5 June marks the anniversary of the official founding of the radical National Woman’s Party by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1916 to advocate for women’s suffrage. The NWP began as an outgrowth of the Congressional Union, a faction formed by Paul and Burns in 1913 within the larger National American Woman Suffrage Association. The two groups split due to differing strategies on action—with the CU and eventually the NWP favoring direct action based on the activities of militant British groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union and working toward changes on the federal level rather than the state or local.
An example of this strategy of direct action were the NWP’s “Silent Sentinels” who began picketing in front of the White House in January 1917. A number of these women, including Paul and Burns, were arrested and imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse after chaining themselves to the White House fence. While imprisoned they began hunger strikes and suffered a number of abuses including force feedings, having their hands chained to cell bars above their heads and being left overnight, beatings, and choking. Public pressure following newspaper stories in 1917 detailing the abuse resulted in the women being released and all charges being dropped.
After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage in 1920, the NWP turned its attention to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was written by Paul in 1923. The group would continue these efforts until it disbanded in 1997.
One of the key members of the NWP throughout a majority of its history was Charleston-native Anita Pollitzer. Born in 1894, Pollitzer entered Columbia University in New York in 1913 and joined the newly-formed NWP after her graduation in 1916. She would go on to serve as first National Secretary (1921-1926), National Vice Chairman (1927-1938), on the National Executive Committee (1939-1945), and finally as National Chairman (1945-1949).
During her association with the NWP Pollitzer served as a lobbyist in numerous states, particularly in the South in the years leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Notably, she dined with Tennessee state representative, Harry T. Burn, the evening before Burn cast what would be the deciding vote in a special session of the Tennessee legislature in favor of the amendment. On 18 August 1920 Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment, giving it the necessary approval of two-thirds of the states.
After her work to guarantee women’s suffrage Pollitzer gave the seconding speech at the Seneca Falls anniversary ceremony in 1923 in which the NWP unveiled the Equal Rights Amendment. Working on behalf of the ratification of the ERA and other legislation to end gender discrimination would consume the rest of Pollitzer’s life. She died in New York in 1975.
Pictured here is Alice Paul sewing a star onto the NWP’s Ratification Flag, representing another state’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Anita Pollitzer is standing behind Paul wearing a light-colored dress.
by Graham Duncan