagues. One of the League’s founders, Leonora O’Reilly, who was a member of the Socialist Party as well as a suffragist, was a champion of working women’s right to vote and a fierce critic of what Angela Davis describes as the “cult of motherhood” — the dominant notion that the one calling and purpose of women was to bear and raise children. O’Reilly pushed her working-class sisters to fight for the vote and to use the ballot to remove the politicians who were in league with big business [24].

A public meeting on suffrage at Cooper Union in New York City in 1912 featured a talk by labor organizer Rose Schneiderman, who was also a Socialist Party member and a leader of the WTUL. In answer to a U.S. Senator’s charge that women would lose their femininity if they achieved the vote, she said:

“We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy, and work in the foundries.

Of course you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread, let me tell you that” [25].

The AFL excluded unskilled workers, and that included most women and Black workers. On the other hand, the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World (IWW), also called the Wobblies, welcomed women workers, skilled and unskilled workers, and placed no restrictions on race, gender, or nationality. Founded in 1905, they rejected the cross-class collaboration of the WTUL as bourgeois. They also rejected independent feminist movements, including the movement for suffrage, declaring that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was the order of the day, and the coming reorganization of society would resolve issues of women’s inequality [26].

At the IWW’s founding, Lucy Parsons gave a speech in which she said: “We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it, and the only way that we can be represented is to take a man to represent us. You men have made such a mess of it in representing us that we have not much confidence in asking you! We are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women.” In previous writings, Parsons had advocated women master the science of explosives for labor battles. Her husband Albert Parsons was among those who had been unjustly executed in Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Affair.

Women on strike

Strikes took place throughout the 20th century’s first decade, but the most prominent ones were organized in 1909- 1910 by shirtwaist workers in New York and Philadelphia. A speech at a Cooper Union rally by a teenaged worker named Clara Lemlich was decisive in turning a meeting of speeches into a plea for a general strike, which came to be called “The Uprising of 20,000.” It was the first general strike of its kind and the first large strike of women workers [27]. Strikers were arrested, fined, and sentenced to labor camps. One judge, in sentencing a woman striker, pronounced: “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!” [28].

The WTUL supplied major support to the garment workers in their 1910 strike and helped bring working-class women into the suffrage movement [29]. The workers, mostly very young immigrants, also had support from the Socialist Party and held out on strike for 13 weeks. Ultimately individual shops made separate settlements with strikers, and overall, the strikers gained little. But they proved to the public, and to the labor movement, that women could be organized.

Also in 1910, 45,000 garment workers — women and men — conducted a women-led strike in Chicago, winning recognition of the principle of arbitration, collective bargaining and an employees’ grievance committee, as well as a new local of the United Garment Workers union. Here also the WTUL provided material support and solidarity [30].

On March 25, 1911, the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took place in New York City, killing 146 workers, again mostly very young immigrant women, who had been locked in and had no means of escape. The shop owners had yielded nothing after the uprising of the 20,000 and had maintained the same dangerous conditions in their sweatshop. They were tried after the fire but were acquitted of any crime and fined a mere $20.

That same year the IWW-led textile strike, known as the Bread and Roses strike, took place in Lawrence, Mass. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the lead organizer at age 22, made special appeals to women workers as important activists and not auxiliaries, and women’s participation and leadership were high throughout. Flynn was no stranger to struggle, having been expelled from high school five years earlier for her revolutionary speeches.

Schneiderman also addressed the strikers with her famous “Bread and Roses” speech: “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

The strike was successful, gaining significant pay raises for workers and inspiring Joe Hill’s famous song “Rebel Girl” in honor of Flynn [31]. Two decades later, Flynn joined the Communist Party and became its chairwoman in 1961 at 71 years old.

