Deborah Kops: “Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights”

AP: It was such a pleasure to read your new book Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights. I learned so much about Alice Paul and about the suffrage and women’s rights movements in the US!

DK: Thank you, Annette, for the kind words. It was truly a labor of love.

AP: What led you to write about Alice Paul?

DK: I first learned about Alice Paul fifteen years ago, when I was writing a short book on leaders of the woman suffrage movement for middle school readers. I was so impressed by Paul’s raw courage and charismatic leadership. During and immediately after World War I, Alice Paul and about 2,000 members of her National Woman’s Party picketed the White House, demanding a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. One hundred sixty-eight of those women served jail time, and inspired by Alice Paul, more than twenty went on hunger strikes in prison.

When the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, most suffragists went home to their families, but not the unstoppable Alice Paul. In the early 1920s, she drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which stated that women were legally entitled to the same rights that men enjoyed. More than four decades later, a resurgent women’s movement, known as the Second Wave of feminism, demanded the passage and ratification of the ERA. I became an adult and a feminist during the Second Wave, but until I began researching my little middle grade book, I had no idea the ERA was drafted by Alice Paul so long ago. (Although the ERA was never ratified by the states, most of the discriminatory laws in its sights have disappeared.) I thought teens should know about this extraordinary feminist leader, and I wanted to find out more about her myself. So I wrote a book.

Suffrage March in Washington, DC 1913. Courtesy Library of Congress

AP: In your author’s note at the end of the book you talk about the challenges with the source material available to you, and say this book “is not a true biography, after all.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

DK: Alice Paul left behind few documents that revealed her personal life and feelings. One exception was a journal she kept when she was a freshman at Swarthmore College, which I read at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. In those pages she sounds like a mischievous, even brazen, young woman who enjoyed athletics and gradually became a serious student. The letters she wrote to her mother when she was in England in her early twenties were revealing, too (see the next question). But from that point on Alice Paul left almost no letters or papers that would tell a modern biographer about her inner life or the details of her personal life. Did she have male lovers? Women lovers? We don’t know. The interviews she gave, including a very long oral history, are all about her life-long fight for women’s rights. So my book is mainly about the public life and times of Alice Paul.

AP: I loved reading about Paul’s radicalization. She grew up in a comfortably well-to-do, traditional household but as a young adult became a political firebrand. What do you make of her transformation? What do you think this part of the story means to your young adult readers?

DK: Like two other great suffrage leaders, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul grew up among Quakers. The Quakers believed that men and women were equal, and they supported a woman’s right to vote. Since Paul went to Swarthmore College, a Quaker institution, it wasn’t until she went to England as a young woman that she got a taste of the widespread opposition to woman suffrage around the world. In England she joined the radical Women’s Social Political Union led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel. The WSPU organized big marches with beautiful pageantry, and they also used confrontational tactics that landed them in jail. Alice Paul seemed to relish it all. She recounted her adventures, including the painful forced feedings she endured in jail when on a hunger strike, in letters to her mother. It was quite a transformation! She showed herself to be fearless and willing to put everything she had into the fight for the vote. Alice Paul had obviously found her calling in life. I hope her courageous fight for the vote will inspire teens to think about the issues that matter most to them and find ways to advocate for them (without going to jail!).

AP: Paul had a keen sense of political theater, and her instinct for actions that would capture the public’s imagination kept women’s rights in the news. How important do you think political theater was then? What role do you think it plays in activism today?

DK: During the Women’s March in Washington last January following Donald Trump’s inauguration, some commentators heard echoes of the large woman suffrage parade that Alice Paul staged on March 3, 1913 right before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The parade, which included floats and a herald on a white horse, announced Alice Paul’s plan to revive America’s sleepy campaign for a woman suffrage amendment. Paul followed that parade with one dramatic event after another, all of them intended to capture the attention of the press and the nation in the hopes of pushing President Wilson and Congress to pass a woman suffrage amendment. When the United States entered World War I, in 1917, and members of the National Woman’s Party began picketing the White House, Paul made sure their banners were provocative enough to land them in the news, despite the competing headlines about the war. Later, after many had served jail time, She sent some Woman’s Party members on a whistle-stop tour of the country dressed in prison garb. Paul kept varying the delivery of her message in order to get everyone’s attention, but the message was always the same: women needed a constitutional amendment giving them the right to vote.

