Home / General / Book Review: J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power

Book Review: J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power



In the latter part of her career, the pioneering oral historian Alice Fry started a definitive biography of Paul’s life up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. When she could not finish it due to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, J.D. Zahniser took it over and completed it. This new biography is by turns fascinating and frustrating, demonstrating both the power and limits of the biographical form.

Paul grew up in a Quaker family and she was pretty wealthy. These two issues are important, for while Paul was able to fairly easily move away from Quaker notions about not placing oneself too far out in front of political movements (although she was almost always characterized as someone who credited other people before herself), following her inner light clearly defined her career, seeing the truth as more important than respectability or conventionality. And her money, and the social status of most leading suffragists, did a lot to shield them from too much public approbation, although Paul would move beyond these protections through her direct action protests.

Paul’s early career was pretty typical of a lot of young Progressive women. She went to Swarthmore and then worked at a settlement house. But she didn’t care too much for class-based work and moved past that experience fairly quickly, getting a master’s degree from Penn. She then went to Europe, where she did a bit more social work, briefly getting a job in a London factory in order to learn what the lives of the poor were like. But again, this did not interest her much. Soon she gravitated toward the British suffrage movement. Specifically, she found herself close to the Pankhurst family, the leading family of radical British suffrage. They pioneered the radical direct action, including vandalism, arson, and violence, to demand equality. Paul became one of the most important American allies they had. She repeatedly put herself in dangerous situations, was arrested and then force fed in prison when she went on hunger strikes.

Paul returned to the U.S. in 1910 and instantly threw herself into the suffrage movement, providing a much-needed jolt of radical energy to a movement of wealthy women highly concerned about pushing Victorian respectability boundaries too aggressively. Her direct action tactics soon brought her into conflict with Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), leading to a split. But Paul had her followers and, pushing herself to extreme limits, spent the next decade organizing, fundraising, committing direct action protests, and demanding the immediate support of all politicians for women’s suffrage. She got more aggressive rather than less as World War I came to dominate American politics. She and her followers targeted Democrats in the 1914 midterm elections because of their disgust over Woodrow Wilson’s unwillingness to support their cause, focusing on the states where women did have the right to vote, and evidently having some effect. It does seem that in states with suffrage, women voted for Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 because of his support for suffrage. This got increased attention from politicians, who worried about the effects of this vote on their party. Paul ramped up her campaign as the U.S. got involved in the war, leading to arrests, imprisonment in terrible conditions, attempts by the government to have her declared insane, hunger strikes, and near-torture conditions in prison. All this just served to increase attention for her cause. Paul knew this and encouraged it. Finally, Wilson came out in tepid support of what would be the Nineteenth Amendment and while neither party by any means unanimously supported women’s suffrage (the Republican dominated states of Connecticut, Delaware, and Vermont did not pass the amendment), it ensured its passage and eventual ratification, although only by a single vote in Tennessee.

This biography effectively demonstrates several key points we should know about Paul and suffrage movement. First, Zahniser and Fry show how fine a line Paul had to walk on race. With a long history of the women’s movement racebaiting their way to respectable politics and with racial attitudes hardening during the 1910s, inviting black suffragists into the movement was fraught with difficulty and Paul consistently walked a fine line here. Unfortunately, the biographers give us very little information on who these black women were. Moreover, when Paul and her followers burned Wilson in effigy, many northern suffragists were outraged, some because of the radical nature of the action, but many others because it seemed to validate the practice of lynching that many of them also opposed. Second, the two biographers clearly believe that the direct action of Paul had a much greater effect on ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment than the more moderate actions of Catt and the NAWSA. Several commenters of the time, including southern Congressmen who ended up voting for the amendment, said so themselves. Direct action was effective and Paul’s personal sacrifices make it impossible to think the movement could have won in 1920 without her. In fact, when one thinks how reaction was rapidly sweeping the country by 1920, had the Nineteenth Amendment not passed when it did, it’s entirely plausible that it could have taken until the 1930s and the New Deal for women to gain the vote.

Unfortunately, this book ends in 1920. At this time, Alice Paul was 35 years old. She had 57 years of life ahead of her. These last 57 years receive 3 pages. This is common in most writings about Paul. While I get that the passage of the Nineeteenth Amendment was obviously the peak moment of Paul’s political life, the last 2/3 of her life do deserve some focus, at least a chapter or two. Paul was a fighter for the Equal Rights Amendment, even at the end of her life. And she didn’t understand the cultural and sexual critiques of second wave feminism, showing befuddlement over the emphasis on abortion. Don’t these questions, as well as many other points in her last 57 years, deserve some attention to if we are to get the complete picture of Paul?

And yet despite this, the book, at over 300 pages of text, seems a bit long, demonstrating some of the limits of biography. How much information do we need to know about an individual? This obviously depends primarily on the interest of the reader. The question any biography has to answer is how to balance intricate details about the individual versus the larger context of the time. This biography, as many if not most do, tends to fall toward the former. This is why I usually find biographies frustrating. I am not reading books to focus on personalities. I get that’s why most people read biographies, but a book like this would be more useful if it signposted Paul’s life to the larger social and political world of the era more often. Certainly one gets a strong sense of Woodrow Wilson’s opposition to women’s suffrage and the details of how Paul and her allies influenced the 1916 election, because it’s absolutely necessary for the details of Paul herself, but more on Progressivism and other areas of women’s activism during the time would really flesh out the larger issues.

Overall, this is a book I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of women’s suffrage or in Alice Paul specifically.

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