The strike victory could not be sustained in the period that followed, however, and conditions for workers deteriorated, along with the IWW’s strength in Massachusetts [32]. Reflecting back on the strike 50 years later, Flynn wrote: “What precipitated the big strike in 1912, which is one of the great historical struggles in our country, was a political act on the part of the State. The hours of labor were reduced to 54 hours. You can imagine what they were before. That was only for women and children, but it affected something like 75% of the workers in the mills. On the first pay after the law went into effect, the employers cut the wages proportionately to the cut in hours and the wages were on the average of $7 and $8 a week at that time, and the highest pay to loom fixers and more highly skilled were getting possibly, $15 and $20. It was a margin between mere subsistence and starvation and so there was a spontaneous strike” [33].

At the government level, states were newly engaged in legislating minimum wage and maximum hours laws. Minimum wages for women were hotly contested; if women earned a high wage, they might not be interested in performing their unpaid household duties. At the same time, laws mandating health, safety protections, and maximum hours for women were popular. The Triangle fire and the mass struggles of women workers had so shocked and gripped the nation that it created the political momentum for many reform efforts and regulations at the state level.

During World War I, government attention again turned to women workers for pragmatic reasons. With women employed in large numbers in dangerous jobs formerly held exclusively by men, in the areas of munitions, transportation, blast furnaces, and the like, new government agencies were set up to provide some protections for women workers — and thereby keep up the war mobilization and morale on the homefront [34].

After the war, the AFL and women’s groups hoped that the labor protections and regulations from the war period could be consolidated. In 1920 the federal government, responding to pressure from the WTUL, women’s groups, and some labor unions, created the Women’s Bureau as part of the Department of Labor, with the mandate to set policies, conduct investigations, and promote fair working conditions for women [35]. But in general, all the temporary gains in wages and working conditions were wiped out, as the war regulations expired, bosses went on a major offensive to crush labor unions, and the government launched the Red Scare repression against radicals. Immigrant workers were branded as communists, as part of corporate America’s reactionary response to the Bolshevik Revolution. Organized labor suffered major defeats, the largest being a failed strike of 350,000 workers against U.S. Steel.

Women’s unions also suffered defeats. For example, a 1924 garment industry strike was roundly defeated, after which many textile jobs were relocated to the South, where there was less union activity and wages were lower.

Where white working women suffered economic exploitation, Black women suffered the additional oppression of discrimination. When they were given jobs in the textile mills, they were sweeping and cleaning jobs that paid less than machine operators. Only during strikes were Black women hired, as scabs, in the higher paying, more skilled jobs.

In the 1920s, 49 percent of the American people still lived in rural communities. With the end of World War I, agricultural prices fell, and with the new mechanization of farming, the demand for agricultural labor also fell. As more and more women migrated to the cities of the North from the farms of the South, the racial discrimination remained, not only on the part of the bosses but also on the part of the immigrant white workers [36].

After the stock market crash of 1929, fueled by capitalist overproduction and rampant speculation, the country entered a period of profound economic crisis that would last until 1940. Shantytowns grew up around major cities. Millions of farmers and agricultural workers fled their land. The official unemployment rate reached 25 percent. It would take years before the class struggle started to rebound in a big way. In 1934, three citywide general strikes took place in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. Another big surge in women’s labor activism took place in this context in the 1930s, when retail workers, led by labor organizer Myra Wolfgang, held sit-down strikes at Woolworth stores. Beginning in Detroit and expanding throughout the country, retail worker strikes won raises, better schedules, union recognition, and job security.

Not all labor activists were unionists themselves. Working-class women in large numbers also joined labor auxiliaries. These women were wives, widows, and friends of male unionists, who used their purchasing power as consumers to support union struggles and help to end child labor, sweatshops, and unfair employment practices. They conducted boycotts and educational and union label campaigns, and organized picket lines and soup kitchens during strikes. In 1935, the auxiliaries affiliated with the AFL formed the American Federation of Women’s Auxiliaries of Labor (AFWAL) [37].

