Today in Herstory: Alice Paul Returns to the Suffrage Battle

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


January 20, 1910: Alice Paul returned to her family’s home in New Jersey today after an extended stay in Great Britain.

Though she is planning on giving a high priority to her studies at present, she still seems quite dedicated to the cause of woman suffrage, and will surely be making more contributions to the “Votes for Women” campaign before too long.

She went to England in 1907 to study social work, and while there, just happened to be walking by when Christabel Pankhurst was speaking – or trying to speak – to a loudly jeering street corner crowd. Afterward, Paul introduced herself to the daughter of England’s most radical “suffragette,” Emmeline Pankhurst, and soon became a member of their Women’s Social and Political Union. (British women who engage in traditional, peaceful means of securing the vote refer to themselves as “suffragists,” and though the word “suffragette” was originally coined by London’s Daily Mail as a derogatory term, the militant members of the W.S.P.U. have adopted it, and use it as a way of distinguishing themselves from their more moderate colleagues in other groups.)

Believing in “deeds not words,” the W.S.P.U. has engaged in a variety of radical actions, escalating from heckling to rock throwing and window smashing. It was heckling that got Alice Paul tossed into Holloway Jail, when in November of last year, she and another woman snuck into the Guild Hall disguised as scrubwomen, and when Prime Minister Asquith made a short pause during a speech, interrupted him. As she explained today:

I did not throw a stone. I simply rose in the gallery and shouted ‘Votes for Women!’ In the prison it was horrible. I had been arrested twice before, once in Scotland and once in London, simply for refusing orders to ‘move on’ at political meetings. I was released after five days’ imprisonment in Scotland and three weeks in London because I refused food. Those were recognized tactics among the suffragettes. Last October the custom of forcible feeding was introduced and I was one of the victims of the practice.

She served her full 30-day sentence for the heckling, and was released on December 9th, after twice-daily force-feedings by prison officials beginning on November 11th. During her stay in England she met another American, Lucy Burns, in a police station after both had been arrested, and they have now become good friends. So, one by one, Americans are being converted to more radical tactics. These methods are quite effective, according to Paul: “The militant policy is bringing success … the agitation has brought England out of her lethargy, and women of England are now talking of the time when they will vote, instead of the time when their children would vote, as was the custom a year or two back.”

Though still dominated by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the American suffrage movement is slowly becoming more assertive as well. There’s certainly justification for more militance, as nearly 62 years of working for the vote by traditional means have won over only four States, and the last such victory was in 1896.

New innovations such as frequent street corner meetings – and even a small suffrage parade two years ago – are now becoming accepted activities among the younger, more radical suffragists in groups like the Progressive Woman Suffrage Union, the Political Equality Association and the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. But should Alice Paul become a full-time activist again after she finishes her studies, and if her friend Lucy Burns returns to the U.S. from her current suffrage work in Scotland, things could get even more lively here.

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