Biography of a Feminist: ALICE PAUL

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I was first introduced to Alice Paul when I was 17. I had watched a movie about how women got the right to vote in the United Sates. It was called “Iron Jawed Angels”, which later became one of my favorite movies of all time. Hilary Swank portrayed Paul who was the leader of the suffrage movement in the United States after Susan B. Anthony. After watching Iron Jawed Angels”, I went online and searched for the name “Alice Paul”. I wanted to know how true-to-life the movie was. I was surprised to see that it was extremely authentic, and that the amazing character of Alice Paul actually existed the way the movie portrayed it.

alicepaulRaised in a Quaker family, Paul was brought up on the belief that men and women were equal. In an interview in 1974, Paul says: “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.” However it was not until she moved to England to study social work in 1907 that she was transformed from a conservative Quaker girl into a revolutionary suffragist. Paul fought for woman suffrage in England and was engaged in direct actions. She threw rocks, went on hunger strike, and was arrested several times, before returning to the United States determined to revitalize the fight for women’s enfranchisement. And so she did, with restlessness and her mother’s advice in mind: “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.” In 1913, Alice Paul and two of her friends, Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman, organized an elaborate and massive parade by women marching up Pennsylvania Avenue. This march deliberately coincided with Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. However, male spectators attacked the suffragists with insults, and then with physical violence while the police stood by and watched. Alice and her suffragists made the headlines, and caught the attention of politicians and the general public. After initially forming a semi-autonomous group called the Congressional Union, within NAWSA (National American Women’s Suffrage Association), Alice Paul separated from the association headed by Carrie Catt, to form the National Woman’s Party (NWP). This separation came because of the difference in political strategies between Catt and Paul. While Catt endorsed President Wilson and wanted to work on a state-by-state campaign, Paul wanted to hold President Wilson and his government accountable for the disenfranchisement of women, and believed in a national amendment that will give women the right to vote. The NWP went on to picket the white house. And it’s not until the United States entered the war that this picketing was met with hostility, violence and arrest. The suffragists used war quotes on their banners pronounced by President Wilson himself. On one poster they compared Wilson to Wilhelm II of Germany saying “KAISER WILSON: Have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20 million American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye.” They were called unpatriotic for picketing a war-time president. The suffragists were arrested on the charge of “obstructing traffic”, and were jailed when they refused to pay the fine. They asked to be treated as political prisoners but were not granted this right, and instead they were treated badly, were put in unsanitary cells, and were force fed after going on a hunger strike. The prison official moved Paul to a sanitarium in the hope of declaring her insane, but failed to do so. When news of the prison conditions and hunger strikes were known to the press, the public demanded that the suffragettes be released. In 1917, President Wilson reversed his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment, calling it a “war measure.” In 1919, both the House and Senate passed the 19th Amendment. After the 19th Amendment was enacted, Paul continued her battle for true equality, authored the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923, and fought for it until it passed in 1972. Alice Paul died in 1977.

Today, 90 years after the struggle the US suffragists led to get the right to vote, we, as Arab feminists, are still leading the same fight. We are called unpatriotic whenever we demand our rights in this conflict region, and we are asked to step aside because women’s rights are not a priority in our countries. We face the dilemma of rolling bandages or fighting for our freedom as women in Palestine every day. Laws in favor of women and their basic rights such as the right to pass our nationality to our husbands and children are not passed in Lebanon under the pretext of political reasons. And we are asked to fight politely and be happy with the small progress we achieve year after year whenever a female minister is appointed.

We are often asked what we would do with our freedom and the power it would entail if we had it. Alice Paul said that it was not our business to tell women what to do with their freedom, but to see that they had it. She had no fantasies about women, and did not care what they were going to do with their right to vote, whether it was electing a certain politician or legalizing abortion, she insisted that they should be granted their rights anyway and this should not make things any more complicated. She often stated: “I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”

Contributed by Ran

Guest Contributor

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