Next Monday we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. Known by all as the strongest advocate for equal rights for African Americans using non-violence, King has become a giant in the history of the quest for civil liberty and social justice.
King was a great man indeed, and he deserves our annual celebrations of respect. But few people know he wasn't the first crusader for equal rights who used non-violent confrontation as a tool for change. We should also be celebrating the January birthday of another civil rights hero, one who preceded King by half a century.
Both white and black men were granted the right to vote and full constitutional citizenship in 1870, but women were left out. In 1913 -- 52 years before King led the march from Selma to Montgomery for the right for African Americans to exercise their vote freely without intimidation -- Alice Paul was leading an 8,000 person Washington D.C. march in a quest for that most basic right for women -- the vote.
Though a number of books and even a TV movie, (Iron Jawed Angels in 2004) about Paul have been written over the years, there's a new entry on the block with a fresh look and a different kind of presentation. Author Zoe Nicholson is releasing her detailed biography one electronic chapter at a time, in the spirit of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, both originally published in serial form.
Launched from the new website MissAlicePaul.com, the third of the planned eight chapters was released on Paul's birthday, January 11th. In the narrative so far, Paul has come from her Quaker roots to England, where she becomes a suffrage crusader at the feet of British suffragettes Sylvia Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. On her return to the U.S. to take up the crusade here, Paul remained radical for the cause and was quite confrontational, but she and her disciples always remained non-violent.
Founding the National Woman's Party in 1916, she masterminded the tactics that finally got women the franchise in 1920 after a 72 year struggle by less aggressive suffragists. Paul was a pioneer in non-violent protest, organizing the first group of American citizens in history to picket in front of the White House fence in 1917. She was the first person to be jailed by the U.S. government for political protest, confined at Occoquan Workhouse where she was put in a mental ward, tied down, and force-fed.
Three years after women won the vote, Paul drafted the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, and campaigned for it until she died in 1977. The amendment never passed, and to this day U.S. women do not have equal constitutional rights with men.
It wouldn't be quite true to say Alice Paul has been lost to history, but she never got the credit she deserved for the change she made for women. So this month when you tip your glass in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, take a sip for Alice too.
Listen to the two minute radio commentary here: