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Suffragist in spotlight 27 years after her death

Best-selling book, ‘Iron-Jawed Angels’ draw attention to late activist
/ Source: The Associated Press

She stood with other suffragists at the gates to the White House, holding signs that asked President Wilson, “How long must women wait for liberty?”

She was thrown in jail, went on a hunger strike and endured having a tube forced down her throat so she could be fed. Now, more than 80 years after Alice Paul helped American women win the right to vote, she has become the focus of books and a movie.

Paul is a key figure in Eleanor Clift’s best seller, “Founding Sisters and the 19th Amendment” and the subject of a forthcoming children’s biography. Another writer is working on what could be the first full-length biography of Paul. The suffragist’s story also is told in the movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank.

“I could not be more delighted,” says Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women. “I think Alice Paul is a real example of what one person or a small group of people can do.”

The persistent Paul was a heroine in two epic tales: One she won, the other she lost.

In the last decade of a battle that began formally in 1848 — 37 years before she was born — Paul helped win women’s voting rights in the United States. After that 1920 victory, she spent her last 56 years trying to get the nation to adopt another amendment, this one guaranteeing legal equality for women. The Equal Rights Amendment has yet to pass.

“I think she’s an unsung hero of the movement,” John Seigenthaler, author of the biography “James K. Polk: 1845-1849,” said. “She’s about to be sung.” Seigenthaler is working on what could be the first full-length Paul biography.

Paul was serious and single-minded. She was the well-educated daughter of a prominent Quaker family in southern New Jersey when she went to England in 1907. There, she learned the subversive political tactics that would change the women’s movement in her own country.

And it was there where she was arrested and force fed for the first time — experiences she’d have again for her protests at home.

When she returned to the United States, Paul began to organize protests, showing up at the president’s inauguration and picketing the White House.

It was that period of her life — the decade ending with the passing of the 19th amendment — that is portrayed in Clift’s 2003 book, “Founding Sisters,” and the film “Iron Jawed Angels.”

That story is dramatic. Paul organized protests, found herself jailed, lobbied the president and won.

“People tend to think of these women as victims,” said Lucy Beard, program director at the Alice Paul Institute, which runs educational programs out of Paul’s childhood home. “They’re not victims. They were not given the right to vote. They won it.”

Wrote the ERAWhile some of the other leading suffragists retreated to more conventional lives, Paul moved immediately to work on the ERA.

She wrote the equal rights amendment in 1921, cheered it on and lobbied for it as it was introduced in Congress every session from 1923 until it was finally passed in 1972. It was adopted with a provision that three-fourths of the states — 38 — had to ratify it within seven years, a period that was later extended by three years.

But no state has ratified the ERA since Paul died at 92 in 1977.

The amendment-ratifying period ended officially more than 20 years ago, though some of its supporters say it’s not a dead issue — or a dead amendment.

Some proponents say that if they get three more states to ratify it, there would be a legitimate legal argument that the time limit Congress gave the amendment in 1972 was improper and that ERA should be added to the constitution.

The amendment is being debated now in Illinois.

Opponents say that an ERA is not needed because the 14th amendment already protects all citizens of the United States, though it does not mention sex as a basis for protection. Further, some critics fear an ERA would be a constitutional guarantee of abortion rights and gay rights.

In her later years, Paul was critical of the way modern feminist leaders adopted some of those causes as well. To her, they were a distraction from winning the legal equality she sought.

Another distraction for Paul was her personal life.

“I think she made a conscious decision,” the Paul institute’s Beard said. “She said a woman can choose between a career and a family. She knew she couldn’t do both.”

In the movie — which debuted on HBO this month — Paul is given a would-be love interest but decides she doesn’t have time for him. However, there is little evidence that she had any romantic entanglements at all.

Those almost-love scenes were educated guesses about Paul’s life. A lot of personal details are. That’s one reason why writing a biography could be such a challenge, even though her papers are well preserved.

“Good luck,” Beard said to biographers. “She didn’t leave a lot.”

Racism controversyThree writers who have worked on pieces of the Alice Paul story all said they didn’t know much about Paul until recently.

Elizabeth Raum’s editor at the Heinemann Library asked the children’s books author to write a 32-page biography for second to fourth graders a few years ago for a series of books on activist women. Raum had never heard of Paul when she got the assignment but by the time she finished writing the book, which is due out May 1, Paul was one of her favorite subjects.

“She’s the kind of person I would have enjoyed meeting,” Raum said. “Five minutes after meeting her, I would have been doing work for the cause.”

That wasn’t unusual. Academics and some journalists who sought to interview Paul sometimes had to call a member of congress before she’d give them any time.

Paul founded the National Women’s Party and was known for her persuasive powers. But she was not the public face of the her campaigns and was not a primary public speaker. And even though a 78-cent stamp issued in 1995 bears Paul’s picture, she’s not widely known.

Clift, a Newsweek writer and a regular on “The McLaughlin Group,” said one reason Paul had been overlooked for so many years was because the suffragist was accused of racism because she shut out black women from key roles in the movement to avoid alienating Southern whites. The allegation caused Paul’s alma mater, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, to rename a women’s center that had carried her name.

“They made some ugly compromises in order to proceed in the political process,” Clift said.

Author Seigenthaler said he’s come to grips with Paul’s racial attitudes as part of a powerful story of a woman who helped change the nation.

“When you find your heroine has feet of clay,” he said. “You just have to accept it.”