Yesterday was the Centennial Anniversary of the launch of picketing the White House by the Silent Sentinels. Today is the anniversary of the Birthday of Alice Paul, the suffrage leader and strategist who led the first non-violent civil disobedience in the United States. Today I’m sharing my sermon on Alice Paul to honor the suffragists and these two important dates in suffrage history.
“Nothing Complicated About Ordinary Equality:”
Alice Paul, Leader for Women’s Rights
It is winter. A cold morning in early January, 1917. But it’s not only a new day in a new year, it’s the dawning of a new tactical agenda in the fight for woman suffrage, as a line of women, wearing sashes in purple, white, and gold stand outside the White House gates. They hold silk banners bearing pro-suffrage messages such as “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” from morning to dusk, in every kind of weather, and by doing so, the political activist landscape is changed forever.
The Silent Sentinels, as Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party named them, led one of the most overlooked political protests in American history. The truly first instance of nonviolent civil disobedience on American soil was the brainchild of a small, frail Quaker woman with a will of iron, and an intellect to match.
Alice Paul was born in Moorestown, New Jersey to a prominent Hicksite Quaker family. By the time she was born in 1885, the woman suffrage movement was nearly 40 years old. Paul claimed that she could not remember a time when the suffrage struggle was unknown to her. She attended suffrage meetings with her mother as a young girl and was raised in the Quaker principle of gender equality. After graduating from Swarthmore College, and earning a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in economics and sociology, she won a fellowship to Woodbrooke, a Quaker study center near Birmingham, England. While in England, she studied the working conditions of women, which led to her attending a lecture by Christabel Pankhurst on voting rights for women. When Christabel took the stage, the audience shouted and heckled so loudly that she wasn’t able to give her talk, and officials had to cancel the event. Alice Paul was horrified; she had never experienced such rudeness toward a speaker, being from a sheltered environment where Quaker men and women were able to express their views equally. Paul’s sense of social responsibility was deeply entrenched in her religious beliefs, and she quickly became involved in a movement that was growing more and more militant.
She was aware of this, and as when she was asked to participate in activities that would lead to a jail sentence, she grew concerned over how such actions would be perceived back home. While Quakers believe in social equality, they are also pacifists, and Paul knew that throwing bricks, smashing windows, and imprisonment would be viewed as violent. She was right to be worried, and even though by the end of her time with the English suffrage movement she had fought for women’s right to vote in two countries (England and Scotland), which included seven arrests, three imprisonments, and fifty-five forced-feedings–all covered in the American press–when she returned to the United States in 1910 the papers noticed that neither local suffragists nor Quakers from her community greeted Alice Paul on her arrival. The lack of acknowledgment from her religious community unsettled Paul. The Quakers didn’t quite know what to make of her behavior, although later they gave her opportunities to share her reasoning. She never wavered in her support of militancy for suffrage, and even responded with an exasperated “I saw no particular sanctity in a pane of glass,” when asked if such actions were Christian. Margaret Hope Bacon, an historian who by virtue of being a Quaker has a unique viewpoint of the Society of Friends’ treatment of Paul, states: “She took her place in a tradition of Quaker women who were so far ahead of their time that they lost patience with the Society, and yet had a major influence on later generations of Quaker women.”
While in England Paul saw that the greatest advantage to militancy in reform movements was that it established the reform as an issue. The use of militancy granted widespread publicity, kept reform in the public eye and by the very nature of controversy caused the topic at hand to be discussed. This well-learned lesson was remembered by Paul when she undertook suffrage work in America.
What is key here is that after Paul returned to a flagging suffrage movement in the United States, she blended her beliefs as a Quaker– keeping in mind that Quakerism is a non-Creedal faith that also embraces principles– with how she viewed working toward social reform. This allowed her to transform civil disobedience from violent to non-violent, and establish her own form of American suffrage militancy, which then drew more press attention to the question of enfranchisement for women. It is interesting to note that another young student was in England at the same time Paul was, and in his own writings he credited the suffrage movement with how he approached reform. His name was Mahatma Ghandi. Two different parts of the world, two different faiths, and two vastly different people coming to the same political conclusions, but in my history text books, and probably yours as well, only the man was mentioned for changing the political reform landscape.
After obtaining her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 she left for Washington, DC as a representative of the foremost national suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA. She planned to work on their behalf for a Federal Amendment to the Constitution, which she named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Several states out west, such as Wyoming and Colorado, extended voting rights to women, therefore a Federal Amendment became a possibility. Alice Paul broke with the NAWSA in 1916 and formed the National Woman’s Party. This was due to disagreements over her increasing use of militancy, which included such shocking tactics as parades, lobbying Congress, and soapbox speeches. Through Alice’s maneuvers women were publicly and politically owning the streets in a way that they never had previously, and it was not entirely welcome. But it wasn’t just tactics that the conservative, older, establishment suffrage organization found militant, it was the ideological arguments behind women voting that were radical as well. Paul believed that women should vote simply because they were citizens, obeyed laws, and paid taxes. NAWSA argued women should vote because they would “clean up” politics, and make them “better wives and mothers.” No doubt Alice’s viewpoint clearly stemmed from her Quakerism.
These same arguments are mirrored today, too. When I hear that the reason we should help women in impoverished situations or developing countries is because women will help others, their children, their communities, I want to grit my teeth. It’s true that they often do, but I help women because I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, not because they’ll save their community. That’s a lot to put on any one human being’s shoulders, especially someone enduring a crisis situation. Does our own first principle, then, make us radical? When it comes to working on rights for women, I like to think that it does.
