“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.” – Alice Paul, suffragist and author of the still-not-ratified Equal Rights Amendment.
Alice Paul had a singular mission, from which she never strayed: women’s full and unequivocal equality.
Today, on what would be her 128th birthday, I sing her praises and birthday wishes for at least three reasons.
First, She lived her principles—“wore the shirt” as in Power Tool #6. Interestingly, though today most of the opposition to women’s equality comes from the fundamentalist denominations of many major religions, Paul credits her religious upbringing for her deep convictions about the righteousness of women’s suffrage and women’s equality in general. As her biography on the Alice Paul Institute’s website says:
Raised in an area founded by her Quaker ancestors, Alice and her family remained devoted observers of the faith… As Paul noted years later, “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….
This upbringing undoubtedly accounts for the many Quaker suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, both whom Paul admired and considered role-models. Alice’s faith not only established the foundation for her belief in equality but also provided a rich legacy of activism and service to country.
Second, Alice Paul was a crackerjack organizer. While the trajectory toward greater liberties for women perhaps seemed inevitable by the early part of the 20th century, Paul knew that real systemic change comes when courageous people, willing to embrace controversy and confront injustice, organize to make it happen.
While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was quickly appointed as head of the Congressional Committee in charge of working for a federal suffrage amendment, a secondary goal to the NAWSA leadership. In 1912, Alice Paul and two friends, Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman, headed to Washington, D.C. to organize for suffrage.
With little funding but in true Pankhurst style, Paul and Burns organized a publicity event to gain maximum national attention; an elaborate and massive parade by women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue and coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. The parade began on March 3, 1913, with the beautiful lawyer, activist, and socialite Inez Milholland, leading the procession, dressed in Greek robes and astride a white horse.
The scene turned ugly, however, when scores of male onlookers attacked the suffragists, first with insults and obscenities, and then with physical violence, while the police stood by and watched.
The following day, Alice’s group of suffragists made headlines across the nation and suffrage became a popular topic of discussion among politicians and the general public alike.
And third, Paul knew that even when victory is won, a viable movement must continue to be proactive, with fresh initiatives to keep expanding the progressive agenda that had propelled the suffrage movement in its early days but that had all but been lost once the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution giving women the right to vote was ratified in 1920.
So she wrote the original ERA, introduced in Congress in 1923 as the next step she thought the women’s equality movement should take.
Paul also started the National Women’s Party, believing that without a political organization’s clout, women’s concerns would never be taken seriously by politicians. Paul was also one of the few women’s suffrage leaders who realized that getting the right to vote was necessary but not sufficient to enable women to be equal partners in society.
“When you put your hand to the plow,” Paul said, “you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row
Forty years ago the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) finally passed out of the U. S. Congress and was sent to the states to be ratified
And we are not at the end of the row yet.
This constitutional amendment that would–IF it had been ratified by 3/4 of the states by its ten-year deadline in 1982– have ensured equal rights could not be denied on the basis of gender is back on the front burner, thanks to Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s introduction of a resolution on March 8th (International Women’s Day), 2012, but it has not yet been passed. Baldwin’s resolution would have eliminated the time limit for the ERA to be voted on by state legislatures. And only three 3 more states are needed to finish the job.
Though Paul’s dream of an ERA didn’t pass in her lifetime–she died in 1977–and might not pass in mine, her courageous leadership to initiate this drive for full legal equality for women did foment many advances in employment via Title VII of the Civil rights Act, sports and educational opportunities via Title IX, more women running for political office, and so much more. Could Paul have envisioned Hillary Clinton’s race for president? Or that we have now had three female secretaries of state in a row?
Alice Paul’s life illustrates brilliantly that one person taking action can make an enormous difference. Her leadership legacy lives on, vibrant and bearing witness to the significance of her life. It should inspire others who struggle for social justice to risk taking the leadership for what they believe.
So let’s sing together: Happy birthday to you, dear Alice Paul, and thank you for your vision, courage, and persistence for women’s equality.