Many others who believe, as I do, that this election season has revealed how far women have to go in the fight for full civil and political equality, have noted the work of Alice Paul, the author the Equal Rights Amendment, and a prominent force in the fight for women's suffrage. What many Americans do not realize is what a long, hard fight that was nor how original and intelligent Paul's tactics were. An extended excerpt from one source of information about Paul's life and times (emphases added):
Alice [Paul] and Lucy [Burns] approached the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), having decided to join forces toward a constitutional amendment by directly lobbying congressmen. They were allowed to take over the NAWSA Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., but they had no office, no budget and few supporters. Alice was only 26 years old.
Drawing on her experiences in England, Alice organized the largest parade ever seen -- a spectacle unparalleled in the nation's political capitol -- on March 3, 1913, the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. About 8,000 college, professional, middle- and working-class women dressed in white suffragist costumes marched in units with banners and floats down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. The goal was to gather at the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall. The crowd was estimated at half a million people, with many verbally harassing the marchers while police stood by. Troops finally had to be called to restore order and help the suffragists get to their destination -- it took six hours.
The parade generated more publicity than Alice could have hoped for. Newspapers carried articles for weeks, with politicians demanding investigations into police practices in Washington, and commentaries on the bystanders. The publicity opened the door for the Congressional Committee to lobby congressmen, and the president. On March 17, Alice and other suffragists met with President Wilson, who appeared mildly interested but feigned ignorance and said the time was not right yet. They met two more times that month. She organized another demonstration on April 7, opening day of the new Congress. Also in April, Alice established the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS), sanctioned by NAWSA and dedicated to achieving the federal amendment. By June, the Senate Committee on Women's Suffrage reported favorably on the amendment and senators prepared to debate the issue for the first time since 1887.
In 1915, Alice founded the Woman's Party for women in western states who had the vote already. Then in late 1916, the CUWS and the Woman’s Party merged into the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under Alice's leadership. She called a halt to any more pleading for the right to vote -- instead, she mounted an even more militaristic political campaign demanding passage of the women's suffrage amendment, which she named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
At that point, the women's suffrage fight had already been going on for almost 70 years -- starting in 1848 with a Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The first women's suffrage amendment was presented to Congress in 1878, and reintroduced every year for 40 years, but was never voted on. By 1917, however, support had grown and women were already voting in 12 western states. And in 1916, Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to Congress. But a national suffrage amendment was still no closer to passing.
The NWP staged more demonstrations, parades, mass meetings, picketing, suffrage watch fires, hunger strikes, press communications, and lobbying. It published a stylish Suffragist weekly paper, organizing women in the west who could vote. Their tactic was to hold the party in power (the Democrats) responsible for failure to pass the amendment -- and they urged women who could to vote against Democrats. NAWSA [a rival suffragist group] leaders condemned the policy, saying pro-suffrage politicians were in both parties. Suffragists released from prison, in prison uniforms, rode a "Prison Special" train, speaking throughout the country. Other women held automobile petition drives across the country.
Beginning January 10, 1917, the NWP began picketing the White House -- the first group in the U.S. to wage a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. They became known as the Silent Sentinels, standing silently by the gates, carrying purple, white and gold banners saying "Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?" and "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" The first day, 12 NWP members marched in a slow, square movement so passers-by could see the banners. Over the next 18 months, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice, day and night, winter and summer, every day except Sunday.
At first they were politely ignored, but then World War I began on April 6 and the picketers' signs became more pointed -- often using the president's quotes against him. One banner read: "Democracy Should Begin at Home." They asked, how could he fight to help disenfranchised people when he had disenfranchised people at home? They became an embarrassment.
Spectators began assaulting the women verbally and physically -- while the police did nothing to protect them. Then in June, the police began arresting the picketers on charges of "obstructing traffic." First the charges were dropped, then the women were sentenced to a few days' jail terms. But the suffragists kept picketing, and the jail terms grew longer. Finally, to try to break their spirit, the police arrested Alice on October 20, 1917, and she was sentenced to seven months in prison. The banner she carried that day said:
"THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT." (President Wilson's words)
Alice was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks and immediately began a hunger strike. Unable to walk on her release from there, she was taken to the prison hospital. Others joined the hunger strike. "It was the strongest weapon left with which to continue ... our battle ...," she later said. Then the prison officials put Alice in the "psychopathic" ward, hoping to discredit her as insane. They deprived her of sleep -- she had an electric light, directed at her face, turned on briefly every hour, every night. And they continually threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a notorious asylum in Washington, D.C., as suffering a "mania of persecution." But she still refused to eat. During the last week of her 22-day hunger strike, the doctors brutally forced a tube into her nose and down her throat, pouring liquids into her stomach, three times a day for three weeks. Despite the pain and illness this caused, Alice refused to end the hunger strike.....
I do not know who will win the election this Tuesday. But I know that regardless of who prevails, the time to pick up the banner of Alice Paul has come again. The fight for women's equality has just begun.