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“I Was Arrested, Of Course…”
An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
No, I don’t think she was. She came down to Washington frequently and spoke at our meetings, and she walked at the head of our 1913 procession. But I think we did make the mistake perhaps of spending too much time and energy just on the campaign. We didn’t take enough time, probably, to go and explain to all the leaders why we thought [the federal amendment] was something that could be accomplished. You see, the National American took the position—not Miss Anthony, but the later people—that suffrage was something that didn’t exist anywhere in the world, and therefore we would have to go more slowly and have endless state referendums to indoctrinate the men of the country.
Obviously you didn’t agree with this. Was this what caused the Congressional Union to break with the National American?
We didn’t break with the National American. In a sense we were expelled. At the 1913 convention they made lots and lots of changes in the association’s constitution. I don’t recall what they were, and I didn’t concern myself with the changes at the time. At any rate, the Congressional Union was affiliated with the National American under one classification, and they wrote to us and said if we would resign from that classification and apply for another classification, there would be a reduction in our dues. So we did what they told us, and then when we applied for the new classification, they refused to accept us, and we were out.
Why did the National American do this to your group?
The real division was over the Shafroth-Palmer amendment that the National American decided to substitute for the Anthony amendment in the spring of 1914. Under this proposal each state would hold a referendum on woman suffrage if more than 8 per cent of the legal voters in the last preceding election—males, of course—signed a petition for it. This tactic had been tried without much success before, and with all the time and money such campaigns involve, I don’t think many women would have ever become voters. Our little group wanted to continue with the original amendment, which we called the Susan B. Anthony because the women of the country, if they knew anything about the movement, had heard the name Susan B. Anthony. Now the great part of the American women were very loyal to this amendment, and when the National American suddenly switched to Shafroth-Palmer, we thought that the whole movement was going off on a sidetrack. And that is the reason we later formed the National Woman’s Party, because if we hadn’t continued, there would have been nobody in Washington speaking up for the original amendment.
You didn’t have much faith in state referendums?
The first thing I ever did—after I graduated from Swarthmore, I did some social work in New York City—one of the suffragists there asked me to go with her to get signatures for a suffrage referendum in New York State. So I went with her, and she was a great deal older and much more experienced than I was. I remember going into a little tenement room with her, and a man there spoke almost no English, but he could vote. Well, we went in and tried to talk to this man and ask him to vote for equality for women. And almost invariably these men said, “No, we don’t think that it is the right thing. We don’t do that in Italy, women don’t vote in Italy.” You can hardly go through one of those referendum campaigns and not think what a waste of the strength of women to try and convert a majority of men in the state. From that day on I was convinced that the way to do it was through Congress, where there was a smaller group of people to work with.
Then the National Woman’s Party was formed to continue the work on the federal amendment?
We changed our name from the Congressional Union to the National Woman’s Party in 1916, when we began to get so many new members and branches. Mainly people who disagreed with the National American’s support of the Shafroth-Palmer. And the person who got us to change our name was Mrs. [Alva E.] Belmont.
Would you tell me about Mrs. Belmont?
She was, of course, a great supporter of the suffrage movement financially, and we didn’t even know her the first year we were in Washington. People said to me that she was a wonderfully equipped person who was very fond of publicity, and they suggested that I invite her to come down and sit on one of the parade floats. Well, I didn’t know who she was at all, but I wrote her an invitation, and I remember thinking what a queer person she must be to want to sit on a float. She turned out to be anything but the type she was described, and, of course, she didn’t sit on any float. Anyway, a year later, after we had been expelled from the National American and couldn’t have been more alone and more unpopular and more unimportant, one of our members, Crystal Eastman [Benedict], contacted Mrs. Belmont. And Mrs. Belmont invited me to come have dinner and spend the night at her home in New York City. Well, I like to go to bed early, but Mrs. Belmont was the type that liked to talk all night. So all night we talked about how we could probably get suffrage. A little later Mrs. Belmont withdrew entirely from the old National American and threw her whole strength into our movement. The first thing she did was give us five thousand dollars. We had never had such a gift before.
Why do you think Mrs. Belmont crossed over to your group?