The spring of one’s senior year of high school is memorable for many reasons. For some, it may be planning for the senior prom; for others, it’s all about graduation and the festivities surrounding that milestone.
For me, while prom and graduation day were eagerly anticipated, it was another, more life-altering occasion that shaped the woman I ultimately became.
On a May afternoon in 1976, while thumbing through the most recent issue of Ms. magazine, I came across a column titled “Where Are They Now” that featured a little-known but remarkable Quaker woman by the name of Alice Paul. Paul was a bold and brilliant political strategist behind many unconventional, militant and, most important, successful strategies that, used across America a century ago, culminated in 1919 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
As a burgeoning young feminist, I was intrigued to learn that America’s leading suffragist, the woman responsible for my soon-to-be-realized ability to cast my first presidential vote, and the author of the Equal Rights Amendment, was residing in a nursing home in Ridgefield, Conn., and welcomed correspondence.
That very afternoon, I sent the first letter of what was to be a yearlong correspondence with one of America’s most significant civil rights heroes (she died in 1977).
It was the glorious Saturday in May, spent with the great Miss Paul, that added steel to my backbone and forever cemented my social justice ideology.
As we now approach the 100th anniversary of Paul’s launch into history, I recall fondly her colorful stories. She recounted that on March 3, 1913, America witnessed for the first time an act of highly visible, public protest drawing dramatic attention to the fact that over half the nation had no voice in the election of the nation’s president or Congress.
Paul, not yet 30 years old, helped organize the protest. Eight thousand women from across the country converged on Washington, D.C., to march from the Capitol to Constitution Hall the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. They carried purple, white and gold banners that proclaimed, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of the country.” It was the largest such protest in history up to that time.
Embracing the Quaker values of equality and social justice, Paul turned on its ear that dismal national reality – 50.8 percent of the population could not choose its president or Congress – and devoted her every waking moment to ensure that American women received the basic human right to have a voice in their nation’s government. America has never been the same.
Despite being imprisoned and beaten for her militancy, Paul never lost sight of her goal, to secure passage of the 19th Amendment. The battle for women’s suffrage had languished for decades. Beginning in the mid-19th century, such notables as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the face for the suffrage movement, but, despite creating national momentum and interest, failed to make suffrage a reality.
It took a young, determined, courageous and selfless woman from Mount Laurel, N.J., to provide the strategic thinking, organizational skills and passion to secure passage of the 19th Amendment. Long before Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul used nonviolent protest to draw attention to women’s civil rights and advance democracy.
Recounting her early days working in London with such notable British suffrage leaders as Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, Paul reminisced about Emily Davison, a British suffrage martyr who died valiantly in the struggle for women’s suffrage. It was Davison who urged Paul to return to the United States to “start a revolution.” Paul recalled telling Davison, “I can’t. I don’t know anyone back home who would work with me. I’d be working all alone,” to which Davison replied, “It takes only one woman.”
For every woman reading this column today, please remember with gratitude that one woman – Alice Paul – who dedicated her life to making sure that you, your daughters and granddaughters have an equal voice in electing our nation’s leaders – many of whom, thanks to Paul, are also remarkable women.
The things that change our lives often come when we are not looking for them. It could be a book we read; it could be a sermon we heard, or it could be the confidence expressed in us by a parent, teacher, or mentor. We would like to hear from women about their defining influences for Women’s Voices. Send your essay (up to 700 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name, email and daytime phone number. Submissions must be by email.