Suffragette City

Today the Google Doodle swings to celebrating the birthday of Alice Paul. Born into a close-knit Quaker community, Paul inherited the passion of forebears who fought for abolition. In her case, the cause was women’s suffrage, and Paul took it to the streets. An educational stint in Britain featured extracurriculars like jail and hunger strikes (with related forced feedings), and she brought back effective tactics and fearless assays into provocation when she returned to the United States.

In 1913, Paul mounted the first of her famous protests: leading the “Silent Sentinels” to the White House gates to picket new president Woodrow Wilson. Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene provide the details in their UIP book Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign:

From the very beginning, President Wilson found the presence of these ladies both inappropriate and unnerving. Soon after the picketing began, as Edith Bolling Wilson recalled in her autobiography, the Wilsons were driving into the White House for lunch on a bitterly cold day, and Wilson asked the head usher to invite the pickets in for coffee or hot tea, thinking that they would happily leave the cold weather and reenter the drawing room. The usher returned to the president quickly, saying, “Excuse me, Mr. President, but they indignantly refused.” When the White House guards repeated his offer on subsequent days, especially when it was snowing or raining, the pickets continued where they were. Their dogged appearance outside his door was an embarrassment for Wilson, an endless reminder as he came and went, an ongoing rhetorical barrage.

adams and keeneThe war years brought more challenges, as fellow citizens—angered by suffragette “disloyalty”—regularly attacked Paul and her group. The government did its part with arrests and harassment, and in a spasm of proto-Soviet inspiration confined Paul herself to a psychiatric hospital. Yet she persevered with a campaign of nonviolence and proved instrumental in winning women the right to vote.

In later years, Paul took three legal degrees to help her fight for women’s rights in general. Her efforts included gender equality’s inclusion in the United Nations charter and 1964 civil rights legislation, and she was watching the Equal Right Amendment wend its way through the sausage factory of democracy when she died in 1977.