Today in Feminist History: Alice Paul and The Night of Terror

On November 15, 1917, Alice Paul, the thirty-two year old founder of the National Woman’s Party, had begun serving a seven month prison sentence,  purportedly for blocking traffic but in reality because of the series of provocative protests targeting President Wilson. NWP called Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” targeted a meeting between Wilson and the new Russian government, and staged the first ongoing picket of the White House and burned copies of his speeches, a particularly bold action during a time of war and repression of dissent.

Paul is a fascinating figure – like many radicals, she was difficult and brilliant in equal measure, convinced of her righteousness, undemocratic in her approach to groups, yet she won admiration and loyalty for her dedication and effectiveness. During the 1970s there were reports of feminists going to interview her and she would say, who wants to talk about the past, what campaign are you working on, let’s strategize. She was more interested in tactics than ideology, described by comrades as “a leader of action, not of thought. She is a general, a supreme tactician not an abstract thinker. Her joy is in the fight itself.”*

Her group had split from the much larger National Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) over NAWSA’s belief in a non-partisan approach and Paul’s insistence on confronting Wilson directly. Working nearly sixty years after the Seneca Fall Convention that launched the first wage of agitation around the vote, she considered laying out arguments in favor of suffrage to be beneath her. She had no track with the do-gooderism of many women’s organizations or with arguments about how suffrage would bring women’s more angelic nature to the public sphere, understand politics to be the exercise of power. A lifelong Quaker, Paul professed her belief in racial equality, but was unwilling to take the political risk of allowing African-American women to have a prominent role in NWP – a telling contrast with her unwillingness to compromise the protest of Wilson to wartime expediency.

Like other activists, Paul was signaled out in prison for harsh treatment and torture including sleep depravation. On November 15th, she was joined by a large group of protesters after a mass arrest of activists that lead to the beatings and chokings and other brutality  at the Federal Workhouse in Occaquan, Virginia that became known as “the night of terror.” The prisoners engaged in a hunger strike and were force fed with tubes pushed into their nostrils, throats and stomachs. This treatment led to public outrage and attention to the cause, and Wilson switched from dismissing the claims to issuing a pardon on November 27th. Paul instantly redoubled her political efforts towards suffrage referendums that lead to the eventual congressional passage in 1919 and state ratification in 1920.

In my research on 1970s feminist activism, I’ve been fascinated by activist’s understanding of the suffrage movement during that era. Many activists wrote about having received no education in women’s history, including this movement, despite the fact that Alice Paul was still alive and working throughout the decade. Many saw the waning of the movement of after 1920 as reflective of the danger of focus on a single issue, one that would find echoes in the struggle for the ERA.  The long and complicated history of coalitions and divisions between feminists and abolitionists and civil rights activists was also of strong interests to feminists who came out of the Civil Rights movement themselves.

I don’t know what role the suffrage movement has in the imagination of today’s feminists or leftists –  my guess is it seems that it’s quite little. Maybe it’s the very real problems around the movement’s relationship to race, its association with temperance, or the sense of voting as an insufficiently radical demand – as Emma Goldman did at the time. Or maybe it’s just too long a swath of history to be digested: the principle author of the Seneca Falls document, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was born when James Madison was president; Alice Paul lived to see Watergate. Still, Paul and the others are too fascinating a piece of activist history to be relegated to the official memory of opportunistic politicians and bland commemorations about democratic progress. If nothing else, Paul’s story and the night of terror reveal the intense radicalism and dedication needed to achieve even seemingly “liberal” goals when they are opposed by those in power.  In her book about Cady Stanton, Vivian Gornick wrote about Stanton’s still-fascinating speech on the meaning of a political life:  “I can still remember thinking with excitement and gratitude, as I read these words for the first time, eighty years after they were written, ‘We are beginning where she left off.’ 

** Quoted in Jean H. Baker, Sisters: The Lives of American SuffragistsHill and Wang, 2005, 210. On Paul’s legendary self-discipline, Baker notes, “Paul once acknowledged that she disciplined herself to stay out of bookstores so that she would not waste time on one of her only recreations – reading fiction.” (213). This post draws details of the historical account from Baker and from Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign, by Michael Keene and Katherine Adams, U of Illinois Press, 2007.

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