Friday, January 11, 2013

Alice Paul—The Suffragist Who Wouldn’t Shut Up

Alice Paul leading her parade for suffrage  when Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated,

Alice Paul,  the Feminist and Suffragist whose steely nerves and militancy did much to finally secure passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was born in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey on January 11, 1885.  Her father was a wealthy and successful banker who raised his family at Paulsdale, a comfortable “gentleman’s” farm.  The family were devout Hicksite Quakers who lived simply, if comfortably and who valued social responsibility and gender equality.  Paul later credited her family and upbringing for the strength to dedicate her life to the cause of women’s equality.  She said that her mother taught her, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row.”
Growing up in this loving environment, Paul excelled at school both as a scholar and as an athlete, competing basketball, baseball, and field hockey in addition to playing tennis on her home court and becoming a fine horsewoman.
In 1901 Paul entered Swarthmore College, a Quaker school for women which her maternal grandfather Judge William Parry helped to found.  She studied under many of the leading female academics in the country.  The advice of mathematics professor Susan Cunningham became her life long motto, “Use thy gumption.” She was an outstanding student, elected the class poetess and a commencement speaker at graduation in 1905.
Upon graduation, Paul went to work as a social worker at a New York City settlement house.  In 1907 she went to England to study advanced methods at the Woodbrooke Settlement in Birmingham.  While in the country she met Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, leaders of a new militant suffrage movement which was making a sensation by using direct action tactics such as publicly heckling politicians, window smashing, and rock throwing, to raise public awareness. Although the press and establishment were outraged, the movement was building pressure for change in a way that years of genteel persuasion had not.  Paul enthusiastically joined the movement and was arrested several times.  On one occasion she boated that she broke more than forty windows before she was pinched. 
When Paul returned to the United States in 1910 she was determined to introduce the British methods to the languishing American movement.  Although there had been some success in getting some states to extend the franchise to women, particularly in the West following the example of Wyoming, resistance in the East and South had ground progress to a halt.  As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania she joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and soon advanced to a leadership role.  Although the national organization remained committed to a state-by-state strategy as its top priority, Paul was made Chair of the Congressional Committee with the responsibility of lobbying for Federal action.
In 1912 Paul, Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman went to Washington.  Adopting then Pankhurst model the trio organized a massive suffrage parade to correspond with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.  The parade on March 3 down Pennsylvania Avenue was led by the beautiful blonde lawyer and activist Inez Milholland astride a white horse in flowing Greek robes.  Behind her, Paul and her friends, also on horseback, led thousands of women, and a few men, on parade.  The procession was quickly attacked by mobs of men along the route, throwing rocks and battering participants with clubs and fists as the police stood by without intervening.  The subsequent national front page publicity crowded out news of the inauguration and put suffrage squarely back at the center of then national debate.
Paul’s continued militancy in Washington soon put her at odds with the venerable leader of the NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt, who stood by her state-by-state strategy and had endorsed Wilson for President and was trying to woo Democrats to support suffrage.  Paul wanted to “hold the President accountable” for failing to press for action.  After working as a semi-autonomous affiliate of the NAWSA called the Congressional Union, the breach became irreparable in 1914 and Paul’s group severed ties with the national organization.  Two years later they reorganized as the National Women’s Party (NWP.)
The NWP began to organize regular Silent Sentinel protests at the gates of the White House holding signs harshly criticizing the President.  Wilson treated the protestors with bemusement at first, even tipping his hat to them as he passed by.  But the savagery of their attacks angered him.  He fully expected that when the U.S. entered the World War in 1917, the protests would end in a display of national unity.  They did not.  Paul stepped up the rhetoric, even referring to the President as “Kaiser Wilson.”  On several occasions Paul and her friends were physically attacked.  Wilson finally ordered the arrests of the women on charges of interfering with traffic.  They had to be hauled away physically, struggling the whole time.