Pickets in front of the White House (and a speech of Wilson’s on fire!). Courtesy Library of Congress

Alice Paul’s campaign made a lot of people angry, including the members of a rival woman suffrage organization, but it was very successful. During the Second Wave, radical feminists staged some outrageous political theater, such as bringing a sheep to a Miss America contest. More recent examples of political theater include Occupy Wall Street in 2011, marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Women’s March, all of which attracted media coverage.

AP: In your book you don’t back away from some of the troubling aspects of Paul’s story, such as her capitulation to racist members of the National Woman’s Party from the South during the fight for the vote. Can you talk about deciding how to deal with the negative parts of her story and what you hope young readers will gain from it?

DK: I didn’t want to whitewash Alice Paul. She was a great leader, but she had flaws. When she was warned that white women from the South would boycott the 1913 parade if they had to march with African American women, Paul caved and asked African American women to march in the back, even though it was she who had invited them to march in the first place. I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to hide this incident or others like it. Another example: After women had finally won the vote, black women, like black men, encountered discriminatory voting laws in the South, and Paul did not want to take on their fight. My role as her chronicler was to present the truth as honestly and fairly as I could and let the reader draw her or his own conclusions.

AP: Your book pays a lot of attention to the nitty gritty of how the 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Rights Amendment moved through Congress. I’m curious about how you managed to shape that sprawling story and how you found the right narrative voice.

DK: I think the same political theater that enlivened the National Woman’s Party’s campaign for the vote also enlivened my book. But I couldn’t avoid the legislative nuts and bolts of the story because almost all of Alice Paul’s work for women’s rights involved Congress. In addition to her campaigns for the Nineteenth Amendment and the ERA, she lobbied hard for the “sex amendment” to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone because of sex as well as race and religion. This crucial amendment continues to help women win class action suits against discriminatory companies.

To avoid getting lost in the legislative weeds, I kept the focus on individual people as much as I could, including Alice Paul’s main antagonist in her fight for what became the Nineteenth Amendment, President Woodrow Wilson. And when appropriate, I did try and inject what one reviewer called “wry humor.”

AP: How do you hope that schools, libraries, and young adults will use your book?

DK: I hope they will read it to gain a better understanding of the woman suffrage movement in the United States, including the important role played by Alice Paul and her militant National Woman’s Party. And I hope my book will also enhance the reader’s appreciation for Alice Paul’s leadership in the fight for women’s rights from the twenties through the seventies. Maybe it will stimulate some discussions about how to level the playing field further for girls and women at home, in school, at work, and in our government. That would be wonderful.

AP: Are there other books about women’s rights that you can recommend?

DK: Ann Bausum’s With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote is excellent. I think there will be many new books coming out as we get closer to the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which is in 2020.

AP: Do you have upcoming projects you can tell us about?

DK: I really enjoyed revisiting the 1970s as I neared the end of my book, and I decided to write a historical novel set during that time. I’m almost done with the first draft.

AP: What should I have asked you that I didn’t?

Deborah Kops
Deborah Kops

DK: You’re dying to know about the highlights of researching the book, right? One of them was looking at Alice Paul’s copy of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which had an enormous impact on the Second Wave of feminism and has been called a “book bomb.” Paul wrote in the margins, and it was a lot of fun to read her comments. Another was talking with the late Mary Eastwood, who worked with and greatly admired “Miss Paul.” Eastwood was one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women, and I loved listening to her description of how NOW was born.


Book info:
Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights: From the Vote to the Equal Rights Amendment
By Deborah Kops
Calkins Creek Books, 9781629793238, 216pp.
Publication Date: February 28, 2017