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March is not just for “March Madness”

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Date posted: March 22, 2013

Page Harrington, Executive Director of the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, home of the historic National Woman’s Party, reflects on Women’s History Month, the 100th anniversary of the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 and how sufffragists used a sort of social media of their own.


There have been great articles celebrating, remembering and raising awareness of women’s issues as part of Women’s History month. Whether 100 years ago or today, the disenfranchised still struggle to break-through and have their voices heard amongst the hyper-chatter inside the Beltway, Washington, DC.

Suffragette_parade_March_1913

Social media has become a viable line of communication and with it sprouted a new profession for young and not so young executives. Congressional Members and their staff try to keep up with these new technologies and ways of communicating with their constituencies. But here’s a lesson in social media strategy taken from a very unlikely playbook that’s almost 100 years old. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) was founded in 1916 by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. Both were young college educated women who found the existing suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, NAWSA (headquartered in New York City) to be stuck in the past with an aging leadership with no chance of achieving widespread voting rights for women. Not surprisingly, NAWSA found Alice Paul to be quite unorthodox in her non-violent but militant approach in demanding women’s suffrage. So, as a compromise (or perhaps to get rid of her) NAWSA provided her with a $10.00 budget and sent her to Washington, DC to lobby the Halls of Congress and the White House for a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. This timely move to Washington DC allowed the soon-to-become NWP to devise a lobbying strategy that included a congressional card index system.

The congressional card index proved to be one of the most innovative tactics used on Capitol Hill. The suffragists compiled cards with information about every member of the House and Senate that included background information about the individual’s public career, their values, favorite projects, prior votes, etc. The women routinely updated and consulted these files to prepare for their meetings with members of Congress. They were so detailed and effective that the press began to call them “the deadly political index”. In addition to information about the members of Congress, each of the original cards contains candid comments by NWP members who interviewed them.

A card entry from the index reads.
“A smart alec of the worst kind! My interview was a complete waste of time and a sore trial on my patience.”

And another:
“So violently opposed as to be even hostile in his attitude. Almost insulting in his insinuations that we are abnormal women because we do not want to be protected as we should. “The normal woman knows her place,” he says. There is no hope for him, I am sure, and he should be avoided as far as possible. He opposes the Amendment on the grounds of States’ Rights and also on the principle of the everlasting inferiority of women.”

Today, women and men exercise the right to vote without much thought to the passage of the 19th amendment and those who fought to achieve it. The teaching of U.S. History in our public schools routinely overlooks The National Woman’s Party, but it is important to remember that the NWP became one of the most significant women’s rights organizations of the twentieth century—and they did so largely by creating and using a campaign of mass propaganda, and without the technological advances available today. They shrewdly created and used not only the congressional card index, but also political cartoons, posters, pamphlets, and banners in order to educate the public, influence politicians, and fight back against long-established media hostility toward the suffrage campaign. Their work paid off, and on August 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment was signed into law granting suffrage to twenty-six million American women.

The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum is the home of the historic National Woman’s Party and is located on Capitol Hill. The House holds the many artifacts, stories and yes, even the original congressional card index. The story of the NWP’s continued fight for equality is showcased at the museum for all to experience—let’s hope it inspires future generations to keep breaking barriers through social media so that all voices can one day be heard.

Photo credit: Suffragette parade Mar. 3, 1913; Wash., D.C. by George Grantham Bain 1865-1944. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons