A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot
by Mary Walton
Reviewed by Vivian Gornick
In 1976, one year short of her death at the age of 92, I interviewed Alice Paul -- the only woman suffrage leader still alive -- in a nursing home in Connecticut. Sitting before me in a wheelchair, Paul gave a remarkable demonstration of selective senility. She stared into space, wouldn't answer when asked how she felt, couldn't figure out where she was or what it was I wanted of her; but when, pen and notebook in hand, I asked about a strategy meeting that had taken place in June of 1913, she recalled the name of every woman who'd been in the room, how each had voted on the issues, and why she (Paul) still considered the outcome of that meeting an important setback for the Cause. Inside this frail old woman there lived a spirit of political engagement that clearly would last as long as she did.
Alice Paul was born in 1885 to a family of middle-class Quakers whose liberal politics allowed her to grow up believing that equality between the sexes was an inborn human right. Once out in the world, the discovery that such equality did not prevail ignited in her a militant spirit she had not previously known she possessed. In England, where she'd gone to study, she instead went to work in 1907 for the ultra-radical suffragists Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, who soon persuaded her that only revolutionary methods would ever gain women the vote.
After returning to America in 1910, it took Paul two years to persuade the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), then dedicated to winning suffrage state by state, to send her to Washington to work for a federal amendment. Once there, she proved herself one of the great Odd Women of the movement. Suffrage became an encompassing passion. She had no intimates, lived in a cold room so she wouldn't be tempted to read novels late at night, worked for months at a time without removing her hat and was possessed neither of humor, small talk nor shared confidences. Yet, in no time at all, hundreds and then thousands of women were ready to follow where she led. Soon enough that meant breaking with NAWSA to form the independent National Woman's Party.
For six solid years, Paul and the Woman's Party organized massive marches, stunning rallies, outrageous demonstrations; they disrupted Senate sessions, accosted congressmen on the street and (unheard of!) threw a 24-hour picket line around the White House: "Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?" They got arrested, went to jail, went on a hunger strike, were force-fed -- and made headlines.
NAWSA saw Paul and her party as radical crazies whose antisocial actions were detrimental to the Cause, but Paul's battering activism createdan atmosphere of social turmoil that demanded and gained a national attention that perhaps no other kind of action could have managed; beyond doubt, it contributed significantly to the winning of the vote. The tragedy of the movement was that neither the liberals nor the radicals could appreciate the need that suffrage had for both.
A Woman's Crusade is a biography richly endowed with research, giving the reader dense, detailed, absorbing accounts of seemingly every march, demonstration and congressional hearing that Alice Paul either conceived of or influenced. While it provides neither vivid prose nor a fresh interpretation of Paul's life, I value the book for introducing her to the next generation of feminists with a taste for revolution.
Vivivan Gornick is a critic, essayist and memoirist; she teaches writing at the New School in New York City.