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“I Was Arrested, Of Course…”
An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
That was on August 18, 1920, and there is a well-known photograph of you, on the balcony of your headquarters, unfurling the suffrage flag with thirty-six stars. What were your feelings that day?
You know, you are always so engrossed in the details that you probably don’t have all the big and lofty thoughts you should be having. I think we had this anxiety about how we would pay all our bills at the end. So the first thing we did was to just do nothing. We closed our headquarters, stopped all our expenses, stopped publishing our weekly magazine, The Suffragist, stopped everything and started paying off the bills we had incurred. Maud Younger and I got the tiniest apartment we could get, and she took over the housekeeping, and we got a maid who came in, and we just devoted ourselves to raising this money.
What happened to Lucy Burns, your co-leader?
Well, she went back, I guess, to her home in Brooklyn. Everybody went back to their respective homes. Then the following year, on February 15, 1921, we had our final convention to decide what to do. Whether to disband or whether to continue and take up the whole equality program—equality for women in all fields of life—that had been spelled out at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. We decided to go on, and we elected a whole new national board, with Elsie Hill as our new chairman. We thought we ought to get another amendment to the Constitution, so we went to many lawyers—I remember we paid one lawyer quite a large sum, for us, at least—and asked them to draw up an amendment for equal rights. We had another meeting up in Seneca Falls on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the original meeting, and there we adopted the program we have followed ever since on the equal-rights amendment. That was 1923. So that is when we started.
Was that the year the first equal-rights amendment was introduced?
We hadn’t been able to get any lawyer to draft an amendment that satisfied us, so I drafted one in simple ordinary English, not knowing anything much about law, and we got it introduced in Congress. But at the first hearing our little group was the only one that supported it. All these other organizations of women that hadn’t worked to get the vote, these professional groups and so on, opposed the amendment on the grounds that it would deprive them of alimony and force them to work in the mines, and they would lose these special labor laws that protect women. So it was obvious to us—and to the Congress—that we were going to have to change the thinking of American women first. So we began going to convention after convention of women, trying to get them to endorse E.R.A. It took many years. The American Association of University Women just endorsed it in 1972. Imagine, all the years and years and years that women have been going to universities. But the new generation of college women were so hopeless on this subject.
It was like forty years in the wilderness, wasn’t it?
Yes, more or less. But during that time we opened—and by “we” I mean the whole women’s movement—we opened a great many doors to women with the power of the vote, things like getting women into the diplomatic service. And don’t forget we were successful in getting equality for women written into the charter of the United Nations in 1945.
Do you think the progress of the equal-rights amendment has been helped by the women’s liberation movement?
I feel very strongly that if you are going to do anything, you have to take one thing and do it. You can’t try lots and lots of reforms and get them all mixed up together. Now, I think the liberation movement has been a good thing, because it has aroused lots of women from their self-interest, and it has made everyone more aware of the inequalities that exist. But the ratification of the equal-rights amendment has been made a bit harder by these people who run around advocating, for instance, abortion. As far as I can see, E.R.A. has nothing whatsoever to do with abortion.
How did abortion become involved with equal rights?
At the 1968 Republican convention our representative went before the platform committee to present our request for a plank on equal rights, and as soon as she finished, up came one of the liberation ladies, a well-known feminist, who made a great speech on abortion. So then all the women on the platform committee said, well, we’re not going to have the Republican Party campaigning for abortion. So they voted not to put anything in the party platform about women’s rights. That was the first time since 1940 that we didn’t get an equal-rights plank in the Republican platform. And then that feminist showed up at the Democratic convention, and the same thing happened with their platform. It was almost the same story at the 1972 conventions, but this time we managed to get equal rights back into the platforms.
It‘s really the principle of equal rights that you’re concerned with, isn’t it, not the specific applications?
I have never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality. Which is a nice thing about our campaign. It really is true, at least to my mind, that only good will come to everybody with equality. If we get to the point where everyone has equality of opportunity—and I don’t expect to see it, we have such a long, long way ahead of us—then it seems to me it is not our problem how women use their equality or how men use their equality.
Miss Paul, how would you describe your contribution to the struggle for women’s rights?