Politics and Performance: Alice Paul

1 Comment

Born into a wealthy Quaker family in 1885, Alice Paul followed their long tradition of service to the community. After her early education at a private Quaker school, she graduated from Swarthmore College, which her grandfather had helped to found. Next she moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, hoping to discover how she wanted to spend her life. After trying social work in New York City for a year, she decided that would not be her route. Instead she traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics.

Alice Paul

While in London, she met Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, two leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading suffragette organization in the UK. Both of the Pankhursts recognized Paul’s talent for giving speeches and for organizing. Soon she was invited to join a deputation of women to visit Prime Minister Asquith. The contemptuous response with which the group was met—the women were barred from entering Parliament to present their petition and were threatened with arrest—converted Paul into an enthusiastic supporter of votes for women. She soon agreed to join Christabel for a tour of Scotland and northern England.

As Paul soon learned, the tactics of British suffragettes were far more confrontational than anything American women had tried. In June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop staged the first women’s hunger strike by refusing to eat until she and the others were granted status as political prisoners. Dunlop soon grew weak from hunger and authorities were afraid to keep her in prison and so released her early. Other suffragettes realized that the hunger strike was an effective weapon to draw attention and support to their movement.

When a group of suffragettes, including Paul, were arrested after attempting to disrupt a speech by Lloyd George, they were arrested and ordered to pay fines or go to prison. All of them chose prison. They were denied status as political prisoners and ordered to change into prison uniforms. When they refused to comply, they were stripped naked by female guards. This, of course, led to a hunger strike. As the women grew weaker and visibly lost weight, authorities feared that a death would reflect badly upon the government. Finally, doctors were brought in to forcibly feed the women through tubes inserted into their noses.  After five days of this, Alice Paul was released; others were freed during the next few days. All of the women were weakened by the ordeal and Paul suffered for years afterward from the physical effects of the force feeding.

Now completely dedicated to the cause of suffrage, Paul decided it was time to return to America and work for the cause there. She sailed back home in 1910 to the great relief of her mother who had been fretting for weeks over when she would return. Instead of plunging immediately into suffrage work, Paul decided to re-enroll in the University of Pennsylvania to work on a doctorate. While she wrote her dissertation on women’s legal status in the United States, Paul also spoke to Quaker groups about her suffragist activities. She soon joined the American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and became an influential member. 

Although NAWSA had chosen to fight for suffrage on a state-by-state basis, Alice Paul advocated attempting to pass a federal women’s suffrage amendment as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had advocated years earlier. A major factor in choosing to aim for the state-by-state was to keep the support of Southern states, many of which wanted to maintain their repression of all African American voters, both men and women.

Alice Paul’s first major project was a suffrage parade held on March 13,1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Suffrage groups from all over the country sent representatives to Washington to participate in what was planned as a triumphant march up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. Paul worked hard to ensure that the parade was given permission to use that major street, despite attempts by the DC authorities to move the group to a less conspicuous location. Eventually Paul got her way and even obtained the promise of the police commissioner to keep other traffic off the parade route.

At the last minute, suffrage delegations from the various states were told that their groups should be separated by race with African Americans at the rear of the procession and white women up front. This was an effort to keep the support of Southern states, but the order was ignored by a few marchers including Ida B. Wells who triumphantly walked at the head of the Illinois delegation with the white women. There is some confusion about whether or not Alice Paul supported the segregation decision.

Despite all the planning, the march did not go as expected. The event was led by mounted suffrage leaders, most notably Inez Milholland riding a white horse, a scene that was described by the New York Times as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country”. Despite their promises, the authorities provided no police protection and people crowded onto the street holding up the parade and preventing women from moving. Police stood by doing nothing. Finally National Guard troops and Boy Scouts as well as some male volunteers were able to clear the street and allow the women to finish their march.

Inez Milholland

The 1913 procession was a triumph for the suffrage women. More than half a million people are estimated to have watched it, but the stain of the segregated march has lingered. The event is a sad comment on the contrasting event led by Lucretia Mott in 1838 during which the women of both races linked arms and walked together out of a Philadelphia meeting to evade hecklers in the group.

The 1913 march succeeded in bringing suffrage to the forefront of publicity, but years of continuing agitation and political maneuvering were needed before a national suffrage bill was finally passed in 1920. You can read more about Alice Paul’s long fight to get votes for women in Alice Paul: Claiming Power (2014) by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry.       

