By Crystal Brandenburgh
October 5, 2021
This is part of a series of blog posts on women’s history and the long Progressive Era, honoring the legacy of the late Elisabeth Israels Perry. Perry served as SHGAPE President from 1998-2000 and had a long and distinguished career that highlighted women’s political activism in GAPE and in the “long Progressive Era” that stretched into the 1920s and 1930s. This blog series coincides with the July issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which includes a roundtable (available to subscribers online) on Perry’s After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia’s New York (2019). Read the other posts in the series here and find the CFP here.
In her 2016 address at the first Perkins Roosevelt Symposium hosted by Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, historian Elisabeth Israels Perry offered an overview of the vast and vibrant world of “like-minded, politically experienced women” in post-1920 New York politics. She showed that while their victories following the end of the Progressive Era may have gone unnoticed, progressive women’s activism remained consistent. Throughout her career, Perry rejected the idea that the Nineteenth Amendment marked the beginning of “the ‘doldrums’ of American feminism.” At a recent OAH panel, the moderator kicked off the conversation with a question: “Should the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 be considered a major watershed moment in U.S. political history?” The fact that we even have to ask that question a hundred years on means that there’s much more work to be done to unravel the amendment’s myriad effects. Despite Perry’s efforts alongside a number of historians, the narrative that the post-Nineteenth Amendment years represented a significant decline in feminist activism still persists. In an effort to chip away at that narrative, my research shows that the Nineteenth Amendment directly invigorated women’s activism after 1920. With its codification into law, the Nineteenth Amendment freed up the energies of millions of suffragists to branch out into issues beyond the vote. No longer needing to maintain their single-minded focus on the ratification fight, masses of former suffragists carried their moderate political perspective and decades of experience into the interwar women’s peace movement.
Suffrage or Peace: World War I Takes its Toll
With America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, pacifists within the suffrage movement found themselves caught between two campaigns, both struggling to respond to the accusations and red-baiting hurled during the burgeoning Red Scare. Peace activists who publicly opposed the war came under political fire while those who supported the war risked losing the confidence of fellow pacifists. Carrie Chapman Catt, a suffrage leader and co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), fractured the women’s peace movement when she made the conscious decision to temporarily abandon peace politics and dedicate the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to the war effort in 1917 to avoid endangering the battle for the vote. In response, the New York branch of WILPF expelled Catt, and she later resigned from the national organization. More than a decade later, some pacifists never forgave Catt for her decision. Lola Maverick Lloyd, a fellow WILPF co-founder, accused Catt of using “the American branch of the [International Woman Suffrage] Alliance to help Wilson win the war.” After 1920, with the amendment ratified and suffrage won—at least in the minds of progressive White women—activists like Catt turned their eyes back toward peace.
Catt Aims for a Repeat Victory
In 1924, Catt, cognizant of her political differences and contentious history with the rest of the movement, founded her own peace group, the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW). Comprised, in part, of organizations like the League of Women Voters which were created as a direct result of the Nineteenth Amendment, the NCCCW included a large contingent of former suffragists who chose peace as the avenue where they would claim their next victory. Former suffrage leader Grace Johnson wrote to Catt in 1924 and asserted that “[m]any of us believe that there is nothing that will arouse the crusade spirit which was so inspiring in the suffrage workers like combining to make peace secure.” Committed to educating its members, strengthening peace programs among its affiliated women’s groups, and fomenting a national enthusiasm for pacifism, the NCCCW fulfilled Catt’s dream of “a really active, progressive and yet moderate national organization of women for world peace.” Progressive in its all-women membership and pursuit of a permanent, international peace, yet moderate in its prioritization of education over legislation, the NCCCW provided an alternate middle course for its members, one that could only have existed in a post-Nineteenth Amendment political reality.
Using Lessons Learned from the Suffrage Movement
Catt intended the NCCCW, like NAWSA, to rise above the political fray to become an effective coalition in the campaign for peace. Just as NAWSA had endorsed the war effort to preserve support for the Nineteenth Amendment, the NCCCW endeavored to ensure its own political viability. Aiming to avoid the anticommunist attacks crippling many women’s organizations and appeal to the greatest number of American women, the NCCCW used its annual conferences to brand itself as avowedly moderate. Gathering in the nation’s capital each year, hundreds of NCCCW delegates from around the country, many of them former NAWSA members, listened to male government officials, military officers, and academics speak on matters of war and peace. Though Catt believed peace work “to be largely a woman’s task,” she also wanted the conferences to accomplish twin goals of ensuring that delegates were educated on war by people who had actually participated in it and of preemptively defending against anticommunist attacks by adhering closely to contemporary gender roles. The NCCCW’s insistence on maintaining a moderate stance and giving men such a prominent role in its conferences frustrated other female pacifists. Members of the Women’s Peace Union publicly aired their disagreement, infiltrating the NCCCW’s first conference and lobbying delegates to embrace “a peace programme which would go farther than that proposed by the Conference.” In 1924, WILPF International Secretary Madeleine Doty wrote to a fellow officer, “we will never build up a strong group of women, capable of doing effective things if we let men lecture to us and then adopt what they say.”
