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Cool Women


Mary Jane Spelman...swooning in the absolute wonder

Cool women. I mean like super-fabulously-amazingly, COOL women. We're surrounded by them. They're everywhere. I'm sure you have even met one or two. Maybe she's your mother, a teacher, or a coach....or maybe you're one yourself.

Trekker Stephanie is an aMAzing woman. She's 26. She's Chicana. She's travelled through 26 different countries, speaks five languages, and has written a book! If I were 50 years old and had accomplished even half of the things she has, I would die a happy man.

Alice Paul...cool, cool woman
Alice Paul...cool, cool woman

Women. Wow! I mean, just think of Alice Paul. Now SHE is a cool, cool woman. Alice Paul was raised as a Quaker and grew up assuming that all people are created equal, black or white, man or woman. She believed in that so strongly that she never once imagined as a young girl that women in our country were not treated as equals to men. And so, when she went away to college in 1901 and learned that women didn't have the right to vote, it's no surprise that she was confused and quite a bit upset. Alice did not understand why in a democracy such as the US more than 50% of the population was not allowed to take part in voting, the most fundamental aspect of democracy.

Learning about this social discrepancy bothered Alice; so much so, in fact, that she made a conscious decision to become active in the suffrage movement and to make a difference. Her introduction to the suffrage movement happened when she met a family of women's rights activists in London who believed in the power of direct action tactics like handing out papers, speaking at protest meetings, and making one's struggle very, very public. She joined up with a group of British suffragists, became actively militant, was arrested SIX different times, and fought her imprisonment with hunger strikes. Alice's experiences in England made her even more passionate about women's rights and even more radical.

National Woman's Party HQ
National Woman's Party HQ

Alice brought a sense of 'conquer at all costs' back home with her and joined NAWSA (National American Women's Suffrage Association). After Susan B. Anthony's death in 1906, the women's suffrage battle that began in Seneca Falls almost 50 years earlier had lost momentum and had begun to concern Alice. That's why she organized the 'Suffrage Special' which was a NAWSA railroad trip from D.C. out West to organize the first political party for women whose sole purpose was to defeat any candidate that opposed suffrage. And thus, Alice Paul's National Woman's Party was born.


Alice's second step in the suffrage trail was to draw the attention of the American public to the cause of suffrage and to begin pressing for the Susan B. Anthony amendment. Utilizing the useful direct action tactics she had learned, Alice, with the help of her friend Lucy Burns, organized an enormous women's suffrage parade through D.C. She had planned the parade, which was to be largest that D.C. had ever seen, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration. Full of thousands of marching women and men, blacks and whites, Alice's parade made it clear that women's suffrage was not just a women's movement but a people's movement for true democracy.

Of the 500,000 people watching the parade, a good handful of them became violent towards the suffragists and started a riot, during which the D.C. police just stood by and watched as the suffragists were pushed, ridiculed, and spit upon. The riot was so consuming that when Wilson arrived in D.C., there was no one around to welcome him.

The National Woman's Party parade through D.C. drew national attention and successfully made women's suffrage a public issue. Although Paul's direct action tactics were controversial at the time, they made it possible for her and her party to organize effectively to press for the passage of the Susan B. Anthony suffrage amendment. As you can imagine, it was pretty tough for Alice Paul and her new generation of suffragists to convince Wilson to support such a controversial issue. After many repeat meetings with the suffragists, Wilson unfortunately argued it was not an opportune time to press the suffrage issue and that he would no longer attend to delegations of suffragists at the White House.

What do you do when the President of the United States basically tells you "Tough luck, and stop bothering me! " A lot of people would just give up and take it as a sign that maybe they're trying too hard for a lost cause, but Alice Paul did not. When Woodrow Wilson said NO! to women's suffrage, Alice Paul said MORE!: more banners, more party members, more protests. The time had come for Alice Paul and the women of the National Women's Party either to conquer the issue of suffrage or to submit.

In response to the president's reaction, Alice Paul designed the work for and inspired the 'silent sentinels', who were to become the first group of US activists to picket the White House. They were women who marched outside the White House with signs denouncing Wilson. They publicly burned his speeches about the promotion of democracy, called him a hypocrite, and even went so far as to burn him in effigy at the White House gates.