During the Depression, women’s very right to hold jobs was threatened. Business, government, and even some labor leaders sought to solve the problem of high unemployment by restricting the right of married women to work for wages. With the founding of the more leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, some of the union movement’s barriers against women and workers of color began to erode. In part this was a practical matter, as organizing increased into new sectors of the workforce where the AFL’s traditional exclusions would have been impossible. But also it reflected the militancy and ideological contributions of the country’s rapidly growing communist movement, which revived the old IWW spirit of organizing all sectors of the working class. It would take several years for the CIO to turn to fighting for the certain specific needs of women workers.

In the meantime, women fought for their rights, as women and as workers, and at times were met with police brutality, prison, and even opposition within the more conservative sector of the union movement, and fought again, setting an example for later women’s struggles. Battles were won and lost, and the women’s movement pushed forward.

Women and the peace movement

Economic and political rights were not the only causes that invigorated women’s struggles in the early 20th century. Women were a prominent presence in the peace and anti-war movements. Even Mother’s Day has its roots in religious pacifist feminism — its founder Anna Jarvis was quickly horrified by its commercialization, however, and even arrested for disrupting a Mother’s Day fundraiser.

The U.S. peace movement that developed around World War I was left wing and/or pacifist. Opponents of the war included the Socialist Party and the left wing of the labor movement, including the IWW. They argued that the war meant workers fighting workers on behalf of their capitalist ruling classes. Socialist leader Eugene Debs was charged with a 10-count sedition indictment by the government because of a June 1918 speech opposing the draft. He was sentenced to 10 years but released after three. In 1920, while in prison during the presidential election, he received nearly a million write-in votes for the top office.

The American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) counted many women among its activists and leaders. In 1915, a coalition of suffragists and peace activists that included Carrie Chapman Catt and Jane Addams formed the Women’s Peace Party (WPP), which sent a delegation to the Women’s International Committee for Permanent Peace in The Hague and which tried, unsuccessfully, to get President Wilson’s support for peace proposals among the belligerent nations. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the coalition split — as did so many other organizations. The suffragists associated with Catt supported the war effort, in part to show their patriotism and gain the support of those who would vote on woman suffrage. As in many other wars, pacifists such as Jane Addams were attacked as unpatriotic traitors. Addams, who became a leader in the social work and settlement house movement, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Rep. Jeanette Rankin (R-Montana), a pacifist who in 1916 became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, voted against U.S. entry into World War I. As a result she was not re-elected until 1940. A year later she cast the only vote against U.S. entry into World War II. Again she served just one term. In 1972, a 91-year-old Rankin considered a third House campaign to oppose the Vietnam War, but she died in 1973 at age 92.

After the war, the AUAM developed into the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Women’s International Committee for Permanent Peace became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), both of which remain active today [38]. Both also became targets of reactionary forces who accused the peace movement of supporting anti-patriotic Bolshevism. WILPF was the target of investigations throughout the 1920s [39].

Women’s anti-World War I activism created an important precedent for their participation in the much larger and more significant anti-war movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, as well as the post-9/11 movement of the early 2000s.

Contraception: Legalization and availability

Birth control and family planning continued to be areas of struggle during this period. As the 1900s began, women started to have more control over their fertility, including by delaying marriage. During World War I, as condoms became acceptable as a barrier to venereal disease, enforcement of anti-birth control legislation relaxed, and birth control clinics were allowed to operate under physician supervision. Spacing out births began to be seen as a legitimate health issue for women, and more and more doctors began to support contraception.

Margaret Sanger, a former nurse, became a leader of the birth control movement, opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn in 1916. Authorities closed it down in 10 days and arrested Sanger. Court decisions allowed her to open a new clinic in Manhattan seven years later. At this time, federal “anti-obscenity” laws prohibited dissemination of information about contraception, and postal authorities suppressed the distribution of Sanger’s “The Woman Rebel” paper — as they did other radical newspapers.

