Today’s post is about a woman I should have heard of, but have not. She is, for a large part, the reason why women have the right to vote, which was a 72 year battle that ended on August 26, 1920, with the passing of the 19th amendment. It just so happens that August 26 is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. (Yet another fact I did not know.)
In light of the recent event where Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from civil rights activist Coretta Scott King (a silencing that he did not extend to his male counterparts, and a silencing that inevitably backfired), I think recognizing Alice Paul’s contribution to the equality of the sexes is very timely, as there’s still progress to be made (for example, how women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man). Interestingly, Alice Paul was raised as a Hicksite Quaker. The Hicksite Friends “endorsed the concept of gender equality as a central tenet of their religion and a societal norm of Quaker life” and it is obvious that this belief in equality influenced Alice throughout her life, worldviews, and activism.
While Paul led a comfortable life, she did not sit on her heels. After spending time in England and witnessing the suffragist movement there, Alice went from being “reserved” to being a “militant suffragist.” While in England, Paul joined up with the Pankhurst suffragettes, whose motto was “Deeds not words,” and this often meant the breaking of windows, heckling, and the use of other means to raise awareness of the suffrage movement. There were arrests, hunger strikes, and imprisonment. While in prison, Paul saw the following quote written on the cell wall, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” a phrase that appears to be attributed in similar forms to both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The phrase was also used by Susan B. Anthony (another activist for women’s rights who was a Quaker and whose name is much more familiar).
While there was some fracture in the various strategies among suffragists groups to attain equality for women in the U.S., Paul eventually formed the National Woman’s Party in 1916. This group was often deemed “unpatriotic” for picketing during wartime, and the women were often jailed. They even marched on Pennsylvania Avenue during President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration (unfortunately, that march ended with physical violence against the women). After being imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, Paul and her comrades went on a hunger strike. The conditions of the Workhouse were unsanitary, the women were often beaten, and public outcry led to their release. At this point, President Wilson “reversed his position and announced his support” and in 1919, the House and Senate passed the 19th Amendment. It was then ratified in 1920 (thanks to Harry Burn’s mother, who asked her son on the Tennessee assembly to support the amendment).
Did Alice Paul stop with the 19th Amendment? No. She pushed on. She persisted. And, to this day, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), rewritten in 1943 as, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” has yet to be ratified. Many Southern states have failed to support such. It is obvious that the need to persist continues. Silencing someone for gender, sexual orientation, skin color, religious preference, etc. is not acceptable. While McConnell may have stopped Warren from reading King’s letter with his sexist rebuke, he only amplified the need to persist, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” McConnell’s sexism led to a timely reminder to women and other disenfranchised groups that persistence can, and does, pay off.