Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Feminism's heritage

It became known as the "Night of Terror": Nov. 14, 1917. About 30 women, including a young activist named Alice Paul, had been picketing the White House. The struggle to win the right of women to vote in this country had gone on for nearly 70 years. These women had resorted to militant tactics to gain attention for their cause and to score President Wilson for his opposition.

The police arrested and jailed the women for obstructing traffic (on the sidewalk).

About these ads

On the night of Nov. 14, the women -- some over 60 years old -- were attacked by guards, dragged to another building and thrown into dark and grimy cells.

Some were released within a few days. Some were detained for nearly a month. Others, including Alice Paul, were force-fed during a 22-day hunger strike.

It wasn't the first time Alice Paul had been involved in a confrontation. Since 1913 she and other members of her Congressional Union had staged parades, rallies, and other protests. Sometimes the demonstrations turned into riots when the women were spat upon, shoved, hit, and harassed by onlookers. And in 1917 police started arresting the White House picketers.

Alice Paul and another suffragist, Lucy Burns, had brought their militant techniques over from England, where they had worked with English suffragettes. (British suffrage workers referred to themselves as "suffragettes," while in the United States, they were properly known as "suffragists.")

Alice Paul's detractors regarded her as quaint at best. A prison doctor pronounced her insane. "This is a spirit like of Joan of Arc," the doctor declared, "and it is useless to try to change it. She will die, but she will never give up."

And she never did give up.

Nearly a month after the "Night of Terror," the last of the imprisoned suffragists was released from jail and charges were dropped. Some hailed the women as martyrs and and heroines. And the protests continued.

About these ads

Less than three years later, on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting the vote to women and ending a 72-year suffrage campaign. Some said Alice Paul and her Congressional Union had made the difference. Others felt that they had only alienated support and delayed passage of the amendment.

On Aug. 26, 1981, 20 women were arrested at the same location of Alice Paul's arrest 65 years earlier. The women were observing Women's Equality Day, marking the 61st anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment. This time the women were demanding passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and protesting President Reagan's opposition to the ERA.

The modern-day "Joan of Arc" had filed into Pennsylvania Avenue and resolutely sat down, waiting to be arrested. They sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." Earlier, they had chained themselves to the White House fence -- another tactic used by Alice Paul. Then they had sat down in front of the White House gate. When they moved into Pennsylvania Avenue, police charged them with obstructing traffic and hauled them off to a police station. There, the women's experiences were unlike those of Alice Paul. They were held briefly and fined a nominal fee for disorderly conduct and released.

But the 20 activists made their point. Nearly 60 years after its introduction in Congress, an equal rights amendment still had not been ratified. The time had come, they believed, for militant tactics.

The activists are members of the Congressional Union, an organization of several hundred people founded by a group of women historians and activists at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., in June 1980. Members have patterned their organization after Alice Paul's Congressional Union. (Paul's Congressional Union later became the National Woman's Party.)

Members of the Congressional Union seek to restore to women a "militant state of mind" through knowledge of their own history, according to Pam Elam, an alumna of Sarah Lawrence and one of the organization's founders.

The first priority of the Congressional Union is passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a concept first proposed by Alice Paul herself and the National Woman's Party in 1923.

Emphasizing the parallels between the suffrage movement and the effort toward ratification of the ERA, members of the Congressional Union have reactivated tactics of civil disobedience used by Alice Paul and members of the original Congressional Union.

ERA "silent sentinels" picket weekly at the White House gate. Like the suffragists, the ERA picketers hold the President and the party in power responsible.

Members of the Congressional Union proclaimed July 4th Women's Independence Day and demonstrated at the White House. On Labor Day, they dramatized the labor women often do for little or no pay. And last June, when the Republican Party withdrew its support of the Equal Rights Amendment, activists chained themselves to the doorway of the Republican National Headquarters building.

Militant activities have not been limited to Washington, D.C. Scattered actions took place on Women's Equality Day. In Seattle there was a demonstration at a public building. In Orlando, Fla., demonstrators slowed traffic and urged Disney World visitors to boycott the "unratified" state of Florida. In Salt Lake City a woman climbed a statue of Brigham Young and stayed until she was arrested.

Last November 202 women and one man were arrested in Bellevue, Wash., when they chained themselves to the gate of the newly dedicated Mormon Temple.

Sonia Johnson, a Sterling, Va., homemaker, is an activist in the Congressional Union. President of Mormons for ERA, Johnson was excommunicated from her church, one of the most powerful opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. She explained what Alice Paul and the other militants were doing. "They put women first. That's what we're doing. . . . Unless we take ourselves seriously no one else will."

Members of the Congressional Union also take their own history seriously, especially the similarities in the battles for suffrage and for the ERA.

Even the wording of the two amendments is similar. The 19th Amendment reads, in its entirety:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

"Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation."

The proposed Equal Rights Amendment reads, in its entirety:

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

"The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

"This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification."

Roots of the suffragists and ERA activists are similar, stemming from the 19 th-century abolitionist movement and the 20th-century civil rights movement. Both share a long history of well over 50-years.

