Today’s post is written by Daria Labinsky, an archivist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and a member of NARA’s Women’s Affinity Group.
President Carter signed a proclamation in honor of Women’s Equality Day on August 26, 1977, to commemorate the certification date of the 19th Amendment, “guaranteeing that the right of United States citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the Federal Government or any state on account of sex.”
While Carter’s predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford had signed Women’s Equality Day proclamations annually since 1973, the 1977 signing was especially significant, because it came shortly after the death of suffragist Alice Paul on July 9. Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), led the fight for passage of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment and the original Equal Rights Amendment, and she continued to campaign for ERA into her late 80s.
In his proclamation Carter noted the 19th Amendment,
“was only the first step in achieving full equality for women. The late Dr. Alice Paul realized this, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and had it introduced in Congress over a period of 49 years, until it passed on March 22, 1972.
“Dr. Paul and other early leaders of the movement who did not live to see their work completed were reviled and imprisoned, endured hunger strikes and force-feeding in order to further their cause. Their commitment is an inspiration to women and men today who seek to finally make their dreams a reality. Equal rights for women are an inseparable part of human rights for all.”
Among those standing on the grass with the president at the Rose Garden ceremony was Hazel Hunkins Hallinan, one of the suffragists who had fought for the 19th Amendment alongside Alice Paul. Hunkins Hallinan had flown from her home in London to attend and speak at Paul’s funeral—held in Washington National Cathedral on July 20—and to participate in the march that followed the signing event. Looking at the little woman standing near President Carter, it’s hard to believe she was a militant feminist activist, but she worked tirelessly, was jailed, and even went on a hunger strike for suffrage.
Born in Aspen, Colorado, on June 6, 1890, and raised in Billings, Montana, Hunkins graduated with a degree in chemistry from Vassar College in 1913, then studied and taught at the University of Missouri. In 1916 she joined the National Woman’s Party and traveled throughout the West as the party’s field representative. She moved to Washington, D.C., in November 1916 and became the party’s “organization secretary,” coordinating the fight in the field from the home office. At Alice Paul’s request she also wrote a weekly column for The Suffragist newspaper, which Paul had started publishing in 1913. (1, 2)
As historian Susan Ware wrote,
“Hunkins was arrested on at least three occasions, mainly on trumped up charges of disorderly conduct or obstructing traffic. When she was imprisoned after protesting at Lafayette Square [in August 1918], across from the White House, Hunkins and her fellow suffragists immediately embarked on a hunger strike to highlight the terrible conditions at the local jail. Weakened not just by hunger but by contaminated water, the suffragists were released after five days. Hunkins went home in an ambulance. She was arrested one more time in January 1919 for burning Woodrow Wilson’s speeches in “watchfires for freedom” across from the White House. That was her last militant act.” (3)
Hunkins suffered a sprained wrist during her August 1918 arrest. After the hunger strike, she telegrammed her mother, writing, “Am little weak and somewhat poisoned by bad water but feeling fine.”(4)
Carter’s Assistant to the President for Public Liaison Margaret “Midge” Costanza coordinated the signing of the Women’s Equality Day proclamation. During her tenure in the Carter administration Costanza worked with special interest groups and focused on women’s rights, the passage of ERA, and gay and lesbian rights.
A “talking points” memo to Carter, written by speechwriter Jim Fallows (with help from speechwriter Achsah Nesmith), stated, “Hazel Hunkins Hallinan, a close friend and Suffragist ally of Dr. Alice Paul, will be introduced to you. … She was part of the Silent Vigil outside President Wilson’s White House in 1917, where she held a large poster saying, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
The signing event featured more than 70 representatives from women’s organizations such as the National Organization for Women, the National Woman’s Party, and the League of Women Voters, and featured New York Representative Bella Abzug, NWP President Elizabeth Chittick (both visible in several of these photos), and many others. Vice President Walter Mondale also attended.
After the ceremony they and many others marched down Pennsylvania Avenue from Lafayette Park in the Alice Paul Memorial March for the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Washington Post interviewed Hazel Hunkins Hullinan and called her “the last of the sturdy band of women suffragettes of the National Woman’s Party.” She stressed her support for ERA, saying, “Equal rights is so clear-cut; it’s fundamental—a basic change. It really shouldn’t be muddled up with anything else—no side issues. All the other little injustices can be taken on later. For half a cent I would stay here and campaign.” (5)
President Carter gave Hunkins Hallinan the pen he used to sign the Women’s Equality Day proclamation. Hazel Hunkins Hallinan returned to London and continued to fight for women’s rights. She died on May 17, 1982. (6) Tributes to her are currently featured in exhibits at the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Museum in Columbia, Missouri, and at the Western Heritage Center in Billings. She is also the subject of a short C-SPAN video.
1 Ruth Ferris, “Hazel Hunkins, Billings Suffragist: A Primary Source Investigation,” Montana Historical Society, pp. 16, 30-31, retrieved 5 August 2020
2 Roden, Jessica, “Biographical Sketch of Hazel Hunkins Hallinan,” in Online Biographical Dictionary of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920. Database assembled and co-edited by Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Sklar. Alexandria, Va.: Alexander Street Press, 2015, retrieved 5 August 2020
3 Susan Ware, A Tale of Two Suffragists: Hazel Hunkins and Maud Wood Park, Brewminate, March 9, 2020, retrieved 5 August 2020
4 Ferris, p. 79
5 Katherine Conger Kane, Hazel Hunkins Hallinan, Washington Post, August 21, 1977, retrieved 5 August 2020
6 Susan Olp, Billings Woman Fought on the Front Lines for Women’s Suffrage in 1910s, Billings Gazette, July 3, 2017, retrieved 5 August 2020