Like many monumental victories for ordinary people, women’s suffrage was touch and go until the last minute. Women finally got the vote in 1920, but that’s all they got. According to Rebecca Boggs Roberts’ Suffragists in Washington, D.C., activists like Alice Paul tried to win more, but walked away with lackluster results. Paul “drafted the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment,” but it didn’t pass Congress until 1972. Forty-six years later, it still awaits ratification by more states, but prospects still look poor. Unlike the battle for the franchise, ERA supporters don’t present the implacable, united organization that endured for years to get the job done. There are no regular protests, parades, petitions—all things the suffragists used.

Roberts’ thorough and deeply researched book depicts a generational struggle, dating back to 1848, for the women’s franchise. The effort required so much organization, such unremitting politicking and such excellent, determined leadership, that it’s no surprise it has not been replicated for the ERA.

Internecine feminist struggle—which isn’t reported in Roberts’ book—also hindered the ERA. Many trade union women opposed it, as it would have invalidated special laws that guaranteed a minimum wage and an eight-hour day for working women. They did not wish to see these gender-specific laws sacrificed on the altar of a purist principle of equality. But they were eventually scrapped anyway. Meanwhile, the ERA floundered, ultimately tanked in the 1970s by arch-conservative Phyllis Schafly, whose alarmist disinformation helped an anti-feminist movement gel against it.

Luckily, according to Roberts, more than one group battled for the women’s vote. There was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), pushing for state-by-state legalization of women’s suffrage, and the more militant Nation Women’s Party (NWP), desperately promoting a federal amendment in Congress. Often at loggerheads, the two groups managed, in the end, to unite. 

After the amendment passed Congress, with the NWP relentlessly harassing senators and President Woodrow Wilson for support, there came state ratification struggles, which were “expensive, time-consuming and not what the NWP was best at … NAWSA had much better state-level organizations and now brought them to bear on the ratification process.” If not for these two forces with their different emphases, female enfranchisement would not have happened—at least not as early as 1920. 

The heroine of Suffragists in Washington, D.C. is NWP leader Paul. This is not to slight the mighty efforts of other activists, but Paul’s drive and insight enabled the NWP to challenge the tepid Wilson, who was at first against the female franchise and later an unenthusiastic supporter. As women won the vote in various states, Paul’s group pressured Wilson to support a federal constitutional amendment. He finally capitulated: “All of his previous objections—states’ rights, the Democratic Party platform, not a wartime measure—fell before political realities. If women were going to vote, they might as well vote for Democrats,” Roberts writes. 

The great suffrage parade of 1913 in Washington, D.C., “was a turning point,” Roberts writes, “a revival of energy and effort for a movement that was unquestionably flagging.” (It was also the first protest march down Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Roberts notes, a route favored later in the century by other protesters.) The suffrage movement also had enemies: “The best organized opposition came from special interests that worried female voters would restrict or prohibit their businesses. These included the liquor lobby, corrupt party machines and industrialists who relied on child labor and unregulated working condition.” 

After the parade, suffragists went on the attack, protesting and picketing—often getting arrested in the process. In prison, they started hunger strikes and were force-fed. They even had a “prison special” train ride. Thus they kept their issue front and center in the national press. One notable feature of this book is the national indifference or resistance for so many years to something that we now take for granted. 

For many politicians, it was easier to ignore the issue, or, like Wilson, to stall for years. Also remarkable is how one big win failed to cause others. The country briefly woke up, somehow righted a wrong and then went back to sleep. During the decades of that slumber, Alice Paul labored for the ERA. She is gone now, the ERA languishes, the nation sleeps. 

More from WCP