October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated How can there be any overrated feminist in the twenty-first century? Today we need all the feminists we can get, especially since the conservative right has managed to turn a word that simply means equality for women into a stigmatized category of bra-burning viragoes and male-hating lesbians.
The word feminist , a borrowing from the French, was not in use during Abigail Adams’s time. But she gets in all the history books as our first feminist on the basis of two letters written to her husband, John, in 1776. She wanted him to remember the ladies, reminding him that “all Men would be tyrants if they could.” In response he trivialized the issue: “In practice you know We are your subjects.” But she stopped well short of any claim for equality, accepting the protections of her class and marital status and quoting verse to make her point: ”... by submitting sway / Yet have our Humour most when we obey.” Other American women of her generation—Esther De Berdt Reed, Mercy Otis Warren, Molly Pitcher, the organizers of the patriotic boycotts during the American Revolution—have a better claim on the title of feminist. They acted and thought more systematically and profoundly about women’s issues.
Underrated When Alice Paul organized the National Woman’s Party in 1916, women had been struggling for the vote for more than 75 years. Trained in the militant tactics of the British suffrage movement, Paul, a slender 30-year-old with a doctorate in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, intended to get an amendment passed immediately—not, as other suffragists expected, at some distant point in the future. With her small band of activists, Paul confronted not only a nonchalant Congress but the members of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, who favored a state-by-state approach, and, indeed, a recalcitrant President Woodrow Wilson. In 1917 she organized one of the most overlooked political protests in American history, posting at the gates of the White House woman-suffrage banners bearing the President’s own honeyed words about democracy.
Arrested in the fall of 1917 for obstructing traffic, she and more than 30 members of the National Woman’s Party were sentenced to seven months in prison. In all, over 150 members of the National Woman’s Party spent time in jail. And when they demanded the rights of political prisoners and began a hunger strike, they were force-fed. Such brutality did not go unnoticed. By 1918 Wilson was suddenly on Alice Paul’s side. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing a basic democratic right to over half the American population, became the law of the land. By then the largely forgotten Alice Paul had moved on to the next and still unfinished piece of feminist business, the Equal Rights Amendment.