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Lay of the Land

Memories of Alice Paul

This week, as we mark the 90th anniversary of the approval of women’s suffrage in the United States, I find myself thinking of Alice Paul.
In 1974, I joined with other Quaker women near Philadelphia for a gathering on women’s spirituality. I cannot remember why I was delegated to call Alice Paul, or how we found her telephone number. I do remember our message to her, and hers to us.
From a public phone in a dormitory hallway, I explained to an attendant at Quaker Greenleaf Extension Home in New Jersey that no, I did not know Ms. Paul, but yes, I needed to talk to her. The attendant was suitably cautious but at length agreed to put the call through. She went off the line, and I stood, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for a voice from history.
Alice Paul was 89. She would live another three years. When she died, the Constitutional amendment she had written had passed the Congress, after having been introduced for 49 consecutive years. It was a simple, straightforward statement: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” I hope she died happy, unaware that just a few years later the ERA would be stopped just three states from passage.
The ERA was not the first Constitutional battle that Paul had waged. In 1916, impatient at the almost sixty-year struggle for women’s suffrage, Paul founded the National Women’s Party, which believed in direct nonviolent action to gain public support for their cause. Paul and other NWP women promptly chained themselves to the White House fence as “Silent Sentinels.” These brave women were arrested and subjected to physical abuse so severe that some have called it torture. But Paul’s bold vision was correct: horrified by the punishment meted out to the suffragists and inspired by their commitment, the public moved to support women’s suffrage. Within two years, Congress had passed the 19th amendment, and a year later, it had been ratified by the states into law.
Just three years later, Paul proposed the Equal Rights Amendment and, for the rest of her life, worked to see it passed. Two years before my call, Congress finally passed the ERA, and supporters across America were working furiously for its passage, state by state. It was a hopeful time. Dozens of states quickly passed the amendment, and it looked as though approval was imminent. But the year after I spoke to Alice Paul, the campaign of misinformation against the ERA, which involved allegations of unisex bathrooms and forced conscription, began to have its impact, and the pace of approvals slowed. Finally, in 1982, the amendment reached the legislated end of its approval period. Some supporters still work for its passage, but many today have entirely forgotten the heady days when it seemed as though the United States would actually guarantee equal rights for women.
But that was all ahead, on that sunny day in 1974, when a waveringly thin voice came on the other end of the phone. “Hello, this is Alice Paul.”
For a moment, I could not speak. Alice Paul. In my mind’s eye, I could see that historic photo of her, dressed in white, chained to a stark black fence. Then I took a deep breath and regained my voice. After telling her where I was calling from, I gave her our message, “We wanted to thank you for all you’ve done, and to tell you we’re working hard for passage of the ERA.”
There was a small silence, then Alice Paul answered. “Good,” she said. Her voice was matter-of-fact and, though small and old, had a steely strength. “Keep at it. Don’t ever give up. Tell the women that. Don’t ever give up.”
“We won’t,” I said. “I won’t.” Then I thanked her again and hung up.
It’s now 26 years since I heard Alice Paul’s voice. But her message rings down through the years, and I hope I have kept my promise.
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