Alice Paul reshaped the suffrage landscape, changing the course of the American suffrage campaign and subsequent efforts to secure women’s rights. She was the soul and guiding spirit of the final years of the American suffrage movement. Alice Paul, Claiming Power, by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia Fry documents Alice Paul’s legacy as the President of the National Woman’s Party.
Not content to sit idly by and wait for a state-by-state ratification, Alice Paul believed that by holding Woodrow Wilson and his Democratic Party – the party in power – accountable, a constitutional amendment was attainable. Using the tactics of civil disobedience she learned from the controversial and radical Pankhurst sisters, with whom she’d spent time in England, Alice returned to the United States and initially worked with Carrie Chapman Catt under the auspices of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but frustrated by the organizations demure and polite approach, she formed the National Woman’s Party with Lucy Burns, a colleague who had also experienced the militant defiance of the Pankhursts in their fight to win the vote for women in England.
In March of 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns staged a parade of over 5000 women who marched in a parade preceding the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, sending a clear message to Wilson throughout his presidency, that the NWP would hold the party in power accountable for denying women the right to vote. In 1918, after a remarkable campaign to boycott the Democratic party, the Republican party won control of the house.
Ultimately, under Alice Paul’s direction, the National Woman’s Party used protests and hunger strikes to sway public opinion. They ratcheted up the pressure as the United States entered World War I, arguing that it was hypocritical to defend equal rights abroad when women, who comprised half of the population of the United States, were denied equal rights. They staged daily protests outside of the White House with their self-proclaimed Silent Sentinels carrying banners that read, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” and “Mr. President, You say Liberty is the Fundamental Demand of the Human Spirit,” oftentimes being attacked by men who stormed their picket lines, tearing their banners from their hands and ripping them to shreds.
On Bastille Day in 1917, police arrested sixteen sentinels, including six executive committee members of the National Woman’s Party. As the protests continued, more suffragists were arrested and jailed; by September, 23 suffragists were imprisoned. The imprisonment of Alice Paul in late 1917 increased pressure on Wilson exponentially. Following repeated protests, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in jail. I am being imprisoned, she told the press, because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he is obstructing the progress of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad. The imprisoned suffragists staged hunger strikes and were force fed, and ultimately Alice Paul was subjected to an evaluation of her sanity and isolated in the psychiatric ward – completely unwarranted but to force her to give up her fight. Public opinion began to sway. Woodrow Wilson felt the pressure to recommend a constitutional amendment. Finally, on January 9, 1918, Wilson told visiting Democratic congressmen that the Anthony amendment was “an act of right and justice.” The suffrage amendment passed the House with exactly the two-thirds majority required.
I highly recommend Alice Paul, Claiming Power. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage and what better way to celebrate than to learn about the woman who committed her life to the cause. Alice Paul, Claiming Power is a riveting account of Alice Paul’s life and the National Woman’s Party fight to secure the vote for women.
Join Joan Drury in a book discussion at Grand Marais Public Library soon (watch for notices for the event which has been rescheduled considering the current crisis) and listen to my interview with author J.D. Zahniser on May 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and at http://www.wtip.org.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.