#13 Alice Paul – The Field Still Unplowed

Alice Paul could lift the plow on the row of women’s suffrage. But, there were many rows still unplowed in the field of gender equality in 1920, preparing it for the seeds of change. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments of 1848 spoke to other areas where women needed justice.

Alice Paul had much to do even though she and her colleagues were exhausted from their suffrage labors. Many of them returned home to take care of their families, others turned to new areas of work, and some just disappeared for a while to recuperate. Alice took a deep breath and tallied the things that needed to be done: pay off the $10,000 NWP debt; find a new home for the organization, rewrite the Susan B. Anthony ERA constitutional amendment, plan education and empowerment of women initiatives to make their votes count, develop international programs to gain gender equality, and recruit a new set of volunteers to do the work. Alice Paul also had need of reflection on mending racial fences to work cooperatively with black women to use their resources creatively. She needed to look at working women and listen to their aspirations, problems, and circumstances and use their strengths and ideas productively. She needed to call on women of privilege to step outside of their comfort zones and social/economic prejudices and join the fight for gender equality. By 1930 at 45 years old, Alice Paul had accomplished many of those goals plus completing three law degrees. Harder was the work on the last three.

From the rewrite of the ERA and its reintroduction in the Congress in 1923 to its final passage in Congress in 1972, Alice Paul followed this single focus. At times she seemed to compromise her direction as she worked for inclusion of gender equality declarations in federal law, state statutes, and international charters. Always, she worked to convince the Congress, the League of Nations (later the United Nations), and leaders of foreign governments that empowering women empowered everyone. She worked on. In her last five years, she was betrayed financially by members of her family. Only by the kindness of a cousin did she spend her final days at a Friends retirement home near her birthplace, weakened by a stroke but still seeking support for ratification of the ERA.

Why has Alice Paul so engaged my research and reflection over the last month of so? Why do I want others to look at this Quaker woman as a guide to let their lives speak? From the beginnings in England, Quakers have used both honey and vinegar to persuade others to follow their leadings. Sometimes religious convictions got in the way. Alice Paul was more of a vinegary type, strong in her convictions. I was so fascinated by her own words that I read the nearly 600 pages of her six day conversations with Amelia Fry when Alice was in her mid 80s. Sometimes she made me angry at her blind spots, her insensitivity to the lives of others. At other times, I wanted to stand up and cheer at her intelligence, energy, and cleverness.

It was the mix of her strengths and weaknesses that kept me engaged. She was a hero, not a saint. Alice Paul was an ordinary Quaker girl who as an adult did extraordinary things. She was tenacious and resilient with a flair for showmanship. She used strong public action to get notice and support. She was willing to commit civil disobedience and suffer the consequences. She had high expectations for her followers but was often insensitive to their needs and aspirations. Finally, she held the people in power responsible for the changes she sought. What an example for 2019!

Resources:

  • Amelia Fry’s conversations with Alice Paul are available on the internet. They are chronologically arranged for the most part and contain details of so many incidents that could be both fiction and nonfiction topics.
  • Copies of the card files used to develop lobbying strategies for members of Congress can be found at the Alice Paul Institute.

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