In 1775, American colonists decided to teach the English a lesson about equality and political rights. They tarred and feathered Loyalists, burned royal governors in effigy, and destroyed British property before finally taking up arms in the cause of independence.
In 1907, Alice Paul went to London to study social work, but the young American learned far more from her English hosts about how to advance equality and political rights for women. Alongside militant English suffragettes, Paul smashed windows, harassed British statesmen, and staged prison hunger strikes.
Then she brought these lessons back to America and the gates of the White House.
Alice Paul was born in New Jersey to a family of Hicksite Quakers, and from them, she acquired a firm belief in women's equality and Christian social responsibility. Throughout her youth and early adulthood, Alice was sent to the best schools, enrolling at Swarthmore in 1901 and graduating with a degree in biology in 1905. She earned a master's in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907, and then left for England to explore ways to apply her Quaker beliefs to a life of social activism at the Woodebrooke Quaker Study Centre in England.
While in England, Paul attended lectures at the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics. But her most significant education occurred in the streets of London after meeting Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The mother and daughter were leaders within England's Women's Rights Movement, but unlike the activists Paul had met in America, these suffragettes believed that voting rights would be won only through confrontational tactics.
Frustrated with the moderate strategies employed for years—petition drives and prayer meetings—the Pankhursts founded the Women's Social and Political Union. The organization staged dramatic confrontations with political figures, disrupted public events, and smashed windows to draw attention.
For Paul, these confrontational strategies were a revelation, and something of a relief. She formerly believed that rights must be pursued through debate and oratory, but believing herself to be a poor speaker, she doubted the effectiveness of her own contributions. From the Pankhursts she learned that a message's greatest power lay in the speaker's commitment, not her words. She was moved by the willingness of suffragettes to risk prison in order to draw momentary attention to their cause. And so she embraced their methods.
By the time Paul left England, she boasted 48 broken windows and multiple arrests. On one occasion, she and a colleague sneaked into a political dinner by pretending to be cleaning women. Climbing to the gallery, they smashed a stained glass window with their shoes before shouting, "Votes for women!"
She also spent time in jail where she drew even more attention to the suffragette cause by demanding to be treated as a political prisoner.
Political prisoners were subject to different rules than other inmates. They weren't searched, were housed in separate cell blocks, weren't dressed in inmate garb, and weren't force-fed during hunger strikes. The authorities denied Paul and other members of WSPU this status, so when the suffragettes staged hunger strikes, they were force-fed through tubes inserted into their nostrils. The decision backfired on prison authorities. The description of young women being forcibly disrobed by male prison guards in order to dress them in prison uniforms, and the even more sensational accounts of feeding tubes jammed into their stomachs, offended British readers.
Paul returned to America in 1910, and immediately joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association. But Paul's relationship with the more moderate organization was a tense one.
The NAWSA, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, believed that the vote would be won state by state, while Paul believed that suffragettes should pursue one national amendment to ensure the right to vote throughout the country. NAWSA cultivated ties with political organizations and figures believed sympathetic to its cause, like the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson, while Paul argued that the party in power should be held accountable for existing conditions and confronted, regardless of any claims of philosophical sympathy.
As a result, Paul left the NAWSA in 1914 to found a more radical organization that would become the National Woman's Party.
With her newly founded party, Paul set about applying the strategies she'd learned in England. Rather than lobby and petition, and rather than try to cultivate political support among influential Democrats, she launched a campaign of relentless public protest. "Silent sentinels" were dispatched daily to stand vigil outside the White House. Carrying banners asking "How Long Must Woman Wait for Liberty," small groups of women offered daily and persistent testimony to the power of their convictions.
Initially, President Wilson responded with good humor—on one rainy day, he invited the women inside. (They refused.) But as their protest continued, he grew less tolerant. And when the United States entered World War I, he and many others complained that the protest should be set aside for the sake of wartime unity.
Paul, however, did just the opposite. The old banners were replaced with new ones asking "Kaiser Wilson" when their rights would be acknowledged.
Following the increasingly provocative attacks, Wilson's patience with the protestors grew thin. Members of the public also reacted negatively. One sentinel described the "circle of little boys who gathered about [...] first, spitting at them, calling them names, making personal comments; then the gathering of gangs of young hoodlums who encourage the boys to further insults; then more and more crowds; more and more insults. [...] Sometimes the crowd would edge nearer and nearer, until there was but a foot of smothering, terror-fraught space between them and the pickets."
