Which of the statements below is true of suffragist Alice Paul?

  1. She marched with Susan B. Anthony in the late 19th century.
  2. She was arrested and abused in a Virginia jail, including forced feeding.
  3. She tried to exclude black women from marching with their state delegations in a national demonstration.
  4. She wrote the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bans gender discrimination.
  5. She was really cute. We know this because in the movie,  she was played by Hilary Swank.

If you said “All of the above,” you’re not far off the mark.

Today is Women’s Equality Day, established by Bella Abzug in 1971 to mark the day in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, finally passed.  If most of us mark the day at all, we usually scramble to remember the names of the women who got us there: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and.. and…. A few of us can gulp out the name “Pankhurst” (though we may not be sure if it’s Emmeline, Sylvia, or Christabel).  Thanks to the New York Times‘ Gail Collins, we remember  the woman who sat next to President Coolidge as the ratification was announced: Carrie Chapman Catt. And when pressed, a few of us throw in: “And Alice Paul, right?”

Many of us learned those names from an HBO docudrama from a few years ago, in which Catt — played with verve by Anjelica Huston — tells Paul (Hilary Swank) not to make assumptions about her dear departed colleague, Susan B. Anthony. But Paul herself has been a figure often obscured by those earlier giants, even though her organizing was just as crucial.

Until now. The just-published A Woman’s Crusade; Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, by journalist Mary Walton, gives us the first biography of Paul. Walton’s book functions on all the levels of good biography, with novelistic prose creating a vivid portrait of an extraordinary woman. It’s also good social history, bringing forth the complexities of the era and the basic, raw radicalism of the methods that the movement’s leaders — all of them Quakers — had developed.

Paul was younger than the eminent first wave of women’s rights campaigners, and Walton vividly recounts an early episode in which Paul, a young Quaker woman from New Jersey doing good works overseas, stumbles across Christabel Pankhurst giving an impassioned  roadside speech. Pankhurst, with her mother Emmeline, had broken away from the sedate, polite British suffrage movement, and the two were busy inventing civil disobedience.  (Young Mahatma Gandhi, Walton notes, stopped by often to get tips from the Pankhursts as he prepared to organize in South Africa.) This first encounter between Paul and Christabel Pankhurst took place in 1907; by that point, Pankhurst had already spent time in jail for protests at Parliament. After hearing her speak, the 22-year-old Paul “understood everything about what the English militants were trying to do” and became “a heart and soul convert.” She spent most of that year with the Pankhursts and came home having spent a month in prison and almost dying from a hunger strike. (Yes, the suffragists invented that too.) When she got back to the States, she contacted veteran suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, but had no intention of following the decorous, state-by-state lobbying strategy set out by the American Women’s Suffrage Association.

We’re spellbound as Walton depicts Paul planning the first-ever march on the White House in 1912–billed as an inaugural parade for new president Woodrow Wilson, with classically-inspired  floats and state delegations. We’re horrified when the Washington, D.C. police chief stands by as drunken men storm the parade. Walton makes vivid use of the way this newer generation of suffragists applies fearlessness and sex appeal in equal measure, as in the design of Paul’s initial parade, with its young women in alluring “Grecian” gowns. We marvel at her fearless peers, most of them single, all of whom gained sympathetic newspaper coverage as lovely young ladies roughed up by Capitol police and freelance mobs. Walton gives a fair portrait of the older generation, aghast at such antics and reluctant to alienate hard-won allies, but she doesn’t spend much time with them.

Instead, we’re caught up in the parade and agonize as Paul tries to reconcile  her Quaker roots with the politics of the time, when the Southern women she’s helped organize say they won’t march if “Negro” women are included, and the civil rights and women’s rights champion Ida B. Wells flatly refuses to join the “colored women’s delegation” that was brokered as a compromise. We gasp when Paul is among those imprisoned and force-fed after another White House protest five years later.

After recounting how Paul earned two law degrees and organized a separate National Women’s Party to press for a federal amendment for women’s suffrage, Walton makes easy–even riveting–reading of the three-year-political slog of getting the votes state by state.

When Inez  Millholland, the socialite photographed on a horse in the 1913 parade (left), dies while out West canvassing for votes, we feel the loss acutely, while looking anxiously to see what it means for ratification. And we feel the joy of the moment when Tennessee is the last state to ratify — though we can’t help suffering a twinge when it’s Chapman Catt, whose AWSA has finally joined the national fight, who receives most of the accolades. (At right, Paul celebrates the victory back home).

I sorely hope that Walton’s subtitle suggests that there’s a second book brewing, about Paul and the National Women’s Party between 1920 and 1977, when Paul died just as the Equal Rights Amendment, which she first authored in 1923, was gasping for life. Walton’s book compresses those decades into a single chapter entitled “Epilogue,” covering the years in which Paul became close to Senator Margaret Chase Smith and wrote the sex-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act, and kept pushing until the ERA passed the Senate. Walton’s account of those later years contains some poignant detail, especially when the then-frail, 70-something activist dragoons younger people to help her lobby Capitol Hill, or when she loses her home to unscrupulous older relatives. But it left me full of questions about Paul’s take on national events: What did she think of the civil rights activists who adopted the nonviolent protest tactics she’d honed? What did her National Women’s Party, which had taken a stand against World War I, do in World War II? Some of the answers may be found, I know, in scholarly monographs, letters, oral histories. But I can’t help but yearn for a Volume Two that extends her voice, even diminished, in the context of the massive changes of the period.

None of which is to say that A Woman’s Crusade doesn’t deserve an honored place on any bookshelf. Read it, and you likely won’t forget the brilliant, irascible, unforgiving, and apparently hard-to-resist figure Walton brings to life, without whom so much of our  history would have looked so different.

Happy Women’s Equality Day, Alice Paul.

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