One person could make a difference. A “Herstory” of the fight against discrimination through the life of Alice Paul, a world-famous suffragette, who was leading a movement for women’s right to vote.
The beginning of the fight
In 1868 two Suffragettes, Susan Brownell Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton declined to support passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution that added legal protection and voting rights to African American men but ignored same rights for white and black women. In 1878, they wrote their amendment, which gives women the right to vote and introduced it to Congress. It was a famous Nineteenth Amendment draft. The Amendment was not approved.
That is how the fight for a half-century of voting rights for women first began. Despite the fact that Susan and Elizabeth did not live long enough to see the ratification of their amendment, that’s them who first outlined the issue. On Election Day in 1920, millions of American women exercised their right to vote for the first time: their efforts started a fight that made it possible.
Tacie Parry, the mother of Alice Paul, was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and her daughter sometimes joined her on suffragists meetings. Later Alice got a good education at Swarthmore College, the University of Pennsylvania and Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. After she had moved to London, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), but it was not the end of her studies. In 1910, Alice earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation was titled “The Legal Position of Women in Pennsylvania”.
Later, after the suffrage fight was over, she grew in her education to a Doctor Degree in Civil Law at American University.
“There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.”
Alice Paul was already involved in social work, when, after Christabel Pankhurst had her famous speech at the University of Birmingham, she realised that to fight the American injustice she needs to embrace more radical methods. Alice Paul thought that women could achieve their goals only if they act as a soldier in a battle for their rights.
So Alice started her political career as a member of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain. Since 1909, she has been one of the most famous figures of the Suffrage movement. Alice organised demonstrations and major party events and was arrested. She resorted to hunger strikes during the arrests and put herself physically on the line defending her beliefs.
In 1910, Alice returned to the United States to promote suffrage movement in the home country. She started to participate in National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) rallies and soon moved to Washington and got a chair in NAWSA’s Congressional Committee.
One of the most famous events that Alice organised in the US was the Woman Suffrage Procession in 1913. It was held a day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. For a few weeks, she brought together eight thousand people from different states into a march, united by a fight against injustice. Insufficient protection of the police led to the near-riot situation while a half-million crowd of onlookers crowded the women. The help came from students of the Maryland Agricultural College, who made a human barrier so that demonstrators could pass. That incident initiated a public discussion about the police response with a significant sympathy to NAWSA.
After this march the suffragettes had focused on lobbying constitutional amendment, that was written by Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton in 1878. Alice’s radical practices caused controversy inside NAWSA and finally party insiders opposed her methods. Later, in 1916 Alice formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
Suffragettes actively used non-violent methods of civil disobedience: chained themselves to the gates, sat down on the rails, organised demonstrations and marches carrying huge banners. They often were arrested and in response they turned to hunger strikes.
The government could not stand the perspective of someone becoming a martyr for the movement in case some suffragette died in prison and introduced the ‘Cat and Mouse Act.’ According to the act, a Suffragette could be released ‘on temporary licence’ if she became too weak (through lack of food). If suffragette has committed an offence during this period, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. The act’s name hints a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.
The longest arrest happened in 1917 while Alice spent seven months in jail. In protest against horrible conditions, she started a hunger strike and soon was placed in the prison’s psychiatric ward.
In the article Alice Paul describes force feeding, that was a wide-spread practice to handle suffragette’s hunger strikes: “Twice the tube came through my mouth, and I got it between my teeth. My mouth was then pried open with an instrument. Sometimes they tied me to a chair with sheets. Once I managed to get my hands loose and snatched the tube, tearing it with my teeth. I also broke a jug, but I did not give in”.
Women get rights to vote
There were many attempts to pass the Nineteenth Amendment: in 1878, 1914, 1915 and 1918 (while Wilson asked the Senate to support it) and in February of 1919, but all of them failed. For the last attempt, it was the fight for a few voices. Eventually, in May 1919, the Senate accidently supported the amendment with 42 votes more than necessary, and women finally get their right to vote.
Alice’s work on defending women rights did not stop; she took part in many other protections and amendments for human rights.
“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” Alice Paul
Alice Paul was active until her death in 1974 at the age of 92 in Moorestown, New Jersey not far from her birthplace and childhood home at Paulsdale. Now in this ‘home farm’, there is a museum of Alice Paul.
In her honour in 1884 was founded an Institute in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
They describe their mission: “Using the life and work of Alice Paul as a model, the Alice Paul Institute seeks to educate and empower women to serve as catalysts for people to recognise and acknowledge the relationship between their lives and the larger social, economic and philosophical movement toward women’s equality.”
The events of the early 20th century featured in an “Iron Jawed Angels” movie by director Katja von Garnier, where Hilary Swank played the role of Alice Paul.
The incredible life of the woman with a keen sense of justice raises questions about the role of a person in history and the importance of Alice’s work on equality. One person could make a difference indeed.