Local police chose to diffuse the situation not by restraining the hostile crowds, but by arresting the sentinels for "obstructing traffic." But this largely played into the hands of Paul and the NWP, for it only increased public awareness of their campaign and created more sensational stories of rough treatment by the police and harsh prison sentences. During the fall of 1917, Washington police arrested more than 500 sentinels, and 168 women were sent to jail. Many first-timers were given short sentences, but some were sent to the Occuquan Workhouse for 30 to 60 days. And a handful, including Paul herself, were sentenced to seven months in prison.
On May 16th, 1838, Angelina Grimké took the podium at the newly opened Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia. Outside, mobs hurled rocks through the windows and threatened to burn the building down. Inside, 3,000 abolitionists clung to every word from the woman in the front of the room.
We must not "shrink in the time of peril," she warned, "or feel unwilling to sacrifice ourselves, on behalf of the slave." The violence raging outside offered proof of the justice of their cause, she argued. In fact, abolitionists should be grateful for the anger directed against them, for it showed "that there is yet life enough to feel the truth [...] that conscience is not so completely seared as to be unmoved by the truth of the living God."
These tendencies hadn't been entirely absent during her path-breaking year on the lecture circuit. In fact, these tendencies had helped shape her approach to abolition. Unsatisfied with the half measures of other abolitionists, she castigated them for not digging deeper into the trenches to fight for the slaves and the poor. Suspicious of the motives of seemingly half-hearted reformers, she pushed them toward a more thorough exploration of their principles. Linking the nation's sins to her own personal sins, she was driven to rid the nation of its greatest evil and, in the process, find some degree of redemption for herself.
But in the end, it was too much for her. By the spring of 1838, even as her reputation grew and more speaking invitations poured in, she was looking for a way out. And so after appearing before the abolitionists at Pennsylvania Hall, after climaxing a year of activism with her most dramatic and memorable performance, she retired.
Grimké's fans within the movement regretted her departure. Most simply couldn't understand it. They begged her to return to the field and carry on the fight. She explained that the demands of married life, and the children that soon followed, took all of her time. The physical and emotional trials that confronted her during the first years of her marriage were indeed great, but the truth of the matter is that Grimké was psychologically exhausted even before her children arrived, and the depression that plagued her from early adulthood onward could not be held forever at bay.
It's tantalizing to consider how Grimké's life might have played out had she been able to continue her work, and what further contributions she might have made to abolitionism and women's rights. But the sad fact of the matter is that both Grimké's greatness and her early retirement were tied to the same intellectual and mental traits. Her crushing sense of sin led her into reform. Her combative intolerance for imperfection in herself and others prompted her to stretch the reform community toward a more complete development of their principles. But these same traits drove her into periodic depression, into dark and prolonged periods of despair and hopelessness.
The sad fact is that Angelina Grimké couldn't have been great without these powerful traits—and with them, she couldn't be great for long.
In 2006, Betty Friedan, the one person many believe launched the modern women's movement, died at age 85.
It speaks to the success of the movement—and its limitations—that many women, even many feminists, had little to say about her death.
In 1963, Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique exploded onto the literary scene. Its publisher didn't expect the occasionally dense analysis of women's condition to do so well—only 3,000 copies were produced in the first printing. But the book quickly climbed toward the top of the bestseller list and provoked widespread discussion.
Ironically, Friedan had intended to write a book challenging the widespread belief that a college education soured women on lives of domesticity. But when she interviewed former classmates at Smith College in preparation, she discovered something entirely different: they were vaguely, often apologetically, dissatisfied with their lives. Many of them enjoyed reasonable prosperity, healthy children, and caring husbands, but they felt "empty," "incomplete," or chronically "tired." They were talented and well educated but they felt profound discontent.
Friedan labeled this discontent the "problem that has no name" and she linked it largely to the pressures women faced to conform to an idealized vision of femininity.
Many young women attained first-rate educations, and many launched successful careers, but they felt obliged to abandon their academic or career plans upon marriage. Unable to pursue their own ambitions, they were forced to construct identities through their husbands and to find meaning in their roles as housewives and mothers. When many didn't, they felt guilty and inadequate.