Sanger herself was a member of the Socialist Party and a friend of Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and other left activists, and helped to organize strike support and legal defense for the IWW. After many arrests and a period of exile, Sanger went on to found the American Birth Control League, which became part of the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1942.

In the 1920s Sanger had moved away from leftist politics and, influenced by neo-Malthusian theories, became involved in eugenics, which called for limiting the birth rate of people considered “unfit” based on IQ and disabilities. According to Loretta Ross, Sanger’s involvement was opportunistic, in order to win over the public and medical establishment to support birth control, which was widely associated with the feminist and fringe concepts of “free love” [40]. Others in the progressive and left movements saw her entanglement with eugenics as promoting an inherently racist form of population control [41].

Indeed, across the Western world eugenics revealed the ugliest side of the middle- and upper-class “progressive” impulse to subject all of human and social development to the “scientific” expertise of middle-class technocrats. Applying this controlling, technocratic spirit to the reproductive lives of working-class women, and women of color, produced horrible sterilization campaigns and made real the fantasies of white supremacists.

According to a report from the leading Black feminist organization SisterSong, many of the quotes that are attributed to Sanger on birth control in the Black community have been invented or taken out of context. “There is no evidence that Sanger, or the Federation, intended to coerce Black women into using birth control” or supported racially-based involuntary sterilization, the report states. Anti-abortion groups have in fact invested considerable resources to spread the false idea that Sanger and Planned Parenthood were part of a conspiracy to commit genocide in the Black community.

In her birth control advocacy, Sanger collaborated with prominent figures in the Black political establishment, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
In truth, Black women always had to fight for both access to birth control and an end to involuntary sterilization. The Colored Women’s Club Movement denounced rampant sterilization of Black women and supported the establishment of family planning clinics in Black communities. Ministers and churches facilitated this, as well as the NAACP, National Urban League, and leading Black newspapers. In the years from 1915 to 1920 Black infant mortality dropped 43 percent, from 181 per 1,000 live births to 102 [42].

The fight against rape and violence

Women during this period also elevated the struggle against rape, violence, and sexual harassment. Women have been victimized by rape and other forms of sexual violence throughout the history of class society, as an instrument of power and oppression. Society’s response has varied over time and has depended in part on the race and class of both victim and perpetrator.

In the early 1900s, those who left violent spouses were largely treated sympathetically. Divorce laws, for example, took into account women’s need to leave a violent spouse. This changed in the post-World War I era. After the war, some forms of gender violence were in fact decriminalized. Family courts and social workers became influenced by psychoanalysis and Freudian notions of female submissiveness and popularized the notion that women should be blamed for their own victimization. This was seen as a response to women’s new independence and the growing feminist movement [44]. Working women also faced sexual harassment and threats from predatory bosses.

As more women went out alone in public, they faced an epidemic of street harassment. Women increasingly struck back, both physically and by agitating for protections such as the hiring of female police officers [45]. The harassment of Black women by white men was especially pronounced, and Black women were frequently targets of rape. The rape of Black women by white men was embedded in U.S. history, dating from slavery and extending well into the 20th century. It terrorized women and also terrorized the entire Black community [46]. Nonetheless, allegations of rape of white women by Black men were the primary pretext for lynching Black men in the South.

Feminist scholar Estelle Freedman’s book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, notes:

“The long-dominant view of rape in America envisioned a brutal attack on a chaste white woman by a male stranger, usually an African American.” But in fact, “between the 1870s and the 1930s, at the height of racial segregation and lynching, and amid the campaign for woman suffrage, women’s rights supporters and African American activists tried to … gain legal protection from coercive sexual relations, assaults by white men on [B]lack women, street harassment, and the sexual abuse of children” [47].

