Expert Examines 20th Century Suffragist

An illustration depicting a popular suffragist quote: "How long must women wait for liberty?"

Altana West, program coordinator of the Alice Paul Institute, declared that Alice Paul, a 20th century activist for women’s suffrage and equal rights, had a significant role in securing women’s right to vote during the East Brunswick Public Library’s  “Alice Paul: Crusader for Equality” Zoom event last month. 


West primarily discussed Paul’s and fellow suffragist Lucy Burns’ protests leading up to the ratification of the 19th amendment, which secured women’s right to vote. 


“Alice and Lucy organized a grand procession in Washington DC in support of the women’s vote. The parade was held on March 3, 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration,” West said, “They understood that every newspaper in the country would have reporters in Washington to cover the inaugural festivities. Newspapers would be looking for stories, so reporters would write about the parade and the suffrage with maximum publicity.”


West said, unfortunately, the procession later turned violent and more than 100 women had to be taken to the hospital with injuries. 


She said because of this, women’s suffrage was front-page news across the country.


“Over the next two years, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns kept suffrage in the public eye,” she said. 


“In January of 1917, the National Women’s Party launched a very bold campaign. They ticketed in front of the White House,” West said, “They were called the silent sentinels, standing at the White House’s front gates for most of 1917 through a harsh winter, spring storms and the summer heat. No one had ever held a protest in front of the White House until the demonstration by the National Women’s Party.” 


She said several protesters were arrested and sent to workhouses or jails.


“Alice herself was jailed in October, and, soon after, she and the other suffrage prisoners began hunger strikes,” said West, “If any of the women died, it would lead to a political nightmare for the Wilson administration, so prison authorities initiated painful forced feedings three times a day.”


West said news of the violence inflicted on suffragists leaked to the public, prompting their release and, eventually, federal support of the women’s suffrage movement. 


She said, “Using Alice Paul and other women as role models, a new generation of girls are poised to be the one who makes a difference and continues to fight.” 


Keith Pakela, a history professor at MC, said, “I am someone who does believe that, in a few instances, you have to at least bend, not break, the rule of law; Alice Paul was that female figure that was needed in the era to do just that.”


Dr. Nicholas Archer, a political science professor at MC, said that although Paul’s organizations took advantage of several socioeconomic factors to fuel their protests, it is important to remember that women’s suffrage was achieved through much broader conditions.


“The political climate at the time of the women’s suffrage movement must be seen through the larger lens of the Progressive Movement, which was comprised of various civil society groups led by mostly educated upper-middle class white Protestants from the North and West who were trying to challenge the dominant economic and social conservatism of the time and replace it with a more regulated economy, vibrant public sector and extension of political rights to marginalized populations in varying degree,” Archer said, “Without this larger scale contagion of reform, the suffrage movement may very well have failed.” 


“I am a firm believer that while leadership is important, movements like the suffrage cause must be evaluated by their mass ability to organize change, often at the expense of great personal suffering,” said Archer. “One person never changes the world, that is an American myth and a bad one; it is the strength of numbers and collective will that improves society. Let's give this win to determined women in general, not just one.”


Jada Davis, a MC student, said, “I know Alice Paul had a great impact on the women’s suffrage movement, but I do not know much about her as I do other historical figures. Her story is not talked about enough in our education system, and we should discuss it more. I think this event is an amazing way of teaching others more about Alice Paul and the impact women have [made] in history.” 

Clara Melvin, a MC student, said that while the curriculum in schools should be dedicated to Alice Paul, the East Brunswick Public Library should also cover more modern women’s rights activists. 


“I think we should be looking at and making statues of people like Malala Yousafzai: people who are already fighting for change in what many consider an already equal world,” said Melvin. 


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