Tuesday, March 30, 2010

HerStory: Alice Paul

It seems as if America has an obsession with "bad girls". There are entire shows dedicated to women who spend the better half of their days fighting each other, getting wasted before noon and having sex with so-called celebrities to get media attention and material goods. However, what does a real bad girl look like? A real bad girl looks a lot like suffragist, Alice Paul.

Paul was born in 1885, a time when children were not allowed to speak unless they were spoken to and to a certain degree "proper" women followed that same rule. However, Alice was raised by Hicksite Quaker parents who believed in equality of the sexes. As a child she was taken to National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings by her mother, Tacie Parry. Tacie was born into a wealthy family and her father, Judge William Parry was one of the founders of Swarthmore, a co-ed college. In later years Alice attended Swarthmore and graduated with a bachelors in Biology.

It was during Paul's time in Birmingham, England that she became steeped in the suffragist movement. While in Birmingham Alice met the English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of the radical Emmeline Pankhurst. The Pankhurst women were not known to back down. Their group of suffragists engaged in violent acts of disobedience including window smashing and rock throwing to bring attention to the suffragist movement in England. They were often carted away in cuffs. Paul was jailed on several occasions for smashing windows, thus giving new meaning to the saying a smashing good time.

Deeds not words.
Pankhurst faction suffragist motto

When Paul returned to the U.S. in 1910, she was determined to employ some of the tactics used by the English suffragists. Three years later she had the opportunity to draw major attention to the movement. Paul organized a women's march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., which coincided with Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. What was supposed to be a peaceful event turned brutal quickly; male onlookers attacked the women while the police watched. Fortunately, the actions of the abusers had a positive impact on the movement -- the suffragists made headlines across the nation.

In 1916; after separating from NAWSA, Paul created the National Women's Party (NWP) where politicians regardless of party affiliation were held accountable for the disenfranchisement of women. The NWP staged demonstrations, picketed and participated in hunger strikes. These real bad girls found themselves in prison on several occasions. Paul and key members were arrested and thrown in jail after refusing to pay petty fines. Alice Paul served time in the Occuquan Workhouse in Virginia. During this time Paul and other women staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions of the prison. The hunger strike was met with such opposition that the suffragists were beaten and in Paul's case; forced into the sanitarium in an attempt to declare her insane. Well, there is a very thin line between insanity and genius -- with Paul bordering on the latter.

After much public outcry, the women found a supporter in Wilson, who called the suffragist amendment a "war time" act. In 1920, Paul picked up where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cody left off as the 19th Amendment was passed. Interestingly enough, the last vote came down to the 24 year-old Harry Burn, who was asked to support the act by his very own mother.

The next time a young lady (or young man for that matter) asks you who or what a bad girl is, feel confident in referring them to Paul's story or any woman in the Ladies Lotto HerStory series. Then again, you can always point to yourself.

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