05 March 2007

Celebrate Women's History Month

Several years ago, in order to commemorate Women's History Month, I compiled some short biographies on a number of notable and extraordinary American women. I posted those bios on my class webpage where I teach. While I feel a little guilty republishing materials that I wrote two years ago--I think these brief narratives are still extremely relevant (besides, my students didn't read them anyway). These are all women that I find inspiring--and I hope my own young nieces (and nephew) will read about these remarkable women instead of wasting time on presidents, generals, and other stale defenders of the capitalist status quo.

Alice Paul (1885–1977)

suffragist, feminist leader, founder of the Congressional Union

Alice Paul (pictured above) was an ardent fighter for women’s rights. She organized one of the first major marches in Washington, D.C. in 1917 on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Paul used more radical means for her crusades, such as staging hunger strikes and picketing the White House, and she was arrested numerous times. After women won suffrage, she turned her attention to other rights. She founded the National Woman’s Party and drafted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. She worked for its passage into the 1970s, although it never became a law.

Alice Paul was born into a Quaker family in Moorestown, New Jersey. Raised in an intellectual and religious environment, she graduated from Swarthmore in 1905 and then attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later Columbia University School of Social Work), the University of Pennsylvania, and a training school for Quakers in Woodbridge, England. While in England she served as a case worker for a London settlement house. It was there were she was enlisted by England's militant suffragists Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst. Her education as an activist was solidified through a series of arrests, imprisonments, and hunger strikes. She quickly and adeptly learned how to generate publicity for the cause and how to capitalize on that publicity.

On her return to the United States in 1910, she earned a Ph.D. in sociology and then began her rise in the American suffrage movement. In 1914 she co-founded the Congressional Union, an organization dedicated to seeking a federal constitutional amendment for woman suffrage. In 1916, she founded the National Woman's party. She led pickets at the White House and Congress and despite America's entry into World War I she refused to abandon her radical tactics. She and her colleagues were arrested and imprisoned; they engaged in hunger strikes and endured forced feedings at the hands of authorities. Ultimately, President Wilson made a federal suffrage amendment a war measures priority, a stand he had previously refused to take. Paul was a pivotal force in the passage and ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment.

In 1923, Paul proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. It took some time, but by 1944 Paul had secured acceptance of an era plank in the platforms of both major political parties. She continued to provide inspiration to new generations of women's rights activists until her death in 1977.

Throughout her life, Alice Paul remained personally conservative and professionally demanding of both herself and her colleagues. She did not relinquish power readily nor could she be easily persuaded to depart from the methods and tactics she had learned from the Pankhursts in England. But her vision for women always transcended her conservatism and rigidity. "I think if we get freedom for women, then they are probably going to do a lot of things that I wish they wouldn't do," she said shortly before her death. "But it seems to me that it isn’t our business to say what they should do with it. It is our business to see that they get it."

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