Iron-Jawed Angels: The Road to the Vote

The first of three

Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage - Washington DC

Homestead of the Congressiona Union
Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Photographer: Harris and Ewing. Modifications © Jone Lewis 2001.

The story of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party is a fascinating one. Protests, marching, imprisonment; these women stopped at nothing and faced many roadblocks in their attempts to become full citizens of the United States of America and gain the right to vote. Their militant stand is one that many viewed as heroic.

Riding high off the women’s suffrage victory, in 1923, the National Woman’s Party held a commemorative convention at Seneca Falls. Alice Paul proposed to further obtain the rights that were demanded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott at the original Seneca Falls Convention. She wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, and Representative Daniel Anthony of Kansas (the nephew of Susan B. Anthony) introduced it in Congress first in 1923. The original version was called the Lucretia Mott Amendment, and said, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction.”  Twenty years later, Paul, convinced that that original wording prevented it from passing, consented to a rewording. The new amendment stated: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The amendment was submitted in every session of Congress until it was finally approved on March 22, 1972.

It went to the states for ratification with a seven year deadline and then a three year extension, which expired on June 30, 1982.  Ten years after that, in 1992, the 27th Amendment – Madison’s amendment on congressional salaries – was finally ratified after 203 years, which inspired the reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment in every session of Congress, this time as resolutions with no deadline. As of today, thirty-five states have ratified the amendment, falling just three short of the thirty-eight votes it needs to be added to the Constitution, to be made the 28thAmendment (The states that have not ratified are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.)

That’s a demonstration on how difficult it is to obtain equality under the law even today, in this post-civil-rights movement era. Imagine the road to equality nearly a century ago…

The fight for women’s suffrage (and subsequently, human equality) began as early as 1848, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott’s first women’s rights convention at the Wesleyan church chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. The Declaration of Sentiments was adopted, which mirrored the Declaration of Independence. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and Lucy Stone and Catharine Beecher founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA worked to get a federal women’s suffrage law passed, while the AWSA fought to get state laws passed. These two groups joined forces twenty years later, to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In the years 1869 and 1870, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed, granting suffrage to all American men, regardless of race or ethnicity. These amendments, however, did not include women. In 1872, thirteen women, Anthony included, convinced election inspectors that the 15th Amendment did gave women the right to vote, and they were allowed to do so. Later, all thirteen women and the inspectors are arrested and fined. At Anthony’s 1873 trial, she was not able to speak in her own defense due to her gender, so she toured the country to plead her case beforehand. At the trial itself, she was forced to sit in silence until she received the verdict, in which she was convicted of illegal voting and sentenced a fine of one hundred dollars. Here she was asked by U.S. Associate Justice Ward Hunt if she had anything to say why she should not receive this sentence, and she used this very opportunity to speak her mind. The judge made repeated attempts to silence her, but she plowed on, concluding with a refusal to pay even one dollar of the unjust penalty.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association became a huge factor in the United States, collecting signatures on petitions supporting federal legislation on women’s suffrage. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, Anthony’s successor as President of the NAWSA, was a practical, hardworking moderate who believed in maintaining a sensible but ladylike identity for the suffrage movement. Her goal was to get referendums in favor of suffrage passed state by state, thereby eventually forcing Congress to debate the national amendment. Enter one Alice Paul. Although both Catt and Paul had the desire for the passage of a suffrage amendment in their hearts, they were not designed to be friends, nor even colleagues. For one, Catt wanted to bring pressure to Congress from a grassroots base, while Paul wanted to start at the top. This would lead to problems in the future.

Alice Paul was born in 1885 in Moorestown, New Jersey, she was educated at Swarthmore College where she earned her B.A, and went on to the University of Pennsylvania where she received both her M.A. and her Ph.D., in 1907 and 1912, respectively. While in England for part of her studies, at the School of Economics at the University of London, she joined the militant wing of the suffrage movement there. Upon her 1910 return to the United States, Paul began to become active in the suffrage movement at home. By the end of 1912, she was Chairman of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, soon renamed the Congressional Union. She worked closely with Lucy Burns, whom she had met in England while Burns was there on a holiday. Burns was born in Brooklyn, and graduated from VassarCollege, from which she went on to Yale, the University of Berlin, and the University of Bonn. When they met up again in the United States they formed an indomitable pair.

When Alice Paul first arrived in Washington, all the people she was supposed to talk to or find had already left. So she set up headquarters on her own and enlisted many members to join the Congressional Union, or at least work for it. She had a way of making people want to work, whether or not they originally set out to do so. Anyone who set foot in or near headquarters was put to work, no matter how small of a help they could be. A little old lady who could barely see the letters on a typewriter, but who could at least type up one page by the time the day was over, would have been seated at the typewriter with a sheet of paper.

The movement, as we know it today, was under way.

(Part Two)

Author’s Note: I know that seems like a crappy cliffhanger place to stop, but in order for each of the three parts to seem cohesive, this was the best spot. Now is where I want to take the time to talk about this particular series. This was a paper I wrote nearly a decade ago as a senior in college, for my Sociology of Law class. Final paper, worth 25% of the grade, if I recall, on how a social movement became a law. I had some proposal on Durkheimiam theory and how it led to surveillance cameras but it was weak and I admittedly was trying to write the same paper for two classes (Sociology of Punishment being the other). However, one night I caught this movie on HBO, Iron-Jawed Angels. It was half over when I watched it, turning it on to watch a grisly scene showing what Alice Paul, played by Hilary Swank, endured. Luckily, with DirecTV we get both the East and West coast feeds of almost everything, so I caught the beginning a little over an hour later. It was nearly 3 am when I emailed my professor with a new proposal, and got onto my library’s website, ordering books from libraries all over the place – one of them being the book by Doris Stevens (played by Laura Fraser in the movie), that I found by chance and had to giggle at the in-joke in the movie. There’s a scene where Alice Paul says, about Stevens, “She’ll be fine; she’ll probably write a book about it.” It was Stevens’ book that I drew half of my information from, using the other books to provide detail. I should also note here that by the time the books came in, it was the day before my family’s week-long trip to DisneyWorld. Every night after spending the day the various parks, I was scribbling in my notebook. Exhausted when I got home, I still toiled to type everything up, as it was due the next day. However, being a topic that I was actually interested in, and passionate about, I felt this was one of the best papers I ever wrote, for any class, in all my years of school (the second most exciting was a crime-scene analysis project, but as that wasn’t exactly a paper, it’s on a different scale). I remember getting an A-, which was pretty awesome given the typos and random grammar mistakes (‘has’ doesn’t get picked up by spellcheck, even when you mean ‘had’) that I fixed for you here, and I think the fact that I still have it (on CD-RW, haha. To all the young’uns, this was before flash drives were really big) is a testament to how strongly I felt about it. Also, in the second paragraph, I mention the Equal Rights Amendment, and how it still hasn’t passed. That paragraph is exactly as it was written originally in 2004. For nearly 90 years, we have been fighting for the ERA. Those same states have been holding out for as long as I’ve been alive. We’ve come a long way, ladies, but we still have a long way to go.


About Melissa Limasse

| Real name - Yeah right | Location – The State of Being | Worth - $2,425,486 | Education – B.A. Sociology and Psychology, A.As. in Criminal Justice | Single, childless, and completely satisfied with both, Ms. Limasse doesn’t fit into the traditional “female” mold. Most people would say she’s intimidating. Anything that she says here she has most likely already said out loud View all posts by Melissa Limasse

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