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Jamie Stiehm
Past and Present
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Breaking New Ground, Past and Present

Comment

It was a Swarthmore College spring mixer about history — with suffrage champion Alice Paul as the honoree. The Delta Upsilon Fraternity hosted and invited me to speak. Energy was building in the room, which was graced by a beautiful period photo of Paul as a young woman.

On the Swarthmore campus in the 1980s, let's just say the DU brothers weren't my best friends. As an ardent feminist, I lived in one social space and they lived in another. Looking back, it's clear that on this green and gray campus founded by abolitionist Quakers there were patches and squares of segregation. Yes, they kept us all safe, but enclosed.

March is Women's History Month, but this event had deeper currents than that. Paul herself was a Quaker, a Swarthmore Class of 1905 alumna who expanded American democracy. For the students who came to hear me speak, young women and men roughly age 20, it was a chance to meet and grasp Paul as a game changer. It was my chance to discard stale divides and see social configurations anew.

In short, I said, Paul was a major figure in American history, not only women's history, and her life's work was part of the students' political inheritance. They just didn't know it yet. But that's not surprising. Paul's human-rights legacy was left foggy in my time on campus, too.

This architect of the "Votes for Women" mass movement was still in her 30s when the 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. I told the gathering — in the Alice Paul dormitory commons — that President Woodrow Wilson never had a chance against her. Wilson, a cultural Southerner and a Princeton man, did not "give" women the vote. Women struggled, claimed and won the vote.

As I described the day in 1913 that Wilson arrived in Washington's Union Station as president-elect with nobody to greet him, the young people were "leaning in." He demanded to know where his public was. The answer: "They're all watching the suffrage parade, sir." So from the very start of the Wilson administration, Paul served notice that woman suffrage was a mobilized force to be reckoned with.

Or, as one student said, they could not be ignored.

Paul, as a modern 20th-century woman, took the suffrage movement out to the streets and shifted the focus from the states to Washington. She was the first mass-movement leader to concentrate every protest on the president, whether through vigils, marches or demonstrations where women chained themselves to the White House gates. She brought these techniques back from England, where she studied at the London School of Economics and joined the "suffragettes," as they were known in Britain.

Like Quakers of many years past, Paul practiced nonviolent resistance. She and her colleagues were willing to be jailed for their beliefs. Wilson, peeved by all the commotion outside his doors, did nothing to prevent that from happening.

As several students knew from the movie "Iron Jawed Angels," the incarcerated women were force-fed in a squalid jail in rural Virginia. The outrages they suffered gave new meaning to the term suffrage. And that's when public opinion began to turn. As one student observed, World War I was also contributing to the loosening of social roles and mores. By 1920, votes for women had landed, 72 years after the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

This led me to a Swarthmore arc of history. "Alice Paul finished what Lucretia Mott started," I said. Mott, one of Swarthmore's co-founders, was the main speaker at Seneca Falls.

What I was most impressed by that night on campus was the college's shifting social landscape. One young man said he identified as a feminist. A handful of first-year students who had been conducting a sit-in for college divestment in fossil fuels attended the Paul event. The fraternity was moving beyond the barriers that had defined it in my day as an island of mostly jocks who sat at the same dinner table every night. Of course, they were not the only ones — my group had its own table, too.

The students' curiosity in Alice Paul's civil disobedience inspired me, as she inspired my listeners. The talk was a new thing — a dialogue that reached out, something that never would have happened in my day. Times are a-changin'.

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