The few women chosen to speak at NCCCW conferences built on Progressive Era ideas, using them to defend women’s place in the peace movement and the NCCCW’s right to lead them. Honing arguments constructed during their push for the Nineteenth Amendment, the NCCCW’s speakers argued that women were uniquely suited for peace work due to their maternal nature. Dr. Beatrice M. Hinkle, a psychoanalyst and NCCCW member, believed that “those who give birth to life can not at the same time be dominated equally by the impulses which destroy it.” Hinkle insisted that “it is this female power that is needed, with an urgency that is beyond reason to grasp, to control the male force, in the supreme struggle for the preservation of the human race against the onrushing processes of destruction.” Yet, fellow speaker Anna Garlin Spencer specified that the world needed a force of moderate women. Rationalizing the conference’s exclusion of far right and left-wing pacifists, Spencer insisted that it was “not because reformers are too quarrelsome to get along together.” Rather, public support for peace had grown so much that there was no longer a need, at that conference, for “the manifold peace societies, which range all the way from the timid and cautious, on the right, to almost the fanatical fringe, on the left.” Indeed, the NCCCW hoped to avoid the slings and arrows of anticommunists on the right in part by keeping peace groups on the left at a distance. Certainly, Catt’s vision of a massive mobilization of self-professed moderates proved appealing to many. By 1935, the NCCCW boasted a membership of five million women, nearly all of them White and middle-class, and fostered a coalition of eleven prominent women’s groups, including the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Building a National Coalition for Peace
Although the NCCCW held its annual conferences in Washington, D.C., and organized its national headquarters in New York City, the group managed to cultivate an expansive network of progressive women beyond the East Coast. At its first conference alone, delegates from forty different states travelled to D.C. to attend the six-day event. Catt, in turn, designed the conference programming to accommodate women from every state in the nation. Mindful of the trek women from distant states like Iowa and California would have to make to attend annual conferences, Catt insisted, “we must make a program that will send every woman home full, and with her money’s worth.”
Once home, delegates were expected to share what they had learned through social clubs, state conferences, and community lectures. Like the NCCCW’s leaders, these women were seasoned activists. Among their rank were experienced progressives like Anna Pennybacker, Mary Garrett Hay, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Across the nation, members of the NCCCW took up Catt’s charge “to get just as many opportunities as possible to speak in organizations and report about the conference.” Beginning with the first conference in 1925, delegates returned to their home states and worked diligently to educate other women in their communities. Prioritizing accessibility, delegates organized local events and state conferences that could serve a greater number of women. In Fort Worth, for example, thirteen years after the first national conference, board members for the Texas Cause and Cure of War Committee gathered “to plan for the annual state conference in Galveston, Feb. 21-23.” For almost two decades, experienced reformers carried on the work of the NCCCW by assembling their social networks across the country to study the intricacies of war, peace, and foreign policy, and help fulfill the NCCCW’s purpose “to educate its affiliated organizations so that they could develop strong peace programs.”
The NCCCW embodied Elisabeth Israels Perry’s assertion that American feminism was alive and well even after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In Perry’s hometown of New York City and beyond, progressive women led the charge for peace before and after the Nineteenth Amendment, using the skills and networks they had honed from their ratification battle to redouble their efforts for peace. With their victory in 1920, women like Catt re-entered the peace movement in the form of the National Committee for the Cause and Cure of War, providing a moderate alternative to more radical organizations like WILPF and the WPU and attracting a constituency of millions of women around the country. Wholeheartedly believing that the NCCCW would build on NAWSA’s success, Catt could confidently proclaim, “If ever there is peace, it will be when women will it, order it, enforce it.” Thus, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment allowed masses of White, well-to-do progressive women to drive women’s peace politics toward the political center and refocus much of the movement’s energy on educating the masses in pursuit of a lasting peace.
Carrie Chapman Catt and delegates to the Fifth Conference on the Cause and Cure of War standing in front of the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 16, 1930. Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Crystal Brandenburgh is a second-year PhD student in History at Carnegie Mellon University studying interwar women and politics. She currently works under Dr. Lisa Tetrault.