As the year winds down the media stream is inundated with lists of political accomplishments, policy and presidential reviews and all of our hopes for 2010. Amid this maelstrom, I continue to remember that it was still in the last century that women were given the right to participate in the political process by voting and that the coming year's contests of candidates and legislation can, and should, be part of a modern feminist dialogue. In that light, today's Feministory focuses on a woman who worked tirelessly and radically through much of the twentieth century to secure equal rights for women: Alice Paul.
Alice Paul was born on January 11, 1885 in New Jersey to Quaker parents. Her religious background was influential in her life's work, as she was raised from her first days in a home where gender equality was not a question, but an expectation. Her mother, Tacie, was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and would bring Alice to association meetings and hold gatherings in the family home as well. Her parents also made higher education a priority. Tacie had attended college, but had been forced to drop out in her senior year when she married, as married women were not allowed to attend Swarthmore. Alice would begin her first year at Swarthmore in 1901 and graduate four years later with a degree in biology and a firm belief in the intelligence and ability of women to affect change.
After college, Alice went to England and observed the successes and challenges of women's agitation for voting rights in England. Alice returned to the United States in 1910 influenced by her experiences as part of Emmeline Parkhurst's radical organization. Sensing the potential for sea change on Europe's enfranchisement horizons, she dedicated herself to re-energizing the American campaign in kind.
Falling in with other leaders of the women's movement back in the states and joining the NAWSA, Alice participated in the March on Washington organized to coincide with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson on March 3, 1913. The parade was intended to create a media spectacle and draw attention to women's hopes for Wilson's administration and their growing impatience with the status quo. The parade turned ugly however when male spectators began to heckle the marchers. Their words turned to fists, and the police stood by and watched the physical attack of the women. The media picked up on the violent outburst of course, and the public became aware of a new breed of suffragette on the march in Washington.
As the years wore on and nothing was done to legally secure voting rights for women, Alice broke from the NAWSA, led by Carrie Chapman Catt at the time, and formed the National Women's Party in 1916. Where Catt was looking to focus the organization's resources on lobbying and insider relationships to change laws, Alice relied on her experiences in England, using protest and to foment political unease and direct national attention toward forced change.
Regular vigils outside the White House and clever, incendiary signs certainly gained the NWP the desired attention, but as World War I intensified and the United States became more deeply involved in the fighting, the protests of the suffragettes came to be seen by some as unpatriotic and vaguely treasonous. President Wilson eventually authorized the arrest of female protesters under the pretense of "obstructing traffic" and had these women jailed outside of the state at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.
At the workhouse, Alice galvanized her fellow inmates to behave as political prisoners, and lead hunger strikes until their demands would be heard by the powers that be. Their behavior resulted instead in brutal treatment by the guards, and many of the older frailer female prisoners were sickened or injured by the dark cells, inadequate food, rat bites and physical assaults. Upon her eventual release, Alice would take the story of her experiences at Occoquan to the press in hopes that public outcry would lead to intensified support.
Her tactic was successful— public sentiments over the imprisonment led Wilson to reverse his position on women's right to vote in 1917. In 1919 the House and Senate passed the 19th amendment and it was on the books.
Alice would go on fight for passage of an Equal Rights Amendment her entire life, though it would never be ratified by the states. She also led a coalition which successfully won the addition of a sexual discrimination clause to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She never stopped learning or travelling, earning a doctorate in sociology and three law degrees, and living in Europe and South America for nearly 30 years.
Alice Paul died on July 9, 1977, but certainly her work is not forgotten. I know I shall add her name to those who I am grateful to every time I step into the voting booth.