October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated Ally McBeal made her debut in 1997 and for the next five years was the most analyzed female character on television. A graduate of Harvard Law School working at a high-powered Boston law firm, McBeal seemed to embody modern feminism. With a career of her own and a six-figure salary to go with it, here was a role model young women could relate to. But McBeal turned out to be a collection of neuroses, which made for entertaining TV but did nothing to advance the feminist cause.
McBeal’s quest to find a soul mate defined who she was and sent soaring the collective anxiety of female viewers who by age 30 had failed to marry and bear children. When the actress playing McBeal, Calista Flockhart, grew so alarmingly thin that she was routinely referred to as waif-like, the insecurity of the fictional character spilled over into real life.
Unlike the traditional housewives of the fifties played by Barbara Billingsley (Beaver Cleaver’s mother) and Donna Reed, who settled into their lives with cheery resignation, McBeal was never happy with herself, or with anybody else for that matter. Her poutiness and childlike cuteness were enough to send any self-respecting feminist over the edge. The show was canceled in 2002, the victim of poor ratings, signaling the end of the narcissistic self-absorption that drove the central character.
Underrated There are many throughout history, but Alice Paul is at the top of my list. She was responsible for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the vote. There was nothing in her background as a young Quaker to suggest that she would become a radical feminist. She had a degree from Swarthmore and an advanced degree from the University of Pennsylvania when she went to London in 1907 to study social work. There she came upon Emmeline Pankhurst, who with her two daughters was leading the British suffrage movement. The experience transformed Paul, and when she returned to the States in 1910, she found it dismaying that the American suffrage movement was so complacent compared with its more radical counterpart across the ocean. Impatient and with a flair for public relations, Paul determined that the only way to make progress—and get attention—was to confront the political party in power.
When Woodrow Wilson arrived at Washington’s Union Station for his inauguration, in 1913, he wondered where all the crowds were. He was told, “They’re over on the avenue looking at the ladies.” That was Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, where Paul had organized a parade of more than 5,000 women—women in their academic gowns and their nurses’ uniforms, as well as factory workers. Leading the parade was a woman described in the press as “the most beautiful suffragist ever,” astride a white horse and wearing white robes: the warrior princess. The New York Times praised the event, calling it one of the most beautiful spectacles the nation had witnessed. But when disgruntled onlookers jeered the women, tripped them, and threw lighted cigarette butts, the police did nothing to restrain the violence, and the newspaper headlines the next day said a hundred women had been taken to area hospitals. Among the marchers was Helen Keller, who had overcome blindness and deafness to become a champion for women. The Chicago Tribune said she was so disoriented by what went on around her that she was unable to speak that evening at Constitution Hall.
While Paul did not condone the violence, she was pleased that suffrage was back on the front pages and that the movement had the sympathy of the nation. She maintained her strategy of confrontation for almost all the eight years of the Wilson Presidency, often at great emotional and physical cost. Wilson was amused at first to see the women stationed outside the White House gates pressuring him to declare suffrage a war measure and push it through Congress along with America’s entry into World War I. He assumed that once the weather got cold they would go back to having afternoon tea, as opposed to standing and shivering. Instead, they heated bricks and stood on them to relieve the cold. Wilson finally had enough. He didn’t think a wartime President should have to put up with anything as trivial as women protesting for the vote. So he ordered the protesters arrested on the spurious charges of trespassing and blocking traffic, but that didn’t deter them either. As soon as they were released, they were back on the picket line. So the authorities increased the jail time, prompting the women to declare they were political prisoners and go on a hunger strike. Rather than let the women starve to death, they were force-fed, a particularly gruesome procedure in which a metal clamp held the mouth open and raw eggs were poured down a tube.
Paul endured these indignities and more. She was held for a time in the psychiatric ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington for allegedly having an unhealthy obsession with Woodrow Wilson. The women in prison smuggled out on scraps of paper the details of how they were being treated, and the reaction of a horrified nation finally shamed the President and Congress into acting. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was the greatest expansion of the vote in a single day the world had seen. Yet Paul has never gotten the recognition she deserves. Some of the failure to honor her stems from the strain of racism that appeared in the suffrage movement. The early suffragists were abolitionists, but the imperative of winning the votes of Southern legislators led to painful compromises. Paul’s order that black women march at the back of that glorious parade she organized to protest Wilson’s inauguration left a stain on her legacy that has never been expunged.