Pioneers of Women’s Voting

3 Comments

The 2020 election is approaching quickly. For the first time ever more than one woman has decided to run for president. It’s been a long time coming, but women are finally taking their places among the leaders of the country. And it all started with the right to vote!

During this election year, women across the country will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of  the passage of the 19th amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. A hundred years may seem like a long time, but what many of us have forgotten is that it took much longer than a hundred years for women to win that right.

When Europeans  settled in North America, they carried with them traditional European voting traditions. Women didn’t vote—period. Of course there were a few exceptions. The first recorded vote legally cast by an American woman was in 1756 when Lydia Taft voted at a township meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft, a wealthy widow, was allowed to vote in place of her recently deceased husband in an election designed to settle the question of whether the town should support the French and Indian War.

The reason for allowing Taft to vote was based on the idea of “no taxation without representation” and not on the fact that women should be given a vote. At that time, and for many years afterward, the right to vote was limited to property owners. It was wealth that gave a person the right to vote. Men owned almost all property, therefore they controlled all the votes.

Twenty years after Lydia Taft had voted, Massachusetts and the other British North American colonies declared their independence from England. As representatives from the thirteen colonies met in the Continental Congress, another Massachusetts woman asked about whether women would have a voice in the new country. Abigail Adams did not directly call for votes for women, but she raised the question of women’s rights.

On March 31, 1776, in a letter to her husband, John Adams, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, Abigail wrote: [I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Abigail Adams

That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.  

Mail between Massachusetts and Philadelphia moved slowly in 1776 and it was not until April 14 that Abigail received an answer.

John Adams wrote: As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented… We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.

Well, as we all know, the men at the Continental Congress did not yield to the hated “despotism of the petticoat”. They laughed and dismissed Abigail Adams’s quiet suggestion that women be given a voice in government. As far as we know, Abigail never again pressed her husband on the subject of women’s rights. But the idea did not fade away.

After the United States became an independent country, voting rights for men were expanded. State by state starting in the 1820s, property ownership was gradually dropped as a voting requirement. By 1860, almost all white men in the country were allowed to vote. It would take another sixty years for white women to get the same right. But women did not forget and many continued to remind men to “remember the ladies” as  Abigail Adams had asked.

Over the next few months, leading up to the Centennial year of 2020, I plan to write about some of the less well-known figures who helped to ensure that right.

Don’t Just Watch the Vote

1 Comment

women-voting-WyoBlood pressure must have soared these past few weeks all across America as fury reigned in Washington over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The struggle pitted not only Republicans against Democrats, but often men against women. People couldn’t even agree on what the argument was about. Was the basic question whether or not Kavanaugh had committed a sexual assault 36 years ago? Or was it about whether his overwrought, hysterical claim that “leftists” had conspired against him revealed a glaringly unjudicial temperament?

What we are left with now is a Supreme Court that reflects the views of only a minority of Americans. Many of the justices’ decisions will be questioned because by people who believe their views have not been heard and their wishes have not been respected. In part this is because in recent years gerrymandering and voter suppression in the states have kept many people’s votes from being heard. But far more tragically, many people did not vote because they just did not bother. Demonstrating against Congressional actions that seem unfair may make people feel good, but voting is far more effective for changing the country.

Women especially, whose voting rights were earned with so much pain and bitterness, should feel particularly guilty if they don’t vote regularly. It is hard to believe that only 43% of women who were eligible to vote in the 2014 Midterm elections cast a ballot. We can do better than that.

Now that the 2018 Midterms are only a few weeks away, how are women going to respond? There are more female candidates running for office than ever before, but they need the support of women who may never run for office, but who can surely vote and ensure they are represented by people who reflect their views.

When we look back at the history of women’s voting, there is a lot to inspire us. Susan B. Anthony and a group of women went to the polls in Rochester, N.Y. in 1872 and voted,Susan Anthony voting claiming that they had the constitutional right to do so. Local authorities did not agree and arrested the women. The judge at Anthony’s trial did not allow the jurors to discuss the case, but directed them to find Anthony guilty. He fined her $100, which she refused to pay, hoping to move the case to the Supreme Court, but the judge successfully blocked that path by refusing to send her to jail. Nonetheless, the trial generated a lot of publicity and advanced the prospect of women’s suffrage.

We’ve come a long way since those days, but now that we have the vote, it is up to us to use it. Unless women are active participants in elections, they will not be treated as equal to the powerful men who run the country. Now is the time to register and vote!