Public response to the 'silent sentinels' was intense. Both men and women reacted violently to the inflammatory pickets because they, like Wilson, thought the suffragist movement had then gone too far and was detracting from the REAL issue at the time, World War I. The women were seen as unpatriotic and many were physically assaulted and arrested. Just as soon as they were carted away by police, however, more party women showed up. During the year and a half of protests, more than 500 women were jailed, some with sentences exceeding 6 months.

Jail. That means stop right? What do you think? Riiiiight. Even from jail, Alice Paul did not stop her fight for suffrage. She went on hunger strike, was force fed, and was later committed to a psychiatric hospital because she would not stop fighting for what she believed in.

Are you convinced?
Are you convinced?

Although the 'silent sentinels' alienated many members of the National Woman's Party who thought the suffrage movement had become too militant, the pickets and the arrests drew more public debate than ever before and attracted some of the most dedicated women in the nation to the suffrage cause. Public sympathy for the suffragists grew enormously once it was discovered that their prison living conditions were incorrigible, that the suffragists often had to fish worms out of their food, and that many had been stripped of their clothes and forced into solitary confinement. The suffragists became know as political prisoners and letters to the President began flooding in from all over the country with complaints that the suffragists should not be treated as criminals.

Manipulated by public opinion, Wilson had the suffragists released from prison and finally agreed to grant his support for the Susan B. Anthony women's suffrage amendment. Activism had worked. Very soon afterward, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote was finally ratified in August 1920. Go Alice!

Although women had finally run the right to vote, Alice Paul knew that women were discriminated against in virtually every other sphere of life. She was concerned in particular with the 15th Amendment that states that "all 'persons' are guaranteed equal protection under the law" and contains a clause that gears it specifically toward men. Unconvinced that the 19th Amendment granted women equal status in society, she wrote the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) to remedy the deficiency and spent the rest of her life trying to get it passed.

A current member of the National Woman's Party, Beth Holler (and a cool woman herself) told me that Paul's ERA was actually passed by Congress but lacked the approval of 3 states to become officially ratified. To this day, many men and women are concerned that if given COMPLETE equality women would lose access to some of their social benefits like child welfare and maternity leave. Since Paul wrote the ERA, membership in the National Woman's Party declined because of this type of argument and because many women, feeling that suffrage was enough, became involved in other issues.

Stephen's writing his own amendment for four day school weeks at the desk where Paul composed the ERA
Stephen's writing his own amendment for four day school weeks at the desk where Paul composed the ERA

It wasn't until the 60s when a third generation of cool women were born that the ERA started to gain momentum again. With the birth of NOW (National Organization of Women) in 1967, new political strategies began to bud and young women's right activists picked up where Alice Paul and her National Woman's Party left off and dedicated themselves to fighting for the ratification of the ERA. Now called the Constitutional Equality Amendment, it is just as significant today as it was when Alice Paul was first inspired to write it because, without equal protection, sex discrimination is not unconstitutional. Many believe the constitutional imbalance that still exists may be the root of many cases of violence against women today. Following the legacy of Alice Paul, NOW's positions on the issues of women's rights are unorthodox, uncompromising, and ahead of their time.

That's it! That's the E-R-A
That's it! That's the E-R-A

Our friend, Beth, finds it inspiring that young women can still get involved in their political future today. It was just a few weeks ago that one of her own friends was sitting across from elderly woman who she later found out was one of the fighters in suffrage movement! It was that story that really brought it home for Beth, and made her realize that even if young people don't call their congressmen or click on NOW's website to TAKE ACTION, women's suffrage was such a recent movement that even going up to your grandparent's attic may prove to be valuable for historic preservation. The National Woman's Party, itself, has a storage area full of suffrage artifacts that no one has really looked at since the 1910s. Beth said that as long as women's suffrage and other women's issues are not publicly discussed and aggressively pursued, our feminist heritage "is going to be hidden away".

While it is a bit disheartening that Alice's fight is still being fought today, it seems pretty clear that she is still inspiring men and women to speak up and act. As far as I am concerned, Alice Paul gets the prize for making a difference and for being an aMAzingly cool woman. Who knows, though, maybe you're next.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Hooverized dresses? WWI in the first person
Daphne - Women voters: You've come a long way, baby!
Steph - Celebrate the cycle of life!
Daphne - An "untouchable" tour of a former gangster's paradise
Nick - Margaret Sanger: The stork's got nothin' to do with it!
MAD - Domestic violence: Not behind closed doors anymore