Saturday, August 6, 2011

Learning From the Women's Suffrage Movement

My history classes, like most in the United States, were always white-male-centric, with wars being a primary focus. So it's sad that I didn't learn the details of a battle fought by women--the right to vote--until I was 34.

"A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot" by Mary Walton is a biography of an important woman few have heard of. Alice Paul, an American Quaker, began fighting for women's suffrage in Great Britain. Armed with the tactics of English "militants," she returned to the States and fought for the right to vote here.

In addition to being enthralled with history that directly affected me--and about which I knew virtually nothing--I was also interested in how some details of the women's suffrage movement mirrored today's animal-rights movement.

Alice's time in England had taught her about civil disobedience, including hunger strikes. Officials there had no idea what to do with imprisoned suffragettes who refused to eat. They didn't want the women to die on their watch, so they released them. Incidentally Mahatma Gandhi attended a meeting featuring these hunger strikers.

Eventually, though, prison officials decided to forcefully feed the women. Alice was force-fed both in England and in the United States. (She refused to open her mouth, so the tube was inserted into her nose.) Of course, when I think of force-feeding, I think about the ducks and geese who have tubes shoved down their throats and are pumped full of food in order to engorge their lives for foie gras.

Lucy Barns, Alice's right-hand woman, smuggled this description of force-feeding out of prison: "Food dumped directly into stomach feels like a ball of lead." Alice called her forced feeding "something like vivisection." Rose Winslow, another activist, wrote this:
Miss Paul vomits much. I do too, except when I'm not nervous, as I have been every time but one. The feeding always gives me a severe headache. My throat aches afterward, and I always weep and sob.
In England, frustrated by the government's lack of action, the suffragettes turned to methods employed by the Animal Liberation Front (and the Environmental Liberation Front) today.
British suffragettes had blown up the cactus greenhouse in a Manchester park, destroying a $50,000 collection; set fire to an elegant mansion; and burned down the pavilion at a bowling and tennis club in London.
So when an arrest warrant was issued for Lucy Burns in the United States, a reporter asked her if her offense was a form of militancy. What was her offense? Chalking a sidewalk. (If that doesn't sound familiar, check out this post at "Green Is the New Red." Lucy had written "Votes for Women" on a sidewalk across from the White House.

These women who fought for the right to vote, both in the United States and in England (and probably in every other country), were courageous.
All over England, suffragettes "hid in bushes and under platforms, scaled roofs, let themselves down through skylights in order to interrupt meetings with the dreaded call, 'votes for women!'"
In an act that got them arrested and Alice force-fed in England, Alice and activist Amelia Brown crashed an event that Winston Churchill (not yet prime minister) was attending.
For all [the police] vigilance, they missed two young women dressed as charwomen and toting buckets and brushes, who had arrived at 8 a.m. armed with the password, "kitchen." Climbing up to the balcony that overlooked the hall where the guests would dine that evening, Alice Paul and Amelia Brown found a hiding place and remained there throughout the day. One officer making the rounds came so close his cape touched Alice's hair.


Just as [Prime Minister Herbert Henry] Asquith began to speak, Amelia took off her shoe, reached over, and smashed a window. Both she and Alice cried, "Votes for women."
When Alice returned to the United States, she began working for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, aka the National. But just as the animal-rights movement consists of different cliques that disagree about how animal rights should be fought, similarly Alice eventually left the National to form her own organization, the Congressional Union.

The latter's goal was to convince Congress to amend the Constitution to give women the right to vote. The National's tact was to encourage each state to give women the vote, and some Western states already had. Instead of simply agreeing to disagree about which approach was better, the National (like a certain animal-rights organization, in particular, and some activists in general) actively criticized Alice's group.
One woman complained to a supporter of Alice's that the National was sending her so many "long screeds" denouncing the Union that she didn't have time to read them.
Imagine if Facebook was around then.

Alice, like many animal-rights groups, today didn't play the National's game.
When a new Union press secretary was quoted as saying the National was "lacking in political wisdom," Alice warned her never to do it again. "It puts a bad spirit through all our work and can do us nothing but harm."
When the Congressional Union began to stage picketers outside the White House, the president of the National, Carrie Chapman Catt, called the move "[a] childish method of appeal [that] will never bring a result." She also "sent newspapers an open letter addressed to Alice in which she claimed the picketing was 'hurting our cause in Congress.'"

But after the Nineteenth Amendment passed Congress, the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court wrote Alice, "There were politicians, and a large degree of public sentiment, which could be won only by the methods you adopted."

(Book cover courtesy of Better World Books.)

(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

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