Title: Withholding the Vote: The Congressional Union and the Democratic Party Boycott. Image: A group of organizers from the Congressional Union before departing from Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Withholding the Vote: The Congressional Union and the Democratic Party Boycott

by Gregory Lebens-Higgins

On September 14, 1914, a small group of experienced organizers from the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage gathered at Union Station near the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. They were to head West, to “begin a personal appeal to the women voters” in the nine states where women then held the right to vote: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Source: Library of Congress

That appeal, put simply, was to “[v]ote against the Democratic candidates for Congress”—even those who personally supported suffrage—to punish the party leaders they believed responsible for stalling a federal woman suffrage amendment. In doing so, the women would “make plain to the whole country that no national party . . . opposed to the enfranchisement of women would receive [their] support.”

A photograph, reprinted on the cover of the following week’s edition of The Suffragist (“weekly organ of the Congressional Union”), captures the Congressional Union organizers smiling in front of Union Station before their departure. Each organizer was “armed with a Congressional Directory, a complete record of the public life of every candidate of Congress from the equal suffrage states, lists of members and friends of the Union and other prominent Suffragists, and loaded down with banners, regalia, and campaign literature.” The Congressional Union, despite having less than two months to campaign, was determined to make their presence felt in the upcoming midterm elections.

March for Palestine, Rochester NY (Dec. 16)

One hundred and ten years later, we face a Democratic Party that is similarly unresponsive to its electorate and to human rights imperatives. Despite growing dissatisfaction with ongoing American material and moral support for Israel’s genocide, President Joe Biden’s administration has made only symbolic gestures and statements against the violence. Polls from the first months of 2024 show that among Democrats, 69% believe that Biden should do more to help the Palestinians, 63% say that Israel’s military offense has gone too far, and 45% oppose continuing military aid to Israel (as compared with 25% in favor and 16% unsure).

This November, Biden and Donald Trump are the only choices on the menu. While neither of these candidates presents an electoral road to socialism, Trump represents an increasingly rabid strain of violent fascism. But Biden, disappointingly, has continued many of Trump’s policies; and his unflinching support for Israel and demonstrations of diminishing lucidity have eroded the remainder of his legitimacy to the point that he may lose to Trump. Despite Biden’s weaknesses and inability to stop creeping fascism, any real challenge through the presidential primary process was foreclosed from the start. However, while our votes in the presidential primary hold no direct electoral value, they can be used as a political tool to influence policy and strengthen the socialist movement.

The Election Policy

On August 29 and 30, 1914, just over two weeks before its organizers were to head West, the newly formed Advisory Council of the Congressional Union met at the Newport, Rhode Island mansion of Alva Smith Belmont, a member of the Council and a significant financial supporter. The Newport Conference would “mark[] the entrance of women into the arena of practical politics,” launching “a national movement of women armed to fight with political weapons for their rights, as men fight in the political arena, by striking at the ambitions of those who want office.”

The Suffragist, Sept. 12, 1914

On the second day of the Conference, after asking members of the press to withdraw and instructing the remaining attendees to maintain secrecy, Alice Paul outlined the election policy: First, the enemy must be identified. All present could agree, she believed, that the enemy was the Democratic Party. Holding the presidency and both houses of Congress, they were to blame for blocking the suffrage amendment. Second, the method of attack: the Democratic Party would be attacked with the weapon of nearly four million votes belonging to women in the nine enfranchised states, to whom an appeal would be made “to withdraw their support from the Democrats” in the coming election.

With the strength of this force, Paul believed the Congressional Union could make a serious entry into national politics. Two organizers would be sent to each of the nine enfranchised states, where one would establish headquarters and “attend to the organizing, the publicity, and the distribution of literature,” while the other would, in six weeks, make a tour of “all the large towns of the state,” giving lectures and activating supporters.

