previous sub-section
1 The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II
next sub-section

Women Leaders and Women's Issues

One group of women—the small and elite cadre that composed the leadership of national women's organizations—recognized both the vulnerability that women workers labored under and


the possibility of doing something to ameliorate it. If World War II created a backlash that coerced women out of war jobs and into white-collar work, it also generated a feeling of gratitude toward these women for the contribution they had made to the war effort, one no less essential than the military commitment. In October 1945, President Harry Truman offered them some recognition:

Since the earliest days of settlement and the beginnings of this great Republic of ours, American women have built for themselves a proud record of achievement, of unselfish devotion to the public welfare, of courageous industry in advancing every good cause. And never have they done a more magnificent job than during the crisis of recent years, both as private citizens and responsible public officials. To the women of America, I say—your untiring efforts to speed the winning of the war, your tender care and skilled nursing of those struck down on the battlefield, your passionate belief in the possibility of a just and lasting peace, and your effective work in advancing that great cause, need no tribute from me to make them shine as one of the glorious pages in our history.[14]

Women leaders hoped to capitalize on such gratitude to win at least some protection for the worker once heralded as "the woman behind the man behind the gun."

But these activists disagreed about the best goal to pursue, a controversy already more than two decades old. The break among women's groups had taken place shortly after women, in 1920, won the right to vote. By 1945 the old suffrage coalition had split into three separate, though overlapping, interest groups, each with a different (but not necessarily incompatible) agenda determined by ideology and class identification: one group pursued legislation for working women, one sought an equal rights amendment to the Constitution and the third aimed at securing a more prominent place for women in political parties.

The first group had roots going back to the settlement movement of the 1890s and the Progressive-era push for protective labor legislation for women. Middle-class women concerned about the welfare of their underclass sisters working in factories had formed organizations to improve conditions for industrial


laborers, in some cases joining forces with the women they hoped to help. These organizations—especially the National Women's Trade Union League and the National Consumers League—persuaded the federal government to undertake a massive study of working conditions of women and children, which was published in 1910. They used the data collected to promote state laws applying to women establishing minimum wages, maximum hours, weight restrictions on lifting, and prohibitions against night work. This effort to prevent employers from mercilessly exploiting women workers succeeded to some degree in nearly every state. Sustained by a liberal ideology of participation in government, active public intervention to assist those in need, and a firm belief in the American institutions of enlightened and regulated free enterprise, these reformers fought for suffrage as a means by which women could protect themselves and their families. This same group also persuaded federal administrators to establish a "Women in Industry Service" during World War I to protect women who entered defense work, and in 1920 Congress responded to pressure to make the new agency permanent: it became the Women's Bureau, located within the Department of Labor. With all players believing that both government and private industry would respond to demonstrated needs of workers, the bureau's function was restricted to the collection of information about women workers.[15]

Yet the organizations that had been instrumental in creating the Women's Bureau looked to it to provide not only information but also leadership. In 1945 the "Women's Bureau coalition" (as it will be called in the following pages) included the following associations: the National Women's Trade Union League (which would disband in 1950), the National Consumers League, the Young Women's Christian Association, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Negro Women, the League of Women Voters (although the league became less interested in women's issues as the decade progressed), the American Association of University Women, and various women's affiliates of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Not every organization was involved in every issue, and other groups occasionally participated on specific mat-


ters, but in general it was these associations that the bureau staff most often consulted and that usually rallied to the Women's Bureau positions. The coalition lacked key groups, however, especially major labor organizations and political clubs. Isolated from power centers both inside the government and outside and handicapped by a politically maladroit director, Mary Anderson (who headed the bureau for almost twenty-five years), the bureau had difficulty swaying policy makers.[16]

During World War II, the Women's Bureau coalition had sought essentially to make sure that employers did not use the war emergency as a way of vitiating standards for women workers. At the end of the war, although they looked with some distress on the wholesale dispatch of the female labor force, these organizations agreed with the general goal that married women should be supported by their husbands, who would be earning decent salaries doing men's work. For the women who had to stay in the labor force, the coalition sought to maintain or expand laws regarding work hours and minimum wage protections.

The second group of women activists, smaller and more elite, grew out of the last stages of the suffrage fight in the 1910s, when it splintered from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the group leading the battle for the vote in the mainstream liberal political tradition. Headed by Alice Paul, a charismatic militant suffragist, the National Woman's party (NWP) used highly visible and inflammatory demonstrations to get suffrage on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. The more traditional-minded leadership of the NAWSA feared that such actions would hurt the cause by creating a backlash, but sheer rivalry also played a role in the antagonism between the two groups.

