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“I Was Arrested, Of Course…”
An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Yes, we met in a police station after we were both arrested. I had been asked to go on a little deputation that was being led by Mrs. [Emmeline] Pankhurst to interview the Prime Minister. I said I’d be delighted to go, but I had no idea that we’d be arrested. I don’t know what the charge was. I suppose they hadn’t made all the preparations for the interview with the Prime Minister or something. At any rate, I noticed that Miss Burns had a little American flag pin on her coat, so I went up to her, and we became great friends and allies and comrades. Well, we got out of that, and, of course, afterwards we were immediately asked to do something else. And that way you sort of get into the ranks.
What sort of things were you asked to do?
The next thing I was asked to do was to go up to Norwich and “rouse the town,” as they say. Winston Churchill was in the British cabinet and was going to make a speech there. Well, the English suffragists knew that the government was completely opposed to suffrage, and they conceived this plan to publicly ask all the cabinet members what they were going to do about votes for women. For that moment at least, the whole audience would turn to the subject of suffrage. We considered it an inexpensive way of advertising our cause. I thought it was a very successful method.
What happened at Norwich?
I went to Norwich with one other young woman, who was as inexperienced as I was, and we had street meetings in the marketplace, where everyone assembled for several nights before Mr. Churchill’s speech. I don’t know whether we exactly “roused the town,” but by the time he arrived, I think Norwich was pretty well aware of what we were trying to do. The night he spoke, we had another meeting outside the hall. We were immediately arrested. You didn’t have to be a good speaker, because the minute you began, you were arrested.
Were you a good speaker?
Not particularly. Some people enjoyed getting up in public like that, but I didn’t. I did it, though. On the other hand, Lucy Burns was a very good speaker—she had what you call that gift of the Irish—and she was extremely courageous, a thousand times more courageous than I was. I was the timid type, and she was just naturally valiant. Lucy became one of the pillars of our movement. We never, never, never could have had such a campaign in this country without her.
In her book about the suffrage movement Inez Haynes Irwin tells about your hiding overnight on the roof of St. Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow, Scotland, in order to break up a political rally the next day.
Did Mrs. Irwin say that? Oh, no. I never hid on any roof in my life. In Glasgow I was arrested, but it was at a street meeting we organized there. Maybe Mrs. Irwin was referring to the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London. I think it was in December of 1909, and Miss Burns and I were asked to interrupt the Lord Mayor. I went into the hall, not the night before but early in the morning when the charwomen went to work, and I waited up in the gallery all day. That night Lucy went in down below with the banquet guests. I don’t remember whether she got up and interrupted the mayor. I only remember that I did.
I was arrested, of course.
I can’t remember how long I was in jail that time. I was arrested a number of times. As for forcible feeding, I’m certainly not going to describe that.
Well, to me it was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote. Seems almost unthinkable now, doesn’t it? With all these millions and millions of women going out happily to work today, and nobody, as far as I can see, thinking there’s anything unusual about it. But, of course, in some countries woman suffrage is still something that has to be won.
Do you credit Mrs. Pankhurst with having trained you in the militant tactics you subsequently introduced into the American campaign?
That wasn’t the way the movement was, you know. Nobody was being trained. We were just going in and doing the simplest little things that we were asked to do. You see, the movement was very small in England, and small in this country, and small everywhere, I suppose. So I got to know Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, quite well. I had, of course, a great veneration and admiration for Mrs. Pankhurst, but I wouldn’t say that I was very much trained by her. What happened was that when Lucy Burns and I came back, having both been imprisoned in England, we were invited to take part in the campaign over here; otherwise nobody would have ever paid any attention to us.
That was in 1913?