So it was considered beyond the pale by many suffrage supporters, let alone anti-suffragists, that a large group of women, NOT well-behaved, were making history by standing with signs outside the White House in January, 1917, and even more so when they continued their vigil in April, as America entered World War I. The picketing, which was at first seen as “unwomanly,” now became, in wartime, unpatriotic, and even threatening.
Soon after declaring war the Wilson administration called a meeting with the leaders of both national suffrage organizations, and asked them to, “Lay aside your own fight and help us crush Germany, and you will find yourselves rewarded with a vote out of the nation’s gratitude.” While conservative NAWSA agreed to shift its organizational focus to war efforts, the militant NWP, remembering the same request by the Lincoln administration at the dawn of the Civil War, but a very different outcome at war’s end, as the Reconstruction amendments denied women the vote, patently refused. “How long must women wait for liberty?” The banners questioned, and how often throughout history have American women been told politically to stand down, wait your turn, it’s not your time yet, be patient, be a good girl?
The Silent Sentinels viewed Wilson’s willingness to send soldiers to fight for democracy abroad, but not support democracy for women at home, as hypocritical, and the NWP would draw attention to that hypocrisy at the gates of the White House. The banners began to quote Wilson’s war speeches. “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts–for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government.” This led to arrests, jail time, and the brutality of forced-feedings. We know in the end that in 1920 the 19th Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote.
Many women, exhausted from a 72-year-long battle, ended their political activism, but not Alice Paul. She went on to get three law degrees, wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, founded the Women’s Consultative Committee within the League of Nations, rescued Jews from the Holocaust, and initiated inclusion of sex equality in the United Nations Charter and in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She worked on getting passage of the ERA until she died in 1977, and her life serves as an inspiration for many women–and men–engaged in political activism. Indeed, she inspired me when I worked as a volunteer and then paid employee for several years for NOW-NJ.
Participating in our “Black Lives Matter” witness brings back for me a flood of memories, of reclaiming the streets in a way that the suffragists did originally. And I can’t help but notice, too, having once been offered the Chair of the NJ Domestic Violence Task Force, that we not only face the street with our banner, but that it’s right across the street, where Safe Futures is located. I wonder what the women rebuilding their lives there think or feel when they see us with our sign, and I would like for it to be hope.
The oppression of both people of color and women stem from the same source, and therefore it’s no accident that a rise in activism for women’s causes follows shortly after barriers for African Americans are broken down. The first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement occurred during and after Abolition, and the second wave of Feminism after the Civil Rights Movement. Now, to be clear, I’m not ignoring or glossing over the racism of the suffragists; there was racism in the history of the women’s movement, and there was sexism in the history of liberating African Americans from slavery and Jim Crow laws. That’s how oppression works. As Tan-Nehisi Coates wrote so eloquently in his memoir-like letter to his son, Between the World and Me, it’s about what, and I’m paraphrasing Coates here, control people have over your own body. The women who seek succor across the street have fled a threatening situation because they feared for their bodies. The women who have challenged the Texas abortion clinic laws all the way to the Supreme Court have done so because they are determined to make their own choices for their bodies. And history shows women of color are disproportionately affected by a lack of control over their bodies, even more so with the intersectionality of homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia. There is oppression within oppression, and it’s an ever-spinning, bitter spiral.
Alice Paul tried to embody the best of Quakerism, and when she repeatedly found her efforts to recruit African American suffragists to march in the 1913 parade thwarted, she wrote a frustrated letter to Alice Stone Blackwell, stating, “I belong to a Quaker family which has always taken a stand for the rights of the negro and all the traditions of my family and the influence of my home are such to make me predisposed to side with, and not against, the negro in any question of race.” Historians are now aware that it was not Alice Paul who attempted to prevent reformer Ida B. Wells-Barnett from marching with the Illinois delegates in the parade; rather, the wife of an Illinois congressman was the instrument of that hateful episode. This isn’t to say that Alice was exempt from all the prejudices of her time, no one ever is, but she did hold herself accountable to the ideals of her faith, and more often than not she succeeded.
Alice Paul never saw the passage of the ERA, the amendment she spent the majority of her life working to achieve, but it has seen a recent revival with the rise of the Equal Means Equal campaign. Alice once said that to her “the women’s movement was like a mosaic, each of us puts in their own stone, and you get a great mosaic at the end.” I would go further and say that this quote not only represents the women’s movement, but the whole of the social justice position of Unitarian Universalism, because I believe a living religious tradition that is weaved from a tapestry of many faiths is ideally positioned to lead the causes of reform into the 21st century. Each of us adds our own piece to a cause that is vital to us, or to our historic moment in time, in some way: ending racism, aid to refugees and immigrants, marriage and economic equality for LBGTQ persons, saving the earth and environment, animal rights, reproductive rights and feminism, and through our work, we have made, and continue to make, a more equitable life for all people struggling now, and for all who follow us in the future. What can be a more beautiful mosaic then that?
For myself, I continue to honor Alice’s legacy and the rights she fought for me by continuing the work of feminism, and I hope to see the ERA in my own lifetime, since she didn’t see it become in reality in hers. As she once reflected,
“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.” So mote it be.
Shared from the Pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, New London, CT, Sunday, March 13, 2016.