I’d never heard of Alice Paul until July 2021, more than 100 years after the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. For the record, it’s wild to me that we outlawed alcohol with the 18th Amendment and Prohibition before enfranchising American women.
Thanks to the fast-paced, absorbing book, Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote by Tina Cassidy, a former journalist, I now have, and I have to say, Paul ought to be considered among the greatest, most important Americans who has ever lived.
And yet! I’d never heard of until two weeks ago. That distresses me. In fact, as a further indictment of the 19 years of education I received — yes, 19 years, between kindergarten and high school, as well as seven years for my undergraduate degree in philosophy — I didn’t learn much at all about woman’s suffrage and the push for the 19th Amendment.
Thanks again to Cassidy, I now have and it’s a deeply affecting, fascinating story, and of course, enraging. Sitting here in 2021 reading this book and writing about it, it’s so hard to understand how it was a serious and long-held position that women ought not vote. It seems crazy, right? Of course they should be able to vote! But we’re barely a century removed from it actually happening. And I suppose, when you look at the current political landscape and how Republicans primarily are hell-bent on making it harder, not easier, to vote, it’s actually not all that crazy.
Perhaps the two most extraordinary things to me about Paul off-the-bat are:
1.) She was only 25 when she organized the most extraordinary counter-protest in American history to the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson on March 4, 1913. To be sure, there were older, status quo women in the suffrage movement who had contributed a great deal to it, but Paul came in with a new vision and a new path to achieving the goal. She rocked the boat and was hated in many quarters, even among those women, for it. And despite only being 25, she was incredibly well-read, well-educated, well-traveled and well-experienced.
2.) I’m so happy she lived a full life and made it to the age of 92, dying in 1977. I was worried she wasn’t even going to see the fruits of her labor in the early 1900s with the passage of the 19th Amendment, much less get to live such a long life. Her health condition seemed so dire, primarily due to repeated hunger strikes fighting for suffrage in England.
You have to hand it to the Quakers. Paul comes from a lineage of Quakers and was raised in the Quaker tradition of public service. Whether it’s woman suffrage as here, or going back to abolition of slavery or to the founding ideals of the country in the American Revolution, some sort of Quaker influence or character manifest out of the Quaker tradition, has been there and influencing outcomes. I’d read the heck out of a book about the Quakers.
I digress. Cassidy’s book, as the subtitle suggests, is a breathless and riveting account of these two opposing forces and their inevitable clash over woman’s suffrage, Paul and Wilson. What blew my mind about Wilson, as Cassidy wrote, is that he was born of the Southern Confederacy mindset and was a boy during the Civil War. In essence, Wilson’s life was bookended by the two worst wars in American history, as well as the Spanish flu, no less. That’s rather remarkable to consider, but beyond an interesting trivia point, Wilson’s upbringing in the South most certainly influenced his outlook later in life, despite how much academic window dressing he put on.
To that, since I did my two big takeaways about Paul, my main two takeaways from Wilson are:
1.) He’s a racist. Plain and simple. But because of the political optics, he tries to be hands-off about it or appear as if it’s an academic exercise or, as he explained to one black man, segregation of blacks and whites was actually to the benefit of blacks. For as much as people want to credit Wilson for, whether it’s the eight-hour work week, “ending” child labor and some even credit him for “making the world safe for democracy” via the U.S. entry into WW1, one has to deal with the racism of Wilson and how he segregated the federal government (and I believe the military, too) and helped to usher in a resurgence of the Ku-Klux-Klan. He arguably left the country on a worse footing domestically in that regard after his two terms than prior.
2.) I’m not as convinced as historians are that Wilson’s views “evolved” on woman’s suffrage and he changed his mind accordingly. Not one bit of me thinks Wilson had a true, honest-to-god change-of-heart about woman’s suffrage and believed in the agency of women to be as deserving of self-government as men. As with racism, even once Wilson put his voice behind suffrage, he still did it in that mealy-mouthed way, where it doesn’t seem like he was as full-throated as he could have been. But anyhow, I believe he changed out of political expediency, political optics and importantly, the continued, unrelentingly brave campaign by Paul and her organization. Take Paul out of the picture and Wilson never “evolves.” That’s my counter-factual assessment, at least.
The women mentioned in the book, including Paul, are just unbelievably brave throughout the struggle through much of Wilson’s two presidential terms to get suffrage passed at the federal level. First, there’s the inter-movement disputes between Paul and those status quote women, wherein the latter believe a.) we should go state-by-state to achieve suffrage and b.) Paul and her tactics are too militant.
