March is Women’s History Month, and the Archivist has chosen to bring you a brief story of one of the most important women in the 20th century, who very few people know anything about.
When most people think about the women’s suffrage movement, they recall names like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and (maybe) Lucretia Mott. These women were titans in the early women’s rights movements. They had cut their teeth in the anti-slavery crusades of the 19th century. In 1848, many of them met at Seneca Falls, NY and issued a declaration of rights, symbolically proclaiming the equality of women to men. Following the Civil War, Congress granted citizenship and suffrage to black men, but left women out. Stanton, Anthony, Mott and many others were furious and started a separate campaign for female equality.
By 1906, Stanton, Anthony and Mott were dead. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920. Who carried on the struggle? The most prominent figure in the movement then was Alice Paul, a woman most of you probably have not heard of. Paul was born in New Jersey and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. She traveled to England and worked on the suffrage campaign there. She was radical, even for today. For example, the Prime Minister of England was giving a speech, which Paul and associates had infiltrated and, utilizing tactics reminiscent of the famous mic checks of the Occupy Movement, Paul interrupted the PM during his speech by knocking out the windows with her shoes and screaming, “Votes for women!”
She came back to Washington in 1912 and immediately began working for an amendment promoting female suffrage. Her tactics were always nonviolent, preceding Gandhi and MLK. Paul organized marches, some of which ended violently when men attacked the female marchers. Paul organized boycott campaigns against Democrats. Suffragists lobbied Congress every day. Paul organized demonstrations where they read Woodrow Wilson’s speeches and burned them, and then burned Wilson in effigy. The White House was not receptive, so Paul and her associates began picketing the White House, an unconventional tactic at the time. They continued the picket even when war broke out in Europe, even when Americans traveled across the Atlantic to fight (which was controversial, even among suffragists). Hundreds of women were arrested and, while imprisoned, started a hunger strike in protest of their treatment. Authorities at the prison put Paul in a psychiatric ward and force-fed her. News of the imprisonment, brutal treatment, and hunger strike leaked out and embarrassed Wilson and the Democrats.
Alice Paul’s leadership put intense pressure on Congress and on the Wilson administration to pass the 19th Amendment. Once the vote for women was secured, Paul began immediately working on the Equal Rights Amendment – an amendment which has yet to pass. Paul has been relegated to the dustbin of history, partly because she never had a skill for self-promotion like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But Paul was also radical, and American history likes to remember moderates. It’s why we revere Abraham Lincoln, but forget Radical Republicans. It’s why we remember the Martin Luther King of 1963 who had a dream, and not the King of 1967 who was intensely critical of capitalism and the war in Vietnam. This month, while we celebrate amazing women, we should also remember and celebrate Alice Paul.