WASHINGTON — Women painted the House shining white the night the president came to call to give the annual State of the Union address. And at the evening's end, it proved the perfect shade for tearing up his speech.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and scores of Democratic women in Congress wore suffrage white to honor the fight and right to vote. Votes for women at last won the day in 1920.
You know how the last scene in the Capitol chamber played out in 2020.
When President Donald Trump stalked off the dais, Pelosi artfully ripped up the pages of his speech. For all the world to see.
It was a stunning sight for sore Washington eyes. Up in the press gallery, we looked at one another; did Pelosi just do that? It's her House, after all, and Trump was a guest, who didn't even shake her hand. A snub for a snub?
The speaker tearing up Trump's speech was an electric piece of resistance and sisterhood.
Pelosi's act eerily echoed the suffrage street bonfires outside the White House a century ago. Yes, President Woodrow Wilson's well-worded speeches were burned publicly to protest his preaching to make the "world safe for democracy" when women were excluded from democracy at home.
Wilson's speeches were the last to be written by the president himself, a proud Princeton-educated man born before the Civil War. Alice Paul, the movement's young modern leader, was arresting — and arrested, at times — over a seven-year campaign. The struggle out on the Washington streets started in 1913, just before Wilson was sworn in.
Over a 100-year arc, Pelosi and Paul showed defiance in the face of presidential power. It's worth noting both women did so on a public stage; they knew their actions were only effective if witnessed widely. Just as key, this technique is known as nonviolent resistance.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. championed the nonviolent way and showed its power to create change in the brutally segregated South. But its blueprint was invented by Alice Paul. Her Washington mass movement was the first in American history to be based on nonviolent resistance.
The march on the nation's capital was for women's suffrage, a spectacle of thousands on Pennsylvania Avenue, some women dressed as goddesses on white horses. White was the color of the day.
President-elect Wilson fumed at Union Station, demanding to know where the crowds were to greet his arrival. The answer: Everyone's at the suffrage parade, sir.
It was Alice Paul's way of saying hello, along with a host of Seven Sisters college graduates ready to claim their rights as citizens in the new century. They were not there to ask anymore. As a birthright Quaker, nonviolent resistance ran deep in Paul's blood.
But it's not the easy way out. Confronting a president takes rare spirit. Pelosi, the nation's most powerful Democrat, is the only one to consistently call out Trump, in person, these past three years. The meme of her standing alone in a White House meeting scolding him — "all roads lead to Putin" — flashed around the world.
Trump knows her power, just as Wilson grudgingly respected Paul, believing young ladies should stay in their place. Public opinion grew in fits and starts for Paul's side. He surrendered to her public street and sidewalk campaign after America's victory in World War I. A long time coming, the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a gathering of law students Monday that her mother walked picket lines for suffrage in New York. At 15, Ginsburg's grandmother marched for American democracy to expand here at home.
"That was the first step towards equal citizenship stature," Ginsburg, a fiery wisp of a woman at 86, said at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Note "first step." Go forward, she was saying.
Singer Joan Baez, a pacifist Quaker who sang at marches with King, knew how to read Pelosi's dramatic act right away.
Baez wrote to the speaker: "Your tearing up the copy of President Trump's 'speech' is a brilliant example of nonviolent action — clear, dignified, and effective. Bravo!"
Women in white, threads are coming together.
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