In constructing this analysis, Friedan drew upon her own experiences. She graduated summa cum laude from Smith and then entered a graduate psychology program at UC Berkeley. But she left school in order to please a threatened boyfriend. Shortly after, she moved to New York and began working as a writer, but she gave this up as well when she married and started a family in 1947.
Friedan's basic history was echoed in interview after interview in The Feminine Mystique, and apparently, her story also resonated with millions of readers across the country.
The book's response convinced Friedan that women's "nameless, aching dissatisfaction" demanded more than literary therapy, and so, in 1966, she joined others in forming NOW—the National Organization for Women. Aimed at bringing women into "full participation in the mainstream of American society" and enjoying "all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men," NOW held its first conference in October of 1966, when Friedan was elected president.
Initially, NOW's energies were devoted primarily to fighting employment discrimination. NOW successfully lobbied the federal government to prohibit gender discrimination by federal contractors and pressured the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prohibit sex-segregated job ads.
Other victories were filled with as much symbolic as real significance. For example, airlines were forced to abandon their practice of firing stewardesses when they married or turned 32. But over time, NOW's agenda grew more diverse. It lobbied Congress for federally subsidized child care, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and inclusion of Title IX in the 1972 Education Act, guaranteeing women equal access to educational opportunities.
NOW promoted lesbian rights, worked to protect abortion rights, and encouraged colleges to introduce women's studies courses.
By 2006, NOW could boast a huge legacy, yet many claimed that the course first set by Friedan was too narrow. The problem, they argued, was that Freidan's own experiences were too limited. While she understood and spoke powerfully to the experiences of relatively affluent women like herself, she knew nothing about women who were poor, non-white, or forced by their circumstances into work in factories or domestic service.
While Friedan lobbied to open up businesses and the professions to educated women, critics said that she never considered the other women who would be "called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions." These women, facing a different type of oppression, weren't as well served by NOW's early agenda, Friedan's critics claimed.
Moreover, to these women, Friedan's "nameless, aching dissatisfaction" was foreign and even indulgent. Radical feminist bell hooks argued that Freidan's book was "a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence," especially in the chapter in which Friedan labeled the middle-class home a "comfortable concentration camp." It was absurd, hooks argued, to compare "the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps."
Quite possibly, this need to explain the context for Friedan's book offers the most powerful testimony to its impact.
In July 1848, about 300 people gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the present and future of American women. The culmination of the meeting came on July 20th when a Declaration of Sentiments and 11 resolutions, drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were read to the crowd for their consideration.
The Declaration of Sentiments, modeled closely after the Declaration of Independence, asserted the "self-evident" truth that "all men and women were created equal," and it listed the "history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman."
Stanton's resolutions emphasized, for the most part, the fundamental and divinely intended equality of men and women, but a few spoke to more specific grievances that had surfaced in recent years, like the right of women to speak in religious and other public forums. One resolution declared it "the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't live to see the 19th Amendment ratified. She died in 1902 of heart failure. But the association she founded, re-organized in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was driven by the premise that Cady Stanton nursed, sometimes in the background of the movement, since 1848: the right to vote "will secure all others," and without political power, all other rights are "a mockery."
Angelina Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Betty Friedan—the Women's Rights Movement celebrates a number of activists and crusaders.
But for many women, another name should be added: Phyllis Schlafly. Between 1972 and 1982, she led the fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most feminist leaders branded Schlafly a reactionary—a stooge of the far right and a traitor to her gender. But other women believe that she succeeded in preserving valuable qualities of womanhood by preventing feminist extremists from foisting a radical agenda on the nation.
The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923. Feminists recognized that the vote alone wouldn't correct centuries of second-class citizenship. Therefore, Alice Paul drafted the language for a constitutional amendment for Congress: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."
The Equal Rights Amendment has been reintroduced in every Congress since 1982. Some believe that the political climate is right for another attempt at ratification. Phyllis Schlafly, even in her 80s, was heading the Eagle Forum, publishing the Phyllis Schlafly Report, and thinking the ERA was a bad idea. But she passed away in 2016—does that mean the political climate is especially balmy?
Or is she still around? If the battle is re-fought, will her supporters resurrect her old arguments against the amendment, and will they still fly? Or will proponents of the ERA figure out how to better connect with the majority of America's women?