Monday, January 11, 2010

Alice Paul and the Spirit of Joan of Arc

Today's opinion piece isn't online, so I can't link to it as I usually do on Mondays. I'll just copy it here. I think that on some levels, I do put in my "one little stone," a phrase that will make sense after you read the column, but would I pitch in with an English class for Hispanic immigrants or give money here and there if those activities put me at risk? Alice Paul's government attacked her for the good she did—I wonder, if faced with spending months in a rat-infested workhouse or being beaten or being force-fed for weeks, if I would opt out of working for causes that are important to me. Hmmm

Alice Paul and the Spirit of Joan of Arc

When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row.” That’s an old adage Alice Paul, born this day in 1885, learned from her mother, and she used its true meaning to guide her throughout her life.

William and Tacie Paul raised their daughter Alice with Quaker principles, mainly that men and women are equal and that each one of us is responsible to work for the betterment of society. Those principles stuck with Alice. When her mother joined the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. and took Alice along for meetings, the girl made note. When her parents sent her to Swathmore College, she took full advantage of such an education not often available to women at the time and earned a doctorate degree in political science. And when her mathematics professor, a fiercely intelligent and determined woman in her own right, instructed her to “use thy gumption,” she obeyed.

With such a frame work, it’s no wonder the young woman not only recognized the injustice of denying women the right to vote, but set out to solve the problem as well. It isn’t enough to shake your head and wish for better things. There is work to be done.

Facing brutal opposition, Alice Paul and women of like mind formed their own political party and petitioned congress for a voice. Despite the rejection of even President Woodrow Wilson, they held quiet protests, serving as “Silent Sentinels” to make their cause known. In exchange, they were imprisoned, beaten, humiliated and force-fed as some of them used a hunger strike to protest their harsh treatment.

In the psychiatric ward where Alice was force-fed three times a day for weeks, one physician is reported to have described her as having, “a spirit like Joan of Arc,” and he said, “It is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up." It was that courageous determination that led her to continue her fight for a righteous cause, to change society for the better as she had been raised to do. And in 1920, President Wilson signed the 19th amendment into law as a result.

Alice didn’t stop with that singular success but set out to introduce another amendment, one that would grant equal rights to all. As a result of a new generation of champions setting their hands to the plow, a similar amendment was finally passed in 1972, and Alice was alive to see it signed into law.

What I find so inspiring about the story of Alice Paul is not just that she was brave and undeterred but that she served as an example of the importance of each individual doing his or her part. She once said about the women’s suffrage movement, “I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.”

She laid but one stone, building on the foundation laid by previous women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While she is remembered as a leader, she could not have accomplished a single thing without the work of the many others beside her, all of the others who sacrificed and fought to create that “great mosaic” that now benefits us all.

I can’t go so far as to say that spirit of Joan of Arc is rare, but I don’t see it very often in my day-to-day life. I certainly don’t see it in myself when I am more inclined to curl up in defeat than I am to pursue a goal at any cost. I am not often shy with my griping about the injustices I see in the world, but I’m afraid I have yet to lay my one little stone in an effort to create a better society.

By bringing attention to the story of Alice Paul who so valiantly plowed to the end of her row, I am hoping to at least remind myself to put in my one little stone, whatever the cause. And maybe some of you will even stand up and show me how it’s done.


Valerie said...

Love your article about Alice! One point I'd like to clarify is that although Alice Paul lived to see the ERA passed, she DID NOT see it ratified,and we HAVE NOT YET seen it ratified. Here at the Alice Paul Institute ( we are dedicated to honoring her legacy and one part of our mission is to advance the cause of equal rights. Check out our website!

Madame DeFarge said...

Fascinating story and about someone about whom I had never heard. Certainly worth knowing more about.

MmeBenaut said...

Your writing is akin to laying that stone Robyn both on your blog and also for the paper. This article is brilliant and Alice Paul simply amazing.