Looking back, one is struck by the stunning backwardness of U.S. laws and popular conceptions of sexual violence. The notion of acquaintance or marital rape was not even accepted. Nonconsensual sex that did not produce visible physical harm was not considered rape nor could sexual contact be considered rape if the woman was not previously “chaste.” Given the legal impunity for and cultural acceptance of sexual violence, one can only imagine what this meant for women.

Women pushed back against male violence and threats, and their responses were scattered and small at first. Individual women would come to the defense of other women. Women’s self-defense classes were held in parks in Chicago from 1906 to 1908. Journalists published articles about rape and harassment in the white and Black press [48].

The fight for suffrage was also connected to the fight against sexual violence. The struggle for suffrage was in essence a fight for citizenship. Activists believed that only with political rights could women make changes in how they were treated and have access to the legal system for relief. It would take decades for the resistance of women and their allies against rape and sexual violence to grow into the powerful fightback movement of the Second Wave and beyond. The term “domestic violence” did not even exist until the feminist movement brought it into the mainstream in the 1970s — before then, it was so normalized that it did not even register as an important social issue.

Other issues in women’s rights activism during this time included reform of marriage, divorce, and child custody laws. At the turn of the 20th century, state laws were actually making it harder for women to divorce, even in cases of abuse. Women fought the legal double standard in cases of adultery, with its harsh punishments for women, such as the loss of her property, and no penalty for men. Women also fought for reforms in laws governing property ownership, including laws that granted ownership of women’s earnings to their husbands. These rights were won state by state, more easily in the frontier states of the West, as was true for suffrage [49]. In part this was because of the severe gender imbalance in the demographics of western states, which had attracted so many single men as settlers, farmers, and laborers. The less consolidated political structures of the West also made them somewhat more responsive to movements from below.

Opposition to birth control came from the Catholic Church, white conservatives (who did not want birth control for white women), and also Black nationalist leaders such as Marcus Garvey, who believed the Black population should increase as a defense against racial and national oppression. Right-wing eugenics supporters advocated for birth control for people of color for racist, white supremacist reasons in contradiction to feminist reasons for birth control. Ross wrote, “The elite sought to improve their control of society through the control of breeding” [43]. In 1938, a federal judge lifted the ban on birth control, but for a number of years most states continued to ban contraception. Amazingly, it was not until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal for states to deny contraception to married couples.

The Equal Rights Amendment

Once the suffrage amendment was passed, Alice Paul and other leaders of the National Woman’s Party began to organize for passage of the ERA, which was first introduced in Congress in 1923. The proposed amendment stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Prominent forces in the feminist movement took positions for and against the amendment. They fell into two basic groups: “equal rights feminists” and “social justice activists.” Equal rights feminists, who were among the staunchest supporters of the ERA, believed that once suffrage was won, women should seek to operate as equals with men in the political sphere and that women needed no special additional protections. For example, a 1923 Supreme Court decision that overturned a local minimum wage law for women in Washington D.C. was applauded by the National Woman’s Party.

Social justice feminists fought for special benefits and protections for women, based on their particular needs, such as maternity leave, certain safety regulations, as well as benefits that would equalize the status of working women of color with white women if not with men. These feminists tried to get language incorporated into the ERA that would address these inequalities but to no avail [50]. The fight over the ERA continued for nearly 60 years, when it was finally defeated — and in 2014-15 it was reintroduced with far less fanfare.

The division between equal rights and social justice feminists continued into the Second Wave and beyond, reflecting core ideological camps. The “equal rights” section rests fundamentally on liberal theory — that women’s equality will be won once all discriminatory barriers in society are knocked down, and they are able to freely make individual decisions and choices to govern their lives. It fundamentally aims for an equality of rights within bourgeois democracy. That is, legal formal equality rather than genuine social and economic equality based on remedying or overturning the built-in inequality of the capitalist system.

Equal rights feminists stood somewhat apart from the larger struggles for racial and economic justice, treating women’s equality as a separate struggle. Social justice feminists, by contrast, were involved with the major movements of the day, civil rights and labor, in addition to women’s rights [51].


