She clinched the vote for women after enduring prison torture. Here’s how to tell kids the story.
By Dean Robbins
Until recently, Alice Paul was a relatively obscure hero of the American women’s movement. She lacked the name recognition of Susan B. Anthony, despite being the suffragist who finally got the job done. Paul’s inventive tactics clinched the approval of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, granting women the right to vote.
Over the past year, Paul has been on a roll. The Treasury announced plans to place her on the back of the $10 bill, along with Anthony and other women’s rights pioneers. The bill will also portray her organizational masterpiece, the 1913 women’s suffrage parade.
In April, President Obama designated the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. This is the house in Washington, D.C., where Paul led the National Woman’s Party in a crusade for women’s rights. She used it as her headquarters while working on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which she authored in 1923 and championed until her death in 1977.
In the ceremony for the women’s equality monument, Obama called Paul “a brilliant community organizer and political strategist.” He expressed hope that “a young generation will come here and draw inspiration from the efforts of people who came before them.”
Alice Paul will surely inspire a younger generation, but the question is: How young? Her story is hard to tell without relating ugly facts about U.S. history. As a result, she won’t fit into the elementary school curriculum as well as Anthony, who challenged our government without literally feeling its lash. Torture is a tough subject for kids still playing on jungle gyms.
In 1917, police arrested Paul and others from the National Woman’s Party for picketing the White House, First Amendment be damned. A judge threw the women in jail, where dozens of guards brutalized them in the infamous Night of Terror. Paul embarked on a hunger strike, leading to force-feeding and a stint in a barbarous psychiatric ward.
If, like me, you think it’s important to introduce Alice Paul to elementary school students, how do you explain her struggle without scaring them? Young children need to learn what American values are before coming to terms with the fact that we sometimes trample those values underfoot.
When I visit elementary schools to speak about U.S. history, I face a similar problem on the subject of slavery. Looking out on those innocent faces, I can tell they’re not ready for the unvarnished truth about human bondage. But I’ve found that kids do quickly grasp the concept of unfairness, as most of them have experienced it in one form or another.
I ask them whether it’s fair that slaves suffered while other Americans didn’t. Invariably they scream “no!” They thrill to real-life superheroes such as Frederick Douglass who dedicated themselves to righting slavery’s wrongs.
This is the key to introducing young children to Paul: Portray her as a kind of Wonder Woman, wearing her trademark purple hat instead of a tiara. It’s no stretch to see Paul that way, given her quixotic battle against the villains who opposed women’s suffrage. She used a U.S. citizen’s superpower — freedom of speech — to thwart the politicians arrayed against equality.
Never backing down, Paul and her colleagues achieved what once seemed impossible: passage of the 19th Amendment. Casting her first vote in the 1920 election along with ecstatic women across the nation, Paul raised her arm in triumph.
It’s a perfect ending for a story that will make young children rightly proud of the United States. Here was an ordinary citizen who used democratic means to create a fairer society. If Alice Paul can do it, so can they.
Kids will easily perceive the connection between Paul’s triumph and the world they live in. The federal government now celebrates Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day. This year, two women ran as major party candidates for president, and one of them could well make it all the way.
As students grow older, they’ll learn the shocking details about the Night of Terror and other atrocities committed in the land of the free. But if they’ve internalized the meaning of Alice Paul’s story, these revelations won’t shake their belief in a country that can make real progress if good people set their minds to it.