Friction appeared again early in the 1920s over Paul's decision to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee women complete legal equality with men. The Women's Bureau coalition objected that the amendment would decimate the protective labor laws they had worked so hard to obtain, thus leaving working women defenseless. The NWP was not unsympathetic; composed largely of women of wealth and unusual educational attainment and concerned chiefly about the right of women to work as professionals, it initially sought a compromise that would


have excluded labor laws from the purview of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) it proposed. But these attempts proved futile, and the NWP ultimately took the position that laws only for women did more harm than good. The party argued variously that all labor laws should apply to both sexes or that labor laws were flat-out undesirable, the latter view reflecting the conservative political philosophy of many NWP members who opposed government interference in private enterprise. In 1928 the party endorsed the Republican Hoover-Curtis presidential ticket, primarily because Charles Curtis had been a sponsor of the ERA but also because many NWP officers were Republicans. (Neither presidential candidate had announced in favor of the ERA, although the Democratic candidate, Al Smith, was certainly against it, being an ardent enthusiast of protective labor laws.)[17]

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the NWP persuaded several women's organizations to support the ERA and to separate themselves from the advocates of protective legislation. By the 1940s, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW), the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Association of Women Lawyers, the National Education Association, and various other smaller professional women's organizations had endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and agreed to work with the NWP in pursuit of that goal.

But the NWP insisted on retaining leadership in the battle. Paul was not interested in a mass-based group; rather, she sought to create a Washington-based "elite vanguard," single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of the ERA and willing to follow her directions. The membership of the NWP endorsed her design. Almost all had participated in the suffrage battle, and the group made little attempt to recruit new members. By 1945 party membership—which, it claimed, had numbered ten thousand in the 1920s—had fallen to four thousand, even by its own highly inflated figures; only some six hundred paid annual dues. The party's intense devotion to its single cause did indeed make it influential out of proportion to its numbers.[18]

Meanwhile, the NWP and the Women's Bureau coalition had become archenemies. The Women's Bureau coalition continued to cooperate, if uneasily, with other pro-ERA organiza-


tions, like the BPW and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, on specific projects such as equal pay legislation; but after World War II the fight for the ERA constituted almost the entire program of the National Woman's party, and its defeat the major consolidated effort of the Women's Bureau coalition.

A third group of political women held itself somewhat aloof from this battle, pursuing a different goal. This contingent had appeared after the achievement of suffrage in 1920—in fact, in response to it. These women had become active in the national political parties' governing bodies, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC), and they were committed to seeing that women quickly attained their share of power within these political structures. Moreover, they wanted women appointed to government positions because they believed both that women appointees would improve government and that appointments of women would potentially benefit all women. They were supported by women in state party organizations and by female journalists, who viewed the number of women political appointees as an index of an administration's interest in women's advancement. In the 1930s the political party women were indistinguishable from the Women's Bureau coalition, and both they and the ERA proponents opposed the discriminatory features of the National Recovery Administration codes and discrimination against women workers during the Great Depression.[19] By the 1940s, however, political party women had gone one of two routes: either they openly espoused the Equal Rights Amendment, reflecting their own constituency of middle-class professional women, or else they simply tried to minimize potential fallout from the conflict by giving their party enough female appointments to counteract accusations of indifference to women's issues.

If class made a difference in support for the ERA, race apparently did not. Black women's organizations split over the amendment along the same lines white women's associations did. The National Association of Colored Women, under the influence of Mary Church Terrell, a wealthy militant suffragist, endorsed the ERA, but the National Council of Negro Women, founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935, voiced concern for protective labor legislation and in 1944 went on record opposing the


amendment. One member warned against the council's being led astray by the promise of equal rights: "We are being rocked to sleep by a trick phrase—one dear to us as to other underprivileged groups, and therefore calculated to dull our ability for discriminating between what is good and what appears to be good."[20]

Representatives from black women's organizations often took part in meetings arranged by the Women's Bureau coalition and were more visible fighting the amendment than favoring it. Many factors were at work here. The Women's Bureau coalition was more hospitable to black women than was the National Woman's party, which purposively narrowed its membership and its goals. The Women's Bureau coalition identified black women, as it did working women, as a special group requiring its assistance in the fight for economic opportunities. On some occasions, the white, middle-class women's organizations making up the Women's Bureau coalition even undertook to combat racism as a separate endeavor. Thus, black women felt more empathy from these white women. The NWP, in contrast, had no interest in civil rights for blacks, except when it could insist that women be included, for the sake of equity, in governmental measures aimed at racial discrimination. Further, the NWP, which accepted ERA proponents of all persuasions, had a wide tolerance for racists, and Paul herself frequently expressed racist sentiments. When convenient, the NWP used racist arguments to persuade Southerners to favor the ERA—that white women should not be denied rights accorded to black men. Such a ploy would hardly make the organization appealing to black women.[21]