[1] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 260.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Zahniser, J.D. (2014). “Why Doesn’t Everybody Know Who Alice Paul Was and What She Did?” History News Network. Available here.
[4] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 273.
[5] Harvey, S. “Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913.” Library of Congress. Available here.
[6] Davis, A. (1983). Women, Race & Class. 125.
[7] Ibid. 142-145.
[8] Basu, A. (Ed.). (1995). The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder: Westview Press. 438.
[9] Lerner, G. (Ed.). (1992). Black Women in White America. 211-212.
[10] “As Study Finds 4,000 Lynchings in Jim Crow South, Will U.S. Address Legacy of Racial Terrorism?” (2015). Democracy Now. Available here.
[11] Lerner, G. (Ed.). (1992). Black Women in White America. 472.
[12] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 277.
[13] Ibid. 295.
[14] Ibid. 298.
[15] Ibid. 316-318.
[16] Davis, A. (1983). Women, Race & Class. 148.
[17] Cobble D. S., Gordon L., & Henry, A. (2014). Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. 5.
[18] Cobble D. S. (2004). The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 7-8.
[19] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 238.
[20] Ibid. 236.
[21] Ibid. 249.
[22] Ibid. 255.
[23] Williamson, A. (2014). “The Working-Class Origins and Legacy of International Women’s Day.” UE News. Available here.
[24] Davis, A. (1983). Women, Race & Class. 143.
[25] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 267.
[26] Schofield, A. (1983). “Rebel Girls and Union Maids: The Woman Question in the Journals of the AFL and IWW, 1905-1920.” Feminist Studies 9, no. 2. 335-358.
[27] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 249.
[28] “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.” AFL-CIO. Accessed Aug 20, 2016. Available here.
[29] “National Women’s Trade Union League of America Records.” Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Available here.
[30] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 252.
[31] Zinn, H. (1980). A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Colophon. 327.
[32] Schofield, A. (1983). “Rebel Girls and Union Maids: The Woman Question in the Journals of the AFL and IWW, 1905-1920.” Feminist Studies 9, no. 2. 348.
[33] “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964).” Stubby’s Labor Quotes. Available here.
[34] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 298-299.
[35] Cobble D. S., Gordon L., & Henry, A. (2014). Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. 51.
[36] Bryan D. (2012). “The Great (Farm) Depression of the 1920s.” American History USA. Available here.
[37] Cobble D. S., Gordon L., & Henry, A. (2014). Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. 23-24.
[38] “Women and the Peace Movement.” National Women’s History Museum. Available here.
[39] Sklar, K. K. & Baker, H. (1998). “How Did Women Peace Activists Respond to Red Scare Attacks during the 1920s?” Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. Available here.
[40] Ross, L. J. (1993). “African-American Women and Abortion: 1800-1970.” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. New York: Routledge. 149-150.
[41] Davis, A. (1983). Women, Race & Class. 215.
[42] Ross, L. J. (1993). “African-American Women and Abortion: 1800-1970.” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. New York: Routledge. 146.
[43] Ibid. 148.
[44] Baggett, A. (2012). “It’s Her Fault; It’s Feminists’ Fault: The Tie Between Victim Blaming and Scapegoating Feminists.” Nursing CLIO. Available here.
[45] Mayeux, S. (2013). “Redefining Rape: Talking to Estelle Freedman About Street Harassment and Intersectionality in the Early 20th Century.” Hairpin. Available here.
[46] Lerner, G. (Ed.). (1992). Black Women in White America. 149.
[47] Freedman, E. (2013). Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. Harvard University Press.
[48] “Redefining Rape and Street Harassment: 1880-1920s.” (2013). Stop Street Harassment. Available here.
[49] Flexner, E. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. 235-236.
[50] Cobble D. S., Gordon L., & Henry, A. (2014). Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. 9-10.
[51] Ibid. 4.