Women We Celebrate

Doris Stevens

1888 – 1963

Doris Stevens believed fervently in militancy and in “new woman feminism:” the idea that women should reclaim their power from a male-dominated society.  She was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1888 and graduated from Oberlin College in 1911.  Stevens was a social worker and high school teacher in Ohio and Michigan before going to work as a regional organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

As a participant in the March 3, 1913 Washington, D.C. suffrage parade, Doris was told by an onlooker, “You ought to get yourself a man. You can get what you want without that [marching].” Instead, she joined the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1914 as executive secretary, and organized the first convention of women voters at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Stevens would ultimately become one of the most dedicated leaders and organizers of the Congressional Union (CU) and later the National Woman’s Party (NWP).

In 1916, as national organizer, Stevens led efforts to establish and maintain state branches of the Congressional Union, representing national interests as the organization mobilized across the country. At state CU meetings, she presented on the progress of the suffrage amendment, spoke passionately on the need for women’s self-determination, and appealed for much-needed funds. In 1916, she served as vice-chairman and organizer of the NWP’s New York branch, and in 1917 joined the first executive board of the National Woman’s Party upon its merger with the CU. In late 1916, Stevens managed the CU’s California campaign against the Democratic Party as part of the organization’s strategy of holding the party in power responsible for the failure to pass national suffrage. In addition to her leadership roles in the NWP, she also served as NWP benefactor Alva Belmont’s personal assistant.

When the NWP began its picketing campaign, Stevens participated and managed the protesters.  She recalled that when picketing first began, many people expressed admiration for the suffragists, whose “serene, good humor” satisfied any debaters.  This respectful relationship between the public and the picketers did not last, however.  In March 1917, when 1,000 women marched to President Wilson’s White House, they found the gates locked and their entrance barred.  Ever dedicated, the women waited two hours in the freezing rain, only to have President Wilson ignore them when he finally arrived.  Stevens said this event “…did more than any other to make women sacrifice themselves.”

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, some suffragists felt that it would be unpatriotic to continue to agitate for their cause.  Stevens did not agree.  She argued it was arrogant of Wilson to fight for democracy abroad when women were not included in democracy at home, and that picketing should continue.  Stevens was arrested for picketing on July 14, 1917, and was sentenced to sixty days in Occoquan Workhouse (she was pardoned after serving three). She worked tirelessly at NWP headquarters on behalf of other jailed picketers, publicizing their treatment, which she defined as “administrative terrorism.” Stevens campaigned across the country for suffrage, making speeches and educating the public about the treatment endured by suffrage prisoners.  In 1918, she campaigned in New Jersey and New Hampshire for Democratic candidates who supported suffrage. On March 4, 1920, Stevens was one of six women arrested after marching to the New York Metropolitan Opera House to demand that President Wilson call a special session of Congress to vote on suffrage.  Almost two hundred police officers and onlookers attacked and beat the protesters.  When suffrage finally passed in 1920, Stevens declared that President Wilson had “yielded under the gunfire” of the NWP.

In 1920, Stevens wrote Jailed for Freedom, a detailed account of the radical campaign for the right to vote.  After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Stevens continued working with the NWP lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment.  She led the NWP’s “Women for Congress” campaign in 1924 and served as vice chairman of the New York branch.  In 1940, she was elected a member of the National Council.

Stevens was also an influential leader in the NWP’s campaign for international women’s rights.  She became the chair of the Committee on International Action (1927-1930), was the first chairperson of the Inter-American Commission of Women (1928-1939), and was named the first woman member of the American Institute of International Law in 1931. During the Hague Conference in 1930, journalist Simone Trey described Doris as a “symbol of American woman’s militancy…her splendid spirit [shows] combativeness and perseverance, of self-sacrifice, solidarity and idealism that American women have shown in their fight for freedom.”

Stevens ended her relationship with the NWP in 1947 after a lawsuit over party leadership and resources.  She became active with the Lucy Stone League, a feminist group in New York.  During the 1950’s, she supported McCarthyism.  In the last years of her life, she worked to establish a place for feminism at Radcliffe College, efforts that continued after her death in 1963.  In 1986 the Doris Stevens Foundation endowed a chair in women’s studies at Princeton University.