Ever since volunteering at the Sewall-Belmont House in DC, I’ve been interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement. Which in its second wave, means Alice Paul–the last living suffragette by the 1970s resurgence of the ERA that she authored fifty years earlier.
This past week, I started a two-part session on the history of feminism at the New Haven Free Public Library called “Abigail’s Revenge: How the Women’s Movement Shook Up America.” So the timing was certainly right to head to the Hartford Public Library to hear Z.D. Zahniser talk about her new biography of Alice Paul up to 1920, the year of the suffrage amendment’s passage.
I was fortunate because Bambi from the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, the sponsor of the event, invited me to join her and Jill Zahniser for dinner after the talk. Our conversation was a rousing review of our careers, in light of the pioneers like Paul who went before us. I know I don’t have the courage Paul had or could make the choices she did.
Paul, raised as an unassuming Quaker (not a radical like Susan B. Anthony), first became politicized through Jane Addams’ Hull House, spurring the settlement house movement that put respectable women to work in social activism. These women realized legislative action was needed for real social change. Paul then attended graduate school focusing on political science in the early 1900s and went to England for further study.
There she met the Fighting Pankhursts, gradually becoming involved in their demonstrations for women’s suffrage and learning tactics she would bring back for the American movement. In 1909, she was arrested for the first time for her politics and went on a hunger strike, before being force fed in prison. Ghandi attended meetings of this group and approved of their tactics until they turned more violent – rock throwing, arson, etc. Interesting that Ghandi and Paul were both inspired to make change from the same group.
Upon Paul’s return to the U.S., she was a celebrity. She thought the suffrage movement was just too nice in the U.S. and started the ‘bad girl’ National Women’s Party. The NWP, with 50,000 members, was far more radicalized than the moderate, existing suffrage movement, numbering one million. But NWP made waves. In 1913, Paul organized the first successful “March on Washington,” setting a standard still in use today. Only imagine. Then a woman walking down the street was often confused with street walking.
An amendment to the Constitution was key, Paul believed, and her party was willing to do what it took to upset the President and Congress to make it happen. Paul and her followers were considered traitors for picketing the White House, and she was convicted with a seven month sentence.
Prison conditions were atrocious, the food inedible, and Paul became very weak, was again force fed, and became the lynchpin in the public outcry about how these women were being treated like hardened criminals, rather than as political prisoners. President Wilson finally called for habeas corpus to release Paul and the other suffragettes, and six weeks later, removed his opposition to women’s suffrage.
This is just the cream from the top of the story. Read the biography to learn more. The main lesson, in politics: don’t be nice. Be bad girls. They may not have more fun, but they get the job done.