But these considerations had a secondary role in determining black women's response to this struggle. Their position was clear: equal rights for women was a secondary issue; every black women's group considered the fight against racism its primary battle, more so since World War II, which had offered unprecedented opportunities for black women and men, as for white women. Black women were able to give up domestic jobs for higher-paying factory positions, and the number of black workers in government service more than tripled. War jobs encouraged blacks to move from rural areas in the South to Northern cities, and although the new mix of population often elicited


antagonism, the economic benefits were significant. The clashes brought the endemic problem of racism once again to the foreground, however, as did the treatment of black men in the armed services. Blacks disproportionately joined the military, and discrimination there seemed scorchingly hypocritical in view of the fact that American troops were fighting German racial supremacists. In 1942, James Farmer founded the Congress for Racial Equality; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People increased its membership nine-fold during the war.[22]

The fight for civil rights for blacks and the struggle on behalf of women remained separate, however. Little overlap existed in the personnel engaged in these efforts, although both drew on the same liberal ideology. ERA supporters saw opportunities whenever the government appeared to move toward helping blacks, and both the Women's Bureau coalition and the National Woman's party found useful models for federal action in black activist strategies. But virtually everyone engaged in these efforts in the postwar period saw crucial distinctions between discrimination based on sex and that based on race.

All women activists shared the view that discrimination against women based on crude ideas of masculine superiority had to be eliminated, but the split between the ERA advocates and the Women's Bureau coalition itself reflected the general ambivalence toward women's roles. Both groups were trapped by the apparent verity that only women could care adequately for children. The Women's Bureau coalition tried to resolve the conflict between independence for women and motherhood; the NWP did not address it. The intensity of the disagreement between them came less from practical considerations than from the difference in the way each group handled this issue.

Although both sought to improve the way that women were treated in the public arena, the people associated with the Women's Bureau argued that women's special function in the world—to nurture families and society—ultimately took precedence over the need for individual opportunity. In their view, the American legal tradition rightly acknowledged the unique role of women by differentiation in the law. Ideally, this group believed, no married woman with small children would work.


Rose Schneiderman of the National Women's Trade Union League had remarked in 1908 that women who wanted to work under the same conditions as men "might be putting their own brothers or sweethearts, or husbands out of a job."[23] In establishing the Women's Bureau in 1920, Secretary of Labor William Wilson stated: "All will agree that women in industry would not exist in an ideal scheme."[24] Although necessity sometimes forced women into industrial occupations, the Women's Bureau coalition judged such work to be inappropriate for women, and the state within its rights to limit female activity in this kind of employment.

Inside these boundaries, however, the Women's Bureau coalition sought to expand opportunities for women and to eradicate many forms of outright economic and legal discrimination. They advocated entrance into the professions on an equal basis with men and asserted that the state had an obligation to guarantee the right of women to be rewarded according to their merits. (They did not, however, concern themselves with the problems of women professionals, whom they believed could fend for themselves.)

The National Woman's party, conversely, believed that every public activity befitting men was acceptable for women and that, indeed, it was desirable for all women to have careers. The party did not view woman as frail, in need of special protection, and largely passed over the fact the most women worked in low-paying jobs and had neither the resources nor the education to become professionals. Since many in the NWP's leadership were conservatives who opposed statutory interference in private enterprise, they further contended that the ERA rendered any additional legislation for women unnecessary. Like the Women's Bureau coalition, the NWP considered childrearing a woman's task, but it did not address the problem of how a woman could reconcile motherhood and professional responsibilities. Many party members had simply chosen not to marry; others ran households with the assistance of paid help.[25]

The internal contradictions within each group's philosophy, created by the intractable problem of childcare responsibility, undermined the possibility that either could succeed in gaining its objectives, even if the social setting were receptive,


which it was not. The Women's Bureau coalition sought equal wages for women workers and access to higher-paying jobs, but at the same time it claimed a need for special protection for those workers. Employers quickly agreed that women workers needed special consideration, but they used that rationale to discriminate against them in wages and responsibility. For its part, the NWP asserted without convincing evidence that the ERA would eliminate the need for further legislation to give women equality of pay and job opportunity. The NWP took no account of extralegal causes of discrimination. So long as social norms decreed that women held the chief responsibility for childrearing and homemaking—a point the NWP did not contest—employers could justify differential treatment on the basis that a woman's commitment to work was limited as a man's was not. Thus, each plan of action addressed only a portion rather than the whole of the complex problem of women's status.[26]

In the postwar period the argument over women's roles played itself out in Congress as well. The National Woman's party, advocating the Equal Rights Amendment, took the offensive, while the Women's Bureau coalition played defense.

previous sub-section
1 The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II
next sub-section