Part of Paul’s “tactics” included the Silent Sentinels, among the most incredible women in the history of the country. All they were doing was silently protesting with signs in front of the White House. Signs that said things like, “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage? How long must women wait for liberty?”
That’s the thing, too: It’s easy for those with the power to demand patience of those without the power. Those without get tired of waiting and it’s not as if those with power will easily give it up. You have to be persistent and in a way, aggravating to those with the power until they can’t resist any longer.
But anyway, the Sentinels seem benign, right? Protesting in the White House would seem like the most American form of protest: Protesting at the front door, so to speak, of the most powerful human being on the planet. Instead, the status quo women saw it as uncouth; they were attacked physically by men, including soldiers and sailors, in both having their signs ripped down and literally being assaulted and dragged on the ground; and then they were arrested by the police in what is surely arrests without merits.
If that all wasn’t bad enough, judges were overly punitive to send a message and try to break the women. For what amounted to a mere traffic offense, the women, including Paul, were sentenced to months in jail in awful conditions and often they would rebel against the system by going on hunger strikes. Again, these women were unbelievably courageous and brave. I get goosebumps even typing this. They were political prisoners undoubtedly, even if the establishment wouldn’t recognize them as such.
Some added context to the woman’s suffrage movement is that in the final couple of years leading into the ratification of the amendment, WW1 was raging in Europe and then America got involved. At that point, it was especially seen as egregious to criticize the president during wartime. That helped fuel much of the animus toward the women, but it wasn’t just misguided patriotic fury, but that a good chunk of men (and some women) didn’t think women ought to vote. And more to the point, those women should know their place.
Not too many government officials in this book come out of it looking well and no, not just with the help of historical hindsight; there is no allowance for time, given that people in their time were arguing for suffrage.
One such character who looked downright awful, and would be silly if he didn’t have actual power with his vote, was Representative Jacob Meeker of Missouri. He said those of his colleagues in support of the 19th Amendment were only doing so because their wives were withholding sex unless they voted for the amendment. Yes, he really said that.
On the other hand, in contrast to Meeker, is State Rep. Harry Burn, a Republican and the youngest lawmaker in the Tennessee legislature. The suffragists zeroed in on Tennessee as the last state they would need to get the Constitutionally-required two-thirds of states to ratify the amendment. And the suffragists in particular zeroed in on Burn (and State Rep. Banks Turner) as potential “yes’ votes. Burn at first seemed unwilling to “pledge himself” to the cause.
Before the vote came, Burn read a note he had in his pocket from his mother saying she missed him and some other smaller things and then, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet … Don’t forget to be a good boy … Love, Mama.”
Burn voted “yes.” You can’t disappoint your mom! So, sure, maybe it wasn’t out of any sense of ideology, but whatever the mechanism, he did the right thing under a lot of pressure not to.
In my estimation, every American ought to read Cassidy’s book. It’s insightful and reads like a thriller because of Paul’s steadfastness paired up against the dry academia bigotry of Wilson; of a woman from nothing up against a man with everything. That collision course, which Cassidy sought to chart, is well-done and exciting in the best, history nerd way. If you think history is inaccessible, I would argue that this is among the best of the “popular [insert social science] books.” So, yes, it is accessible and I highly recommend it! Cassidy’s writing flows with the sense of urgency as if Paul was guiding along her pen; it’s not a dense treatise.
And honestly, I find much of the book rage-inducing. That these brave women faced such unjust, immoral and illegal opposition from the most powerful people in America, as well as fellow women in the movement.
Women and men alike owe a debt of gratitude to those women. They fought for liberty, self-government and autonomy and they won. They freaking won. Yes, it took a long time. Longer than they ought to have waited. But because of their unyielding persistence to agitate Wilson, they won and should be vindicated in their methods, not just the ends achieved. As Frederick Douglass said, which is a quote used at the beginning of the book, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
The only sadness I have about the book related to my aforementioned second takeaway about Paul is that she largely died penniless and unknown. I don’t think she cared about either, but it’s quite the state of affairs that Wilson will always be remembered because of the office he occupied (and is considered one of the greatest presidents of all time, ranked 13th in C-SPAN’s latest ranking of presidents by historians) and Paul still is largely unknown by the wider public, including myself until recently.
Please rectify that by going and reading this book. You won’t be able to put it down and you’ll be better off for having now known Paul’s story.