The contemporary women's movement and that of the 19th century suffered similar ideological splits. The schism of the early women's movement, however, was far more serious, lasting over 20 years, from 1869 to 1890.

The National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest and most influential women's rights organization today, had its counterpart in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NOW, like NAWSA, sponsors rallies, parades, and other public events but has no formal connection with the Congressional Union. NOW prefers to work within the system, as NAWSA did. Both organizations gained grass-roots support for their causes. Recent polls show 2-to-1 support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Perhaps the most significant parallel can be found in the voting patterns of women. In 1916 Alice Paul's Congressional Union urged women in the few states where they could vote to use their ballots against President Wilson for opposing the suffrage amendment. He carried all but two of those states, but in Illinois , the only state where votes of men and women were tallied separately, women voted against President Wilson 2 to 1.

A similar pattern seems to be emerging today. A June 1981 poll showed more women favoring the Democratic Party, which supports the Equal Rights Amendment, while more men favored the Republican Party, which has withdrawn support. Exit polls conducted during the 1980 elections showed men supporting Republican Ronald Reagan by roughly 55 percent to 35 percent, while women split their votes 46 percent to 45 percent. Pollsters indicated the issues of ERA and women's rights had a significant impact on the difference in voter preference.

There are also similarities in the funding sources to oppose suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. Northern political bosses were less than enthusiastic about giving voting power to a major source of cheap labor. Liquor interests pumped vast amounts of money into fighting the suffrage amendment, fearing Prohibition.

Arguments against suffrage strike a familiar note today. Many of those who opposed the vote for women believed in the biblically ordained place of women as caretakers and nurturers, subject to their husbands. If women could vote, it would give them unnatural power and weaken the family, they said.

Howard Phillips, national director of the Conservative Caucus, not only opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, he longs for the days when women had no voting power or property rights. In a speech in the summer of 1980, Phillips criticized "anti-family" policies, begun "not just in this decade or even in this century, [resulting in] the liberation of the wife from the leadership of the husband."

Opponents of suffrage accused activists of promoting a "radical plot" to take over the country. Others claimed that women already had all the rights they needed.

Phyllis Schlafly, head of Stop ERA and one of its most outspoken critics, claims that women already have enough laws on the books to protect their rights. As a writer, editor, lecturer, and political activist with a law degree, she has traveled the country defending the traditional role of women and attacking the Equal Rights Amendment as "anti-family."

Schlafly has her counterpart in the suffrage movement. Sarah Hale was the editor of "Godey's Lady's Book," the most popular women's magazine of the 19th century. Hale defended women's traditional roles and opposed suffrage, stating, "I consider every attempt to induce a women to think they have a just right to [ vote] as injurious to their best interests and derogatory to their character."

Southern states, more deeply entrenched in tradition, held out on ratification of the suffrage amendment. So far, no Southern state has ratified the ERA.

Criticism leveled at the suffragists sounds familiar today. Women claiming the right to vote were often called unfeminine, unmarriageable, and intent on destroying the family. The press accused Alice Paul of being "selfish and silly" for picketing the White House while the nation was engaged in World War I. According to her biographer, Amelia Fry, a member of the new Congressional Union, Paul replied, "If a creditor stands in front of a man's house, constantly demanding the amount of the bill, the debtor has either to remove the creditor or pay the bill."

Sonia Johnson describes a "sea of smoldering women" out there ready to "burst into flame."

"We've been too nice too long," proclaim some of the buttons worn by ERA activists. They say they are witnessing, one by one, the dismantling of rights they have won. They point to changes in military pension rights, Title IX, and affirmative action as examples.

"We're now taking off our white gloves," Sonia Johnson vows.

"There's a recipe for justice of any kind," in her view. "The last ingredient you add is risk. After you've done everything else, then you risk your reputation, your fortune, physical damage, your life. You witness publicly the seriousness of your intent."

What about the risk of alienating supporters? Johnson contends they have nothing to lose. "We've lost practically everything anyway."

Despite the parallels in the efforts for the ERA and for woman suffrage, there are some notable differences. The first is timing. The suffrage amendment was ratified by the states within a little over a year. The Equal Rights Amendment, approved by Congress in 1972, is three states short of the 38 needed to ratify. The time limit of the Equal Rights Amendment is June 30, 1982 .

Another major difference is the relative complexity of the two issues. The outcome of the suffrage amendment was clear: women would simply have the right to vote. The ultimate effects of the Equal Rights Amendment remain complex -- even to the proponents of the amendment. ERA advocates find themselves dealing with issues the suffragists didn't have to address: women and the draft, "protective laws," constitutional interpretations, child custody, and such unrelated yet emotional subjects as abortion and homosexuality.

While the future of the Equal Rights Amendment remains unclear, today's "Joans of Arc" pledge not to give up.

Alice Paul, militant suffragist and mother of the Equal Rights Amendment expressed their feeling: "It's like a mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone and then you get a great mosaic at the end."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.