Paul was already thinking of the 1916 campaign, confessing that with limited funds and organizers in the field, “[p]erhaps this time we won’t be able to do so very much . . . but if the Party leaders see that some votes have been turned they will know that we have at last realized this power that we possess and they will know that by 1916 we will have it organized.” Still, she was confident “[t]he mere announcement of the fact that suffragists of the east have gone out to the west with this appeal will be enough to make every man in Congress sit up and take notice.”

The Campaign

The Election Policy was attacked bitterly. But to the Congressional Union, attacks demonstrated that the election policy was having its intended effect. The Suffragist reported that “[t]he violent denunciation of this action . . . by Democratic leaders, Democratic editorial writers and party followers down to the lowest man in the political machine, bears eloquent testimony to [its] effectiveness.” In her memoir, Jailed for Freedom, organizer Doris Stevens mocked candidates’ attempts to play up their dedication to the suffrage movement: “The candidates, a little more suave than the party leaders, proved most eloquently that they had been suffragists ‘from birth.’ One candidate even claimed a suffrage inheritance from his great-grandmother.”

The Suffragist, Oct. 31, 1914

As the results of the 1914 midterm elections rolled in, the Congressional Union’s campaign did not appear particularly successful at unseating Democrats. The Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News reported: “It is difficult as yet to tell just what the Congressional Union’s campaign has accomplished.” Of the forty-three Democrats whom the Congressional Union had opposed, twenty were elected to office.

Writing the biography of the National Woman’s Party in 1921 shortly after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Inez Haynes Irwin asserted that the Congressional Union had “undoubtedly” affected the results in some of the districts. Perhaps more importantly, however, “[t]he effect of this campaign . . . was as though acid had been poured into the milk of the Democratic [Party’s] calm and security.” Politicians were awakened to the fact that they would have to contend with an organized bloc of women voters.

Historian Mary Beard focused on the Congressional Union’s role in raising political consciousness: “[E]ven if no man is defeated as a result of the campaigning, educational work along political lines will have been done in the only way it can be done and the results will be apparent through the next session.”

The Congressional Union prepared to repeat the tactic during the 1916 presidential election. “The influence exerted by [the suffrage] question in the November election . . . was nothing compared to the effect which it will have in the election two years from now,” proclaimed The Suffragist, committing to “the building up of this army of enfranchised women to stand by enfranchised women in that solidarity by which alone all group movements can achieve their ends.”

In the intervening years, the Congressional Union grew into a national organization, holding conventions in each state to form state branches and arrange for deputations to State Senators and Congressmen. “Establish[ing] an effective body of workers in every Congressional district” enabled a united demand upon Congress for a suffrage amendment. When their demands were not met, they again appealed to the women voters (now among eleven enfranchised states with the addition of Montana and Nevada): “Do not send to the White House a man who opposes political freedom for women. Vote against President Wilson and the Democratic candidates for Congress.”

Although the Congressional Union’s campaign did not immediately succeed in its goal of passing the suffrage amendment, it strengthened the group’s organizing capacity in several aspects. First, coverage of the campaign amplified the message in news coverage across the nation. A remark in The Boston Transcript, “[a] new idea and practice in American politics is being experimented with, an idea highly interesting to watch,” is not uncharacteristic of the fascination with which the campaign was reported on. Second, the campaign skilled Congressional Union organizers in writing and oration, along with chapter formation and cross-state coordination. Doris Stevens, one of the original organizers sent to Colorado, went on to lead the establishment of branches throughout the nation. Third, the campaign transformed the Congressional Union from a localized organization in Washington, D.C., to one with national reach.

In June 1916, the Congressional Union formed “[a] Woman’s Party which will work independently of all existing political organizations to secure the immediate passage of the national suffrage amendment,” and fully reorganized as the National Woman’s Party in March 1917. The National Woman’s Party led the famous Silent Sentinel pickets outside of the White House, leading to the arrest, jailing, and torture of its members. On January 9, 1918, president Wilson “took at last the step the National Woman’s Party has for five years urged upon him—answered the question which has sent nearly one hundred women to prison, and endorsed the national suffrage amendment.”

