American Magazine

 
  • RSS
  • Print

Rewriting History: Alice Paul's Battle for the Ballot

Author Mary Walton.

Alice Paul’s battle for the ballot might just be the most riveting story you’ve never heard.

“It’s the Rocky story; it’s David and Goliath. It was Alice against the president — and the whole United States government,” says writer Mary Walton. “And it’s all but left out of the history books.”

Walton’s new biography, A Woman’s Crusade, aims to fill in the blanks, chronicling Paul’s transformation from studious Quaker girl to the leader of the militant wing of the American suffrage movement.

A three-time graduate of American University and the Washington College of Law (WCL), Paul picked up where Susan B. Anthony left off, leading the charge for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.

In 1913, on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, she staged a grand parade along Pennsylvania Avenue, which drew 5,000 suffragettes from across the country. Taunted and attacked by hostile, drunken men along the route, the marchers were led by what came to be known as the ‘Great Demand’ banner. Despite the pageantry of the day — the women wore beautiful robes in a rainbow of colors: teachers in blue and artists in rose — the banner cut to the quick.

We demand an amendment to the constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of the country.

“‘Demand’ wasn’t a word women used back then. They asked politely,” says Walton. “Today we wouldn’t think twice about that but, in the early twentieth century, that was revolutionary.

“And that was Alice. She was a master strategist, a skilled fund raiser, a talented publicist. She constantly came up with new ways to keep the issue alive and out front. As a newspaper reporter, I could appreciate that,” laughs Walton, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A year after founding the National Woman’s Party in 1916, Paul and her “Silent Sentinels” became the first protesters to picket the White House. As cordial slogans — “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” — gave way to more aggressive tactics — “Kaiser Wilson: Have you forgotten how you sympathized with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed?” — Paul and her followers were continually tossed in jail, force-fed, and brutalized.

“The Silent Sentinels became something of a tourist attraction in Washington. In those days, it was shocking to see proper women — wives and mothers, married to professionals or professionals themselves, students from the best women’s schools — holding banners in front of the White House,” explains Walton.

“Women had picketed before, but the idea of picketing a sitting president — especially during wartime — was very sophisticated and original,” she continues. “Alice must have recognized that being attacked and arrested would increase visibility — and that’s exactly what happened.”

After Wilson announced his support for the amendment in early 1919, the House and Senate followed suit. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly — by a one-vote margin — became the 36th state legislature to ratify the amendment, granting American women the right to vote. Paul toasted the victory, 72 years in the making, with a glass of grape juice outside the National Woman’s Party’s Lafayette Square headquarters.

And while Walton’s story ends there, Paul’s did not.

A graduate of Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, Paul earned her LLB from WCL in 1922 — one year before she authored the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Over the next six years, she picked up two more law degrees from AU and WCL, which officially merged in 1949.

Paul’s legal schooling served her well. The National Woman’s Party would draft 600 pieces of legislation over the next decades, 300 of which passed.

“Alice knew that the challenges ahead would be legal battles,” says Walton. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, “the playing field changed; it became more technical and suddenly the women were dealing with treaties, charters, and civil rights law.”

In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Paul began the public push for the ERA. Also known as the Lucretia Mott Amendment after the influential nineteenth-century feminist, the ERA called for absolute equality, stating that “men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”

In the battle for the ballot, Paul was known for her zeal and tenacity. And while she fought for the ERA with the same dogged determination, the legislation didn’t find its way to the Senate for another 49 years. It passed both houses of Congress in 1972 — five years before Paul’s death at age 92 — but was never ratified.

“By then, she was regarded as sort of irrelevant, not by younger feminists, but by the press,” says Walton. “She had nothing new to say, it was always ‘ERA, ERA, ERA.’ And then she sort of vanished.”

Paul spent her last years in a nursing home in her native New Jersey, where she continued to talk up the ERA to anyone who would listen, imploring one nurse to “take up the mantle . . . and further the cause of women.”

“That was Alice: no one else devoted themselves so completely to the movement,” says Walton.

A Woman’s Crusade, which has won praise from historians, policy makers, and feminists alike, represents five years of work. A resident of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, Walton spent hundreds of hours in the nearby Rutgers University library, combing through more than 80 reels of microfilm records from the National Woman’s Party. Though it was tedious work, Walton relished the discovery of “a fact, a colorful anecdote, a quote” that helped bring the battle for the ballot to life.

“It was the little things that impressed me,” says Walton. “When Alice was giving fund-raising advice to the women who set up a booth at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, she told them: ‘Don’t immediately ask for money for a phone. Let someone see you borrow a phone, then ask. Wait until the need is upon you.’

“No one else could do what Alice did,” continues Walton. “She personified suffrage. She was the cause.”