The charges themselves were not serious, but Paul and others refused to pay fines or cooperate in any way.  They were jailed.  When let out the returned and were arrested again.  Eventually they were sent to a prison in Virginia, Occoquan Workhouse.  Conditions were harsh and the women were abused and beaten.  In protest Paul led a hunger strike.  As the women grew weaker from the strike, they were ordered to be force fed raw eggs though a tube physically shoved down the struggling women’s throats. Several elderly and frail protestors were seriously injured in this way.  Paul remained defiant and she was placed in an asylum as authorities sought to have her declared insane.
But several of the women had high social connections, including the spouse of a Congressman.  Word of their brutal treatment began to leak out.  Public sympathy began to sway to the defiant women and against the Wilson administration.  Exasperated, Wilson finally declared his support of a Federal Constitutional Amendment for women’s suffrage as a “war measure” and in recognition of the contribution of women to the effort.  He made no mention of Paul or the NWP, but no one doubted that their stubborn militancy had forced his hand.
Upon release form prison, Paul stepped up lobbying efforts on behalf of the amendment.  Both houses of Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919.  Then the battle moved to ratification by state legislature the state-by-state struggle advocated by Catt was back on.  The NAWSA and NWP played a kind of “good cop/bad cop” tag team on state legislatures with Catt’s group wooing them with compliments and kindness, and Paul threatening disruption and defiance. 
It proceeded, all things considered, with astonishing speed. On August 19, 1920 Tennessee passed the Amendment with one vote, securing the necessary support to become a part of the Constitution.  When the Secretary of State certified at the adoption on August 26, Paul and her cohorts proudly unfolded a banner on the NWP headquarters building in Washington and toasted the event—with grape juice, of course.
The achievement of the long sought goal actually perplexed women’s organizations.  Many did not know what they should do.  The NAWSA dissolved.  Many of its leaders went on to found the League of Women Voters.  Others shifted their attention to other social causes.
Paul remained determined to achieve complete social equality.  For her, the franchise was just one step.  Many states still had discriminatory property laws, marriage still made women virtual chattel of their husbands, and women’s employment opportunities and wages everywhere lagged men.
In 1923 on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Paul announced that she would be working for a new constitutional amendment called the Lucretia Mott Amendment.   Drafted by Paul, the amendment read:
Section 1. Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The amendment would soon become better known simply as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  Paul would spend the rest of her life trying to win its support and passage.  By the late 1940’s both Republicans and Democrats had endorsed the amendment in their platforms and several states had adopted it.  But progress stalled until a new generation of feminists took up the struggle in the 1970’s.
After the victory in 1923 Paul went on to win three degrees in law from Washington University and American University.  She travelled extensively in Latin America and Europe promoting the cause of women’s equality everywhere.  In 1938 she settled in Geneva, Switzerland where she founded the World Woman's Party (WWP), which tried to advance women’s rights through the League of Nations.  She returned to the U.S. in 1941.  In the post war years she used her experience with the WWP and the League of Nations to support the inclusion of gender equality in the United Nations Charter and backed the establishment of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Paul led a coalition that won approval—some say by convincing some southern law makers to support an amendment in hopes of killing the whole bill—of the inclusion women in the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would have greater and farther reaching consequences for equality than any action since the adoption of the 19th Amendment.

Paul never married.  He work was her life.  From 1929 her primary residence was the house on Capital Hill that her wealthy friend Alva Belmont bought years earlier as the headquarters of the NWP.  Today it is preserved as the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, dedicated to Paul, and the U.S. women's suffrage and equal-rights movements.

After suffering a disabling stroke in 1974, Paul eventually moved to the  Quaker Greenleaf Extension Home in Moorestown Township, New Jersey, near her family home of Paulsdale.  She died there at the age of 92 on July 9, 1977.

In 1985 the Alice Paul Institute was formed to preserve Paulsdale and establish it as women’s heritage and leadership center.

Despite her many accomplices, Paul’s memory faded.  Public awareness centered on the first generation of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Caddy Stanton.  Paul’s aggressiveness—and her embarrassment to the memory of Woodrow Wilson, who had unjustifiably been canonized a liberal saint primarily for his support of the League of Nations—caused her to be written out of many popular accounts of the fight for suffrage.  Her reputation got a big boost with the 2004 HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels starring Hillary Swank as Paul.  The film is still regularly shown and has become a staple of women’s history classes and projects.

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