Lessons for “Uncommitted”

Analyzing its victory, the National Woman’s Party pointed directly to the “five years the Woman’s Party has held the party in power responsible for action on suffrage.” In this way it “pushed national suffrage into the position of a political issue,” and forced the party in power to act.

In the context of stopping the genocide of Palestinians, we don’t have five years; and we must continue to attempt every form of petition, protest, and direct action to end the violence. But presently, we hold the weapon of votes. Like the Congressional Union, the Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”) recognizes this power and is using it to pierce the Democratic Party’s intransigence. We have the capacity to send a strong message that genocide is on the ballot, and “push it into the position of a political issue.”

A voter “Leaves it Blank”

The present possibility of holding the party in power responsible using the vote has been demonstrated through the growing “Uncommitted” campaign. Throughout the nation, voters are refusing to cast their Democratic presidential primary ballot for Biden, selecting instead “Uncommitted” delegates. Hundreds of thousands of voters have already cast such ballots, while DSA has endorsed the campaign nationally and is supporting it with phonebanks and canvasses. In New York, DSA groups have organized the “Leave it Blank” campaign, a response intended to have similar effect.

Although these efforts will not have the direct result of flipping the primary (“Uncommitted” will not receive more votes than Biden)—this campaign signifies to the administration and other politicians the importance of this issue. It is a warning that they will be held accountable for inaction on Palestine.

The Congressional Union demonstrated the possibilities of such a campaign as an organizing tool, jolting the Democratic Party and expanding the Union’s organizing capacity. Similarly, the “Uncommitted” vote is something that the Democratic Party will have to contend with. With only three weeks of organizing in Michigan, the “Uncommitted” vote surpassed the margin of Trump’s victory in 2016, demonstrating a real threat to Biden’s candidacy.

The campaign also presents major strategic incentives for DSA. Many Democratic voters are disappointed in Biden, but are likely to express those frustrations in the primary by voting for longshot candidates or attempting to submit write-in votes that are not separately tallied. The “Uncommitted” strategy directs these spontaneous acts of protest toward a unified project that gives DSA the capacity to inject Palestinian liberation into the presidential primary, despite the Democratic Party’s attempts to limit dissent from within the party.

The “Uncommitted” campaign has uncovered new possibilities for coordination within DSA. Chapters without the option to vote “Uncommitted” on their states’ ballots are participating in phonebanks for other states. In New York, the “Leave It Blank” campaign was born out of a cooperative effort between upstate DSA chapters, and is now endorsed by chapters statewide. This campaign could lay the groundwork for further integration among state chapters and with National leadership.

As Alice Paul was already looking toward 1916 while proposing the 1914 election policy, DSA must campaign with an intent toward gaining ground for the next battle. We must strengthen our capacity to resist all forms of oppression on a united front. Palestine represents a microcosm of struggles—securitization, surveillance, imperialism, and racism—that socialist organizers face in a world responding to climate change with reactionary climate realism. This will not be the last time DSA is asked to stand in solidarity with the international proletariat, and we must learn how to shake the imperial core.

“Leave It Blank”

The Leave It Blank campaign is gaining momentum across New York, supported by DSA chapters from across the state including Buffalo, Capitol District, Ithaca, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, Troy, alongside YDSA chapters and other allies. You can read more about ROC DSA’s commitment to the campaign here: VOTE BLANK: No Votes for Genocide.

The Democratic presidential primary is coming up on Tuesday, April 2. This provides only a brief time in which to amplify our message. Please get involved by joining an upcoming phonebank.

This week, NYC-DSA is sponsoring phonebanks on the following days. Please RSVP HERE.

If this is your first time phonebanking, that’s okay! An organizer will show you how it’s done.

EARLY VOTING has started this week, and goes through March 30. Please click here to find an early voting site.

TAKE THE PLEDGE to turn in a blank ballot: dsausa.us/blankbiden

SHARE the #LeaveItBlank campaign with your friends, family, and coworkers!

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