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Typwritten letter with handwritten signatures of Burnita Shelton Matthews and Anna Kelton Wiley.
Response, written on the bottom of a letter dated November 24, 1934, from Anna Kelton Wiley to Burnita Shelton Matthews, November 28, 1934, regarding the use of the term “legal discriminations” instead of “equal rights.“ Box V:337, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Feminist Rivals: The National Woman’s Party and the League of Women Voters in Post-Suffrage Politics

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This is a guest post by Crystal Brandenburgh, PhD candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University, and 2022 Library of Congress National Woman’s Party Research Fellow.

Popular characterizations of the American suffrage movement tend to focus on rifts between individual suffragists. The split between Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) over tactics and ideology has been well-documented. One of the more recent full-length feature films on the American women’s suffrage movement, Iron Jawed Angels (2004), brought to life the acrimonious relationship between Paul, played by Hilary Swank, and Catt, played by Anjelica Huston. The pair’s discord made for a thoroughly entertaining plotline – Swank’s young and radical Paul facing off against Huston’s older, more moderate Catt. But did this tense relationship extend beyond the two leaders? And how did it fare after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920? The records of the League of Women Voters (LWV) and the records of the NWP at the Library of Congress offer valuable insight into these questions. The schism between the NWP and NAWSA represented more than just petty infighting. Rather, it grew into a broader rift that defined the white women’s rights movement in the U.S. after 1920.

Half length portrait of Emma Wold wearing dark jacket and white shirt with oval brooch.
Emma Wold, NWP headquarters secretary and later a legal technical adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the Hague, circa 1930. Harris and Ewing, photographers. Box I:158, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Divisions and discord, involving multiple organizations, helped characterize the campaigns for peace, voting rights, and citizenship. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, both NAWSA and the NWP had to decide whether their mission had been completed with their constitutional victory for women’s suffrage, or if there was still more work to be done. NAWSA dissolved in 1920, and Catt immediately formed the League of Women Voters to carry on the spirit of the suffragists’ work, including a focus on voter education, but in a new venue and with new leadership. The NWP, on the other hand, opted to keep going but to expand its agenda beyond voting rights. In August 1920, Emma Wold, the NWP’s headquarters secretary, characterized the uncertainty of the moment: “We realize that this is a most important year and we are glad that we are enfranchised so that we can express ourselves, but has there ever been a time in the history of our country when it is so hard to know what there is in us that is best to express?”[1] As historian Rebecca DeWolf has detailed, the NWP developed a strain of feminism she calls “emancipationism,” the idea that men and women should possess completely equivalent forms of citizenship.[2] This concept was still nascent in 1920 and the group took great care to carve out signature issues that would distinguish it from other women’s organizations. Marjory Nelson Whittemore, a Michigan member of the NWP, wrote to her superior, Anita Pollitzer, noting that other women’s groups were making progress on issues such as peace and racial equality. She argued against the NWP’s involvement in those areas, claiming that “we do not feel the need of another organization in which we will do similar work.”[3] Rather, the NWP worked for legal equality between the sexes, successfully persuading Senator Charles Curtis and Representative Daniel Read Anthony, Jr., Susan B. Anthony’s nephew, to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on the floor of Congress in 1923. Paul agreed with Whittemore’s assertion, and both the NWP and the LWV largely refused to assist Black women in the South with voting rights after 1920.[4]

Black and white group photograph of six women, three sitting in front, and three standing in back.
League of Women Voters members Katharine Ludington, Belle Sherwin, Frances N. Anderson, Elizabeth J. Hauser, Alice Green Hixon, and Ruth Morgan conferring in Washington on plans for their legislative program. Underwood & Underwood, photographers. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The LWV, amongst other women’s groups like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Young Women’s Christian Association, advocated what DeWolf calls “protectionism,” the idea that women’s maternal role in society afforded them a different kind of citizenship.[5] Not only did this align with what had been NAWSA’s general ideology, it also fit with contemporary conceptions of gender in America. As such, the LWV strenuously opposed the ERA, and used its influence and political experience to lobby Congress against the amendment. After the ERA was first introduced, Democratic representative Charles A. Mooney of Ohio wrote to LWV secretary Elizabeth Hauser to assure her that he would take his cues on the legislation from her and fellow LWV member, Mrs. A. B. Pyke.[6] As NAWSA’s ideological successor, the group held considerable sway on women’s issues.

This did not mean, however, that the LWV and other protectionist women’s organizations consistently outpaced the NWP in every regard. While the LWV may have had more allies in Congress, the latter organization’s youth and radicalism attracted frequent attention from the national press, often allowing the NWP to outshine its political rivals. LWV leaders considered this a matter of great concern. On two separate occasions in 1923, the group’s leaders wrote to each other in frustration at their inability to attract the NWP’s level of publicity. Hauser conveyed her annoyance to fellow LWV officer Caroline McCormick Slade, writing that “one reason the Woman’s Party puts it over us so in the matter of publicity is because we, as officers of the League, do not take care of this end of our job.”[7] Helen Brooke Davis, executive secretary of the LWV expressed the same frustration to Hauser eight months later, telling her that “I do feel myself that the League needs all the interesting publicity which they can possibly get especially as the Woman’s Party is so extremely popular with the newspapers.”[8] LWV leaders competed with the NWP for any and all publicity in the years following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, but found themselves consistently outshone.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait of Burnita Shelton Matthews with bobbed hair.
NWP member and legal adviser Burnita Shelton Matthews, circa May 28, 1925. Box II:275, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Over a decade later, however, the NWP was on the defensive concerning its public image. In November 1934, NWP leader Anna Kelton Wiley complained to her fellow member and NWP legal adviser, Burnita Shelton Matthews, about the negative reaction by protectionist women to the group’s insistence on equal rights. She wrote, “Mrs. O’Day now comes out and says she does not think ‘equal rights’ any longer should be discussed. etc. I notice this statement by some woman of prominence every few days. We must, I tell you, get off the phrase ‘equal rights’ and ding and ding and ding on legal discriminations.”[9] In the wake of the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, rising anticommunist sentiment, and the revival of conservative national politics in the 1920s, the NWP occupied a very different political position in the 1930s than it had in 1923, one that clearly comes through in archival documents.

The collections at the Library of Congress reveal the shifting issues, organizers, and contexts of the decades-long rivalry between the NWP and groups like the LWV. Most importantly, they show that this rivalry went far beyond well-known figures like Catt and Paul and outlasted the suffrage movement itself.

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[1] Emma Wold to J. A. H. Hopkins, August 28, 1920, Box V:337, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Rebecca DeWolf, Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 2-3, 9-10.

[3] Marjory Nelson Whittemore to Anita Pollitzer, circa May 1921, Box V:337, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] DeWolf, Gendered Citizenship, 49, 81.

[5] DeWolf, Gendered Citizenship, 2-7.

[6] Charles A. Mooney to Elizabeth Hauser, December 3, 1923, Box I:18, League of Women Voters (U.S.) Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Elizabeth J. Hauser to Mrs. F. Louis Slade, February 7, 1923, Box I:17, League of Women Voters (U.S.) Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Helen Brooke Davis to Elizabeth Hauser, October 6, 1923, Box I:18, League of Women Voters (U.S.) Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Anna Kelton Wiley to Burnita Shelton Matthews, November 28, 1934, Box V:337, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


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