Alice Paul’s enduring legacy of nonviolent action

    Suffragists picketing in front of the White House in 1917. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

    Turning points are easier to recognize long after they’ve occurred than while they’re taking place. One of those shifts happened 100 years ago next month, setting in motion a dramatic strategy to achieve a goal first set 70 years before at the historic Seneca Falls Convention for women’s equality: passing a constitutional amendment establishing the right of women to vote. Along the way this new direction would galvanize public opinion, provoke a brutal backlash from the government — including “the night of terror” that took place 95 years ago today, November 15, 1917 — and prompt a transformation of political thinking that cleared the way for the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

    The appointment of Alice Paul as the Congressional Committee chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) at the organization’s December 1912 convention in Philadelphia turned out to be this kind of catalyzing step. It revived a debate in the movement about how the goal of voting rights would be met — and it opened the door to the use of electrifying nonviolent action as a key to mobilizing the people power needed to dislodge an ancient plank of patriarchy. A century later we still have much to learn from this relentless agent for social change.

    NAWSA, with its roots in the universal suffrage movement that began in the 1860s, focused on lobbying state governments as a path to voting rights. Paul, by contrast, believed — as did the earliest proponents of women’s rights in the U.S., including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — that the surest route was passing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Immediately after becoming committee chairwoman, Paul pursued this direction by pouring her energy into organizing highly visible, public actions focused on the federal government, especially President Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

    Paul’s organizing vision was rooted less in her academic accomplishments — just before taking her NAWSA post she finished her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Pennsylvania — than in the hands-on training she received from the premier women’s suffrage organizers in Britain, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, whom she met and began collaborating with while studying social work. The Pankhursts’ motto was “Deeds, not words.” According to the Alice Paul Institute: “Believing that prayer, petitions, and patience was not enough to successfully enfranchise women, the Pankhursts engaged in direct and visible measures, such as heckling, window smashing, and rock throwing, to raise public aware about the suffrage issue. Their notoriety gained them front-page coverage on many London newspapers, where they were seen being carried away in handcuffs by the police.”

    Paul, who joined in the Pankhurst actions and was jailed on several occasions, drew a key principle from this militancy: Actions must be undertaken that are visible, dramatic, capable of awakening the public and designed to empower women. When she returned to the U.S. in 1910, she said, “The militant policy is bringing success. … The agitation has brought England out of her lethargy, and women of England are now talking of the time when they will vote, instead of the time when their children would vote, as was the custom a year or two back.”

    Rather than replicating the tactics of her British counterparts in the U.S. context, she was intent on recreating the dynamic they had achieved by organizing actions that brought maximum exposure to the issue.

    She first organized the counter-inaugural Woman’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 on March 3, the day before President Wilson’s first inauguration. Five thousand women marched up Pennsylvania Avenue “in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded,” as the official program stated. The parade included 20 floats, nine marching bands, four mounted brigades and featured notables, including Helen Keller. It was led by lawyer Inez Millholland, who was riding a white horse. The marchers, though, were harassed by “scores of male onlookers [who] attacked the suffragists, first with insults and obscenities, and then with physical violence, while the police stood by and watched.” This led to a Senate hearing, the replacement of the police superintendent and widespread national publicity.

    The NAWSA had endorsed the parade but provided very little support, leaving Paul to do most of the work of organizing volunteers and raising funds. This signaled the underlying divergence in strategies, which eventually led to Paul breaking with the NAWSA and founding the National Women’s Party (NWP). After Wilson won re-election, the NWP organized the “Silent Sentinels,” which were groups of women who picketed daily in front of the White House, beginning in January 1917.

    At first, Wilson ignored the group, but this changed after the United States entered World War I in April. Picketers — whose signs stressed the contradiction of Wilson’s “war for democracy” when half the U.S. population couldn’t vote — began to be arrested on a charge of “obstructing traffic” and were jailed when they refused to pay fines. They were also assaulted verbally and physically by members of the public, with the police doing nothing to protect them. Through most of 1917, women were arrested in front of the White House, and many chose jail over paying fines. Despite objections from some in Congress, in September a committee was created in the House of Representatives to deal with the issue of women’s suffrage.

    Finally, on October 20 Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison. She, like many of the other women, was sent to the Occoquan Workhouse, where she was placed in solitary confinement with nothing to eat but bread and water. When she grew weak she was dispatched to the prison hospital, where she began a hunger strike that other women joined. She was remanded to a psychiatric ward and threatened with being sent to an insane asylum. She was force-fed and subjected to systematic sleep deprivation.

    Then, on the night of November 15, numerous suffragists held at the Occoquan Workhouse were brutalized. As Louise Bernikow reports, 33 suffragists were beaten and kicked by club-wielding guards. News of the attack was carried by the press, and a court-ordered hearing two weeks later determined that they had been terrorized simply for exercising their right to protest. Eventually they were all released.

    In January 1918, Wilson dramatically shifted position by throwing his support behind women’s suffrage and urging Congress to pass the amendment. (Intriguingly, he framed this as an urgently needed “war measure.”) The House rapidly passed it, but the Senate didn’t take it up until October, where it failed by two votes. The NWP and other organizations maintained the picketing regimen at the White House (resulting in another wave of arrests and jailings) and campaigned in the off-year elections against anti-suffrage candidates, which helped ensure that most members of Congress were pro-suffrage. By June 4, 1919, the Senate and House of Representatives had passed the amendment, and by August the following year the required 36 states had ratified it. (The Library of Congress has an online gallery of photos on this movement entitled “Women of Protest.”)

    In the last half-century, numerous nonviolent campaigns and movements have taken up the tactics that Alice Paul pioneered, and yet we still have much to marvel at and learn from.

    Rather than being defeated by the imprisonment, harassment, beatings, torture and force-feeding, this movement responded to this institutionalized viciousness with stubbornly nonviolent resolve. It threw into sharp relief the systemic violence of male privilege as well as the particular forms of violence it uses to protect that privilege. In a time when we face systemic injustice of all types — including systemic gender violence — this kind of strategic resolve is needed now more than ever.

    But this movement wasn’t only determined — it was in for the long haul. The NWP and other groups sustained their picket in front of the White House for two and a half years. Historian Linda G. Ford estimates that between 1917 and 1919 approximately 2,000 women took part in the picket and that 500 women were arrested, with 168 serving time in jail.

    The women’s suffrage movement reaches out to us from across the intervening century with a powerful example of longevity, discipline and strategic purpose. As we stand at another turning point — in a very different time, but facing many of the structures that made that movement 100 years ago necessary — this rich history urges us forward to also engage the monumental challenges of the 21st century with a similar gutsy persistence, laser-like purpose and willingness to assume risk.

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